Arctic News Roundup: 13-19 January

[Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
By Mingming Shi

1) This week, an article on The Independent Barents Observer unveiled a story about India’s potential economic participation in a developing oil project in Russia. The Minister of Oil, Nature Gas and Steel of India, an Asian country which was accepted as an observer in the Arctic Council in 2013, asserts the ambition and interest of the state in oil and gas investment in the Arctic region.

2) Also according to The Independent Barents Observer, Dmitry Medvedev, the recently- resigned Prime Minister of Russia, had confirmed a bill for a nuclear-powered icebreaker. The first ship to be built will be one of the first Lider (Лидер)-class vessels which are expected to operate year round along the Northern Sea Route. It is estimated that all of the three icebreakers will be supplied from 2027-2035.

3) The Routledge Handbook of Arctic Security, published by Routledge in the United Kingdom, is now available. The English language book was edited by Gunhild Hoogensen Gjørv, Marc Lanteigne and Horatio Sam-Aggrey, and includes a number of experts and scholars on Arctic affairs. The handbook covers extensive security related discussion and analysis in the region, from theoretical clarifications and case studies of the eight Arctic states, and international governance of security.

4) Nunatsiaq News, a news service with coverage of Nunavut and Nunavik in Québec, Canada, reported a story this week about of a group of kindergarten children who were taught to skin a caribou, an animal inhabiting the Canadian Arctic and usually hunted for meat consumption and fur. Guided by their teachers in class, the students learned how to skin this hunted game.

5) Two new articles were published on Over the Circle this week. These two pieces, both written by Marc Lanteigne, the chief editor for OtC, cover this past week’s Tromsø International Film Festival and provide a summary of the recently-launched book on the Handbook of Arctic Security, within the context of the Arctic’s changed security situation.


Interlude: Films in the Far North

[Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
by Marc Lanteigne

As the polar night in Tromsø began to give way to the first rays of sunshine, the city’s premiere film celebration wrapped up this weekend after celebrating its thirtieth anniversary. The theme of this year’s Tromsø International Film Festival (TIFF) was ‘Transformation’, and movies from across the Nordic region and well beyond were showcased this year. The opening feature reflected the Arctic nature of the festival, as One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk [video] a Canadian film by Zacharias Kunuk, told the story of a clash between tradition and modernity in a remote part of Baffin Island.

Among other northern films featured at the event were Agnes Joy (Iceland), Kuessipan (Canada) The Aurora (Finland), The Grizzlies (Canada) and the anthology Today in the Murmansk Direction (Russia).

Ukraine was also given a spotlight this year with movies from the country shown as part of the festival’s Horizon East section, including Falling and Ukrainian Sheriffs. Norway’s entries included a documentary on artificial intelligence, iHuman, and the short story-based Descent into the Maelstrom.

International movies were also well-represented, including acclaimed films Jojo Rabbit (United States), Little Women (United States) The Farewell (US/China), and the anime Weathering with You (Japan). Other global features in the repertoire were Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom (Bhutan), Alice and the Mayor (France), Ms. Stern (Germany), Present.Perfect. (完美現在時) (US/China/Hong Kong), Balloon () [video] also from China, and the documentary An Australian Dream.

Seven awards were given out at the conclusion of the festival, and this year’s TIFF Aurora Prize, given to a worthy entry which had made its debut at the event, went to Ukraine’s Atlantis (video), a near-future story of the course of the current ongoing conflict between the country and Russia, directed by Valentyn Vasyanovych. The Tromsø Palm was given to the Swedish animated short Topp 3 [video] while the TIFF Audience Award went to Parasite [video], the South Korean class satirical drama directed by Bong Joon-ho which was also just nominated for Best Picture as well as Best Director and Foreign Language Film, for this year’s Academy Awards.

TIFF headquarters at the Culture House, Tromsø [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]

Plus ça Change? Understanding the New Dimensions of Security in the Arctic

Höfði House, Reykjavík, Iceland [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
By Marc Lanteigne

After decades of the Arctic being at the centre of many of the contests and conflicts of the cold war, by the dubious virtue of being the shortest distance between many parts of the two warring superpowers, the United States and the then-Soviet Union, the ‘top of the world’ assumed a strategic identity by the end of the 1980s, that of a far-periphery. Many specialists in Arctic security have pointed to the Murmansk Speech [pdf] by the USSR’s last president, Mikhail Gorbachev, in October 1987 as a turning point in the history of Arctic security. His call for a deepening of US-Soviet dialogue in the wake of the Höfði House Summit the previous year between Mr Gorbachev and American President Ronald Reagan included advocating not only a dialogue among Arctic governments on the subject of regional security, but also the creation of a nuclear-free Northern Europe and an overall shift towards regional demilitarisation.

