Arctic Circle 2022: The Outside World Keeps Walking In

[Photo by Marc Lanteigne]

by Marc Lanteigne

This year’s Arctic Circle Assembly was a near-return to normal operations following previous postponements and restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic. Yet the event could hardly be called ‘business-as-usual’, in the penumbra of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its global effects, including in the far north. Russian participation in the conference this year was almost non-existent, while military security concerns in the Arctic were a common theme amongst many panels as the overall shape of Arctic security continues to be redefined. 

During a speech by Admiral Robert Bauer, Chair of NATO’s Military Committee, in one of the final plenaries of the event, the Ukraine conflict was directly connected to the Arctic, especially as Finland and Sweden were preparing to join the alliance. ‘And soon,’ the Admiral concluded [video], ‘with seven out of eight Arctic states being part of this great alliance, we will do everything we can to make sure the Arctic remains free and open’. In fact, the current geostrategic situation in the far north is now at high risk of going in the opposite direction.

Two inconvenient truths about the current political state of the Arctic which were reflected in the conference this year. First, any vestiges of ‘exceptionalism’ in the region, meaning the Arctic could be effectively separated from outside security concerns, had entirely vanished. Second, the definition of ‘Arctic security’ continues to become more multifaceted in light of the Ukraine conflict, with Russian and NATO interests resulting in more direct policy conflicts in northerly latitudes. 

The hardening of security interests in the Arctic had been reflected earlier this month in Washington’s regional policy paper, ‘National Strategy for the Arctic Region’ [pdf], which sought to rebalance American Arctic policies following the aggressively one-dimensional approach to the region pursued by President Joe Biden’s immediate predecessor. 

Admiral Robert Bauer, Chair of the NATO Military Committee – Military Committee in Chiefs of Defence Session – 19 May 2022 – NATO Headquarters, Brussels [Photo courtesy of NATO]

The strategy consisted of four pillars in defining US Arctic diplomacy, namely security, (protection of the United States and its allies in the Arctic), addressing climate change (with extensive participation from Alaska in developing strategies for mitigation and resilience), sustainable development, (including regional infrastructure and services), and international cooperation and governance, (working with the Arctic Council and ‘Arctic Allies’ to maintain regional regimes). In August this year, the Biden administration also confirmed its interest in appointing an Arctic Ambassador-at-Large. These policy shifts, including the four pillars and how they may fit into larger questions of Arctic cooperation and strategies, were also discussed at length during the Arctic Circle.

One common theme expressed by the panels was that while the Arctic Council is still officially ‘on pause’, work by the membership, minus Russia, was continuing. Yet it remains to be seen whether critical work on addressing the main security challenge in the far north, namely climate change, could effectively continue under current circumstances. Moreover, there was much side discussion about the future of Arctic governance should the divide between the ‘Russian’ and ‘Western’ Arctics drift towards permanence. 

Although Russia’s attack on Ukraine did cast a shadow on the Arctic Circle’s deliberations, several other themes were front and centre at the event, including Indigenous concerns. In her first speech to the assembly, Mary Simon, Governor-General of Canada, from Kangiqsualujjuaq, Québec, and the first Indigenous person to hold that office, discussed [video] the challenges of creating ties amongst Arctic communities and the effects of warming conditions in the north. As well, she spoke about the ongoing campaign by Arctic peoples to ‘advocate for the space and autonomy they need to claim and revitalise culture, language, and knowledge systems’, including in the Canadian North. 

H.E. Rt Hon. Mary Simon, Governor General of Canada [Photo via the Arctic Circle]

Greenland’s Prime Minister, Múte B. Egede, struck a similar tone, as he spoke about ongoing Greenlandic interests in greater international visibility, but that also any dialogue about Greenland must be on Greenlandic terms: ‘nothing about us, without us’ [video]. This stance reflected the fact that Greenland continues to be courted by international actors, especially as interest in the island’s rare earths continues, and that Nuuk remains committed to expanding its foreign policy footprint as it moves towards potential independence from the Kingdom of Denmark. 

Another question about the near-future of the Arctic which generated attention at the conference concerned the ever-complicated relationship between Arctic governments and the growing list of non-Arctic states and organisations seeking a more robust participation in far northern policymaking. The Arctic Circle had frequently served as a showcase for actual and potential observer countries to showcase their regional interests, and on occasion release new policy documents and strategies. This year was no exception, but with the Arctic Council still in abeyance, questions about of the role of observers, (and whether there were any means of appointing new ones to the Council next year), were thrown into much sharper relief. 

Amongst the current observer governments in the Council, China by far continues to receive the most global attention due to its size, economic weight, and ongoing debates over how the country’s interests in the Arctic are evolving in light of vastly more difficult strategic conditions in the region compared with nearly five years ago when Beijing published its own White Paper on governmental Arctic policy. 

