Deterrence, reassurance, and Russian subversion in our time


The fall of the Soviet Union almost 35 years ago triggered new thinking about Norway’s foreign and security policy. In 1993, the Barents Euro-Arctic Region was established as a measure to build stability across state borders in the north and anchor Russia in a “Europe of the regions”. The cooperation was intended to strengthen democracy, civil society, and the rule of law in Russia.

In the following years, Norwegian top politicians repeatedly stated that “democracy is not yet established” in Russia. The word “yet” was a necessary ingredient; seen from the Norwegian side, a positive transformation was underway and highly anticipated.

The bilateral Barents cooperation 

The Barents cooperation was originally conceived of as multilateral, including all four states in the European North – Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. Still, it developed primarily as a Norwegian-Russian cooperation platform, while the northern regions of Sweden and Finland remained less engaged for various reasons. 

While Norway’s policy of engagement with Russia in the North was continued right up to February 2022, much has changed on the Russian side of the border, especially over the past decade. When Vladimir Putin switched places with Dmitriy Medvedev in 2012 and became installed as president for a third term, Russia witnessed large popular unrest protesting against electoral fraud and authoritarian developments. Since then, Putin has strengthened the vertical of power by dismantling Russian civil society.

The authoritarian turn in Russian politics immediately impacted on the Barents cooperation. Russian NGOs working with human rights, indigenous peoples, LGBT and environmental issues were targeted in particular, but even Norwegian companies with ambitions to invest on the Russian side of the border felt the changed political climate in Russia. Over the past decade, we have witnessed strategic use of public diplomacy by the Russian foreign service in Norway, especially in the North. Norway’s readiness to commemorate war history in joint ceremonies with Russian officials has been instrumentally used to promote Russian military-patriotic symbols and values in the Norwegian public. We have also witnessed how cross-border contacts have been manipulated to fuel tensions between central authorities and the northern parts of Norway.

Civil society relations and “people-to-people cooperation” across the Norwegian-Russian border in the North have since long been an illusion.

The costs for Norway 

The developments have left some paradoxes for Norway. Even though successive Norwegian governments acknowledged that Russia was moving in an authoritarian direction, this did not lead to changes in Norway’s policy of engagement with Russia in the North. This reflects a strong Norwegian desire to maintain contacts and perhaps in the long term help Russia back on a more constructive course.

Norway’s policy line has come with some costs. Russia´s increased hostility towards Western powers and the reliance on authoritarianism at home and abroad makes the question of subversion, covert strategies, coercive diplomacy, and foreign influence important to address. Both historical evidence and the present security environment clearly display a strong tendency in Russia to exert unwanted and covert political influence over Nato-member and neighbor state Norway, not least in the northern region.

A question today is how we can counteract such unwanted behavior from Russia, and at the same time contribute to maintaining peace and stability in the northern region. We will approach this question with a critical rethinking of the classical security policy concepts of deterrence and reassurance.

What is deterrence and reassurance? 

Firstly, the use of these terms has not been consistent. The concept of reassurance has been used in Norway to denote both cross-border cooperation, détente, engagement policies and self-imposed military restrictions towards Russia. This lack of clarity is not only confusing, but also politically unfortunate.

Deterrence is preventing unwanted behavior by convincing the other party that the costs of such behavior will outweigh the potential benefit. Reassurance is about preserving status quo by clarifying to a counterpart one’s own intentions. Deterrents must be credible, but they can be of different kinds; it may be the ability to punish or deny, or to convince the other party of catastrophic reputational losses or other negative effects.

Second, since the concepts og deterrence and reassurance describe a form of communication concerning cost-benefit calculations, and since the aim of the communication is to preserve status quo, the concepts are primarily suited to describe strategic stability. Political strategies aimed at change require other concepts. To be specific: Norway’s policy of engagement with Russia, including ambitions on “transformation”, should not be denoted as reassurance. Still, ample examples of this can be found.

Even if the foundation of Norway’s High North and Barents policies has been strategic stability, many elements within these policies have concerned completely different things for Norway than deterrence and reassurance.

New strategies 

Russia’s increasing will in recent years to exploit bilateral relations for manipulation, influence and subversion requires new strategies from the Norwegian side. Some of the Russian active measures can be countered in ways that fit well with the concept of deterrence. Examples include the ability to recognize and attribute unwanted behavior; good situational awareness; and the open Norwegian society’s overall ability to exert resistance. Also, it is of key importance to identify which Russian actors that are seeking contact with Norwegian actors, and what interests they promote.

Moreover, we need to define and clearly state what kind of behavior Norway finds unacceptable, and actively counteract such behavior. This is not only a form of deterrence that supplements the military; it also encompasses an element of reassurance: If Russia scales down on subversion and influence operations, the same will apply to Norwegian countermeasures.

There is no contradiction between critical examination of the last decades’ relations between Norway and Russia on the one hand and maintaining stability in the North on the other. On the contrary, in today’s security situation, this is of key importance.


Stian Bones and Kari Aga Myklebost, Professors of History, UiT the Arctic University of Norway