Put on hold: Regional cooperation in Northern Europe distances itself from Russia

von NORDfor

Tobias Etzold, NTNU Trondheim

Following Russiaʼs temporary suspension due to its war in Ukraine, regional cooperation in the Arctic and the Baltic Sea region requires a new definition, orientation and legitimisation.

Russiaʼs attack on Ukraine on 24 February 2022 also affects the security situation and regional cooperation in the regions of northern Europe bordering Russia. The annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine since February 2014 had already left clear traces in the Baltic Sea region and the Arctic as a sign of an increasingly aggressive Russian foreign and security policy. National and regional security was given a new priority by rearmament and increased military solidarity of Western countries, for example in the form of large-scale NATO training manoeuvres in the Baltic Sea and the High North. This solidarity also includes the non-NATO members Finland and Sweden, which have been moving closer to NATO since 2014 and are increasingly discussing accession in the current situation. Regional cooperation with Russia, especially in the Baltic Sea region, has been reduced to functional and technical aspects in many areas. In several cases, high-level political meetings have been dispensed. Only in the last five years or so, Russia and the other states have converged politically at the regional level again, although in principle nothing has changed in Russiaʼs basic attitude. The importance of Russiaʼs involvement in regional cooperation structures in order to address common regional challenges, and also as a symbolic value, seemed to outweigh a permanent condemnation of Russiaʼs breach of international law.

However, with Russiaʼs war in Ukraine, this is history for the time being with Russiaʼ’s war in Ukraine. The other members of the intergovernmental and many transnational organisations in the Baltic Sea region and the Arctic, as well as the Northern Dimension of the European Union (EU), in which the non-member countries Iceland, Norway and Russia participate on an equal footing, have strongly condemned Russiaʼs war. Since the end of February, they have gradually suspended the membership of Russia/Russian stakeholders or temporarily halted all their activities and meetings. The Nordic Council of Ministers, which includes only the five Nordic countries but has worked selectively with stakeholders in north-western Russia and Kaliningrad, froze all remaining cooperation with Russia. Cooperation with Belarus in the Baltic Sea region has also been suspended. These measures are necessary and consistent, but in turn have direct implications for regional cooperation in Northern Europe.     

Cooperation in the Arctic

In the past decade, international attention to the Arctic has grown strongly in the context of climate change, the demand for raw material deposits – some of which are still difficult to access – but also due to geopolitical tensions between the USA, Russia and China. Despite the Crimean crisis from 2014 onwards and the growing East-West tensions, the largely functional, pragmatic and scientific cooperation in the intergovernmental Arctic Council could be continued, even, unlike in the Council of the Baltic Sea States (CBSS), including high-level meetings at foreign ministersʼ level. So far, cooperation and conflict have balanced each other out. Previous tensions have come from outside rather than from inside the region, even though the distribution of resources, the legal responsibility for new shipping routes and territorial claims are seen as potential internal sources for (interest) conflicts. 

The Arctic Council includes Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Canada, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the USA, eight countries with land and/or sea areas in the Arctic region. Its goals and tasks include improving the living conditions of people in the Arctic, protecting the Arctic environment and promoting the sustainable development of the region. Since its inception, dealing with military security did not belong to the Councilʼs tasks. A special feature of the Arctic Council is that the indigenous peoples of the Arctic are closely involved in its work through six organizations as permanent participants, albeit without the right to vote. The 25th anniversary of the Council, founded in 1996, was celebrated in the Icelandic capital Reykjavik with a meeting of the foreign ministers of all eight member states on 20 May 2021. At this meeting, a long-term strategic action plan was adopted, which sets the priorities and goals for the work of the Arctic Council from 2021 to 2030. These include climate protection and adaptation to climate change in the Arctic, intact ecosystems and maritime environment, sustainable social and economic development and an effective Council.

Arctic security challenges

Although the Reykjavik Council meeting in 2021 was harmonious and constructive after tensions at previous meetings, a number of disruptive factors could not be denied even at this stage. Officially, the relevance of the Arctic as a region largely characterized by stability, peace and constructive cooperation was emphasized by all partners, including by Russia. Also, the role of the Arctic Council was highlighted as a forum for dialogue and confidence-building measures. However, Russian statements had caused concern in the run-up to the meeting. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov underpinned Russiaʼs territorial claims in the Arctic and spoke of »our territory and country«. In fact, Russia has invested heavily in the remilitarization of its Arctic regions, which were initially neglected militarily after the end of the Cold War. The other Arctic countries in turn responded by strengthening their Arctic military capabilities. In its latest Arctic Strategy of 2020, Moscow announced that it would also resort to military means if necessary to assert its geopolitical interests in the Arctic. Some observers even interpreted this in the direction of a possible occupation of parts of northern Europe by Russia. In Russiaʼs strategic thinking, the European Arctic stands alongside the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea in a line of interconnected security spaces adjacent to the West. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken labelled Lavrovʼs statements »unlawful maritime claims« (for example, regulating international ship movements by Russian authorities), which were not in accordance with international law. He expressed the fear that growing militarisation could lead to greater problems and undermine the common goal of a peaceful and sustainable future for the region. So far, the show of force (for example, in the form of violations of airspace and sea borders by fighter jets or submarines) has not been followed by any targeted use of force.

