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Jun 6, 2013 | 10:33 GMT

The Nordic Countries and Russia: A Contentious Collaboration

(CORNELIUS POPPE/AFP/Getty Images)
Summary

As the European Union weakens economically and institutionally, Europe's Nordic countries are considering seizing the economic opportunities presented by a comparatively stronger partner: Russia. Long tied to continental Europe economically, Nordic countries pledged to enhance economic cooperation with Russia, particularly over the Barents region, as recently as June 3-4, when leaders from the countries met in Kirkenes, Norway, for the Barents Summit.

Given the ongoing European crisis, Nordic countries increasingly see Russia as a good complement to Western European markets. However, Russia and the Nordic countries see each other as strategic threats — a shared view that will obstruct cooperation, especially as NATO, once Europe's security guarantor, deteriorates and forces Nordic countries to cooperate more among themselves.

The Nordic countries have been economic partners with the rest of Europe for a long time, and the primary mechanism through which they cooperate is the European Union. Denmark joined the European Economic Community, the predecessor of the European Union, in 1973. Sweden and Finland joined in 1995, and while Iceland and Norway are not members of the bloc, they are part of the European Economic Area and have access to the EU's common market.

Certainly these countries are not looking to replace continental Europe as an economic partner; rather, the decrepitude of the European Union encourages them look for other economic opportunities. They saw that opportunity, for example, at the Barents Summit, during which they and Russia broadly agreed to develop a visa-free travel zone and improve infrastructure to promote cross-border economic development in the Barents region (which includes Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish and Russian territory).

While these plans remain hypothetical, past efforts to develop stronger ties in the region have been successful. Cross-border traffic has increased in recent years, particularly between Norway and Russia, leading to the implementation of a visa-free zone along the Norway-Russia border in 2012. In 2010, Norway and Russia settled a maritime border dispute in the Barents Sea, and since then both countries have been able to undertake more oil and natural gas exploration projects in the region.

Mutual Security Concerns

All of these countries are generally interested in cooperating in the north — doing so benefits them economically and mitigates the risk of political and military conflict. However, they are all concerned about potential military confrontation as Russia gains power relative to Europe's weakening institutions.

Also, Russia is suspicious of the Nordic countries' relationships with NATO, particularly Sweden's and Finland's. Sweden and Finland are the only Nordic countries that are not members of the military alliance; they preferred neutrality, and they did not want to risk antagonizing Russia. But as Stockholm and Helsinki become more cognizant of future national security threats and the importance of the Arctic region, they have started to strengthen their defense relations in the region and debate stronger ties to NATO.

The NATO issue has been widely discussed in Stockholm since military representatives warned that Sweden would not be able to defend itself against a prolonged Russian attack and the media covered the air force's alleged failure to adequately respond to Russian military flybys. Last week, although the Swedish parliament's defense policy advisory committee acknowledged that it did not expect Russia to attack, it did say Sweden should seek closer ties with NATO, other Nordic countries and Baltic states. This report will be considered as Sweden revises its defense strategy over the coming years.

But NATO is the not the security guarantor it once was. In recent years, Nordic countries have begun to cooperate more closely with one another. For example, Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland formed the Nordic Defense Cooperation in 2009 to cut defense costs through stronger collaboration. Moscow is wary of this kind of cooperation, and particularly the participation of Sweden and Finland, both of which agreed to participate in an air surveillance mission over NATO member Iceland in 2012.

Russia has tried to counter increased Nordic security cooperation by offering better bilateral defense ties. Moscow conducts large naval exercises with Oslo every year. And during the week of May 28, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Finland and advocated stronger defense collaboration in the Arctic between the two, suggesting Finland should buy Russian military equipment as it modernizes its military.

Moreover, during the Barents Summit, Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev warned about growing tensions in the north, saying Russia would have to respond to "new participants" near Russia's border, highlighting Russia's concern over NATO-Nordic relations.

Russia has to exercise caution in its military activity in the Baltic and Arctic regions, lest it be construed as an overt threat and lead to further Nordic cooperation. Though unlikely, Russian military action cannot be ruled out entirely.

Nordic countries face a peculiar challenge. They must reconcile efforts to establish stronger ties with Western countries, which mitigate the threat to its east, with its ties to Moscow, which can ensure stability and greater economic opportunities. Russia and its Nordic neighbors have a strong incentive to maintain stability as the Arctic rises in prominence, and they could all benefit from cross-border cooperation. However, the differing national security interests will continue to threaten this cooperation, especially if Nordic defense ties intensify while NATO declines as a credible military power.

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