Why Europeans Care About the War in Ukraine: the View from Norway
For the past ten days, the pandemic has been forgotten. So has skiing — almost. Instead, the Ukrainian war has been front and centre on Norwegian news. Here are five reasons why Norwegians care so much about it.
Geographic Proximity and Geopolitics
Ukraine is geographically part of Europe. Its physical closeness makes people aware and makes people care in a way that they simply don’t about conflicts elsewhere. There are also personal connections. Russians work and shop in northern Norway, where there are many mixed families. Meanwhile, Ukrainians who came to Norway as seasonal workers have returned now as refugees.
Norway has a land border with Russia. So do Finland, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, and Poland. These countries have an interest in maintaining good relations with Russia while at the same time protecting their political and territorial sovereignty. Thus, the actions that these countries take (or do not take) in the Ukrainian war will inform their future relationship with Russia.
Russian Aggression in the Baltics and Nordics
If Putin takes Ukraine, the thinking goes, then he will be emboldened to snatch the Baltic countries of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. They are all NATO members, so an attack on one of them would trigger a response from the entire alliance.
Norway is also a NATO member, has a border with Russia, and hosts an American military base. So we’re in for fun times if Putin decides to make a play for any of the Baltic nations.
Although experts doubt that Putin will invade Norway, the Norwegian government’s decision to send arms to Ukraine is not unanimously supported by all political parties. Cecilie Hellestveit of the University of Oslo argued that doing so makes Norway a combatant nation and opens up the country to a potential Russian attack:
The criteria for not being considered a co-combatant is that you do not contribute militarily to one of the parties. If one delivers weapons of a certain offensive quality, as we do now, then it means that we become co-combatant under these rules of neutrality. Then Russia can, under certain conditions, attack targets in Norway.
Hellestveit’s view was challenged by Sigmund Simonsen and Arne Willy Dahl, who countered that “many states have provided weapons to warring parties in recent decades, without the states being considered a party (or co-combatant) in the conflict.” Indeed, it seems unlikely that simply supplying weapons would make Norway a target. On the other hand, it’s never smart to underestimate Putin.
As of this writing, more than a million people have fled Ukraine. That is more than the population of Oslo, Birmingham, Cologne, or Amsterdam. Other countries are currently willing to help, but how much can they offer, both materially/financially, and how long can their generosity be sustained politically? If the number of refugees negatively affects labour and housing markets in host countries, political unrest (or at least dissatisfaction with the ruling parties, expressed at the ballot box) may ensue and lead to a more drastic shift in already-hardening immigration policies. Nationalists and neo-Nazis can take advantage of this discontent. Knowing all this, Putin may use refugees as a weapon in an attempt to destabilize European democracies.
There has also been much speculation about whether Putin could be toppled if the Russian people decide they’ve had enough. How hard will sanctions have to bite for this to happen? Can it happen at all? Will it result in a Russian civil war? Will Europe face an exodus of refugees not only from Ukraine but from Russia too? Again, given Norway’s land border with Russia, what will we do in such a situation?
Energy is another flashpoint that will likely have political consequences in European countries that are supplied by Russian gas. If no alternative energy sources can be found and people are left freezing, unrest will ensue. Norway, for example, spent much of the winter exporting most of its hydro-generated power to mainland Europe — at the expense of its own population, as we use electricity for heating. The Labour government’s inability to handle this crisis in a prompt and decisive manner left it floundering in the polls. To be clear, support has not shifted to the opposition but to more radical parties on the left. Whether this crisis results in a more permanent shift in the balance of power in later elections remains to be seen. (For the record, I don’t think it will.)
As we move into spring and summer, the question of course becomes less pressing; however, the populace may be less forgiving of a second winter spent under similar duress.
It goes without saying that nobody wants to be nuked, be in the vicinity of a nuclear bomb, or to have to accept millions of refugees fleeing a nuked city or country. People are also not very keen to experience fallout from a nuclear power plant meltdown. Ståle Støen, who has husbanded sheep for nearly 50 years and still has vivid memories of Chernobyl, said that he was “anxious about the possibility of another Chernobyl situation and fear that radioactive material will come our way again.”
Støen’s concern is rooted in his lived experience for the past thirty-odd years. Østerdalen, where he farms, was one of the hardest-hit places in Norway and he and other farmers in the area must still deal with the consequences of cesium in the soil. Yet while most people in Norway don’t have such direct experience of Chernobyl fallout, they’re still concerned abut nuclear war as well as “nuclear incident” (atomhendelse) involving a power plant. We have been advised by the government to stock up on food, water, and medicine — including iodine tablets in case of a nuclear accident.
NRK, the Norwegian national broadcaster, has been running regular Q&A sessions in which the public can ask questions of various experts. In the past few days, nuclear war and nuclear fallout have been major topics of concern. NRK has also published an article about the likelihood of nuclear war; Tom Høseth of the Norwegian military academy says that it is low, because this nuclear sabre-rattling is “condemned by Western powers. China is asking the parties to find a political solution. Putin knows that nuclear weapons will also ultimately destroy Russia.”