Participation by Chinese officials and specialists was more visible at the conference this year, although some presentations were virtual in light of ongoing travel restrictions related to Beijing’s ‘zero-Covid’ policies. The PRC Foreign Ministry’s Special Representative for Arctic Affairs, Gao Feng, spoke [video] in person about his country’s ongoing interests in the far north, but his speech received additional attention as he deferred the question of whether China would continue to engage the Arctic Council if Moscow remained excluded from its deliberations. He also gave a candid response [video] to a question about whether the Chinese People’s Liberation Army had any role in the Arctic. The response was ‘in theory, yes’, given that China was also a member of the United Nations Security Council, but he also stressed that there were no PLA forces currently in the Arctic, rumours notwithstanding. 

After Admiral Bauer completed his speech, he was challenged [video] in the question period by Chinese Ambassador to Iceland He Rulong, who took exception to the NATO official’s remarks on how China along with Russia had become anathemas to the ‘rules-based international order’ in the Arctic. The room became even more animated as the Admiral then directly asked the Ambassador to explain why Beijing had yet to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Not only was the exchange an example of competing narratives, but it also illustrated another inconvenient truth: that worsened relations between America and China were spilling over into matters of Arctic governance, whether the Arctic itself wished it or not. 

In a way, the arrival of Sino-American competition into the Arctic echoes similar concerns raised earlier this year in the Pacific Islands, namely that great power politics may soon overshadow environmental security threats seen as far more pressing to local communities. 

Arctic colours at Harpa, Reykjavík [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]

Several other non-Arctic states were also visible during the assembly’s events, including science panels organised by specialists in Estonia and Ireland, two states which are currently seeking formal observer status in the Council. Estonian president Alar Karis was also a keynote speaker [video] at the event, reflecting on the indistinct lines between Arctic and ‘Arctic-adjacent’ states. The president, noting that Estonia’s status as the ‘northernmost capital below the Arctic Circle’ spoke about three key factors of the region which are also relevant to Estonian interests: human security and the environment in the wake of climate change, the specific contributions which Estonia can make to the Arctic, (including the country’s long history of polar research, specially in environmental studies including in Svalbard, and approaches to sustainable development), and the effects of ‘hard security’ and the war in Ukraine on the far north. 

Representatives from Japan were also involved in discussions about scientific diplomacy in the Arctic, and during the assembly it was formally announced [video] that the Arctic Circle Forum in Tokyo would take place in March of next year, (another forum, to be held in Abu Dhabi on the ‘Third Pole’ and Himalayan geographical studies in relation to the Arctic, is also in preparation, and a forum in Berlin was also confirmed for 2025). Representatives from India also used the assembly as a stage to introduce their own recently published Arctic policy paper [pdf]. 

Singapore, which has often been an active participant in Arctic Track II events despite its decidedly non-polar geography, was discussed [video] during the opening plenaries by the country’s Senior Minister of State – Ministries of Foreign Affairs and National Development, Sim Ann. She explained her country’s expanding Arctic interests as being defined byconcerns over Arctic climate change and the effects of sea level rise on the low-lying island nation, as well as the potential for scientific and technological cooperation between Singapore and Arctic states. In taking questions [video], the Senior Minister added that Singapore’s role as an observer remained crucial despite the pause, given continuing climate change threats, and expressed hopes that dialogue on environmental challenges could be maintained and that a balance could be struck between the global and local aspects of the region.

Sim Ann, Senior Minister of State in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of National Development, Singapore takes questions with Arctic Circle Chair Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson [Photo via the Arctic Circle]

As is now tradition at the assembly, awards were presented near the conclusion of the event, with this year’s Frederik Paulsen Arctic Academic Action Award being given [video] to Professor Hanne H. Christiansen and Associate Professor Marius Jonassen of the Svalbard-based PermaMeteoCommunity project which has sought to build an advanced system to monitor climate chance and permafrost conditions in the far north. The Arctic Circle Prize, which had previously been awarded to former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (2016) and former US Secretary of State John Kerry (2019), was presented this year to representatives of the German Alfred Wegener Institute for their launch of the MOSAiC Expedition in the Arctic by the research vessel RV Polarstern during 2019-20. 

This year’s assembly was estimated to have welcomed over two thousand participants, reflecting ongoing regional and international interest in the Arctic. Discussion about the far north, however, continues to enter new and unexpected territories as external political and security interests attempt to side-door their way into the region. To reverse an often-quoted phrase at the event, what happens outside of the Arctic no longer stays outside of the Arctic. 

[Addendum 5 November 2022 – Additional links to speeches at the Arctic Circle have been added.]

New Article: ‘The Rise (and Fall?) of the Polar Silk Road’

[Photo by Kristaps Grundsteins via Unsplash]

Although the Polar Silk Road (bingshang sichou zhilu 冰上丝绸之路), which has been in development since 2017 and has since been incorporated into the China’s greater Belt and Road Initiative, continues to be perceived as a challenge to the Arctic, in fact the PSR has experienced several obstacles in recent years.

