Irish fishermen succeeded where Ireland’s government had failed. In January last year, the Russian Navy brushed aside pleas from Dublin by announcing a major military exercise slap bang in the middle of Ireland’s fishing grounds.

The country’s fishermen had other ideas: they refused to leave waters to the south of the country and maintained a round-the-clock presence, thus preventing the Russian warships from carrying out the drill.

Now it’s happened again. Norwegian fishermen have pulled off a similar victory against the might of the Russian Navy. Their successful efforts are a reminder that national security involves the whole of society — and that the best ideas don’t always come from the government or think tanks.

Seemingly having failed to learn last year’s lesson, the Russian navy announced plans for a large naval exercise in the Barents Sea involving some 20 surface ships, support ships, submarines, and 8,000 sailors. Russia informed Norway that the exercise would be held north and south of Bjørnøya (Bear Island) the southernmost island in Norway’s Arctic Svalbard group in August. The relatively unpolluted waters, which contain significant quantities of cod, capelin, haddock, and herring, are crucial to Norway’s fishing industry.

The Russians were not violating any laws by scheduling an exercise in the Arctic waters, which belong to Norway’s exclusive economic zone. Norwegian authorities pointed out that Russians had to respect Norwegian fishing boats’ security while wargaming in their waters, but Moscow proceeded with the plans regardless, announcing that it would be closing the area and that missiles would be fired and might land in the waters.

Norway’s fishermen, though, would have none of it. “We have not received any notice from the Norwegian authorities to leave the area. Until then, we will remain where we are,” local fishing vessel owner Dag Jøsund told Norwegian Public Broadcasting (NRK) on August 12. His vessel was staying put. Another vessel resolutely remained too. The owner of yet another fishing vessel told NRK that the Russian closure of the waters had arrived without prior notice and that he’d never experienced anything like it in Norwegian waters.

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The country’s fishing industry association, Fiskebåt, announced that fishing vessel owners should decide for themselves whether to stay or leave — but added that naval vessels conducting exercises are obliged to ensure there’s no fishing in waters where they plan to fire missiles.

As is now well known, Russia is not a subtle geopolitical actor. The audience for both exercises were NATO navies who will need to keep both areas free of Russian warships and submarines in time of war (especially in the seas off Ireland, where US resupply convoys will be routed.) Russian admirals have played little part in the war and have suffered notable and embarrassing reverses, including the sinking of the Black Sea flagship, Moskva, and a series of naval drone attacks that have damaged several vessels. Now they’re struggling to find a piece of the sea to rattle their sabers.

The lesson for the West is to think more creatively, and that’s what the fishermen did. It’s also easier to propose unorthodox solutions when you look at a problem from a different perspective. The different perspective offered by the fishermen to the conundrum of how to thwart a Russian navy presence in Irish and Norwegian waters, respectively, was to use fishing boats as a tool.

Imagine what might happen if other groups had the opportunity to offer solutions to some of the increasing array of national security problems now emerging. Indeed, imagine what sort of suggestions NATO would get access to if it invited a cross-section of society to its public conferences.

We seem to have forgotten how much ingenuity and expertise is required to, say, run a farm or a fishing boat or repair a train or a power plant. There are millions of brains out there that might have just the solutions we need; we just haven’t consulted them.

Now Irish and Norwegian fishermen have taught the Russian Navy, not once but twice, to stay out of Western waters. Who will be the next unexpected group to offer the next creative solution, and why don’t we start looking for them?

Elisabeth Braw is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where she focuses on defense against emerging national security challenges. She is also a columnist for Foreign Policy and Politico Europe and the author of ‘The Defender’s Dilemma: Identifying and Deterring Gray-Zone Aggression’ (AEI Press, 2022) and ‘God’s Spies’ (Eerdmans, 2019), about the Stasi.  

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Europe's Edge
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
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