A Line Drawn Here: Arctic Boundaries Shift in a Time of Conflict

Press conference by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Finland, Pekka Haavisto, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Sweden, Ann Linde following the signature of the NATO Accession Protocols for Finland and Sweden [Photo via NATO]

by Marc Lanteigne

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine entered its fifth month, and with little sign of a resolution, Arctic governments in the West have continued to pursue different avenues of cooperation to respond to the aggression of the Putin regime. The question of when and how the Ukraine conflict may spill over more directly into the Arctic is an omnipresent concern throughout Europe and North America, and these worries have manifested themselves into a redrawing of various borders in the far north, including in some unexpected places. 

Finland and Sweden have continued to pursue fast-track membership in NATO, which if successful would place all Arctic governments save Russia within the alliance, and place the far north as a higher priority for the organisation. Canada was the first country to ratify the two states’ NATO applications, while previous opposition from the Recep Erdoğan government in Turkey (Türkiye) was dropped, (at least for now), after successful negotiations on the eve of the NATO summit in Madrid earlier this month.

Moscow’s response to the two Arctic nations’ NATO bid has been mixed, seemingly accepting of their probable accession, but also warning that Russia would ‘respond in kind’ if new military contingents and infrastructure were stationed in the two countries. Finland shares a 1330km border with Russia, and Helsinki had confirmed last month that it would be fortifying that frontier with various additional barriers.

In addition to land borders, the two applications also serve to push various security concerns in the Baltic Sea and Nordic-Arctic region closer together. For example, Russia maintains an enclave, Kaliningrad (Калининград), with a population of approximately 475,000, which is bracketed by Lithuania and Poland by land. This territory would be surrounded by sea with NATO member states should Helsinki and Stockholm be successful in their bids.

Flags of Lithuania and Ukraine in Vilnius [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]

Relations between Lithuania and Russia chilled further last month after the former sought to enforce European Union sanctions on Moscow by restricting land-based shipments of goods from Russia proper to Kaliningrad via Lithuanian territory, a move which Russian official decried as tantamount to a blockade. However, this week the EU Commission stated that rail shipments to Kaliningrad from Russia would be permitted (with checks) save for weapons transfers, and Vilnius confirmed that it would abide by that decision, while stating that ‘Lithuania continues to advocate for the stricter and broadest possible modalities of the application of the EU sanctions’. 

The Swedish island of Gotland (population 60,000) in the Baltic Sea has also been cited as a potential hotspot in the wake of NATO-Russia tensions. In mid-June, Finland and Sweden joined fourteen NATO member states, (including the US, Britain, Norway and the three Baltic nations), in the exercise Baltic Operations (BALTOPS 22), which involved manoeuvres on Gotland.

The island, which lies in the north-central part of the Baltic Sea, had previously been demilitarised, but that policy had been reversed over the past five years, in light of growing concerns about the vulnerability of Gotland to Russian aggression, given its location between Sweden and the Baltic states, (all three of which have recently called upon NATO to supply increased troop numbers, given their specific vulnerabilities to Russian attack).  

A Swedish Army CV-90 infantry fighting vehicle moves down a road on the Swedish island of Gotland on 7 June during Exercise BALTOPS 22. [Photo via NATO]

Each of these examples have illustrated the growing strategic ties between the Baltic and European Arctic regions because of NATO’s expansion and mutual concerns over Moscow’s longer-term plans. As a senior Latvian government official noted this week, ‘Russia is also “throwing” challenges to the north, in the Arctic,’ and that the addition of Finland and Sweden into the alliance will strengthen the security of both regions. Latvia, as well as Estonia, are seeking formal observer status in the Arctic Council, which is itself having to maintain its operations with ties cut between Russia and the other seven members. 

A more esoteric change in the Arctic’s frontiers was also confirmed late last month when the nearly half-century dispute between Canada and Denmark was finally settled with an agreement to create the world’s northernmost international border on Hans Island (Tartupaluk / ᑕᕐᑐᐸᓗᒃ), which had been claimed by both states as part of their respective Arctic lands. The uninhabited island, with an area of only 1.3 square kilometres, lies in the Kennedy Channel right on the maritime border, agreed to in 1973, between Nunavut’s Ellesmere Island and the western coast of Greenland.

For decades, Copenhagen and Ottawa pressed their claims to the rocky outcropping in often-unusual ways, including leaving national flags and bottled of local libations on the rocky islet, (which is why the dispute was often called the ‘Whisky War’). 

