To manage Putinism, look to Norway

Thomas A. Loftus (Ambassador to Norway, 1993-1997)

Cross-posted from Ambassador Loftus’ March 31, 2014 op-ed in the Cap Times.

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Norwegians grow up with skis on their feet and Russians on their northern border. The choice of former Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg to head NATO puts a young man with a long and successful political resume in charge of what now has become an alliance faced with managing relations with Russia after the annexation of Crimea. This is a Russia with a saber-rattling bent and a mercurial leader.

It is not a new Cold War, let us hope, but certainly a frosty turn of events. Norway’s adept handling of relations with their Russian neighbors since the end of the Soviet Union gives the West some guidelines but knowing that history is only useful if understood in the context of two new realities.

There has been a change in the weather. Climate change has warmed the Arctic Ocean to the point that there is now a new Northern Sea Route from Europe to Asia across the top of Russia. The route has an ice-free shipping season about as long as that of the Great Lakes. Russia treats this as its Suez Canal, requiring escort by a Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker out of the port of Murmansk as the price of transit.

The second change is China’s insatiable need for energy and raw materials, which has brought the Chinese to Iceland, Greenland and Norway to secure minerals and energy transshipment points. This has been coupled with Chinese investment in infrastructure and terminals in Russia along the Northern Sea Route in order to get natural gas and oil out of the ground and on its way to Chinese industry.

There is a 40 percent savings in days at sea and cost of fuel when shipping from Europe to China on the Northern Sea Route versus the Suez Canal.

For China this is also a potentially significant alternative route to the shipping lane from the Middle East through the Strait of Malacca, the thin sliver of ocean between Indonesia and Malaysia. About 80 percent of oil to China passes through the strait and any number of navies could disrupt this route at will.

For Russia the new sea route and Chinese industrial and strategic needs have meant selling more gas and oil. This is cash for the coffers of the Kremlin but does little to build a real economy. Russia can’t do much that is complicated without Western or Chinese companies as the partners to do the heavy lifting.

Norway has since the end of the Soviet Union nurtured a normal border crossing at Kirkenes; rebuilt trade ties between north Norway and Russia, which had been interrupted since 1917; and the Stoltenberg government in 2010 negotiated an internationally recognized border in the Barents Sea between the two countries.

During this time Norway has been a staunch advocate of NATO keeping up defense spending and keeping in mind that the Murmansk area of Russia is a militarized zone full of submarines, tanks, fighter jets and spyware.

On the other hand, Norway is replete with NATO air bases in waiting, fjords for submarines and intelligence-gathering gizmos worthy of James Bond. The U.S Navy knows Norway like they know Norfolk.

So given all this history and new facts on the ground in Ukraine, what should NATO policy and U.S. foreign policy become in the Arctic and the Nordic countries?

Norway is already the main alternative to Russia as a source of natural gas for Europe through an undersea pipeline coming into Germany. However, Norway could shift more of its liquid natural gas production to Europe. The current plan has been that some of this production would go to Asia on the Northern Sea Route.

Particular attention should be focused on Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, NATO members very dependent on Russian gas. The U.S. and Western Europe could accelerate assistance to speed the construction of two LNG terminals in Finland and Estonia. When completed, they could make both countries independent of Russian gas.

However, the U.S. and NATO should do nothing now to disrupt the progress in cooperation with Russia that has been made in the Arctic on energy, trade and environmental protection. And, perhaps most important, we should recognize that China has a self-interest in the Arctic that is a mutual interest with the U.S. and Europe.

Secretary of State John Kerry has said there will be an Arctic envoy named soon. This person can be invaluable in the diplomatic shuttling now needed and on the Arctic Council, a new high-level institution that is a perfect meeting place for diplomats to work with Russia, China, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Canada and any other country with interests in a thawing Arctic.

Finally, there is the question of whether the new Northern Sea Route is in international waters. It is, but not as far as Russia is concerned. This needs to be challenged by nothing more than stating the obvious. Murmansk has been the only Russian outlet to the Atlantic thanks to the warm water of the Gulf Stream making its U-turn there. Now Murmansk and Archangel and other ports in the Russian littoral zone are both Atlantic and Pacific ports. However, as the years go by and the ice lasts for a shorter time and ships can take a route farther north, the Russian claims will melt away.

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