Political dialogue between Russia and the North European countries: influence of economic sanctions

Oleg B. Aleksandrov, Associate Professor, Department of international relations and foreign policy of Russia, MGIMO-University, PhD of political sciences.

In this article, the author attempts to analyze the impact of economic sanctions on key aspects of the relations between Russia and the North European countries. The main goal of the author is to show different approaches of the North European countries to relationship with Russia, to assess political and economic costs of economic sanctions, to show their negative influence on political climate in Europe. The main conclusion of the author is that sanctions have considerably worsened the relations between Russia and the North European states, however there is a potential for their gradual improvement. The research methodology is based upon comparative and analytical approach.

Key words: “Cold war”, Northern Dimension, Eastern partnership, the annexation of Crimea, “Finlandization”. 

The relations of Russia with the North European countries have a special place in European politics. The atmosphere of these relations has evolved over many centuries, when countries traded and fought with each other, concluded dynastic alliances, explored the Northern sea and shared cultural and scientific achievements with each other. These relations were deep and multifaceted. Their bloom came in the days of the Hanseatic League, among whose participants were many Russian cities ― Novgorod, Pskov, Tikhvin, Belozersk, Tot’ma, Torzhok, Tver, Velikyi Ustyug, Revel and others. However, not only trade relations determined the nature of mutual relations between Russia and the North European countries, as marriage of state also played an important role. A significant mark in Russian history was left by Empress Maria Feodorovna, born Danish Princess Marie Sophie Frederikke Dagmara, who became the wife of Emperor Alexander III and mother of the last Russian Emperor Nikolay II.

Perhaps the most serious test of the relationship took place during the Great Northern War, when Peter the Great “cut the window” into Europe in spite of Sweden and strengthened the military position of Russia on the Baltic Sea. European capitals were not happy about the strengthening of Russia on the Baltic Sea, but after a while Stockholm and Copenhagen admitted the increasing influence of Russia on world politics. A century after Poltava Victory at the beginning of the XIX century, Russia made an enormous contribution to the development of the Finnish state, including it in its membership and granting the broadest autonomy to the Grand Duchy of Finland. Finally, in the XX century, the Soviet Union made a major contribution to the liberation of Europe from fascism; Soviet troops took part in the liberation of North Norway from Nazi troops.

The present stage of this relationship was marked by the “cold war”, when during the confrontation between West and East the policy of restraint and neutrality was used by social democratic governments of Sweden and Finland, what helped to create at that difficult time a climate of trust between the countries, belonging to different military-political blocs. Despite the fact that the level of mutual trust at that time was not always very high, it was fully offset by restraint in military and strategic issues, as well as the desire to preserve regional stability.

As you know, three of five North European countries (Norway, Denmark and Iceland) were fully integrated into the North Atlantic alliance, the first two even worked out plans in case of an armed conflict with the Soviet Union, while Sweden and Finland remained neutral. At the same time Finland had a special place in the relations with the West and the Soviet Union. Its sovereignty was partially limited by a treaty with the Soviet Union in 1948, in which both countries made a commitment “not to conclude any alliance and not to participate in the coalition directed against another High Contracting Parties”[1].

The disappearance of the USSR and the victory of Western democracy inspired many people to revise previous models of interaction. In the 1990s, the Finnish model was rejected by the supporters of the Euroatlantic choice and new generation of politicians of the North European countries, representing the right-wing conservatists. At the same time due to a misunderstanding were forgotten unique achievements of this model of relationship. Meanwhile, the historical significance of the model “Finlandization” lay in the fact that with the help of it Finland, on one hand, significantly reduced the risk of being involved in a confrontation between East and West, and on the other hand ― it was able to take full advantage of the economic benefits of its geographical location and the Soviet-Finnish border. The model of “Finlandization” opened access to capacious Soviet market for the high-quality Finnish goods and helped our northern neighbour to avoid confrontation with Moscow, didn’t allow to draw The Country of Thousands of Lakes in dubious military and political maneuvers that could have escalated into an armed conflict.

Whatever it was, already at a new historical stage in the 1990s and the first half of the 2000s, the basis of these relations contained the idea of maintaining a sub-regional stability, improving the climate of trust and sustainable development. Thus the development meant not only an increase in turnover, but also the creation of democratic institutions, which would bring together the political systems of Russia and the North European countries. The indicator of progress in this direction was the emergence of subregional organizations (CBSS, BEAC), as well as the attempt to create a common space of development, expressed in the concept of “Northern Dimension”.

