On the Decline of Cooperation in the Arctic Between the West and Russia


Since 2008 the growing attention to the Arctic has always been accompanied by discussions about the security agenda. Some Russian and foreign experts reasonably argued that the Arctic would remain a «zone of peace and cooperation» due to objective conditions that promote international cooperation. They include inability for any state to develop the Arctic relying only on its own resources; aggravating global problems, such as climate change and environment protection; preserving conditions for indigenous peoples’ traditional way of life; the remoteness of the Arctic from industrialized centers and communications; the absence of irreconcilable territorial disputes between the coastal Arctic states; difficulties of conducting scaled military operations in severe weather and geomagnetic conditions.

Recognizing the need for cooperation another expert group emphasized the existence of a conflict potential in the Arctic, which can be realized in practice. They pointed to growing rivalry for Arctic resources against the backdrop of global resource depletion; unequal legal status of Arctic stakeholders (primarily between Arctic and non-Arctic states); membership of almost all the Arctic states in NATO leaving Russia alone; rising tendency towards unjustified militarization of the region; the nuclear deterrence regime between Russia and the United States existing since the cold war.

in the Arctic
The heads of the eight Arctic nations’ coast guards take part in the Arctic Coast Guard Forum Academic Roundtable at Coast Guard base Boston, June 9, 2016. © Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelley/U.S. Coast Guard

However, in general the most of experts predicted relatively low risk of military conflict  in the Arctic. They assumed that maintaining regional security meets the interests of all Arctic states. Peace and cooperation considered as the result of skillful political regulation on the international level. The Arctic security regime was expected to be quite stable even in the face of escalating contradictions in other regions or on specific issues. 

The deterioration of political and military situation in the Arctic was not related to regional security problems. If one analyzes Western rhetoric, most politicians and experts simply believe that Russia's success in the Special Military Operation in Ukraine stimulates similar military scenario  against the former Soviet republics (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Moldavia), possibly against the countries of Eastern Europe, and then against the Arctic states.  The Russia's potential aggression in the Baltics and Eastern Europe is explained by its post-imperial ambitions.

But after the illegal upheaval in Ukraine in 2014, the reunification of the Crimea with Russia the same year, and Russia's Special Military Operation in Ukraine in 2022 the strategic environment in the Arctic has changed significantly. This region lost its status of «zone of peace and cooperation», although some experts still believe that normalization of relations is possible in the future. The joining of Sweden and Finland to NATO became a landmark of the shift toward open hostility of the Arctic states towards Russia.

the Arctic
Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and Swedish Foreign Minister Anne Linde during a press conference after the signing of the protocols on the accession of Finland and Sweden at NATO headquarters in Brussels. July 5, 2022, © AFP 2024 / Kenzo Tribouillard

Since this «military scenario» is not so convincing for the Arctic, the thesis of «hybrid threats» was introduced in political discourse as a mainstream. It is remarkable that in the western armies, the concept of hybrid warfare is not defined at the doctrinal level. At the same time in political and diplomatic rhetoric it has been given the broadest interpretation. Not only selected acts but Russia’s foreign policy in general is attributed «hybrid warfare». Started to apply thesis of hybrid war to Russia’s policy towards Ukraine and the Baltic States, the western experts gradually spill-over it to the Arctic.

Due to existing vague definition, the regular use of the concept of hybrid warfare in political discourse blurs the boundary between the state of war and peace (that was confirmed by many western experts). Having created such a veil of «political fog», it is quite easy to declare any of Russia's foreign policy activities as a manifestation of a hybrid threat or even the beginning of a hybrid war. Given the western control over the global information flows, it is easy to assume that this rhetoric leaves Russia in a deliberately vulnerable position.

The next logical step of the West is to interpret Russia's foreign policy in terms of the international law «gray zone» to justify possible use of force. For example, under the umbrella of the popular principle «justice is above international law» as it was in the case of so-called humanitarian interventions. It is noteworthy that since 2015 NATO has been practicing exercises of the alliance to respond to hybrid threats, although the doctrinal definition of hybrid warfare still not developed.  «Hybrid» means just a combination of military and non-military instruments during both peace and war.

NATO Operation Allied Force in Yugoslavia, March 1999. The entry of armed forces into the territory of a sovereign state without UN authorization, called humanitarian intervention, is an USA invention.

The European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats created in Finland (Helsinki) is engaged in the development of hybrid threats discourse. The scope of its activities is evidenced by the fact that experts from 27 countries are involved in its projects. The center's website publishes research on hybrid threats posed by Russia in the Arctic. By the way, similar centers have been established in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Hybrid threats are literally formed in discourse, in the vein of social constructivism. The core assumption of this approach implies that the threat perception of decision-makers and society is constructed in discussions about security. A threat is considered to be real only when it is sustainably reproduced in the discourse. Adepts of the social constructivism argue that the threat «objectively appears» when the society achieves consensus manifested in the discourse. But to put it simply, the threats are created by information manipulations and propaganda rather than they are «objectively constructed» in the discourse.

