Newsletter: A Year of Polar Lows and Stormy Gales in the Arctic

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo launched a verbal thunderstorm against Russia and China in the lead-up to the Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting. (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

Dear High North News reader! 

The end of 2019 is approaching fast. It has been a year of polar lows as well as stormy gales for those of us who live and work in the Arctic. Both literally and figuratively speaking.

At High North News, we have done our best to write articles and op-eds that reflect reality and point to challenges and possibilities in the High North. Not only from our offices in Norway, but also through traveling to and in Russia, Finland, Iceland, Alaska, Italy, China and Belgium. Our stringers abroad, from California to Siberia, have also made valuable contributions.

Dramatic closing
But first: The issue that dramatically finished last year off has also characterized 2019 in many ways. We are, of course, referring to the Northguider prawn trawler that capsized in the Hinlopen strait on Svalbard between Christmas and New Year 2018. Surprisingly, the accident did not lead to loss of human lives, thanks be to a solid dose of luck and an even greater dose of excellent work by rescue operators. The incident was a given theme during Arctic Frontiers in Tromsø, Norway in January.

The accident as well as the groundbreaking rescue operation also added fuel to the fiery debate about preparedness in the High North, and it has led to specific political initiatives to secure the availability of sufficient and right resources if an incident should occur in areas that are hard to reach and exposed to extreme weather conditions.

Increased tourism in the area is also a factor. In 2021, the world’s first cruise ship holding icebreaker capacities, plans to sail to the North Pole.

We got yet another reminder about how vulnerable we are to a harder and more unpredictable climate in March, when the cruise ship Viking Sky got in trouble at sea on the northwestern coast of Norway. An extensive rescue operation was launched when Viking Sky lost engine power in rough weather, having some 1,300 persons on board. About 470 persons were lifted from the ship with helicopters and brought onto the mainland.

Two good neighbors?
In April, we went to St. Petersburg, Russia for the International Arctic Forum 2019, where both the Russian military buildup and GPS jamming was high on the agenda. At the end of last year, the first messages came that disturbances to GPS signals in Finnmark county, northeastern Norway, were registered near the border to Russia and the Kola Peninsula. In November, the defense minister confirmed that the GPS jamming came from the Kola Peninsula. GPS disturbances fit into a long series of incidents that many argue indicate “a very clear military modernization from the Russian side”, to quote the Norwegian foreign minister, though she does not classify that as a threat towards Norway.

Big heroes, big plans
In April, High North Dialogue took place in Bodø, Norway and guests included Prime Minister Erna Solberg as well as a series of ambassadors from Arctic countries.

At HND, we also saw the launching of major plans for a battery cell factory and a windmill park in Helgeland, which is allegedly to contribute to 2,500 new – and desperately needed – industrial jobs in Northern Norway. There is little doubt that there is a market for battery cells to for instance electronic cars: The el-car market is expected to multiply tenfold by 2030. Demand in Europe will by 2025 reach 400 gigawatt hours.

Then-Minister of Oil and energy in Norway, Kjell-Børge Freiberg, more or less gave a ‘hallelujah’ when introduced to Freyr’s Helgeland plans during the Arendal Week in August.

But then, only this week, Freiberg was replaced with his party colleague Sylvi Listhaug, who as late as in August wrote on her Facebook page that “Windmills are rubbish that litters Norwegian nature”.

To be continued…

Rambo in Rovaniemi
In May, we went to Rovaniemi, Finland to cover the Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting, where the chair of the Council was transferred from Finland to Iceland. The Arctic states’ gathering around a joint strategy for the upcoming two-year presidency has traditionally been a large and important part of these ministerial meetings; a platform defining important priorities and staking out the course for the next two years. However, this year – for the first time ever – no agreement on a joint declaration could be reached.

Why not?

Because the USA refused to sign a joint declaration expressing concerns about climate changes and how they will affect the Arctic future. And because the other seven Arctic states refused to sign a declaration in which this was omitted.

Nevertheless, USA’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stole the show when he in an unannounced speech the day before the official Ministerial Meeting lashed out against both Arctic and non-Arctic states, aiming at both China, Russia and Canada.

Pressure on the Arctic Council
The events in Rovaniemi added fuel to the fire in the debate about whether the Arctic Council carries enough clout to keep the Arctic a region of peace and cooperation, or if a new world order requires adjustments from the Council.

We asked the question: Has the Arctic Council become a paper tiger, powerful on the outside yet ineffective inside?

Another question asked off-stage every now and then is the one of whether the Arctic Council should start addressing security policies.
During the 2019 Arctic Circle conference in Reykjavik, Iceland that question hit the main stage. And both Finland and Iceland were ready to take the debate.

The Arctic Circle Award to John Kerry
The icing on the conference cake in Reykjavik came when John Kerry, US Foreign Minister during the Obama administration, entered the stage and gave a speech for the history books – one that moved us all.

He kicked at the Republicans when he said: “You do not need a PhD to understand that high temperatures are bad news to the sea ice. Yet we have climate deniers in the Senate. And a president who argues that climate change is a Chinese hoax.”

Kerry received the Arctic Circle award for his engagement for the Arctic and his work to establish the Paris Accord. The award itself is an iceberg sculpture; a symbol of the glaciers, the ocean ice and a reminder of what we are about to lose.