This stage of relations between Russia and the North European countries lead to serious contradictions, which had the ideological character. Russia agreed to adopt Western liberal democratic model for the creation and development of the Russian government institutions and local governments, but strongly disagreed with the fact that the Western liberal ideology would completely replace its national identity, abolish religious standards and force Russia to sacrifice its national interests in the nearest countries. For example, the North European countries really did not understand Russia’s reaction to the infringement of the rights of Russians in the Baltic States, believing that the imperial period of Russian history should have stayed in the past.

From its side, Russia did not understand a lot in the politics and actions of the North European countries. It was difficult to realise, for example, the reason for increased military budgets of Sweden and Finland against the significant reduction of the Russian military capacity after the collapse of the USSR and the subsequent reductions in the 1990s. It was hard to understand, why the withdrawal of the Soviet troops from the Baltic countries was not accompanied with a normalization of relations with Moscow, but instead led to a serious deterioration of relations in almost all important areas ― political, economic and humanitarian. Russia sincerely hoped that the North European countries, which took care of young democracies in the Baltic States, would be able to convince them of the need to ensure the equal rights of Russian-speaking population, especially since similar rights were provided to all national minorities living in the North European countries. Russia did not understand the need of the entry of the Baltic States into NATO, as well as the upsell of the thesis about the “Russian threat” by the leadership of the republics.

Over the past 10-15 years Russia’s relations with the countries of North Europe continued to develop on its special path, alternating the periods of recovery and recession. Significant milestone of this relationship became the restart of the program “Northern Dimension” in 2006. As a result, Russia was proclaimed the main target of this initiative, as originally proposed by the author of the idea of “Northern Dimension” – Finland. The program received a new framework document, identified new joint projects. ND had at its disposal two new partnerships ― in the field of transport and logistics (2008), as well as in the field of culture (2011).

However, two years later relations were spoiled by the events in the Caucasus, where Russia came to the defense of the interests of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and the Scandinavian countries supported Georgia’s position. Then Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt compared Russia’s actions to protect its citizens with the actions of Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland. After 8 years, he also condemned Russia’s annexation of the Crimea, comparing the policies of the President of Russia with the seizure of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein[2]. The fact that these statements were not a spontaneous and short-term splash of emotions, was confirmed by the events of 2008, when Poland and Sweden became the ideological inspirers of “Eastern Partnership”, the purpose of which was the gradual integration of the former Soviet Union in Western institutions. Anti-Russian orientation of the initiative was read between the lines.

In fact, the crisis in the Caucasus in 2008 and the promotion of the “Eastern Partnership” exacerbated the competition between Russia and the EU for the political dominance in the former Soviet Union, and a very active role in the EU’s eastern policy was played by two countries ― Poland and Sweden. From the point of view of Western countries, it looked as a competition between a neo-imperial project, which was supported by Russia as the center of Orthodox Slavic civilization and Western liberal project, aimed at establishing the economic, ideological and informational control over the European CIS countries, as well as the states of Transcaucasus. In this case, the coexistence of “Northern Dimension” and “Eastern Partnership” did not mean a fundamental difference of opinions between Finland and Sweden.

Preserving a common approach and a common strategy towards Russia, Stockholm and Helsinki disagree on tactics: if the project “Northern Dimension” is supported by Finland and is aimed at the gradual democratization of Russia and rapprochement with the West, the project “Eastern Partnership”, which is backed by Sweden, in fact recognizes that Russia is unlikely to be part of the Western world in the foreseeable future, and aims to establish control over the newly independent states established on the ruins of the Soviet Union.

Political upheaval and civil war in the Ukraine in this sense are not the starting point of the crisis in relations between Russia and the North European countries, but is a new stage of ideological confrontation, which was indicated in the middle of the 2000s. The aforementioned Swedish politician does not hide it as well. According to Carl Bildt, Russia in the 1990s demonstrated commitment to Western values, but with the coming of Vladimir Putin to power Moscow faced tough opposition to the Western policy. Former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Sweden believes that the contradiction between Russia and the West is of a fundamental ideological character: “The new anti-Western and antidecadent line of Putin is built on deeply conservative orthodox ideas»[3].

