Over the Circle (OtC) is a site dedicated to news, politics and current affairs in the Arctic region.
As the conflict in Ukraine continues, its political, economic and strategic effects have flowed outwards to adjacent regions and beyond. In the Arctic, many previous assumptions about regional politics and security are now being openly challenged, and in some cases completely cast aside. With the Vladimir Putin regime facing ever-wider sanctions amid growing international isolation, almost all Arctic cooperation, including the far north’s cornerstone organisation, the Arctic Council, which would involve Moscow has been suspended.
No end point to the Ukrainian conflict is in sight, but at the same time the Arctic is facing serious questions about how its governments and its citizens can move forward in addressing its pressing regional challenges, chief amongst them being climate change. During the same week the invasion began, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its latest report which featured [pdf] renewed warnings that the Polar Regions were experiencing accelerated ice erosion which would create tipping points in ecosystems at both poles.
Arctic cooperation may have been ‘paused’, but a common theme frequently cited during the recently concluded Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromsø was that the Arctic itself has no pause button. Environmental threats will persist in the region, regardless of who is and is not talking to whom. This year’s conference, postponed from January due to the omicron, was conducted in a hybrid format, and with a concentration on the various local impacts of climate change as well as ongoing challenges of sustainable development.
However, the Ukraine conflict was never far from any conversation at the conference, and panels included a discussion of how Arctic cooperation could go forward in the near term without Russian participation. It was stressed, including by panellist James DeHart, the Arctic Regional Coordinator for the US government, that there would be no initiative to replace the Arctic Council and that the organisation needed to eventually return to its original format.
As well, the Russian invasion of Ukraine was the subject of a specialised panel examining the effects of the war on the Arctic Council and overall regional governance. Among the sensitive topics addressed were how the chair position could be successfully passed from Russia to Norway, which is scheduled to take place in May 2023, and whether there would be changing patterns of Arctic cooperation sparked by the conflict and international responses.
During her speech at the Arctic Frontiers opening sessions, Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt confirmed that plans remained underway for Oslo to accept the chair position of the Council next year, and that issue-specific cooperation with Russian authorities would continue in the areas of border control, nuclear safety, search and rescue, and sustainable resource management. However, wider scientific and policy cooperation would not be possible under current conditions.
In Russia, the Putin government has reworked its own Arctic Council policy activities to reflect domestic concerns, while insisting [in Russian] that it would continue to assume its responsibilities as chair despite all meetings between Moscow and the other seven member governments being postponed indefinitely.
Amongst the looming questions over how the Ukraine conflict will affect the Arctic Council moving forward are whether there will be endeavours by the Western members of the organisation to continue cooperation in vital policy areas without Russia, and whether (and how) some sort of backchannel to Russian authorities could be created in order to maintain a minimal line of communication. There is also the complex issue of where the Council’s hiatus leaves the Permanent Participants, which represent Indigenous interests across the entire region, as well as the formal observers which include thirteen non-Arctic governments in Asia and Europe, many of which have also begun to expand their policies in the far north.
The problems of balancing global actions to condemn Russia’s unlawful attack on Ukraine with the need to maintain efforts to combat climate change in the far north were well illustrated in a speech adjacent to the Arctic Frontiers event, by Virginijus Sinkevičus, European Union Commissioner for the Environment, Oceans and Fisheries.
In his presentation at UiT – The Arctic University of Norway in Tromsø, he outlined the current and emerging human security threats facing the Arctic, including climate change effects, health in the emerging post-pandemic world, education, interests of Indigenous peoples, and regional development challenges. ‘There is no vaccine for climate change and biodiversity degradation’, he added.
Mr Sinkevičus also commented on the roles which the European Union could play in addressing these concerns, (‘The EU is in the Arctic, and the Arctic is in the EU’), including green and blue development plans such as the recent call for Arctic fossil fuels to remain in the ground, as well as the European Green Deal and the ‘Fit for 55’ policy, with its goal of the Union achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 and chopping greenhouse gas emissions by fifty-five percent in the next eight years.
The EU’s green policies now face stronger headwinds in light of rising oil prices and attempts by numerous governments, including in the EU, to halt future purchases of Russian oil and gas, while other Arctic oil producing states like Norway are facing pressures to increase their quotas, (although Norway is also facing possible strike action by eight thousand oil workers over wages).
The security map of the Arctic is also about to change as Finland and Sweden, two Arctic states which had traditionally maintained neutral security stances, (although both governments had joined the EU in 1995), confirmed their intention to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), and formally submitted their membership applications on 18 May.
