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Promoting Security Dialogue and Cooperation in the European Arctic: A Conversation with Katarina Kertysova

Katarina Kertysova

Katarina Kertysova is a former George F. Kennan Fellow at the Kennan Institute. We spoke with her about her research, which examines the role the EU, NATO and the OSCE can play in addressing a growing security dilemma in the High North.

Q: Describe your background and what brought you to the Wilson Center.

I was born and raised in Eastern Slovakia, in a small town located close to the country’s borders with Poland and Ukraine. Growing up in an area that knew little diversity, I have always had a passion for foreign languages and cultures. Thanks to a generous scholarship for students from post-communist countries (and supportive parents, who experienced growing up and studying under severe restrictions on foreign travel), I was able to spend my 12th grade, or the final year of high school, in the United States. One year can come across as a short experience but for me, it was truly a watershed experience and catalyst that not only changed my worldview but also opened many doors in the years that followed.

My interest in Russia goes back to my undergraduate studies at the university of St Andrews in Scotland. The first contact was through language and literature classes, and activities organized by the Russian society of St Andrews, which was dedicated to the promotion of Russian history, music, culture and cuisine at the university. As a student of international relations, I started paying closer attention to domestic and foreign policy developments in Russia too.

When I was studying for a master’s degree at Sciences Po Paris in 2012-2014, I decided to apply for an exchange semester at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO). In parallel to studying at MGIMO, I did an internship at the Carnegie Moscow Center. Both experiences enabled me to deepen my knowledge of foreign and security policy issues in Russia and the post-Soviet space.

Much of my academic and professional career revolved around the fields of security and conflict studies. For a very long time, the Arctic was excluded from traditional security thinking.  First, it was a widely held belief that the Arctic environment was too harsh for a military confrontation. Resources and sea lanes were inaccessible, what made contestation unlikely. Second, security concerns have been set aside by the Arctic states in favor of issues related to environmental change and human development. Today, however, we see that different kinds of securities (be it national, human, or environmental) interact and affect one another in the Arctic.

Given the Wilson Center’s reputation as one of the world’s leading think tanks, and number one think tank in regional studies globally, I could not think of a better place to pursue my research.

Q: What project are you working on at the Center?

My project at the Kennan Institute seeks to explore ways in which the Arctic security dilemma could be addressed. In particular, I examine the role regional multilateral organizations with a security mandate – namely the EU, NATO, and OSCE – can play in this regard. All three organizations exist principally to keep the peace in Europe. I look at the tools and mechanisms that already exist and could be extended to the Arctic in order to build confidence and prevent a major escalation in the event of an imminent conflict.

A security dilemma has developed in the European Arctic, in which both Russia and NATO member states are increasing their armaments, troop presence, and exercises to reflect a perceived threat from the other. Security dilemmas often translate into the worsening of relations and arms races which can, in turn, lead to unnecessary (but avoidable) wars. The likelihood of escalation is further intensified by the lack of channels for Arctic states to discuss hard security concerns. Although there exists a number of frameworks for regional and sub-regional cooperation on Arctic matters, none of them deals with military security issues. In 2014, following the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis, existing forms of dialogue on military issues with Russia were diminished.

I am particularly interested in the role the OSCE could play in promoting security dialogue and military cooperation, enhancing confidence- and security-building measures, and addressing the underlying security dilemma in the European Arctic. The OSCE (then CSCE) was established with the aim to coordinate the relationship between NATO and the Warsaw Pact which, in essence, is the same relationship that needs coordinating in the Arctic today. All Arctic states are OSCE participating states and all three security dimensions of the OSCE’s work (namely political/military, economic and environmental, and human) are applicable to the region.

Q: How did you become interested in your current research topic?

Why is a Slovak researching Arctic security, you might be asking yourselves? The choice of my research topic was influenced partly by my previous Russia-related work, partly by my interest in the climate-security nexus, and partly by association with other scholars and professionals who focus on Arctic-related matters.

After the completion of my university studies, I moved to The Hague, the Netherlands, where I held various research-related positions for several years. In 2019, I supported the organization of the Planetary Security Conference, which sought to enhance awareness of different ways in which climate change affects human security and increases conflict risk. The conference triggered my interest in Arctic security in particular. That very same year, I participated in an OSCE-led project, called Perspectives 20-30, which sought to integrate youth perspectives into the work of the OSCE. At that moment, I came up with the idea to explore the role the OSCE could play in enhancing Arctic security.

Last but not least, my research was inspired by people who have crossed my path. I am particularly grateful to Sherri Goodman, Senior Fellow at the Wilson Center, Chad Briggs from the University of Alaska Anchorage, and Marc Lanteigne, my former academic advisor who currently works as Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Tromsø in Norway. Their work on Arctic security served as a source of inspiration for my research.

Q: What is the most challenging aspect of your research?

When attending events and carrying out interviews for my research project, I noticed that many actors in the foreign policy community – be they politicians, military personnel, journalists or civil society representatives – tend to stereotype. Russian policies in the Arctic are often labelled as “revisionist” and the region is generally regarded as the “next arena for geopolitical conflict.” In both literature and the media, numerous references have been made to “the race for the Arctic,” “the scramble for the Arctic,” or the “New Cold War.” This hype concerning immediate conflict in the Arctic is largely inaccurate.

Stereotypes and over-simplifications can impact perceptions, influence Arctic states’ foreign policy positions towards each other, and worsen pre-existing security dilemmas. The best way to avoid acting on stereotypes lies in the ability to better understand the other and the other’s perceptions of one’s own actions. The same holds true for overcoming (perceived) security concerns. State actors need to understand and be empathetic toward other actors’ fears and security concerns, and try to “put oneself into the other’s shoes.”

Communication and engagement are key for improved understanding and better-informed policy making process. Direct military-to-military contacts, which are much needed given the increase of operational activities in the Arctic, have been dismissed in the West on the basis of not wanting to “reward Russia for bad behavior.” Engagement and discussion of controversies do not have to amount to approval; they are a fundamental requirement for better understanding.

Q: What do you hope the impact of your research will be?

It is my intention that my research provides a more nuanced understanding of the drivers behind Russia’s Arctic policies and the country’s military build-up in the region in order to better inform Western policies. I also hope to circulate my research findings within the OSCE Conflict Prevention Centre, based in the OSCE Secretariat in Vienna, as well as the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. My research to date has led me to strongly believe that the Arctic deserves further attention from the Organization. I equally hope my research will inform Track II (non-governmental) dialogue on military issues in the Arctic and contribute towards the development of Russia-West confidence and security building measures in the European Arctic.

About the Author

Katarina Kertysova

Katarina Kertysova

Global Fellow;
Policy Fellow, European Leadership Network (ELN)

Katarina Kertysova is a policy fellow with the European Leadership Network (ELN) in London and a former George F. Kennan Fellow at the Kennan Institute of the Wilson Center.

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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more