National security experts all over Washington spent their winter binge-watching the second season of a popular Norwegian TV series titled Okkupert (or “Occupied”), in which Russia brazenly occupies Norway after a dispute over energy.
In this dystopian near future, the United States is no longer in NATO and world leaders are totally ineffective in securing Russia’s withdrawal. While the scenario is pure fiction, the underlying Russian aggression that inspired it is very real.
Throughout the Cold War, the Nordic nations wrestled with how best to deter their powerful neighbor. Denmark, Iceland and Norway relied on the collective security of NATO membership, while Sweden and Finland walked a tightrope of engagement and deterrence.
Russia’s growing assertiveness and belligerence in recent years has become a major preoccupation for publics and political elites in the Nordic countries, for good reason.
After a state-sponsored chemical weapon attack in the U.K. on a former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, the five Nordic countries responded in concert with EU and NATO allies by expelling Russian diplomats and expressing their outrage.
Norway, Sweden and Finland expelled one Russian diplomat each, while Denmark expelled two. Iceland, with its much smaller diplomatic corps, stopped short of expelling any Russian representatives, but announced that no officials will attend this summer’s soccer World Cup in Russia.
These numbers may seem small compared to U.S. expulsions, but it’s important to realize that Nordic missions in Russia are much smaller than those of their larger allies, and any significant counter-expulsions could cripple their ability to serve Nordic citizens in Russia.
While these steps were necessary for the Nordics to send Russia a message and stand in solidarity with the U.K. and other allies, we must put this incident in perspective and not treat it as just another in the long line of Russian lies.
For the first time since the Second World War, a chemical weapon, a particularly nasty one at that, has been used in Europe. A major red line has been crossed, and the expulsion of diplomats does not even come close to addressing the severity of the attack in Salisbury.
While Russia will continue to protest its innocence and complain loudly at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and in other fora, the cost that has been inflicted on Russia for this and other past transgressions can best be described as minimal.
So the international community must consider how it can further respond in a way that doesn’t only temporarily discomfort Russia, but rather deters it from similar or more egregious future actions.
Unfortunately, the current U.S. administration has not provided what would historically be dependable American leadership on an issue of such gravity and importance to the transatlantic partner nations.
The Trump administration’s policy on Russia is both opaque and nebulous, shifting daily with a range of different messages coming out of the interagency and the White House. Effective deterrence is based on strong consistent messaging about boundaries and predictable repercussions, but that is notably absent from any U.S.-Russia communications today.
While the Nordic countries cannot deter Russia on their own, they can keep this issue on the international agenda by using their respected voice in the international community.
As states that are consistently among the strongest champions of international law, collective security and human rights, the Nordics ought to be vocal about the need to act more effectively to arrest the dangerous trajectory Russia is on.
They know that the importance of safeguarding international legal norms is most important for smaller states, states that rely on collective rather than individual power in order to deter aggression or illegal behavior. T
he fact that such attacks have now taken place at least twice in the U.K. sends a clear signal that Russia will not hesitate to commit similar violations against the sovereignty of less powerful states — such as the Nordics.
The Nordic states can act individually, but ideally in concert, in bilateral conversations with key allies and within NATO, the EU and the U.N. where their voices carry weight and influence.
The recent inconsistency of American messaging regarding Russia makes it even more important that the issue of how to deal with Russia forms a key part of any Nordic-U.S. consultations going forward.
The Nordics have been a reliable partner to the U.S. for decades in meeting the most intractable challenges of our time, including threats to peace and security. The healthy Nordic-U.S. relationship can be at the heart of meeting the challenge of a belligerent Russia that is intent on undermining the post-war international system.
Erlingur Erlingsson is a visiting fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and the former deputy chief of mission at the Embassy of Iceland in Washington.