Against the current backdrop of the war in Ukraine, there is growing concern about military incidents in the Arctic North. Norwayʼs Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt recently described Russia as an unstable, unpredictable, aggressive and therefore more dangerous neighbour for which Norway must prepare by adjusting its security as well as its High North policy and increasing  its alertness at the common border. Nevertheless, experts currently consider a Russian attack on the Norwegian border to be unlikely. Many of the troops stationed in nearby Murmansk were withdrawn towards Ukraine. It seems that Russia would have neither the will nor the sufficient capacity for attacks on multiple fronts at the same time. Observers fear, however, that there will be increased demonstrations of power in the form of manoeuvres, airspace violations by Russian fighter jets and targeted disruptive manoeuvres. The risk of unintended escalation could increase due to misunderstandings, miscalculations, provocative rhetoric and mistakes. Another problem is that Russia has threatened Sweden and Finland, two partner countries in the Arctic Council and the Barents-Euro-Arctic Council, which promotes regional cooperation with a focus on sustainable development on the edges of the Barents Sea, with direct military consequences if they want to join NATO. According to analysts, there can be no further Arctic cooperation with Russia as long as the latter maintains its threats against Finland and Sweden.

Options for continuing Arctic cooperation

After the suspension of all official meetings, the other members of the Arctic Council and the equally affected Barents-Euro-Arctic Council must thoroughly analyse how the work could nevertheless continue in a less formal way at least in the important partly scientific-oriented working groups, despite the principle of consensus at place and the fact that Russia currently holds the Arctic Council’s chairmanship. While Russia is needed in the long term for concrete action on climate change adaptation and mitigation as well as sustainable regional development, waiting until cooperation with Russia is possible again and stopping work altogether until then would have far-reaching negative consequences for the region. Accordingly, the modalities in the Arctic Council would have to be changed, but according to experts, the existing rules could be interpreted and applied in a creative way. In this context, it is helpful that the Arctic Council is not an intergovernmental organisation, but merely an intergovernmental forum based on a declaration and not on a treaty under international law. This provides the new »Arctic Seven« with some flexibility. At the same time, strong cohesion is required from them now.

The five small Northern European Arctic countries had previously recognized the need for and the benefits of close internal cooperation and coordination of their Arctic policies in order to be able to keep up with the big countries, including the emerging Arctic power China. The Nordic Council of Ministersʼ Arctic programme, for example, could take on new relevance under the current circumstances. The adequate involvement of like-minded EU members outside the Arctic sphere, such as Germany, is also becoming increasingly important in solving Arctic challenges such as environmental and air pollution and adaptation to climate change. In this context, it may be helpful that the European Commission presented a revised EU Arctic Strategy in autumn 2021. For the first time, it takes greater account of geopolitical changes and challenges in the Arctic and promises to take appropriate diplomatic measures, such as improving its strategic foresight with regard to security risks and establishing a liaison office in Greenland. It also wants to link its Arctic policy more closely with existing political priorities such as the Green Deal. In this way, platforms for cooperation in the European Arctic will be established, which have at least some potential to tackle concrete challenges in a solution-oriented manner, even without Russia.

The Baltic Sea region faces new challenges

Baltic Sea cooperation is hit by the temporary exclusion of Russia at a sensitive point. Since the major enlargement of the European Union to include, among others, the Baltic states and Poland in 2004, it has been increasingly focused on creating and maintaining structures to engage Russia and Russian stakeholders as equal partners and thus not to isolate the country as the only non-EU member among the Baltic Sea littoral states. At government level, this was especially the aim of the Council of the Baltic Sea States (CBSS), which, in addition to Russia, includes the five Nordic countries, the three Baltic states, Poland, Germany and the EU. Since then, the Council has derived a large part of its legitimacy for its continued existence from this goal, because regional cooperation among the EU member states would theoretically also have been possible within an EU framework. However, the focus of the Council’s work on Russia’s involvement may have been too strong. Since 2014, this goal had faltered, but not fallen. After a forced break, meetings of foreign ministers have taken place again since 2017. As a result, the CBSS was reformed and politically strengthened as a still important regional bridge between the East and the West.

The fact that Russiaʼs suspension had to take place just a few days before the 30th birthday of the Council of the Baltic Sea States on 6 March is a particularly bitter note of history. The planned celebrations were cancelled. The remaining members saw no opportunity to continue cooperation with Russia and even declared that under these circumstances Russia should no longer be able to »enjoy« the benefits of its participation in the cooperation. The exclusion of Russia will remain in force until it is possible to resume cooperation on the basis of respect for the fundamental principles of international law. The Baltic Marine Environment Protection  Commission or “Helsinki Commission” (HELCOM) suspended all official meetings of its bodies and meetings of project groups with Russian participation until the end of June 2022. The Baltic Sea Parliamentary Conference excluded Russian parliamentarians from all its activities. The Transnational Union of Baltic Sea Cities (UBC), which brings together 69 cities from across the Baltic Sea region, suspended the two Russian members St. Petersburg and Gatchina. The Baltic Sea States Subregional Cooperation (BSSSC) suspended the Kaliningrad oblast.

