The interest in the Arctic region has increased dramatically. Global warming was one of its main prerequisites. The icebergs that once drowned the “Titanic” are defrosting. In Danish Greenland, the melting of island’s ice sheet increased intensity. Permafrost began to thaw in the great spaces of the Russian Far North.
In turn, melting of underwater permafrost in the seas of the Eastern Arctic accelerated twofold compared with the previous century, and reached 18 centimeters per year. As a result, the thinned layer of underwater permafrost came close to the methane zone. This led to the destabilization of the area and massive emissions of the greenhouse gas methane. If this continues, release of only 1% of the methane reserves from the shelf of the seas of the Eastern Arctic into the atmosphere will critically change the climate on the entire planet.
But if geologists, oceanographers, ecologists and many other professions treat the North Pole region as an indicator of current climate change process, then the world’s leading politicians turned their eyes to the Arctic as a zone of potential conflicts.
At Geneva meeting on June 16, 2021, the presidents of the United States and Russia mentioned the Arctic among the many different topics discussed. Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin agreed to hold talks on the Arctic, the delimitation of the lines of influence in the region, possible partial demilitarization of a number of Arctic zones and environmental cooperation.
Since China has become the prevalent direction of US foreign policy, Washington needs to achieve at least temporary stabilization in all other problem areas. The priority of the Biden administration will be the implementation of new strategies to counter the global influence of the PRC (in response to the repression in Hong Kong, to the use of “labor camps” in Xinjiang, daring operations in cyberspace and massive theft of intellectual property). Therefore, it is important for Washington to reduce the growing conflict potential of the Arctic region.
On the one hand, the rapidly melting ice opens up previously unprecedented opportunities in the Arctic for the development of minerals in the coastal zone, on the shelf and at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean. On the other hand, not all the Arctic continental shelf territories have clear boundaries despite they are assigned to the United States, Canada, Russia, Denmark and Norway. Generally speaking, the Russian Federation pins high hopes on the Arctic region regarding the growth of its geo-economic influence, and the United States shall not allow an increase of the Russia’s and China’s influence in the Arctic.
In May 2021, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken made a special northern tour – he visited Denmark, Greenland and Iceland, urging the need to neutralize the increased ambitions of the Russian Federation and China in the Arctic. On May 17, he visited the former US/NATO Keflavik airbase (Iceland) and negotiated the deployment of US Navy P-8 Poseidon Maritime Surveillance Aircraft (although the Pentagon decided to resume operation of this airbase due to the increasing Russian military activity, back in 2015).
On May 19, A. Blinken arrived to Reykjavik, where a meeting of the foreign ministers of the Arctic Council took place which includes eight Arctic countries – five coastal states plus Iceland, Sweden and Finland, as well as six organizations of Arctic indigenous peoples. Today, the Arctic Council is the main platform for resolving issues related to the territories around the North Pole.
During the meeting, the temporary chairmanship of the Arctic Council transited from Iceland to Russia for two years (until May 2023). A draft strategic plan for the Arctic Council for the next 10 years was released. Issues of cooperation between the countries of the region, of coordination of actions for ensuring the development of the Arctic, protection of the environment, culture, traditions and languages of the indigenous peoples of the region were discussed.
Also, eight Arctic Council member states discussed the feasibility of expanding the activities of another international platform – the International Arctic Forum, whose members are the five coastal states of the Arctic region (USA, Canada, Russia, Denmark and Norway), while Iceland, Sweden and Finland are only attempting to become full members of this organization (having the status of observer countries so far).
Although the transition of the two-year chairmanship of the Arctic Council from Iceland to Russia is a routine bureaucratic procedure, the rest of the member countries of this organization are seriously concerned about the Russian Federation’s attempts to use its right to form the current agenda for rough and overt promotion of its own expansionist interests. At least this is how Moscow has been acting on the international arena for the past 7 years. Washington believes that now the Arctic can be another area of geopolitical confrontation alongside those between the United States and the Russian Federation in Syria (and the Middle East), Libya (and Central Africa), Venezuela (and Latin America), and Ukraine (and the post-Soviet space).
The greatest concern in this regard is expressed by the Kingdom of Norway, since Moscow and Oslo are in serious controversies over the Svalbard archipelago. According to international law, Svalbard is part of Norway, however, Russia claims its right of economic exploitation of the polar archipelago and its shelf zone.
The representative of the Russian Federation in the Arctic Council Nikolay Korchunov said that “the Svalbard issue is not multidimensional, since it is not interesting for Canada and the United States. Accordingly, the agenda of the Arctic Council will include those issues which fell within the scope of interest of all eight countries of this organization. That is, issues related to the archipelago will remain the subject of bilateral dialogue between Russia and Norway.” At the same time, it is possible that Oslo will not want to remain one-on-one with an unpredictable and aggressive Moscow and will make every effort to involve both Ottawa and Washington in resolving this issue.
According to both the Norwegian AldriMer newspaper and the Russian liberal opposition Novaya Gazeta newspaper, starting at least from 2016, some armed people regularly appeared in the Svalbard archipelago, which is, like its coastal waters, a demilitarized zone. Moreover, it is alleged that, having changed into civilian clothes, Russian fighters disembarked even on mainland Norway. The outlets referred to four sources in three countries, Norwegian counterintelligence and US intelligence.
The case is regular servicemen of the Russian special forces (from the Armed Forces and “Rosgvardia”), as well as representatives of mercenary formations – PMC Wagner and “Kadyrov’s detachment”.
In particular, we are talking about Chechen militants who are personally subordinate to the odious leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov. A separate webpage on the website of the Russian Special Forces University, the only private university in the Russian Federation, where professional security officials are trained (Chechnya, Gudermes), is devoted to the Arctic exercises of the “Kadyrov’s squad”. In 2018, R. Kadyrov personally bragged about the participation of Chechen fighters in exercises in Murmansk and Franz Josef Land, however, he prudently did not mention his fighters’ illegal visit to the territory of Norway.
The only airport in Svalbard falls under control of Norway. Therefore, the Russian military arrives at the archipelago on the P-650 special-purpose midget submarine submarine, intended for the covert transfer of manpower to the rear of the enemy. This allows them remaining unnoticed for a some time, until the Norwegian authorities will learn about the landing of the Russian troops.
Based on the above, it is quite understandable why the official Oslo is so concerned with Russiaâs two-years presidency in the Arctic Council. At the same time, Norway (as well as other Arctic countries) is likely to place hopes on the US President J. Biden’s preparedness to confrontation with authoritarian Russia, and therefore will prevent it from making any proposals on the current agenda that contradict the interests of democratic states.