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World News

Nordics rethink soft diplomacy toward Russia

OSLO (Reuters) - An increasingly assertive Russia is forcing Europe’s Nordic nations to toughen up a traditionally accommodating stance towards their biggest neighbour in areas ranging from energy to defence.

The Russian research vessel the Akademik Fyodorov with miniature submarines on board sails in the Arctic Ocean in this Reuters Television image taken from a television broadcast August 2, 2007. An increasingly assertive Russia is forcing Europe's Nordic nations to toughen up a traditionally accommodating stance towards their biggest neighbour in areas ranging from energy to defence. REUTERS/Reuters Television

Russian planes have made forays into Finnish airspace this month, forcing Finland to scramble fighters. Norway has also seen a flurry of Russian bomber sorties along coastal waters.

A Russian submarine irked Denmark in August by planting a flag on the North Pole seabed, a potentially energy-rich area Copenhagen also lays claim to through its Greenland province.

Meanwhile, Moscow’s resource nationalism dogs Norwegian energy interests in the far north.

While widespread mutual interests are likely to prevent any major blow-out in relations, analysts say, frictions such as these may make the Nordics toughen their public line with Moscow.

They have already thrown up obstacles to a Russian strategic energy project.

Russian ties with Finland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark have been generally warm since the Cold War ended, with the Nordics seeking to engage Moscow while playing down its slide away from Western-style democracy, human rights and rule of law.

But Russia’s turn to rhetoric and tactics reminiscent of the Cold War, including its decision to back out of a treaty on conventional arms in Europe, has raised new doubts over how effective the soft approach was in dealing with the Kremlin.

“The potential for tensions and crisis is increasing,” said Tomas Ries, director of the Swedish Institute of International Affairs. “It increases as Russia distances itself ever more from the basic values of the European Union.”

SECURITY AND PIPELINES

Finnish Defence Minister Jyri Hakamies departed from the usual soft Nordic rhetoric in a speech in the United States last month, saying that Finland’s three main security challenges were “Russia, Russia and Russia”.

His comments, unusually blunt for a Finnish politician discussing Russia, stirred debate about how assertive Helsinki should be when dealing with an increasingly aggressive Moscow.

“It has not been customary to call ‘the bear’ three times in a row,” said Hiski Haukkala of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. “It is clear there is more friction between the Nordic states and Russia -- there are dark clouds in sight.”

Finland may also hold the key to Russia’s plans to build a strategic gas pipeline across the Baltic Sea to supply Germany and western Europe without crossing eastern European countries where tensions with Moscow are running high.

Finland backs the pipe, which would have to pass through its waters, but has reservations on environmental grounds, as do Sweden and Denmark which have already forced Gazprom to reroute the link around a Baltic island.

Even traditionally neutral Stockholm has spearheaded calls for a firmer EU stance on Russia’s dealings with the pro-Western authorities in Georgia, after a Russian missile fell on the former Soviet republic’s territory last month.

FIGHTERS AND GAS

Norway is also concerned about possible conflicts over fishing or oil with Moscow, although common energy interests have kept its rhetoric upbeat.

And a Norwegian Defence Ministry report leaked this week said Norway could not rely on NATO assistance in the event of a “serious conflict” with Russia in the far North since the U.S.-led alliance was focused on terror threats elsewhere.

During the Cold War, Norway had one of two NATO borders with the Soviet Union and played a key role in the alliance’s plans to contain Moscow’s northern fleet.

Some analysts said Norway’s economic and political elite was “shocked” when Gazprom last year unexpectedly rejected bids by Norwegian energy firms for part of its giant Shtokman gas field in the Barents Sea.

Gazprom may still work with Statoil to help develop Shtokman but jealously guards its huge gas resources.

“Although developments in bilateral relations have generally been positive, it would appear that Norwegians are less likely to approach Russia with the optimistic illusions of yesteryear,” said Jakub Godzimirski, a research fellow at Norway’s International Affairs think-tank.

Additional reporting by Sami Tomra in Helsinki and Kim McLaughlin in Copenhagen

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