It has already been well documented that economic activities in the Russian Arctic have been hard hit by sanctions, particularly petroleum related activities. Many NATO members, including Canada, Norway and the United States, have sanctioned companies and individuals who have interests in the industry and the region because of connections to Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin over involvement in the Ukrainian conflict.
Along with economic sanctions, many nations, including Norway, suspended bilateral military cooperation with Russia in early 2014 over the annexation of Crimea. This impacted traditional military cooperation, as well as atypical forms of cooperation, including border guard exchanges that went beyond normal border surveillance. However, because the Russian Border Guard Service is part of the FSB, anything beyond normal operations could be perceived as military cooperation and included in the suspension. The only continued cooperation is between Norwegian and Russian Coast Guards to ensure safe navigation for civilian vessels in the Barents Sea, despite the Russian side being incorporated into the FSB, which falls under normal operations.
Despite these sanctions still being in place, Norway is poised to spend over 3 million dollars improving safety in the shipping lanes between Andreeva Bay and Murmansk, to ensure the safety of civilian vessels carrying nuclear waste as part of a project first announced in November 2012. This project is between the County Governor of Finnmark (Norway) and the Russian Ministry of Defence’s Directorate for Oceanography and Navigation, with additional support from the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, which will see 60 navigation markers installed along the route.
On the surface, this appears normal, as many nations, including the United States, have continued cooperation with Russia to properly dispose of radioactive material in spite of sanctions against Moscow. However, the unintended side affect of the installation of these markers will see Norwegian funds going towards the navigation capabilities of vessels in Russia’s Northern Fleet. The Chief Engineer with the Office of the Finnmark County Governor, Per-Einar Fiskebeck, has said that only surface vessels can use these navigation signals, so the Russian nuclear submarine fleet, which has several bases along the proposed route, will not see much benefit. Fiskebeck has stated though, that these signals will be usable by the Northern Fleet’s surface vessels, which are also stationed at a number of bases along this route. Several buoys will actually be stationed just outside Severomorsk (Northern Fleet headquarters) and near the naval shipyard Roslyakovo.
Norway has put conditions on grants for nuclear safety to Russia, specifically that no money can be used for infrastructure that could be used to maintain the Navy’s military capacities, yet, it seems that in this case, it is not possible to separate the two. Norway has had to make a choice between less secure nuclear waste being transported near its territory and slightly better navigational capabilities of the Northern Fleet’s surface vessels.
While sanctions remain in place, the unintended or undesirable side effects of cooperation on crucial things like the proper disposal of nuclear waste, may be viewed in a negative light. However, the Norwegian government is demonstrating that despite current relations between Oslo and Moscow, they are still willing to work with Russia in the Arctic to ensure environmental integrity. With environmental protection being a key tenant of Arctic cooperation since Gorbachev’s 1987 Murmansk Address, it is encouraging to see that nations at odds are still able to make meaningful progress, and provide an example to follow for other Arctic nations, especially Canada, which has taken a harder stance on Russia. Relations will not improve overnight, but working together on smaller, less politically charged issues, will slowly rebuild trust which will be useful for a return to more normal relations in the post-Ukraine world, particularly for those nations with shared circumpolar ambitions.