Norway-Russia security in a changing world

Profiles of Norwegian Science


Photo: Ilan Kelman
Longyearbyen’s main supermarket is a place were everyday activities take place for Svalbard’s residents of different nationalities, including Norwegians, Russians, and Ukrainians.

Agder, Norway

“Security” and “conflict” have been joint watchwords for 2022. The year began with ongoing, long-term wars in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria, and Yemen, among other places. They are seemingly far from Norway, even knowing the relevance through concerns about those trained in violence exporting it, as well as people seeking asylum after being forced from their homes.

Then, the global number of forced migrants exceeded 100 million when another simmering conflict exploded into street-to-street fighting. On Feb. 24, Russia invaded Ukraine, exposing major weaknesses in Russia’s forces and significant strengths in Ukraine’s. No matter what the ultimate outcome, Ukraine has a long reconstruction and recovery process ahead.

How does all this affect Norway? We have ongoing research examining how Norway and Russia engage with each other in different ways. More to the point, it is about how Norwegians and Russians connect and exchange with each other. Certainly, people are not necessarily the same as their governments.

Norway and Russia’s land border demonstrates. It is around 122 miles long, accepted first in 1326 with a treaty formalizing it exactly 500 years later. By contrast, the two countries’ Barents Sea maritime boundary was agreed only 12 years ago.

Residents near the border of each country have had visa-free travel for the past decade, which has thus far not been curtailed due to Russia invading Ukraine. Businesses, exchanges, and connections are supported, which, over the long-term, can build trust and desire for more mutually beneficial collaboration.

This informal diplomacy tends to continue no matter the relationships between national governments and countries. To stop or impede it, a national government would have to intervene actively, such as ending or restricting the visa-free regime, taxing cooperation, or forbidding links.

Much farther north sits the archipelago of Svalbard. It is Norwegian territory governed by Norwegian law yet allowing residence and resource extraction rights for citizens of countries that have signed the 1920 Svalbard Treaty, including Russia. The main settlement is Longyearbyen, considered to be mainly Norwegian, with a population of about 2,400 people. The second biggest settlement, with a population of 400-500, is Barentsburg and is considered to be the archipelago’s principal Russian settlement. Livelihoods there still include coal mining, and many miners are Ukrainian.

Our recent research explores informal diplomacy as playing a large part in Svalbard’s life and livelihoods. Any individual helps someone else, especially during times of crisis, such as avalanches or transportation crashes. Trust, acceptance of each other, a Svalbard identity, and local support for Norway’s governance are ingrained in daily Svalbard activities. This continues as Russia’s government expresses unhappiness at Norway’s stricter environmental regulations and seeks more power over search-and-rescue activities.

Our work has not been able to monitor closely the situation following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. How are people in Barentsburg and Longyearbyen dealing with each other, especially Russians and Ukrainians? How might the relationship of Russians and Ukrainians to the Norwegian government have changed? With tiny settlements and the inability to avoid each other for long, how do people react to each other?

Beyond the hyperlocal, what should Norway be thinking about regarding Russia within the context of the land border and Svalbard Treaty? An invasion or other form of attack has always been a concern, particularly during the Cold War since the USSR was the enemy on Norway’s doorstep.

Norway, though, was a founding member of NATO in 1949. Article 5 of the original NATO Treaty says, “The principle of collective defense,” reading: “… an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all” and so “if such an armed attack occurs, each of them…will assist the Party or Parties so attacked.”

That is, if Russia (or another party) attacks Norway, that action shall be deemed an attack against all 30 NATO members. The first time Article 5 was invoked was the day after terrorist attacks against the United States Sept. 11, 2001.

Beyond governments–that is, rather than just Oslo thinking about Moscow–what should Norwegians be thinking about with respect to Russians? No matter what the political antics of leaders or their machinations forcing violence, many people just want to live their lives. They seek interaction with others and to gain from these connections while providing plenty in return. The power of informality is revealed in that people find security in dealing with each other without violence, despite differences.

The challenge, in science and in practice, then becomes: How do we create and support “security” in which our governments are not using us to hurt each other?


This article originally appeared in the June 24, 2022, 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.