In a new comment in The Diplomat by OtC editor Marc Lanteigne, it’s argued that due to a combination of Arctic regional politics and economic constraints, as well as additional pressures caused by the global pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Polar Silk Road finds itself in uncertain times, and much more limited in scope than previous predictions suggested. Therefore, any discussion of China’s emerging Arctic interests must first take into account what the PSR has and has not accomplished at present.

The Rise (and Fall?) of the Polar Silk Road, by Marc Lanteigne, The Diplomat, 29 August 2022.

The Arctic in a Warming World

[Photo by Marc Lanteigne]

by Marc Lanteigne

The far north has long been considered a barometer for the measurement of global climate change, including via phenomenon such as higher average temperatures, wildfires at ever-higher latitudes, permafrost loss, and reduced ice coverage of the Arctic Ocean, as well as the melting ice sheet in Greenland.

This summer, however, has shaped up to be one of the most graphic illustrations to date about the effects of climate change around the world, starting with heat waves across East Asia (including China), EuropeNorth America, and South Asia. Record temperatures have placed strains on global energy grids as prices for fossil fuels have rebounded (albeit fitfully) due to post-pandemic demand and the effects of sanctions on Russia as a result of that country’s unlawful invasion of Ukraine. 

Conventional wisdom had long maintained that the Arctic was warming at two to three times the international norm, resulting in the effects described above. However, a new open access article in the Nature journal Communications Earth & Environment has concluded that the amplification process in the circumpolar north has resulted in warming rates four times that of the global average since 1979. Moreover, the report suggested that previous examples of climate modelling in the Arctic were not sufficient in describing the overall warming processes. 

The study comes on the heels of an article in another Nature publication, Scientific Reports, from this June which described the Barents region in the European Arctic as being especially affected by warming temperatures, potentially up to seven times that of the international average. 

Specific examples of this phenomenon in northern Europe include record melt rates in Svalbard, affected by warmer air currents from the south. The island group is said to be experiencing a shift away from Arctic weather patterns and towards those consistent with more southernly parts of the Atlantic Ocean. Norway’s Climate and Environment Minister, Espen Barth Eide, who visited Svalbard earlier this month, called these new figures ‘dramatic’ [in Norwegian], and representing further proof of the accelerating pace of climate change in the far north. 

Last month, it was also reported that Greenland experienced a spike in the loss of its own ice coverage, with eighteen tons of water spilling into the Atlantic-Arctic in the space of just three days. The island is finding itself back in the international spotlight as a result of climate change, as the loss of surrounding sea ice would make it easier for extractive industries to operate there. 

While the Greenlandic government of Prime Minister Múte Bourup Egede has placed environmental concerns high on the agenda, implementing green-friendly measures over the past year including suspending plans for a uranium and rare earths mine at Kuannersuit, and implementing a moratorium on oil and gas exploration, Greenland nonetheless remains attractive to outside actors for its mineral wealth. 

Display at Polaria, Tromsø [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]

The growing international demand for ‘critical minerals’, such as rare earths as well as cobaltlithium, and nickel, for green technologies like electric vehicles, has been coupled with concerns about the stability of future supply lines for these minerals. A survey plan, spearheaded by KoBold Metals and the UK’s Bluejay Mining and backed by billionaire CEOs including Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Microsoft’s Bill Gates, has commenced in Greenland’s Disko Bay region in the hopes of finding rich deposits of these raw materials. 

Mining remains a difficult subject in Greenland political circles, as the island continues to contemplate eventual independence from the Kingdom of Denmark, which would require a more diversified economy including potentially in the extractive industries sectors. Yet at the same time the mounting evidence of the effects of global warming in Greenland has raised alarms about the potential damage these industries could cause. Environmental politics are also likely to be on the agenda at the next Arctic Circle Forum meeting, to be held later this month in Greenland’s capital, Nuuk. 

International cooperation on climate change, including in the Arctic, remains tenuous. The Arctic Council remains bifurcated with Russia’s ostracism from the organisation, and there is now discussion about about the other members of the organisation, now often called the ‘A-7‘, can continue to cooperate on environmental issues. As of yet, there is no announced plan to address the transfer of the chair position from Russia to Norway which is scheduled for May of next year.

After much delay, the United States belatedly passed sweeping legislation to address environmental concerns as part of the Inflation Reduction Act. Another US bill [pdf], recently organised by Senators Lisa Murkowski (R – Alaska) and Angus King (I – Maine) would specifically focus on American Arctic policies including an assessment of the country’s regional research programmes along with improving US security and shipping activities in the far north and commencing free trade talks with Iceland. 

However, despite the US’s attempts to return to global climate change dialogue, the suspension by Beijing this month of bilateral climate talks with Washington over Taiwan policies may create aftershocks in combatting environmental damage on the international level. 

The warning lights in the Arctic continue to grow in number as much of the northern hemisphere concludes what has been a summer of weather extremes. Climate change threats continue to be mixed in with politics within the Arctic and well beyond, but the amount of time required to best address said threats is showing every sign of dwindling. 

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.