Reorientation of Baltic Sea cooperation

This far-reaching provisional exclusion of Russian stakeholders from the cooperation structures means, by implication, that regional cooperation in the Baltic Sea region must be realigned. As in the Arctic, the Baltic Sea actors are first faced with the task of thoroughly analysing in which areas and in which formats further cooperation is possible and meaningful even without Russia, and where concrete results could be achieved. Since the CBSS, like the Arctic Council, is an intergovernmental forum and formally not an organisation under international law, existing rules could possibly be interpreted flexibly here as well and the Council could continue its work at least on the working level. In general and at least in theory, a distinction could be made between two types of cooperation areas. On the one hand there are those in which Russia contributes to the emergence of challenges, such as environmental and marine pollution, climate pollution, energy supply and security, civil security and organised crime, and in which it is therefore also needed to tackle these problems. On the other hand, there are these fields in which cooperation is primarily concerned with exchange, learning from each other and the creation of joint structures and synergies. In areas such as education, science, culture, digitalization, youth exchange and the labour market, it should therefore be easier to continue cooperation without Russia and without a serious loss of substance. The remaining stakeholders could still benefit from their cooperation.

A report for the Council of the Baltic Sea States published in July 2020 identified not only a great need for improvement and development in numerous areas such as environmental and marine protection, maritime economy, civil security and digitalization.  The report also describes largge differences , especially in terms of socio-economic standards, between the states in the east of the Baltic Sea, i.e. not only Russia, and in the west. Organisations such as the CBSS, BSSSC and UBC are therefore still needed to contribute to narrowing these differences between the Nordic countries and Germany on the one hand and the Baltic states and Poland on the other through exchange and learning processes. But even in the first group of aforementioned areas, a minimum of functional cooperation and achieving results should continue to be possible among those willing to cooperate, although some kind of improvisation might be required. The Russian involvement and contribution to finding solutions was in many cases limited anyway. In this case, less is better than nothing or perhaps even, optimistically, fewer (in terms of participants) is more (in terms of results).

However, what makes regional cooperation in the current situation even more difficult, is that it is not a high priority for the governments of many of the remaining members. They are now very much occupied with the national and international adjustment to the new security situation, coping with the influx of refugees from Ukraine, the economic consequences of the war and the sanctions against Russia. Furthermore, they are still dealing with the Corona crisis and all its economic, political and social side effects. How thoroughly Germany will be able to deal with its chairmanship of the CBSS, commencing in July this year, is questionable under the current circumstances. However, in close coordination with the current Norwegian chairmanship, the Federal Foreign Office should at least make an attempt at adapting its planned programme in such a way that it can seamlessly follow up on the points that Norway was still able to work through in the new situation and in this way quickly create a sustainable basis for the new cooperation.          

In the current situation, the EUʼs Baltic Sea macro-regional strategy could be of particular importance in continuing a halfway functioning Baltic Sea cooperation. As an internal EU project, it is one of the few regional formats in which Russia is not involved as a full participant, but only as a partner in several projects (from which the country has now also been suspended). That Russia was not fully involved in the founding of this first macro-region in Europe in 2009/2010 was considered to be a big mistake and discriminatory against Russia by many regional stakeholders and observers, especially since in later macro-regions such as the Danube region third countries have been fully involved. But the EU members in the Baltic Sea region were interested in creating an intra-EU regional structure in which they could, if necessary, go further under EU law than that what would have been possible in cooperation formats with Russian participation. This is now paying off in that at least part of the regional cooperation can continue in this situation without, apart from several projects, necessary exclusions and improvisation. In the current context, it might therefore make sense to improve the implementation and functioning of the EU Baltic Sea Strategy and thus strengthen the European macro-regional approach.

Ways forward in the Baltic Sea Region and the Arctic

In view of the current situation, the suspension of Russian stakeholders from the regional cooperation formats in the Baltic Sea and Arctic regions was justified and without alternative; anything else would have meant a serious loss of prestige for these platforms. An effective continuation of regional cooperation without Russia will not be easy, but with a little imagination and improvisation it should be possible. The deeper cut will be that one must now finally say goodbye to the value-based notion of a regional community with a common regional identity including Russia, as was often propagated especially in the Baltic Sea region. Nevertheless, at least an attempt should be made to create and develop new possibilities, formats and channels for the still important involvement of the few independent (exiled) representatives of Russian civil society. The work in the Arctic bodies, for example, should continue to serve the involvement and welfare of the indigenous peoples of the Arctic, which include many in the far north of Russia, whereby the corresponding associations on the Russian side are strongly bound by instructions to the Kremlin. Accordingly, this asks for caution and differentiation. Regional cooperation in Northern Europe thus requires not only a new definition, orientation and legitimisation, but also tact, flexibility and staying power. Last but not least, the door to a return of Russia and its official actors to the circle of the »Baltic and Arctic families« should remain ajar, in case Russia withdraws from Ukraine again and the current regime would be replaced by a new democratically legitimised government. As is well known, hope dies last.

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