It must be noted that the offensive Western policy towards Russia, combined with tough rhetoric of certain Western politicians have almost fully revived the political atmosphere of the “cold war”, and the media of the West has begun to carefully sculpt an “enemy image” from Russia. How long will the new “cold war” be, and how long will be the economic sanctions against Russia? This raises the third question: what is the position of countries on this issue? In particular, what do leaders and leading politicians of the North European countries think about it?

Many years of mutually beneficial cooperation have taught many to conclude that the North of Europe is quite a well-off region and Russia’s relations with the countries of the region seem to be promising and mutually beneficial. And, in fact, there were no open conflicts in the North of Europe with the participation of Russia, except for those systematic violations of the rights of Russians living in the Baltic states, and they mostly boil down to two main problems: failure of Latvia and Estonia to grant citizenship to all residents, who were born there and lived at the time of the declaration of independence of these countries, as well as the denial of the right of these people, and especially ― their children ― to receive education in their native language. In 2010, Russian initiative was to settle the dispute between Russia and Norway regarding the section of the Barents Sea between two countries. Thus, all potential conflicts in the region have been minimized.

However, it did not prevent the Norwegian oil company Statoil from withdrawing from the joint project of developing the Arctic shelf with Russia; Norway declared that its sanctions and EU sanctions against Russia wouls be cancelled only when Russia changed its policy in Ukraine. Explaining the position of the state, Norwegian Foreign Minister Børge Brende recalled that the sanctions against Moscow were introduced after the annexation of the Crimea, as well as other “violations of the international law in the eastern regions of Ukraine[4].

It should be noted that Norway not being a member of the EU, was free on the question of participation in the sanctions, as well as on the issue of the degree of its rigidity and duration. For example, Turkey, which, together with Norway being a member of the North Atlantic Alliance, decided not to join the sanctions at all, because it saw it as a threat to its national interests in the Black Sea region.

The fact that Norway did not simply join the sanctions, but chose their toughest variant, signifies either a serious crisis in bilateral relations, or that the foreign policy of Norway on the question of sanctions is completely subordinated to politics of Washington or Brussels. This situation has opened another unpleasant situation for Russia’s foreign policy: the signing of a bilateral agreement between Moscow and Oslo on the delimitation of the disputed waters of the Barents Sea in 2010 and reciprocal steps by President Medvedev had absolutely no effect on improving the climate of bilateral relations. Nevertheless, even in Norway one can hear louder voices of opposition to the current position of the country with regard to Russia. Thus, ex-Minister of Foreign Affairs Jonas Gahr Støre recalled “the millennial experience of a peaceful neighborhood” with Russia.[5].

Thus, the events of the Ukrainian crisis has shown that the most irreconcilable and active critics of Russia’s actions are the North European countries, namely Sweden, Norway and Denmark. Acuity of their position is not inferior to the positions of the United States and Canada, and on the degree of hardness it’s stronger that one of France and Germany. On the contrary, Finland and Iceland at the outset showed much more balanced position, based on considerations of economic pragmatism dominated the political arguments.

Finland’s position from the beginning tended to a compromise, and Prime Minister Alexander Stubb has repeatedly spoken out against imposal, extension and tightening of the sanctions, as the importance of Russia for the Finnish economy is too huge[6]. It can be explained by the fact that among all North European countries, Finland faces the greatest losses from the sanctions regime, as well as the impact from Moscow responses, which imposed a total ban on exports of beef, pork, vegetables and fruit, meat, poultry, fish, cheese, milk and dairy products to Russia.

Denmark and the Danish Board of Agriculture and the Economy also warned on the serious impact of Russian counter-sanctions on its economy. According to the National Institute of Statistics of Denmark, exports to Russia in 2013 amounted to 2.14 billion USD, of which 891 million USD accounted for agricultural exports. At the same time, the share of Russia in the exports of Denmark does not exceed 1.9%, which allows the country’s leaders to insist on the continuation of anti-Russian sanctions. This, in particular, was declared by Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt[7].

According to the polls carried out in March 2014 by Taloustutkimus, the majority of Finnish society (60%) is foreign to anti-Russian sentiment, and Russia is not perceived as a threat. Finnish President Sauli Niinistë agrees with the opinion of the Finnish society: “We are neighbours. Unlike other neighbours of Russia, we are not members of NATO. Our relations with Russia are based on bilateral contacts”[8]. The position of Finland is not opportunistic, but consistent and is based on the mood of the majority of Finnish society, which has been recently shown by the events, when the Finnish leadership voted against the supply of arms of Kiev authorities[9].