With the dissolution of the USSR, the Arctic was downgraded as a political priority for the nascent Russian Federation, a move which was only reversed when President Boris Yeltsin stepped down in 1999 and his successor, a then-obscure security head and KGB officer named Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, began his long terms in office. Throughout much of the 1990s, and during the period after the turn of the century, the Arctic was frequently viewed as being exempt from ‘hard’ or military security concerns, as a consensus was reached among regional governments regarding optimal forms of cooperation; (the Arctic Council, as the main multilateral organisation in the region, was founded in 1996 with a proviso that military security would not be part of its mandate).

Security issues which dominated the Arctic in the initial post-cold war era tended to shift towards those considered ‘non-traditional’, which in international relations parlance refers to security outside of the military realm. These included environmental security, crucial at a time when the first warning bells of regional climate change began to be heard, economic and developmental security, addressing the problems of poverty, a lack of infrastructure, and Arctic/non-Arctic financial divides.

As well, ‘human security’, which came into its own as a branch of security studies in the 1990s, was deemed a priority in the study of the Arctic. As the term implies, human security in international relations focuses on the role of the individual, not the state, as the main unit of study, noting that insecurity, alone, does not emanate from state behaviour. Challenges to human security in the Arctic regions included changes to individual ways of life due to climate change as well as modernisation, indigenous affairs, political differences between centres of government and Arctic peripheries, (given that no Arctic state has its capital north of the Arctic Circle), as well as health and access to basic needs.

From the 1990s until arguably a few short years ago, these areas dominated the study and dialogues about Arctic security, leading to the question of whether the region was a zone of ‘exceptionalism’ in global security studies given the perceived near-absence of military or hard power concerns. Phrases such as ‘high north, low tension’ and ‘territory of dialogue’, were frequently heard in various levels of regional political dialogue to describe the Arctic as being set apart from myriad security concerns found throughout the rest of the world.

Assuming Arctic exceptionalism actually existed, (and specialists in Arctic studies are not in agreement on that point), there is now the popular view that the current security status quo is fast eroding, and that military security and great power politics are insinuating their way back into the region. The first and often cited reason for this was the annexation of Crimea and subsequent Russian-backed conflict in eastern Ukraine beginning in 2014, actions which tried the ability of Arctic states to ‘check their politics at the door’ when discussing strictly far northern issues. These clashes also appeared to suggest [pdf] that Arctic exceptionalism was not as strong a force as it was once considered to be.

Not only were ‘southern’ conflicts such as Crimea spilling over into the Arctic, but the region began to be viewed as being of greater strategic concern to a growing number of non-Arctic states. In addition to European governments, such as Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Poland, which had long-established Arctic histories and were often considered ‘Arctic-adjacent’ states due to their venerable scientific diplomacy in the region, newer Arctic actors had begun to appear over the last decade, including from Asia, which also wanted to develop Arctic identities and be counted as participants in the development of the region. China, which for many years had sought to brand itself as a ‘near-Arctic state’ (jin beiji guojia 近北极国家), received most of the world’s attention among countries outside of the region seeking to develop Arctic policies, but it was hardly alone in that regard.

In addition to China, diverse states, including India, Italy, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Switzerland have also joined the Arctic Council as observers, and it was reported in November last year that Estonia would also be seeking an observer position. Several non-Arctic states, including China, have also expressed interest in developing economic partnerships with regional actors. Just this week, the energy minister of India, Dharmendra Pradhan, announced his country would partner with Russia’s Rosneft firm in the development of a new petroleum project in the Taymyr Peninsula (Полуостров Таймыр) in north-central Siberia. Thus, the dividing line between Arctic and non-Arctic politics and economics continues to blur as the commercial potential of the region becomes more widely acknowledged.

[Cover photo via Routledge]
However, the question of how security in the Arctic is evolving does not stop there. A new study on the subject, the Routledge Handbook on Arctic Security, was published this week as an e-book and will be released as a hardcover on 30 January.

Edited by Gunhild Hoogensen Gjørv (Centre for Peace Studies / CPS at UiT: The Arctic University of Norway), Marc Lanteigne (Editor of OtC and Associate Professor of Political Science at UiT), and Horatio Sam-Aggrey (CPS and Sámi Studies at UiT, as well as with the Government of the Northwest Territories), the book brings together more than forty specialists from around the Arctic region and beyond to examine just how the previously specialized study of regional security has expanded and deepened in recent years.

The volume was written in order to look at the question of Arctic security beyond both the parameters of traditional military security and the facets of post-1990s human security study, (although both these approaches are also represented in the book). In addition is the argument that security in the Arctic needs to be examined on numerous levels and from a robust number of directions, including from outside politics and including areas such as indigenous studies, economics, environmental concerns and ‘green’ policies, gender, law, health, agri-food, energy and knowledge-sharing.