Should both countries enter the alliance, this would mean all seven Arctic Council members from western governments would be members, and the length of the borders separating NATO from Russia would more than double. Finland has an approximately 1340km-long frontier with the Russian Federation, stretching well north of the Arctic Circle.
Finnish and Swedish armed forces have long cooperated with their NATO colleagues, including in the most recent Cold Response military manoeuvres in Norway, including in the Norwegian north, which took place in March and April of this year, but another crucial question will be how overall military dynamics in the Arctic will change as a result of the two new applications.
The Russian government at first forcefully condemned the applications, although President Putin would later speak in a softer tone on the subject. However, in addition to economic aftershocks such as the suspension of Russian gas supplies to Finland last month, Moscow also strongly hinted that its approach to Arctic cooperation would need to be ‘adjusted’ in consideration of the potential NATO membership status of Finland and Sweden. This included comments by Nikolai Korchunov, Russia’s Senior Arctic Official, that there would need to be an assessment of whether trust between the country and the other Arctic governments would be adversely affected by NATO’s most recent expansion.
In contrast, a joint statement by Denmark, Iceland and Norway endorsed the applications, and both Canada and the United States also affirmed their support for swift admission to the alliance for both Nordic states.
However, the actual timetable for admission to the alliance is now clouded, mainly because of emerging opposition by the Recep Tayyip Erdoğan government of NATO member Turkey. President Erdoğan had previously accused the Finnish and Swedish governments of being sympathetic to the opposition Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan, or PKK), which the Turkish leader views as a terrorist organisation, and has also called for both Nordic states to remove an arms embargo on Ankara in the wake of 2019 Turkish military incursions into Syria. As a unanimous vote is required for any new members to be added to NATO, Turkey’s stance may represent a difficult obstacle.
Both the Ukraine conflict and the potential expansion of NATO to include Finland and Sweden were at the centre of debates and discussions on European security at the Lennart Meri Conference (LMC) in Tallinn this month. Estonia, which is seeking to join the Arctic Council as an observer, and having published an Arctic policy document [pdf] in late 2020, also welcomed the NATO applications, as had Estonia’s Baltic neighbours Latvia and Lithuania.
Other participants at the LMC also welcomed the applications, and one common thread amongst the dialogue was the potential for further ties, including in the strategic realm, between Nordic and Baltic governments. The Baltic Sea may find itself ringed by NATO members along with the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. Last month, Moscow had threatened to increase its military build-up in the Baltic Sea region, should Helsinki and Tallinn push forward with their NATO interests.
This year’s LMC, which included statements and comments by both Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas and President Alar Karis, featured discussions on NATO’s new roles [video] and the potential expansion, as well as the various effects [video] of the Ukraine conflict on both European and Atlantic security. The theme of this conference was ‘Time Flees’ [video], and as Prime Minister Kallas stated, understanding history is key to understanding the significant events which have taken place over the past year in Europe, including attempts in Russia to silence opposition, revive imperial thinking, and to rewrite the past.
During comments made remotely at the event, Olha Stefanishyna, Deputy Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration of Ukraine, also stated at the conference that the outcome of the conflict will include a stronger and more unified Europe, as well as improved security ties with other major democracies, including Canada, the United States, and Japan.
Many scenarios have been posited for how the Ukraine conflict might end, but at present the effects of the war on the Arctic are already obvious on several fronts. What will be the implications of growing militarisation of the Arctic on the region and its inhabitants? Will regional and international efforts to curtail climate change effects in the far north be sidelined, and if so for how long? What will be the impact on Arctic governance in the longer term, as well as on efforts to develop new forms of cooperation and regime-building? None of these questions has a ready answer as Arctic diplomacy takes on new and sometimes unpredictable forms.
by Mingming Shi
1) As a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the security policies of both Sweden and Finland, which traditionally had supported neutrality, have moved towards potentially joining NATO in the short term, a decision which is increasingly supported by people in both states. As Reuters reported, the Government of Sweden decided not to call a referendum on the question of NATO membership. Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson defended this decision on the grounds of needing to observe confidentiality on matters of national security. However, some politicians have argued that the Swedish people should also have a say in this decision.
2) An essay in the journal Foreign Affairs was published by former Swedish Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, who argued that the time had come for his country, along with Finland to join NATO in light of Russia’s attack against Ukraine and threats to European security. While noting that Sweden had a long history of armed neutrality, the piece argued that it was no longer advisable for the country to stay outside of NATO, and that Northern European security cooperation as a whole would benefit from the swift addition of both Finland and Sweden.
3) Time magazine offered a video essay on the effects in Alaska of climate change from the viewpoint of a local Iñupiat author. As the report explains, warmer temperatures, rain replacing snow, and the loss of sea ice has had a profound effect on local traditions in the region.
