Arctic Frontiers: The biggest Arctic state missing from the big stage

By Elías Thorsson - January 30, 2024
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Thomas Nilsen of the Barent’s Observer has spent the past two years peaking over the border with Russia from his offices in Kirkenes in northern Norway. (David Jensen)

Thomas Nielsen of the Barent’s Observer has been covering Russia for the Norwegian Arctic publication for years and while moderating a panel discussion titled ‘Russia – Keeping Abreast of Developments’ at the Arctic Frontiers conference, he offered an everyday example of his country’s deteriorating relationship with its much larger neighbor. 

“Norway has nearly stopped issuing visas to Russian citizens and there are very few Norwegians who are interested in visiting Russia,” he said. “Border crossings are at 1918 levels.”  

But it isn’t just tourism that has frozen over, since Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, cooperation on most if not all fronts between the country that occupies two third of the region and the other Arctic states has ground to a halt. Recently, the Arctic Business Journal published an article detailing how this lack of cooperation was having serious implications for climate studies and this is the reality of everything from maritime security to resource extraction. 

Speaking to the Arctic Business Journal, David Balton, executive director of the Arctic Executive Steering Committee Office of Science and Technology Policy, Executive Office of the U.S. President said outside of “low-level interaction regarding emergency services,” there was very little cooperation between the two most powerful Arctic nations. He said there is no sharing of scientific data but that “the US is not opposed to non-government scientists trying to interact with their counterparts in Russia regarding data.”

David Balton is the executive director of the Arctic Executive Steering Committee Office of Science and Technology Policy, Executive Office of the U.S. President (Marybeth Sandell)

The lack of cooperation with Russia also took center stage at the press conference of Espen Barth Eide, the Minister of Foreign Affairs Norway. 

“Half of the region is Russia and gaining scientific insights is massively important,” he said. “To maintain some scientific collaboration is, to me, important. It is a dilemma and we are trying to deal with it.”

As thought leaders from across the Arctic come together this week in Tromsø, it is this dilemma that needs to be addressed. Because even as cooperation moves towards absolute zero Russia continues to be a key actor in the Arctic

You can watch a recording from the panel discussion ‘Russia – Keeping Abreast of Developments’ at the Arctic Frontiers conference below.