Vardø, in Northern Norway near the Russian border [Photo via Wikimedia Commons]
The book, divided into five sections, takes both a geographic and people-centred approach to the topic. The first looks at traditional and modern approaches to theorising Arctic security, including from political, military and legal viewpoints, while the second section focuses on the main Arctic governments and their own changing views of where challenges to the security of the region are stemming from. The third section moves up a level and looks at Arctic security through the lens of regional governance, including institutions, legal structures and emerging areas of debate such as the status of Svalbard. The fourth steps outside of the Arctic to look at the regional policies of key non-Arctic governments, including those of China, Japan, the European Union and other European organisations.

Finally, there is an examination in the fifth section of the human dimension of modern Arctic security, with topics including gender security, the interaction between local peoples and extractive industries, access to nourishment, and developing indigenous security platforms. The book also covers strategic questions which have appeared in the recent past, including current studies on local security in the Arctic, Russian economic and security developments in Siberia, the growing role of NATO in far northern strategic policies, Chinese investment and economic cooperation initiatives, including the Belt and Road in the Arctic, and the diplomatic contretemps last year over a proposed American ‘purchase’ of Greenland.

As the Arctic continues to open to international scrutiny, the question of how best to define security in the region will likely persist. It can be said however, that the issue is no longer confined to neatly defined categories, and instead must be studied and understood from many different directions and vantage points.



Splitting the Difference? Russia Announces a New Climate Change Plan

Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Arctic International Forum in Arkhangelsk, March 2017 [Photo via Wikimedia Commons]
by Marc Lanteigne

One of the core questions surrounding the global climate change emergency, including in the Arctic, concerns the degree to which governments and individuals should concentrate on methods of mitigation. This concerns steps and policies to be undertaken in order to eliminate or lessen the effects of climate change, versus adaptation, referring to how one can adjust to the aftermath of what has already taken place in terms of environmental changes, and what conditions may be inevitable regardless of actions taken today and in the near-term.

It is the former path which often receives the most global attention and debate, including during the COP25 Chile / Madrid environmental meetings last month, but methods of adaptation are being debated on many fronts, including on the state level. (There is, regrettably, a third path popular among some governments, including the United States, namely denial, which has in some cases contributed to recent dire events, including those currently being seen in Australia due to the still-burning bushfires on much of the continent.)

The government of Russia released an Action Plan document earlier this month, which appeared to incorporate both the adaptation and mitigation concepts at a time when the country is bearing the brunt of numerous climate change effects in its Arctic regions. The paper, published by the country’s Ministry of Economic Development (Министерство экономического развития), framed climate change as both a threat and an opportunity, detailing means by which its effects can be combated while also noting the economic advantages which Moscow may see as a result of current and emerging environmental conditions including the melting of Arctic ice.

These proposals appear at a time when Russia is facing considerable threats related to climate change, including warming temperatures, (2019 being the hottest on record in the country), loss of permafrost, and harsher weather conditions.

Russia has already seen the effects of changed climate conditions in Siberia last year, when forest fires spread at a massive rate, with the size of the areas affected roughly the third-largest on modern record, (surpassed only by the Brazilian Amazon fires which began last year and the ongoing bushfires in Australia).

The Russian Arctic has been especially susceptible to rising temperatures, as illustrated by records released [in Russian] by the country’s Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring service / Roshydromet (Росгидромет) indicating that Russia’s Arctic territories of Franz Josef Land and Severnaya Zemlya, as well as areas along the Barents and Kara Seas, experienced record temperature spikes in 2019, notably in the mid-autumn. Meanwhile, in Moscow, snow had to be transported to Red Square for the capital’s New Year celebrations.

However, Russian climate change policies have required the walking of a fine line, given President Vladimir Putin’s publicly expressed scepticism that human agency was to blame for climate change, instead suggesting the origin of the phenomenon was difficult to identify despite scientific data to the contrary. Russian authorities have also cracked down on climate protestors in the country of late, and President Putin was critical [video] of Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg’s speech at the United Nations in September last year. However, Russia has been supportive of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, and de facto ratified the document in September 2019, (conversely, the United States seeks to withdraw from the Paris plan in November of this year).

The new National Action Plan [pdf, in Russian] on climate change, signed [in Russian] by Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev on 25 December, represents a ‘first stage’ of the country’s climate change policies which would be in place until 2022. The document explained specific threats to human health, (including from diseases), arable land, agriculture, permafrost and ecology. At the same time, the advantages of the current situation, such as new shipping opportunities, reduction in heating costs, and the spread of land suitable for farming were also described.

