The Nordics and Russia

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René Nyberg – 30.04.17

Utrikes Magasinet

Russia under Putin has changed considerably and Russia is a middle-income country today. But as PM Dmitri Medvedev responded to complaining Crimean pensioners in 2016: Денег  нет, но вы держитесь, which roughly means, “There’s no money, cope with it.” The PM’s insensitive comment went viral and can only be compared to Viktor Chernomyrdin’s aphorisms of the 1990’s. My favorite Chernomyrdin bon mot remains: Хотели как лучше, аполучилось как всегда, “We wanted the best, but got the usual.”

The fact that Russia feels the economic squeeze is reflected in this recent exchange between the principal and the students of a Russian school in Bryansk, a town some 400 km southwest of Moscow. The discussion arose after the posting of Alexei Navalny’s 50-minute YouTube video about the posessions of Dmitri Medvedev.

As scandalous perhaps is that Navalny’s use of the patronizing diminutive “Dimon” for the former president was widely appropriated in the social media:

Principal: (…) I’ll tell you this straight: right now, our economic situation is very unstable. It’s an economic pit. And why’s all this happening? (…)

Student: A crisis.

Principal: And what’s causing this crisis?

Student : Sanctions, the European Union, this whole blockade.

Principal: One more time – what’s the cause? The European Union, right? And our leader is managing a very stable and very strong policy. He has an enormously high rating on the world stage. Due to what? Due to foreign policy. [Russia’s] domestic policy, of course, is rather weak. Why? Well, because there’s no money. And we’re feeling that now, most of all…

Student: And what exactly is our foreign policy? America is against us. Europe is against us. (…)

So far a Russian school in the provinces.

Russia’s economic dilemma could be summed up by noting that Russia is – for several reasons – unwilling to reform and incapable of doing so. The basic issue remains the lack of rule of law.

The CEO of Sberbank and former Minister of the Economy German Gref noted recently in a conference in Moscow that the Russian economic crisis is not cyclical, but structural. It should be managed with a standard set of measures. He added jokingly that there are two ways to assure growth in Russia: manipulating the figures of Rosstat (Russian Federal State Statistics Service) or implementing structural reforms. He did also refer to the uncertainties rising out of the presidential elections in March 2018.

Today’s Russia is an unsatisfied power. It has problems with most of its neighbors. I used to pause after saying this, and then add with emphasis – except with Finland. But the breach of confidence marked by the border incidents in 2015 with both Norway and Finland showed us that stuff happens. To quote the Finnish report on the Effects of a Possible Finnish Nato Membership  from April 2016: “Russia has a propensity to create a problem, then leverage it and offer to manage it without necessarily solving it.”

Still, I would maintain that the situation has, at least for now, calmed down. The tension in the Baltic Sea was and is a reflection of the ongoing war in Ukraine. But incidents in the air and the Baltic Sea have all but ceased, which, of course, is good news. The deployment of Nato troops in Poland and the Baltic states has also had an effect. Of course the Russian “Zapad” maneuver next autumn will be followed with great attention. There will also be a number of maneuvers in the Nordic area; among them, Sweden’s “Aurora”, the country’s largest military maneuver since the end of the Cold War.

In my view a recurrence of incidents on the Finnish and Norwegian borders seems unlikely, although nothing can be excluded. But to again suddenly start channeling people without proper visas to the Finnish or Norwegian border, and do this with the help of criminal shlepper elements, would be a hostile act and difficult to explain.

The Russian point of departure in this part of world remains the security of St. Petersburg and that of its second-strike capability based on the Murmansk coast. The Russian heartland and its vital assets are nowhere as close to the outer border than in Northwest Russia.

It is not the Southern Baltic Sea, the Karelian Isthmus, or the road to Smolensk that worries Russia’s General Staff. It is the fear of being technologically surprised and forced to face a new threat to its second-strike capability. This would undermine the basis of Russia’s valued superpower status. Russia, of course, is painfully aware of its military, economic and technological shortcomings relative to the United States. But I am here referring specifically to missile defense. It is still too early to predict if the United States and Russia could in the coming years find their way back to the negation table and talk again about nuclear weapons and missile defense.

The only thing I can note from my personal experience is that track two talks on missile defense, which the Finnish MFA facilitated and I hosted in 2010 on an island in the Gulf of Finland with Russian and American arms control experts and retired generals, proved that there is room for agreement even in missile defense.

The Russian view on Scandinavia and the Nordics is very traditional, even conservative and deeply anchored in history. This is why Finland for Russia is part of the švetski mir, not the russki mir.

My best missed tweet so far – because I was still employed by the Finnish industry and could not tweet freely – remains Carl Bildt’s words in the Swedish Embassy in Moscow 2012: “The most important achievement of Sweden ever was the founding of the Russian state.”

In his highly acclaimed book Stalin in the fate of Finland published last autumn Professor Kimmo Rentola of the University of Helsinki notes that before the war Finland for Stalin was a limitrof. This expression not used any more, but it means something like near abroad. But Rentola continues: Molotov alleged in 1940 that the Winter War was actually Sweden’s war. Finland today is the far abroad. St. Petersburg, of course, greatly benefits from the proximity of Finland which is now a little bit farther away than the famous 30 kilometers before the war.

