Geir Hønneland, International Politics in the Arctic: Contested Borders, Natural Resources, and Russian Foreign Policy (London/New York: IB Tauris, 2017)

Geir Hønneland’s International Politics in the Arctic: Contested Borders, Natural Resources, and Russian Foreign Policy acts not only as a primer for political scientists interested in how politics emerge and change in Russia’s Arctic, but also makes an important argument that Russia’s foreign policy has a Janus face. The book brings together a selected collection of Hønneland’s writing from 1998 – 2016 on the study of how Russia tackles its relations with the outside world in the Arctic. Rather than take a broad and distant approach to Russian politics, Hønneland brings in his own experiences as a translator in the Norwegian Coast Guard, interview transcripts, and on-the-ground stories that add color and personality to Russian politics.

Hønneland uses the book to look at what the stories Russia tells itself about the Arctic and the identities – often contrasting – that are built both about the Arctic as well as Russia’s place within it. How do discourses, whether they surround environmental agreements, fisheries, or communicable diseases reveal underlying identities and narratives about Russia and the West? Throughout the seven parts, Hønneland argues that Russia has multiple, conflicting, and simultaneous narratives about its place in the Arctic, making up a Janus face which takes into account security concerns as well as pragmatic compliance (p. 5). The Arctic is a territory that Russia can use to regain its status as a great power while also being a place for rational international agreement making. The Arctic is both politically and economically neglected by the Russian state and is also Russia’s spiritual home. The Arctic is the face Russia presents to the world – a great power that can do what it wants irrespective of borders – while also a mirror to the real decay and neglect that Russia inflicts on itself (p. 322).

As the former director of Fridtjof Nansen Institute, Geir Hønneland is known for his work on international fisheries management, with a focus on compliance, as well as relations between Russia and the West. Presently, he is the Secretary General of the human rights organization the Norwegian Helsinki Committee and an adjunct professor at Fridtjof Nansen Institute.

Hønneland uses his experience and knowledge of Russian politics on the ground to bring together key insights into how Russia acts in the Arctic. He begins in Chapter 1, originally written in 1998, to make the point that identity is flexible and changeable – thus it matters who is creating identities and what narratives lie behind their creation when discussing the Barents Euro-Arctic region. In Part 2 (Chapters 2-3), originally written in 2003 and 2004, he discusses different environmental discourses used by Norway and Russia in the Arctic. By telling the story of the Joint Russian-Norwegian Fishing Commission, Hønneland explains that different discourses – such as ‘Pity the Russians’, Cold Peace, sustainability, and discourse from the seafaring community – provided opportunities for negotiation. He expands on this one story to talk more broadly about how Russians and Norwegians speak about the environment. While Russians tend to speak in techno-centric terms, Norwegians speak in eco-disaster discourse (p. 70). These different discourses can make it difficult for the two states to understand one another.

In Part III (Chapters 4-5), originally written in 2003 and 2005, Hønneland explains how discourses become embedded into how international environmental agreements are implemented in Russia. He argues that while Russia does work to build confidence and makes compromises in air pollution, fisheries, and nuclear safety, it does so while both admiring and despising the West. While in 1990s, Russia had will but not capacity to implement agreements, Hønneland proposes, in the 2000s, Russia has no will, but likely has the capacity (p. 122).

In Parts IV (Chapters 6-7), and V (Chapters 8-9), Hønneland uses a vast amount of interview data to look at Russian politics regarding communicable diseases in Northwest Russia and identities of Russian Northerners. In the wake of the Cold War when Western states tried to offer aid to Russia, antagonism grew in large part due to the discourses used. Hønneland uses interviews and stories to look at the case of DOTS, a Western tuberculosis treatment, and how Western discourse made the mistake of lumping Russia in with ‘developing’ countries and describing DOTS as a magic pill, affronting Russian pride in medical research in Part IV (p. 146). In Part V, originally written in 2010, he brings interviews and stories to ask how inhabitants of the Kola Peninsula think of themselves as Northerners and Russians. He concludes that there are competing stereotypes of the North as calm, competent and civilized while also being unnatural (p. 187). In many cases, old truths from the Soviet Union still form the basis of how Russians identify themselves in the North – particularly in the taming of the North wilderness – but new narratives are forming, forcing Russian Northerners to juggle multiple identities at once.

After showing how discourse and narratives matter when Russian Northerners are forming their identities and how they interact regarding Western aid, Hønneland looks at post-agreement bargaining in how Russia complied to fisheries agreements in the Barents Sea and the relationship between Russian fishers and the Norwegian Coast Guard in Part VI. When Norwegian negotiators treated non-compliance by Russia as a technical problem to be solved, it was easier to cooperate (p. 262). Hønneland also draws from his own experience as a translator for the Norwegian Coast Guard to contrast between the 1990s and the 2000s in meetings between the Coast Guard and Russian fishers. In the final Part VII (Chapter 12 and 13), originally written in 2016, Hønneland broadly asks what the stories are that Russia uses to define its relationship with the Arctic. He concludes that there are conflicting stories and identities that Russia uses to relate to the Arctic – security, pragmatism, national myth, Russia vs. the West, and homeland (p. 290). Using the example of the reactions to the Treaty on Maritime Declaration in 2010, Hønneland suggests that Russia produces its identity by othering the West in ever-changing ways.

What Hønneland does well in this definitive volume is offer examples over the past 20 years of how Russia’s foreign policy in the Arctic carries elements of both pragmatism and security. The combination of many different theoretical approaches as well as individual stories and interviews opens the door to a broader understanding of how Russia exists in the Arctic. In future editions of this book, a more comprehensive look at Russia’s participation in international organizations such as the Arctic Council, would benefit the reader, particularly to see examples of how Russia expresses its Janus face in the same forums over time.

Hønneland’s International Politics in the Arctic: Contested Borders, Natural Resources, and Russian Foreign Policy does what the introduction suggests: it argues that Russia’s perception of Western initiatives is characterized by conflicting narratives and identities. The book is an unarguably necessary read for any political scientist interested in how and why Russia operates in the Arctic.

About Gabriella Gricius

Gabriella Gricius is a Ph.D. Student in Political Science at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, CO where she also acts as a Graduate Teaching Assistant and was recently selected as an InTERFEWS Trainee. She is also a Graduate Fellow at the North American and Arctic Security and Defense Network (NAADSN). Gabriella’s research focuses on Russian studies, Arctic politics, securitization, and ontological security theory. In her spare time, she writes for a variety of online publications including Foreign Policy, Responsible Statecraft, and Modern War Institute amongst many others. She also co-produces the podcast Disrupt, which aims to introduce audiences to the critical school of theories in International Relations. She received her MA in International Security from the University of Groningen, her BA in International Relations from Boston University, and a Certificate in Journalism from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Gabriella is fluent in German and English and working towards fluency in Russian and Dutch.