Adaptation policies which were advocated by the document were increases in scientific competence, improvements to human health, and the development of solutions to address extreme weather events. Institutions which would be responsible for carrying out these initiatives include government ministries on various levels, as well as Russian industries, in keeping with the Climate Doctrine of the Russian Federation signed in December 2009. In acknowledgement of the tense foreign policy milieu surrounding Moscow at present, there was also a call within the document to guard against ‘dishonesty’ from international actors and to protect Russian interests from fraudulent behaviour by foreign actors.

Among the advantages Russia is seeing from Arctic climate change is the potential for increased maritime activity in the Arctic and the potential for Siberia to be transformed into a major transit hub in the coming decades. Late last month, Moscow introduced a fifteen-year development plan [pdf, in Russian] for the emerging Northern Sea Route (NSR) connecting Asia and Europe via the Arctic Ocean waters north of Siberia.

The Kremlin, Moscow [Photo via Picspree / Getty Images]
This initiative brings together several projects involving the development of regional energy, shipbuilding and infrastructure, and the plan listed eighty-four separate initiatives to be explored in relation to the development of the NSR. Among the most prominent of these recommendations was the construction of various vessels, including icebreakers, to improve the economic and search and rescue capabilities of the region, as well as the development of new infrastructure along key sites such as Arkhangelsk, Chukotka, Murmansk and Sabetta.

There was also a call for the development of space-based monitoring of the NSR via new Express (Экспресс) satellites as well as by other similar spacecraft. Some infrastructure projects, including the oft-discussed Belkomur (Белкомур) railway link between Arkhangelsk and central Siberia, (a venture in which China had previously expressed interest in investing), and the dredging of the Ob River to accommodate increased maritime traffic, were to receive final confirmation only after this year.

Critics of the climate Action Plan noted that its release was overdue, given the mounting evidence during the past few years of the direct effects of climate change on the Russian environment, and there was also the question of whether some economic advantages which may appear in the Russian Arctic will be counterbalanced by negative effects elsewhere in the country. At present, Moscow appears intent to intensify its policies towards climate change in Russia, but with adaptation at the forefront while seeking new ways of turning the melting Arctic into a greater financial advantage.

Arctic News Roundup: 6-11 January

København rådhus, Copenhagen [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
By Mingming Shi

1) Prime Minister Kim Kielsen of Greenland, a territory within the sovereignty of Denmark, delivered his 2020 New Year’s speech on the 1st of January. However, the remarks received mixed reactions from the Greenlandic public, including criticism from other political parties, such as Inuit Ataqatigiit (IA), Partii Naleraq (PN) and Demokraterne over the government’s tax policies, visions for the future of the nation, etc., according to KNR, the Greenlandic Broadcasting Corporation.

2) On Tuesday, the government leaders of the three components of the Kingdom of Denmark, namely Prime Ministers of Denmark, Greenland and the Faroe Islands, held a meeting at the Office of the Danish Prime Minister. During the meeting, foreign affairs, security, defence policies, and ways to strengthen cooperation within the Danish realm were discussed, through the lens of growing interest in the Arctic, accas reported by KNR.

3) On the first day of this week, 6 January, the Icelandic Statistics Institute (Hagstofa Íslands), published information on the domestic labour market for the last quarter of 2019. There were around job 2500 vacancies and 229,500 positions which were filled in the past three months. Subsequently, on the same day, the Reykjavík Grapevine, an Icelandic media service published in English, published an article to provide a short analysis on the employment situation based on this news.

4) According to, an Icelandic news service agency, most of the flights from and to Keflavík international airport in Iceland were canceled earlier this week, caused by extreme weather across the country.

5) A new report by the Copenhagen-based Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS), entitled ‘Intensifying on Great Power Politics in the Arctic – Points for Consideration by the Kingdom of Denmark’, was published online this week. The report compares the Arctic policies of the three of the primary global powers (China, Russia, United States), and analyses the current and potential responses of the Nordic countries.

6) A government policy document on climate change and possible adaption of the country was unveiled by the Putin government in Moscow. The plan, published on the website of Russian Government, summarises the impacts of climate change on economic performance, social lives, and other related areas, as well as measures to prepare Russia for changed environmental conditions, according to the Guardian.

7) Norway held an official opening for the Johan Sverdrup field this week, the largest oil deposit in country’s shelf, which began to produce oil and gas since late 2019.  The Norwegian Government is backing the project, including Prime Minister Erna Solberg, and Oil and Energy Minister Sylvi Listhaug. However, there has been criticism of the facilities from the perspective of environmental and climate changes concerns, including from domestic political figures such as Une Bastholm of the Norwegian Green Party, and Greta Thunberg, an internationally known climate activist, according to the High North News.