Against the balanced and moderate position of Finland Sweden is continuing to demonstrate hardness against Moscow. Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström said that Russia poses a serious threat to the security of Europe, however, along with the pressure on Russia one should continue political dialogue as well[10]. The announcement of Ambassador of Sweden in Russia Veronika Bard Bringus was in similar mode, when she did not exclude the possibility of exit of Swedish companies from the Russian market[11]. The main argument of the Ambassador was the situation with the Swedish concern Oriflame, which was accused by Russian tax authorities of deliberately understating the company’s revenues for the reduction of tax payments to the Russian budget. After losing the lawsuit in the Russian arbitration court, the company announced its intention to appeal to the international investment arbitration.

It should be noted that the current crisis in Russian-Swedish relations is not accidential. Stockholm has long been regarded Russia as a threat to its security, and therefore critically perceives any Russian actions of political or economic nature, aimed at strengthening the security of Russia in the Baltic Sea, whether it’s laying of the pipeline “Nord Stream” or the development of the military infrastructure of the Baltiysk and Kronstadt.

The story of unsuccessful search for “Russian submarine” in Swedish territorial waters in October 2014 recalled a similar story from “cold war”, when in 1981, a Soviet damaged submarine was discovered close to the Swedish naval base at Karlskrona. Stockholm reacted to Russia’s actions to ensure security of Abkhazia and South Osetia with obvious disapproval, accusing Moscow of violating the territorial integrity of Georgia. A similar position was taken by the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Crimean issue.

Playing the “Russian card” and the spread of the thesis of the “Russian threat” was the brand style for a number of leading Baltic politicians. The toughest position on the Russian question among the Baltic States has traditionally been shown by President of Lithuania Dalia Grybauskaite. In her opinion, three Baltic countries faced “Russian threat” and they should be ready to respond to it during three days at least, until they get assistance from NATO members[12]. However, a different position was shown by Latvian President Andris Berzins, who does not support the imposal of sanctions and calls for their soonest cancellation. His views are shared by Foreign Minister of Latvia Edgar Rinkevich and Ventspils Mayor Aivars Lembergs.

Some political consequences of the deterioration of relations of North European and Baltic countries with Russia within the framework of the Ukrainian crisis followed shortly. In particular, it was reflected with newly resumed talks on accession of Sweden and Finland into NATO, the North European countries and the Baltic States published their plans to deepen cooperation in defense and security. So, the ongoing projects within the North European defense cooperation (Nordic Defence Cooperation ― NORDEFCO) were joined by the Baltic States ― Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia[13].

Minister of Foreign Affairs of Sweden, Margot Wallström was the initiator and inspirer of the plan; she declared that military cooperation between the North European countries and the Baltic countries would decrease defense expenses and improve cooperation on border security. Russia replied immediately by performing tactical flight exercises in the Barents Sea, which were attended by the crews of fighter-interceptor MiG-31 and tactical bomber Sukhoi Su-24M of Central Military District[14].

Thus, Russia’s relations with the countries of Northern Europe are developing in an unfavorable scenario; however, there is still some potential for a gradual improvement in case of easing policy by the majority of the North European countries in respect of Russia. In this situation, the most pressing question is what position will prevail: the policy of deepening confrontation or a pragmatic and balanced policy aimed at overcoming the sanctions crisis. It seems no one can state the way of further development of relations between Russia and the North European countries, as Brussels and Washington both have a strong impact on the foreign policy of the North European countries. We can only hope for traditional Scandinavian sanity, willingness of all parties to move towards each other and take into account the legitimate interests of Russia.

The list of bibliography:

1.         Dogovor o druzhbe, sotrudnichestve i vzaimnoy pomoshi mezhdu Sojuzom Sovetskikh Socialisticheskikh Respublik i Finljandskoy Respublikoy. URL: http://www.heninen.net/sopimus/1948_e.htm

2.         V Danii opasajutsja posledstviy rossijskikh sankciy URL: http://russian.rt.com/article/44314

3.         Karl Bil’dt. Putin povel sebja kak Saddam URL: http://www.bbc.co.uk/russian/multimedia/2014/07/140708_v_bildt_hard_talk_int

4.         Litva pugaet Pribaltiku «rossiyskoy ugrozoj». URL: http://www.stoletie.ru/lenta/litva_pugajet_pribaltiku_rossijskoj_ugrozoj_423.htm