4) The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), supervised by NASA and based at the California Institute of Technology (CalTech), reported that parallel ice ridges of similar type have been found in both Greenland and on Europa, one of the larger moons orbiting Jupiter. The discovery suggests that this moon may be a prime candidate to harbour life, despite its far greater distance from the sun. NASA is planning on sending a probe to monitor Europa in late 2024.
5) A number of European governments have expelled Russian diplomats after the war broke out in Ukraine in February, and Moscow has also taken similar retaliatory measures in this regard, including expelling personnel from the embassies of Norway and Sweden in Moscow, according to The Barents Observer.
Last week, the Government of Greenland announced [in Danish] a radical change in its makeup. This was the departure of one party from the governing coalition, the populist Naleraq, and its replacement by the former main opposition party, Siumut, which had been ousted from power in the last election on the island in April of last year. Siumut, led by Erik Jensen, will now govern in coalition with its main rival, the left-wing Inuit Ataqatigiit, and IA’s leader, Múte Bourup Egede, will remain as Prime Minister. The new coalition will have a healthy majority [in Danish] in the Greenlandic Parliament (Inatsisartut), holding 22 seats out of 31.
The ouster of Naleraq from the coalition reflected its difficult relationship with IA over the past year, including the political fallout from comments to the Danish news service Berlingske [paywall] made by then-Foreign Minister Pele Broberg last September, suggesting that any voting on Greenlandic independence should be restricted to only Inuit citizens on the island. FM Broberg was dismissed from that post shortly afterwards after the political outcry from those comments. IA and Naleraq also reportedly [in Danish] were clashing over budget issues, specifically over the removal of a tax on halibut which Naleraq strongly favoured, as well as whether to implement user fees for fishing ports.
During the announcement for the press of the new governing coalition, PM Egede strongly hinted that the decision was at least partially based on the ongoing policy differences between IA and Naleraq, and it was confirmed [in Danish] by Hans Enoksen, head of Naleraq, that his party was removed from the government.
Amongst the policy priorities of the new IA-Siumut coalition are improving employment figures and reworking the Greenlandic pension system, (a new pension act is scheduled to be submitted to parliament next year). The coalition agreement also included [in Danish] ongoing work towards Greenland’s eventual independence from Denmark, as well as developing and expanding tourism policies, protecting the Greenlandic language, and promoting equality.
The fishing sector, which continues to dominate the Greenlandic economy, will also be a policy priority [in Danish] for the coalition, given that a new Fisheries Act must be completed in the next three years, in consultation with the industry and reflecting the need for both modernisation and sustainable practices.
Danish relations will also remain a priority for the new coalition, and it was expected [in Danish] that relations between Copenhagen and Nuuk would improve with the strongly pro-independence Naleraq out of office. The Danish government of PM Mette Frederiksen has also been seeking to improve relations with Greenland, and this stance has included a public apology last month to Inuit in Greenland who were forcibly removed from their families seven decades ago as part of a government social experiment.
With the new coalition, Siumut will receive [in Danish] four portfolios out of ten under the new coalition, with Erik Jensen as Deputy, and Vivian Motzfeldt (Siumut) as Minister for Foreign Affairs as well as for Business and Trade, and Naaja H. Nathanielsen (IA) as Minister for Business and Gender Equality. Former Greenland Prime Minister Kim Kielsen was confirmed as the new Chair of the Inatsisartut. Although the new IA-Siumut coalition opens the door for broader policymaking in Nuuk, there will be some difficult political questions which will need to be navigated, especially regarding Greenland’s economic future.
The Egede government originally took office with a promise to halt uranium mining on the island, a decision which led to the November 2021 cancellation of plans to open a rare earths and uranium mine in Kuannersuit (Kvanefjeld), which was to be operated by Australian firm Greenland Minerals in conjunction with the Chinese company Shenghe.
There was no immediate sign that Siumut would press for that project to be revived, or for a referendum on the subject to be planned, but considering ongoing concerns in the United States and Europe about developing new sources of strategic materials, including rare earth elements, the issue is likely to be revisited in the near term. In the meantime, Greenland Minerals has threatened [in Danish] legal action against Nuuk for cancelling the project.
There is also the question of whether Siumut will call for a softening of the Egede government’s stance on suspending fossil fuel development projects in Greenland. Since the ban was announced in July 2021, global oil prices have spiked considerably in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and so there is the question of whether the new government may be persuaded via outside or inside influence to change the policy.