One of the techniques used in the discourse manipulations is the substitution of concepts: the vulnerability of a western state is identified with a hybrid threat from Russia. For example, if Finland lacks its own energy it is vulnerable in this area to external influence. If Russia proposes to build a nuclear reactor in Hanhikivi, it strives to create a hybrid threat to Finland. But if Japan or France proposes such a project for Finland, it means energy cooperation. This equilibrium provides to transform the shortage of energy as an attribute of Finnish economy in the threat from Russian policy.

Another technique helps to identify any Russian action as a hybrid threat. For this purpose the threat is divided into two forms: (1) hybrid influence, which not necessarily brings direct damage, and (2) hybrid threat associated with damage. Hybrid influence corresponds to science diplomacy, academic cooperation, cultural ties, information gathering, dissemination of fake news, and even foreign ownership of property. This also includes cooperation agreements with Russian neighboring cities (Bodø-Vyborg, Nikel-Kirkenes, Imatra-Svetogorsk, etc.), references to the role of the Soviet Army in the liberation of Norway during the World War II, and the role of the Russian Empire in the establishment of Finnish statehood. The trick is that nobody specifies when hybrid influence becomes a hybrid threat, allowing anything to be associated with a threat.

Imbedding the ideas of hybrid threats helped to achieve impressive results. Recent polls showed that 60% of Swedes and 75% of Finns abandoned the neutrality status and supported joining NATO. However, the economic elites and the defense-industrial complex were also hinted that they would have problems if the country did not join the alliance. 

Obviously, through the manipulation of so-called hybrid threats on the expert and political levels the West can terminate any form of cooperation with Russia, including cultural, political, economic, and the military one. Initially introduced by the West the concept of hybrid threats has become an instrument for reincarnating of black-and-white thinking that corresponds to the “zero-sum game” principle inherited from the cold war.   

However, it would be over-simplification to see the degradation of relations with Russia in the Arctic as the malicious policy of some states or their political leaders and elites. The underlying reasons for the growing hostility can be traced to the general deterioration in U.S.-Russian relations that has occurred as Russia has become more independent since the late 1990s, in its domestic and foreign policy.

Vladimir Putin, Munich 2007

A milestone became famous Putin speech in Munich that was perceived in the West as an irrational ambition of Russia, whose total potential did not correspond to its foreign policy declarations. From that moment, the open hostility of the West emerged as regular and multi-domain policy. In public sector A. Chilingarov's symbolic installation of the Russian flag on the North Pole was condemned as the illegal claim of sovereign rights over additional Arctic spaces. In mass media at least two years before the start the Olympic Games in Sochi (Russia) were discredited. The demonization of V. Putin's personality became a mainstream in Western media, political and economic elites. It is important that all these initiatives began before the Maidan coup in Ukraine (2014), which accompanied with the deception of the Russian leadership by the leaders of France, Germany and Great Britain. They gave guarantees of the legal transfer of power from elected president V. Yanukovich to the Ukrainian pro-western opposition, but it didn’t happen. In parallel to above processes the West was creating security problems along Russia's perimeter through military and political support for anti-Russian regimes. Ukraine and Georgia were promised soon NATO membership in spite of Russia’s protests. U.S./NATO defense cooperation with Poland, Finland, and Sweden also was consistently strengthened.

In turn, the imminence of hostile turn towards Russia is largely explained by the decline of the U.S. hegemony. To hold a punch Washington imposed on the rest of states a “rules-based” world order where rules introduced at its own discretion. This understanding of the world order presents in the U.S. National Security Strategy of 2022. In practical terms, this manifests itself in an emphasis on military force in different regions as well as hard pressure on the states with independent policies like Russia and China. Closed allies of the U.S. from Europe have lost their independence in defense policy, as evidenced by the signing of the Third Declaration of Cooperation between the EU and NATO.

According to the document, the EU member states should participate in all NATO initiatives and consider the alliance the main instrument for providing their security. With the U.S. leading role in NATO, it is obvious that security policy of European satellites will be determined from Washington.

To conclude, the decline of cooperation with Russia in the Arctic has become the inevitable outcome from general crisis of the international system associated with the erosion of U.S. hegemony. In that sense, the reunification of the Crimea in 2014 and the Special Military Operation in 2022 served only triggers to accelerate the process already launched by the West. Russia keeps the door widely open for international cooperation in the Arctic but the West can’t come in due to self-made problems.

Valery Konyshev

Saint-Petersburg State University