Danish flag raised at Hans Island, 2003 [Photo by Per Starklint via Wikimedia Commons]

While negotiations between the two governments over the ultimate status of the island was amicable, the talks were also becoming increasingly pressing given the opening up of the Arctic due to ice erosion, with both parties sensitive to not being perceived as being too conciliatory given the importance of Arctic sovereignty to both governments. The border option was one of two potential solutions to the disagreement, with the other being a ‘condominium‘ option, referring to joint stewardship.

The resolution of the Hans Island dispute was negotiated by both governments along with Inuit representatives in Nunavut and the government of Greenland, (under the 2009 Self-Rule Act [pdf] between Denmark and Greenland, the former retains authority over Greenlandic foreign affairs, including border negotiations). Freedom of movement on the island would also be guaranteed for local populations in Nunavut and the Avanersuaq region of Greenland.

The new boundary, running relatively north-to-south, would be about 1.28 kilometres in length and grant Denmark about sixty percent of the island’s land area. Lingering disputes over the demarcation of the Labrador and Lincoln Seas were also resolved at the same time. This would be the first land border Canada has ever had with Europe.

In 2018, a task force had been established to finally resolve the Hans Island dispute, and the announcement of the agreement last month took on new meaning in light of Russia’s attack of Ukraine. There were many comments on the symbolism of peacefully resolving longstanding territorial differences in the Arctic at time when Russia was pursuing an invasion and flouting international law.  

The concept of ‘one Arctic’ which was free of most political concerns had been fast dissipating over the past decade, as the region began to become economically attractive to many Arctic (and non-Arctic) actors. However, this process has accelerated since the Ukraine conflict and severed Russian diplomatic relations with most of the West. The shifting of cooperation patterns around the far north is just the latest illustration how just how much the political landscape on the region has been changing, and at such a rapid pace.

And Then There Were Seven: The Arctic Council Carries On- Minus Russia

The Fram Centre, home of the Arctic Council Secretariat, in Tromsø, Norway [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]

by Marc Lanteigne

Since early March of this year, the Arctic Council and its agencies, including the Working Groups which focus on various environmental and safety initiatives, have been placed ‘on pause’ as a response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. With Russia holding the rotating chair of the Council until May 2023, when the position is still expected to be passed to Norway, the organisation became the Schrodinger’s Cat of Arctic diplomacy, in the sense that it was both active and inactive at the same time. 

As far as Moscow is concerned, the decision by the other Council members to suspend operations was ‘politicised and clearly irrational’ [in Russian]. The Russian government has also since stressed that it was nonetheless dutifully carrying out its chairing responsibilities despite the withdrawal of the other members. In reality, official meetings have been cancelled, and important work, including addressing ongoing climate change challenges in the Arctic and providing a platform for Indigenous peoples’ cooperation, has been largely suspended.

During the spring, debates intensified, including during the recent Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromsø, over how long the Council could operate under these circumstances, and whether some sort of attempt at a low-level engagement with the Russian government would be undertaken to keep cross-regional cooperation operating, even at a minimal level. 

Instead, a decision was made last week by the other seven members of the organisation to restart some deliberations without Russian involvement. Now, the question is whether the Council will ever be able to return to the pre-2022 status quo, or will we see the beginning of a bisected Arctic, with Moscow going its own way. Regardless of the longer-term security situation in Europe, the reputation of Arctic organisations as being able to withstand external political pressures may be broken beyond repair. Moreover, as the Arctic becomes of greater strategic concern to many governments, and with Finland and Sweden having formally applied for membership in NATO, (albeit with Turkey/Türkiye still expressing reservations about the bids), the concept of the far north being separated from military affairs since the end of the cold war has also faded. 

In a joint statement by the governments of Canada, the Kingdom of Denmark (including Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and the United States, released on 8 June, there would be a ‘limited resumption’ of Arctic Council projects without the participation of the Russian Federation. Although there were no specifics as to which projects were to be revived, the statement added that there would be a focus on ‘responsibility to the peoples of the Arctic, including Indigenous peoples’, and that ‘additional modalities’ would be reviewed to further the work of the Council. 

Russia is the largest Arctic state, with the longest coastline on the Arctic Ocean, and its activities impact the greater Arctic region in many ways, so regional cooperation without Russian participation will be a challenge. Even before the invasion of Ukraine, political divisions between Moscow and the ‘Arctic Seven’ (A7) had been widening for the past decade. Moscow has been critical of the decision made by the Finnish and Swedish governments to apply for NATO membership, with Russia’s Senior Arctic Official, Nikolai Korchunov, stating that the expansion of the alliance would result in ‘certain adjustments in the development of high-altitude cooperation’. 

