Researching relations with Russia

Profiles of Norwegian science

Photo: Ilan Kelman
Political power in Oslo and Moscow.

Ilan Kelman
Agder, Norway

Is Russia really the Beast from the East? Both Norwegian research and collaborative research with Russia help to answer this question.

The land border where Norway and Russia physically meet is short, not quite 200 kilometers. It was first accepted in 1326, and then formalized by a treaty exactly half a millennium later. It remains Norway’s youngest unchanged land border, but it is the eldest for Russia. This contrasts with the maritime boundary in the Barents Sea, agreed upon in just 2010.

Additionally, in modern times, the Norway-Russia boundary represents the only Arctic land crossing between NATO member states and Russia, with the latter as the only non-NATO country bordering the Arctic Ocean. Researchers use all these border facts to explore the regional and global implications of Norway-Russia relations, especially for security, conflict, and defense.

But is it appropriate to leap immediately toward thinking of Russia as an enemy that we in “the West” must defend against? History explains how relations between USSR/Russia and northern Europe have circled around extremes. Enmity and amity even arose within the same conflicts, such as World War II.

Following Norway’s post-war attempts at neutrality and the establishment of the United Nations, Norway joined NATO and Northern Norway became a bastion against Soviet encroachment. During the Cold War, the USSR-Norway border was part of the Iron Curtain. The USSR’s collapse in 1991, however, provided the baseline for current analyses.

Some researchers, of course, adopt the angle of fear. Allegedly, Russia is unilaterally militarizing the Arctic, posturing with bomber flights along Norwegian airspace, greedily awaiting the opening of the Northern Sea Route (or Northeast Passage), and supporting activities around Svalbard beyond its treaty rights. The topic of security dominates these investigations, with Norway-Russia relations viewed from the perspective of Oslo-Moscow foreign policies as a history of disputes and mistrust.

Other scientists explain how, especially in the Arctic and for Svalbard, Russia and Norway realize that cooperation serves their national and collective interests. Bilateral and multilateral agreements, including through the Arctic Council and the Svalbard Treaty, have long succeeded for northern peoples and governments in both countries. Norway and Russia continue to collaborate on search and rescue, environmental management, fisheries, scientific investigations, and pollution, including oil spills.

No pathway is ideal or consistent. In December 2017, cooperation saved lives when a Norwegian rescue helicopter plucked a dozen crewmembers from a stricken ship along a Russian peninsula. Yet in April 2018, Russia sailed a floating nuclear power plant along most of Norway’s coast, raising the specter of disastrous radiation release near Norwegian waters.

To support detailed investigations into the two countries’ long history and the current complexities swirling around their interactions, the Research Council of Norway started a funding program in 2012 called NORRUSS, which covers Russia and the High North/Arctic. Norway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs supports the efforts, requesting that research results inform the ministry’s work.

Many researchers across Norway and Russia have been brought together for fruitful and rewarding scientific collaboration. Topics range from Norwegian companies enacting corporate social responsibility in Russia to indigenous rights around the Arctic.

Examining the politics of Svalbard’s governance has raised uncomfortable questions for Oslo and Moscow. Meanwhile, soon after NORRUSS began, Russia enacted its “Foreign Agents Law,” building on earlier legislation, which impedes Russian non-governmental organizations from working in Russia and from receiving funds from outside Russia, including for research.

So studying Norway-Russia relations itself becomes entangled in Norway-Russia relations, affecting the possibility of understanding more about the peoples of the two nations.

Moreover, how do Sámi interactions between Norway and Russia, as well as Sweden and Finland, influence political connections? What about those living near the Norway-Russia border, who can apply for visa-free travel to the other country? No matter how the two governments posture, will the rapid social and environmental changes around the Arctic lead to suspicion or friendship between those living in the region?

From Longyearbyen to Nikel and from Kirkenes to Barentsburg, individuals connect. Whether for business, holiday, culture, sport, romance, or curiosity, research projects and the people themselves show how absent diplomats and politicians are from questions of Norway-Russia relations. “The Beast from the East” does describe aspects of Russia’s behavior, but Norwegian science can show itself to be the Best from the West.

This article originally appeared in the January 24, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Ilan Kelman

Ilan Kelman is Professor of Disasters and Health at University College London, England, and Professor II at the University of Agder, Norway. His overall research interest is linking disasters and health, including the integration of climate change into disaster research and health research. Follow him at and @ILANKELMAN on Twitter and Instagram.