Unlike Norway and Finland, Sweden does not have vested bilateral interest with Russia. To paraphrase the old Clinton mantra: It’s the geography stupid! This explains a lot, including the development where Swedish-Russian relations seemed to be losing their bilateral element. Foreign minister Margot Wahlström’s visit to Moscow this winter was in this respect important.

Even after the annexation of Crimea and sanctions imposed by the EU – that is, by us, Finland and Sweden, among the 28 – both Finland and Norway have kept up their efforts to keep talking with the Russians.

President Niinistö’s trip to Sochi in August 2014 was a calculated move to assure that Finland maintained a dialogue with the Kremlin. The trip had its risks. As a head-of-state of an EU country, Niinistö went to Sochi to talk about the war in Ukraine. Niinistö then continued on from Sochi to Kiev to see President Poroshenko.

President Niinistö in Sochi in 2014. Photo:

Following the Sochi trip, Niinistö has met face-to-face with Putin on several occasions and talks with him regularly on the phone. Putin visited the Finnish President’s summer residence in July 2016. Recently the presidents met at the Arctic Conference in Archangelsk. That meeting included the President of Iceland and the Danish and Norwegian foreign ministers. Putin is scheduled to visit Finland again this summer.

The Russian use of force to change borders in Ukraine has had a lasting effect on Europe. Increased defense, especially territorial defense, is again a priority. In the case of Finland, territorial defense was never disregarded. Sweden followed a different path. Like Germany, it suspended conscription and gave up territorial defense, while prioritizing expeditionary capabilities.

I would maintain that the development of bilateral Finnish-Swedish military cooperation has surprised us all in both its scope and the speed at which it is happening. Above all, I want to emphasize its success. To quote the Swedish prime minister Stefan Löfven the aim is planering för situationer bortom fredstida förhållanden, that is, “operational planning for situations beyond peacetime conditions.” To press the Swedish or the Finnish Government to elaborate and define the final goal of this cooperation is futile, of course. It is open ended.  Or in another Clintonism: Don’t ask, don’t tell.

Although the Finnish and Swedish views are very close, there are noteworthy nuances in their relationship vis-à-vis Nato membership. Both armies are already fully compatible with Nato, and both governments participate in 28+2 Nato Summits and ministerials. Still the Swedish Government has clearly stated that it does not intend to join the Alliance. Finland, for its part reserves the possibility to apply for membership. Despite this apparent paradox, I would maintain that neither Finland nor Sweden is about to join the Alliance. And for another Clinton-borrowing: Yes, it’s smoking, but not inhaling.

Recently, I attended a conference at the Kastelholm castle in Mariehamn, Åland. The Russian Consul in Mariehamn in his intervention stressed that his mandate, that is, the presence of a Russian Consulate on Åland, is based on the bilateral Treaty with Finland from 1940, which Molotov imposed on Finland. This prompted the Finnish envoy and later President Paasikivi to advise his Government on avoiding unnecessary legal pedantry because the Kremlin is no district court.

The Russian Consul then proceeded to note that the only power that has ever violated the treaty based demilitarization of the Åland Islands is Finland – in the summer of 1941. Somehow he forgot to mention the deployment of forces of the Russian Empire in 1914 because originally the demilitarization of the Åland islands goes back to peace treaty of Paris 1856 that ended the Crimean War.

Finland’s responsibility for defending its territory, including the Åland Islands, remains. Nothing threatens the status of this happy archipelago. Gotland is often mentioned in connection with Åland, although the situation is rather different. Strengthening the defense of Gotland is of course an important part of the overall Swedish defense effort.

There has been a marked shift in Russian information operations towards the Nordic states. With violations of air space and provocative flight patterns, the propaganda effort went into high gear vis-à-vis Sweden. This was reflected in the Swedish debate, which, mostly due to party politics, is more alarmist than the Finnish discussion. In comparison, the increased Finnish defense effort and the fast-moving cooperation with Sweden, NORDEFCO, NATO and the Unites States has so far only been noted in Russia below government level. On the other hand, the disturbing 2015 violation of the border regime with Finland, was not accompanied by any propaganda blast.

It seems that the Russian attention is turning towards Norway and particularly towards the radar stations in Northern Norway. In a way it is back to the future. During the Cold War, Norway adopted self-imposed restrictions concerning allied presence and maneuvers. But Moscow is always good for a surprise. During his visit to Oslo in 2010, then-President Medvedev announced that Russia was ready to sign the treaty delimiting the Barents Sea, something that took fifty years to negotiate.

Due to its proximity, Norway has always closely monitored the coast of Murmansk and the Barents Sea. Radar stations in Northern Norway, Norwegian maritime patrol aircraft and electronic intelligence collection vessels mark a Nato presence, which Russia does not ignore.

To sum up, Russian current position in this part of the world is largely security-policy-oriented, although natural resources, hydrocarbons and bio-resources also play important roles in the Russian economy. The same applies more and more for the environment, too.

Norwegian participation in the dismantling of the nuclear reactors of the scrapped vessels of the Soviet Northern Fleet is an outstanding example. It is comparable to Finnish efforts to improve the safety of the nuclear power stations in Kola and St. Petersburg.

The most important Finnish effort in the field of the environment remains its catalytic role in the modernization of St. Petersburg’s waste water treatment facilities. It has been quite an achievement to bring the level of waste water management for St. Pete’s to a western European level.

But as throughout Russian history, politics always take precedence over economic and other issues.