In the wake of the announcement by the A7 that Council activities would recommence without Russian participation, the country’s Minister of Natural Resources, Alexander Kozlov, decried [in Russian] the decision as illegitimate and potentially leading to ‘serious consequences, a sentiment echoed by Russia’s Ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, who said that any decisions taken by the Council without Russian participation would be ‘illegal’ in nature. 

Both the initial suspension of the Arctic Council and the decision to resume activities without Moscow have created ripple effects in regional politics as well as internationally. It was reported that the organisation’s Permanent Participants, namely the Indigenous peoples’ organisations throughout the Arctic, were not consulted on the restart decision.

Circumpolar Arctic map at Polaria, Tromsø [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]

The Ukraine conflict, and the split within the Council, has affected Indigenous cooperation in the Arctic, as the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (Ассоциация коренных, малочисленных народов Севера, Сибири и Дальнего Востока Российской Федерации or RAIPON) had issued a statement [in Russian] in support of Russian actions in Ukraine, (a decision sharply criticised by representatives of Russian Indigenous organisations outside of the country. 

The status of the Working Groups under current circumstances is also unclear, which not only has implications for environmental cooperation but also for diplomacy between Arctic and non-Arctic governments, as there are thirteen observer governments within the Council whose activities are largely centred on Working Group activities. It is also uncertain how new applications for formal observer status will be addressed when the chair position is scheduled to be transferred to Oslo. Two Baltic states, Estonia and Latvia, are amongst those seeking observer positions in 2023.  

The rapid changes to the structure of the Arctic Council are only some of the many signs that the Ukraine conflict has prompted the emergence of, as David Balton of the White House Arctic Executive Steering Committee noted at the 2022 Arctic Frontiers event, different ‘constellations’ of cooperation in the far north. NATO’s role in the Arctic may soon expand considerably, other regional organisations, such as the Euro-Arctic Barents Council and the Arctic Coast Guard Forum, have been affected by the diplomatic fallout from the invasion, and official Russian participation in Track II events in the Arctic has also been curtailed. 

At the same time, cooperation amongst the A7 nations may also be undergoing a transformation. Last week it was announced that after decades of negotiations, the Canadian and Danish governments were set to announce a resolution to the Hans Island / Tartupaluk sovereignty dispute which would entail a land border being placed on the small Arctic islet.

It was also announced last month that the United States was seeking to significantly increase investment in its military facilities at Thule in northern Greenland, in light of concerns over the security of the Atlantic-Arctic region. Washington has also deepened military cooperation with Norway, including via an agreement allowing US forces to make more extensive use of military facilities in the Norwegian north, (the Ramsund Naval Base at Tjeldsund and Evenes Air Station at Nordlund). 

It is too soon to tell whether Arctic governance will become balkanized in the longer term, but at present the Russian attack on Ukraine may have inexorably affected Arctic diplomacy in new and sometimes unpredictable ways. 

‘Nor Night Nor Day No Rest’: Arctic Diplomacy Divided (and United)

The main stage at the May 2022 Arctic Frontiers Conference, Tromsø [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]

by Marc Lanteigne

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.

Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt speaks at the Arctic Frontiers Conference, May 2022 [Photo by David Jensen, Arctic Frontiers]

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.

Virginijus Sinkevičius, EU Commissioner for the Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, speaking at the Arctic University of Norway, Tromsø, May 2022 [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]

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.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg receives official letters of application to join NATO from Klaus Korhonen (Ambassador of Finland accredited to NATO) and Axel Wernhoff (Ambassador of Sweden accredited to NATO), 17 May 2022 [Photo via the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation]

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.

Kaja Kallas, Prime Minister of Estonia, speaking at the 2022 Lennart Meri Conference [Photo by Arno Mikkor, Lennart Meri Conference]

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.

Olha Stefanishyna, Deputy Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration of Ukraine, speaks virtually at the 2022 Lennart Meri Conference [Photo by Arno Mikkor, Lennart Meri Conference]

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.

Arctic News Roundup: 25 April – 1 May

l-r: Pekka Haavisto (Minister of Foreign Affairs, Finland) with Ann Linde (Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sweden) and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, April 2022 [Photo via NATO]

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