5.         MID Norvegii: tol’ko izmenenie politiki RF v otnoshenyi Ukrainy privedet k snjatiu sankciy. URL: http://versii.com/news/320114/

6.         Nad Barencevym morem proleteli 40 istrebiteley URL: http://www.stoletie.ru/lenta/nad_barencevym_morem_proleteli_40_istrebitelej_555.htm

7.         Norvegiya dolzhna prodolzhat’ politiku dobrososedstva s RF. URL: http://www.norge.ru/news/2015/02/14/26538.html

8.         Nosovich, Aleksandr. Baltijskiy kontrast: Finljandiya otkazalas’ otvorachivat’sa ot Rossyi. URL: http://www.rubaltic.ru/article/politika-i-obshchestvo/baltiyskiy-kontrast-finlyandiya-otkazalas-otvorachivatsya-ot-rossii/

9.         Posol Shvecyi: v RF sozdajutsja prepjatstviya dlja raboty shvedskihk companiy URL: http://1prime.ru/state_regulation/20150306/804132680.html

10.       Pravoslavie ― glavnaya ugroza dlya Zapadnoy civilizacii: mnenya. URL: http://www.iarex.ru/interviews/47573.html

11.       Prem’er Finljandiyi: Ukraine ne nuzhna voennay pomoshh’ URL: http://vz.ru/news/2015/2/4/727740.html

12.       Strany Severnoy Evropy I Baltiki dogovorilis’ ukrepit’ voennye svjazi. URL: http://vzgliad.ru/news/2014/11/30/717796.html

13.       Shadrina, Tat’jana. Finljandijaotkazalas’ otsankcij k Rossii URL: http://www.rg.ru/2014/08/14/finlyandiya-site.html.

14.       Wallström, Margot. Rysslandettallvarligt hot mot Europasfred. // SvenskaDagbladet, 6 mars. URL: http://www.svd.se/opinion/brannpunkt/ryssland-ett-allvarligt-hot-mot-europas-fred_4388101.svd


[1] Договор о дружбе, сотрудничестве и взаимной помощи между Союзом Советских Социалистических Республик и Финляндской Республикой / Agreement of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance with the Soviet Union. URL: http://www.heninen.net/sopimus/1948_e.htm

[2] http://www.bbc.co.uk/russian/multimedia/2014/07/140708_v_bildt_hard_talk_int

[3] Православие – главная угроза для Западной цивилизации: мнения. / Orthodoxy is main threat to Western civilization . opinions / URL: http://www.iarex.ru/interviews/47573.html

[4]МИД Норвегии: только изменение политики РФ в отношении Украины приведет к снятию санкций. URL: http://versii.com/news/320114/ / MFA Norway: only changes of Russia’s policy in respect of Ukraine will lead to cancellation of sanctions

[5] Норвегия должна продолжать политику добрососедства с РФ. URL: http://www.norge.ru/news/2015/02/14/26538.html. / Norway must continue policy of neighbourliness with Russia.



[8] Носович, Александр. Балтийский контраст: Финляндия отказалась отворачиваться от России. URL: http://www.rubaltic.ru/article/politika-i-obshchestvo/baltiyskiy-kontrast-finlyandiya-otkazalas-otvorachivatsya-ot-rossii/ / Nosovich Alexander. Baltic contrast: Finland refused to turn back from Russia

[9]Премьер Финляндии: Украине не нужна военная помощь URL: http://vz.ru/news/2015/2/4/727740.html / PM of Finland: Ukraine does not need military aid

[10]Wallström, Margot. Rysslandettallvarligt hot mot Europasfred. // SvenskaDagbladet, 6 mars URL:http://www.svd.se/opinion/brannpunkt/ryssland-ett-allvarligt-hot-mot-europas-fred_4388101.svd

[11]Посол Швеции: в РФ создаются препятствия для работы шведских компаний URL:http://1prime.ru/state_regulation/20150306/804132680.html / Ambassador of Sweden: Russia imposes difficulties for activity of Swedish companies

[12] Литва пугает Прибалтику «российской угрозой». URL: http://www.stoletie.ru/lenta/litva_pugajet_pribaltiku_rossijskoj_ugrozoj_423.htm / Lithuania threatens Baltics by “Russian threat”

[13]Страны Северной Европы и Балтики договорились укрепить военные связи. URL:http://vzgliad.ru/news/2014/11/30/717796.html / The North European countries and Baltics agreed on strengthening military cooperation




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