Arctic leaders unsure what Russian aggression means for the region’s future
Russia’s invasion and military campaign against Ukraine has destabilized the Arctic order, leaving many who focus on the region wondering what’s next.
“My vision for the future of the Arctic changed on February 24,” said Ambassador David Balton, who heads the United States Arctic Executive Steering Committee.
“Since February 24, I have been worried. Because some of what made the Arctic special, made it exceptional doesn’t seem within reach right now. And we have to find a new way forward,” Balton said during a roundtable on Friday.
Policy experts and stakeholders from around the world, as well as senior diplomats from seven of the eight Arctic countries, gathered in Anchorage on Thursday and Friday for the Arctic Encounter Symposium. The conference is the largest political event in the United States focused on the Arctic each year and, after years of convening in Seattle, was held in Alaska for the first time.
In the days of roundtables and informal gatherings, a recurring theme emerged: Russia’s war in Ukraine and the resulting backlash and sanctions have upended the previous geopolitical order in the Arctic and ushered in a new phase for the Far North. There are major implications that will directly impact the lives of Alaskans, Americans, and residents across the Arctic in the years to come, ranging from defense spending to trade to travel.
Balton called the current moment an inflection point for the world, comparable to the end of the Soviet Union or the September 11 attacks, with the potential to reorganize the pillars of the world order.
“Maybe there are things we can learn from this crisis and do better than before,” he said.
“Putin unites us”
The Arctic has been militarizing for years, with countries moving more military equipment and capabilities to the region for at least a decade. But the current crisis is accelerating this trend.
Nordic countries are increasing their defense budgets and buying advanced US weapons systems, and among those not officially part of the North American Treaty Organization there is growing interest in joining, diplomats say participating in the symposium.
“Are we worried? Yes, we are worried,” Norwegian Ambassador to the United States Anniken Krutnes said. “We haven’t seen any spillover so far, but I don’t think you can disconnect the North Atlantic and the Arctic from what’s happening in Ukraine.”
Norway is one of the countries that has increased its defense spending, including buying new surveillance planes and submarines, as well as 52 F-35 fighter jets from the United States.
“That’s where the oil money goes,” Krutnes said wryly.
“It’s for deterrence, it’s for defensive purposes,” she said.
“This genocide that we are witnessing today in Ukraine is a painful and painful disappointment,” said Republican United States Senator Lisa Murkowski, who spoke at a press conference on Friday alongside diplomats. “These Arctic neighbors must stand side by side.”
“What’s happening is that instead of dividing us, Putin is unifying us in Finland,” Finnish Ambassador for Arctic Affairs Tiina Jortikka-Laitinen said. She added that for the first time ever, there is a majority of Finns in favor of NATO membership – which drew enthusiastic applause from West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, who was on hand with Murkowski for part of the conference.
Finland has also bought dozens of F-35s from the United States, as part of a big increase in its national defense budget. The expenses are particularly notable given that Finland shares a border with Russia.
“We had very close cooperation across our borders,” Jortikka-Laitinen said. “Everything is frozen. There is nothing between our countries at the moment. It is a new situation. »
“He’s an energy weapon”
Chilled relations with Russia are reconfiguring trade and energy markets between Arctic nations.
“The Greenland government has decided to impose sanctions. And that comes at a price,” said Minister Kenneth Høegh, Head of Representation for Greenland in the United States and Canada. Greenland used to do billions of dollars in trade with Russia every year, which has now ceased.
“It’s something we’re going to feel, pretty hard,” Høegh said.
As a result, Greenland is looking to Canada and New England to expand its trade relations.
“We hope we can find new markets in terms of what we are losing,” Høegh said.
Europe is heavily dependent on Russia for energy, importing huge volumes of oil and gas. This means that even though governments there condemn and sanction Russia’s violence in Ukraine, they continue to pay huge sums of money for hydrocarbons.
The continent’s second-largest energy supplier is Norway, and Ambassador Krutnes said Europeans do not currently want the country to slow oil and gas production.
“We are going green. But for the next decade, we still need fossils,” Krutnes said.
A European move away from Russian energy supplies could also lead to increased production in the United States, including on the North Slope of Alaska.
[President Biden banned the importation of Russian crude. What does that mean for Alaska?]
“This is Putin’s war,” Manchin said. “He is an armed energy.”
Manchin spoke of the need for a US “comprehensive energy policy” that maintains US energy independence and has the potential to benefit and assist allies.
“That’s what we’re looking for,” he said.
“We cannot put climate change on the back burner”
The Russian ambassador to the United States was originally scheduled to attend the Arctic Encounter symposium, but he informed organizers that he was unavailable just days before the Russian invasion began, according to Rachel Kallander , executive director of Arctic Encounter.
The country’s absence from diplomatic circles and its status as a pariah in global politics means ongoing scientific research and policy collaboration in the Arctic is uncertain, just as climate change is transforming the region.
“We cannot put climate change on the back burner,” said Iceland’s Ambassador to the United States, Bergdís Ellertsdóttir. “We have to find ways to finish the job without Russia.”
After Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, seven of the eight members of the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental body that encourages collaboration among Arctic nations, announced a pause in their activities. US State Department Arctic Coordinator Jim DeHart said the challenge is how the council can keep collaborative science research efforts from withering away.
“I think the overriding concern is how do we move forward in a way that doesn’t permanently harm the board,” DeHart said.
Russia represents about half of the Arctic. Without them, there will be huge gaps in emerging knowledge about sea ice retreat, fish stocks, shipping lanes, weather, and other areas of study.
“Uncertainty is really hard to manage here,” said Dalee Sambo Dorough, international chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council. “I don’t know what the solution is.”
With climate change accelerating in the Arctic, diplomats and researchers agree that the crisis in Europe means yet another major variable to confront in the region in the future.
“I see the Arctic in 20 or 30 years as a much busier place. But also less predictable,” DeHart said. “We have to do something that democracies are not very good at, which is to plan.”