Foreign policy will also be a challenge for the new coalition, especially in light of concerns about spillover [in Danish] of the Russia-Ukraine conflict further into the Arctic region. A law currently under debate in the Greenland Parliament involves implementing sanctions on Moscow for its invasion of Ukraine, but first the Cabinet (Naalakkersuisut) needs to grant itself the right [in Danish] to implement such policies. Any sanctions would include trading restrictions, which is significant given that Greenland exports seafood to the Russian market, in trade worth approximately 0.5 billion DKK (US$74 million).
In addition to converging local interests which allowed for IA and Siumut to agree on a coalition, political figures in Greenland also noted [in Danish] that the changed global security situation, punctuated by the Ukraine conflict, also contributed to new coalition agreement, with hopes expressed [in Danish] that the two parties could develop a dialogue on improving Greenland’s own security interests.
Greenland is also addressing ongoing attempts by the United States to deepen economic cooperation with Nuuk. It was also recently reported that new air routes between Greenland and the US were being planned for later this year. Closer to home, the Egede government is also planning closer economic cooperation with neighbours Faroe Islands and Iceland, and trade policies with Europe as a whole will be a priority in light of global financial uncertainty.
After a bumpy year in Greenlandic politics, the stage appeared to be set for a period of greater stability, as two parties which had long been at odds are now getting ready to govern together.
by Mingming Shi
1) Tampere University in Finland is seeking a Ukrainian doctoral researcher for a one-year doctoral position, someone who is unable to continue their work in Ukraine due to the war. As well, the Arctic Center of University of Lapland is also advertising two post-doctoral positions on International Relations and International Law. Good luck!
2) The University of Faroe Islands is hosting a virtual conference on ‘Peace in Our Time? Security in the North Atlantic and Arctic Region‘, on 7 April. This conference features discussions about security challenges and political issues such as geopolitics in the Arctic, especially given the regional tensions caused by the recent Ukraine conflict. Please refer to the link above for registration.
3) The Greenlandic news agency KNR reported that the Prime Minister of the Faroe Islands, Bárður á Steig Nielsen, and his counterpart of Greenland, Múte B. Egede, stated in a press conference during Nielsen’s visit to Greenland last week, that both nations would strengthen their relations in four major aspects, namely fisheries, education, streamlining public administration and defence & security policy.
4) As many countries in Europe, including most recently Lithuania, have halted purchases of Russian fossil fuels to protest the invasion of Ukraine, The Economist reports on how Moscow is seeking alternative buyers, including China and India. However, with those two markets being much further away in comparison with European partners, there is likely to still be a significant short-term disruption in Russia’s oil and gas sector, as the report suggests.
5) According to YLE, a local public media company in Finland, ongoing sanctions, including on global payment systems, between the West and Russia have also had an impact on Russian students in Finland, where it is difficult for them to continue receiving financial aid from home. In addition, Russia is facing a accelerating ‘brain drain’ from the country due to the war, as many overseas Russian scholars are unwilling to return home under the current political circumstances.
by Mingming Shi
1) Norway’s High North News published an op-ed on the need for the international community to take stronger action in curtailing fossil fuels, given the disruption in supplies caused by the Russo-Ukraine conflict but also the ongoing detrimental effects in the Arctic of burning fossil fuels. Noting the most recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the editorial pointed specifically to the need for vessels in the Arctic to use improved fuels to reduce black carbon emissions. As well, the comment pointed to the need to switch out heavy fuel oils on Arctic ships in favour of more environmentally friendly distillate fuels.
2) The Europe Desk, overseen by the BMW Centre for German and European Studies at Georgetown University, conducted an interview with Kenneth Høegh, Head of Representation at the Greenland Representation in Washington DC, on the role of Greenland in global affairs. The conversation, posted on Spotify, featured discussion of Greenland’s past, traced back to ancient times, and also included historical relations with its Nordic neighbours, the work of Greenland in the Arctic Council, ties with Denmark, and trade with other parts of the world, including growing numbers of seafood exports to East Asia.
3) The travel news site Skift published an article on the challenges facing Greenlandic tourism (mainly due to inadequate facilities and infrastructure), and they can be addressed in the future, via the perspective of balance of encouraging visitors while also protecting local environments. Iceland’s tourism boom over the past decade has also been carefully studied by planners in Greenland.
4) This month, the Government of India released its long-anticipated Arctic policy paper, entitled ‘India’s Arctic Policy: Building A Partnership for Sustainable Development‘. This document highlights the importance of the high north for the country, the ongoing relationship between India and the Arctic, and New Delhi’s strategies based on six pillars, which includes strengthening scientific diplomacy, environmental protection, human development, connectivity, international cooperation and capacity-building. India became a formal observer in the Arctic Council in 2013, and despite being located far from the Polar Regions has nonetheless sought to improve its diplomatic and economic position in the Arctic.