However, neither the Arctic Council or climate changes won the party at the world’s largest Arctic conference. Greenland did. A country 52 times bigger than its “owner” Denmark, yet holding fewer inhabitants than your average small town.

At the center of attention
The background for that was, of course, the news about Donald Trump’s wanting to buy the island. Many blew it off as a joke, for instance Denmark’s former PM Lars Løkke Rasmussen, who wrote on Twitter that “This must be an off-season April fools joke”.

One of Greenlands own politicians, premier Kim Kielsen, said during the Arctic Circle that “Greenland is not for sale and cannot be sold”, while Greenlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs tweeted that “we are open for business, not for sale”.

Yet if we look past the jokes and neo-colonial connotations, what makes Donald Trump want to buy Greenland? And what does that say about the US’ interest in and plans for the region? According to Marc Jacobsen, Doctoral Research Fellow at the Arctic Institute and the University of Copenhagen, the idea of buying Greenland should be seen from a geopolitical and geostrategic perspective: Greenland carries an enormous geostrategic significance for both the Arctic as well as the North American continent, and the Americans make it a priority to maintain and possibly also strengthen American presence on the island, while also keeping China at bay.

Greenland, on the other hand, wants to use the attention brought by Trump to continue working for independence from Denmark.

Arctic strategies
“Everyone” want a piece of the Arctic, which is reflected in the fact that an increasing number of countries both in and far outside the Arctic create their own strategy documents for the region, both politically as well as military.

The EU, like so many others, have moved the Arctic high up on its political agenda, in particular because of increased Chinese and US interest in the region. The EU will be updating its Arctic strategy and this process was greenlighted in December.

In Norway, a series of leaks from the upcoming Arctic whitepaper appeared during the Arendal Week. But the difficult relationship with Russia makes this a challenging job.

Scotland refers to itself as the “European gateway to the Arctic”.

Germany focuses on taking more responsibility and introducing more limitations on the Arctic.

Switzerland refers to itself as a “vertical Arctic” state in its polar policy, where lines are drawn between the altitudes of the Alps and the Arctic.

Canada launched, quietly and without any pomp, a new framework for its Arctic policy just one day before the election campaign period kicked off. That provoked many, as it kept politicians from commenting on the policy.

And in October, France launched its updated defense strategy for the Arctic, in which they compare the Arctic to the Middle East. And claim that the region belongs to no-one.

At the same time, well-established and strong multilateral forums appear to be crumbling as more and more states withdraw from multilateral forums and agreements in order to rather manage conflicts on a bilateral basis.

Both Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron have openly criticized NATO, which recently celebrated its 70th anniversary. The meeting was once again characterized by heads of state who lash out at each other, both politically and personally.

The UN’s climate conference in Madrid ended without agreement on the most important issues for reaching the goals of the Paris Accord.

The EU is about to lose Great Britain, and who knows who will join once Brexit is over?

Ice-cold triangle
Thus, the scene is set for an ice-cold triangular relationship between the USA, Russia and China – and the Arctic is their ‘battlefield’.

In the American national defense strategy from 2018, the main focus is on a long-term strategic power struggle with China and Russia. The Americans do not like having their superpower status challenged, yet that is exactly what has happened in the Arctic.

Russia has established itself as the strongest and most pro-active Arctic nation. 

When American soldiers participate in NATO exercises on Norwegian soil, Russia reacts strongly and responds by pulling its own exercises much closer to the Norwegian coast than before.

In 2018, China published its first Arctic strategy, a warning that China wants to play a part. The country is also heavily involved with both infrastructure projects and research in the region.

China is the wild card
China was the undisputed buzz word during the Arctic Futures Symposium in Brussels, Belgium in November. It was clear that some argue that we must talk (even) more about China, whereas others argue that we talk too much about it already.

China also dominated the debate during the Halifax International Security Forum in Nova Scotia, Canada.

In November, the Danish military intelligence service published its 2019 risk assessment report, which argues that some of Chinas building up knowledge about the Arctic and its capacity to operate in the Arctic will take place in collaboration between civilian and military actors.

The USA is trying to bring other countries on board in its having a stronger policy of interest towards  China, last observed during the recent NATO summit in London, where the USA announced beforehand that it wanted NATO to express concern about China’s entering the Arctic.

However, a NATO offensive against China, which may bring the great power closer to Russia, may potentially lead to an already difficult balancing act growing even more difficult: Norway should both stay on good terms with the USA while not being shut out from China and also maintaining attention to Russia.

In a June 2019 whitepaper about Norway’s role and interests in multilateral cooperation, Norway expresses concern about superpower rivalry and pressure on international organisations.

Real-life spy novel
It is as if it were a Cold War spy novel, the story about Frode Berg, the Norwegian border inspector who was arrested for espionage in Russia two years ago. The fact that the “two good neighbors” spy at each other is not news to anyone. Norway has spied on the Russian defense for 70 years. However, with Frode Berg it went catastrophically wrong.

Following 23 months in Russian prison, Frode Berg arrived back home in Norway recently, following a prisoner exchange between Lithuania and Russia. And he did not mince his words when talking about the military intelligence services: “I am convicted of espionage, but I am not a spy” he said during a press conference. He further claimed he was tricked into playing a game the consequences of which were not known to him.
This story probably has at least two sides. Whether or not the intelligence services’ version will ever be made public is not given. But there is no doubt that there will be a political settling of scores outside the public limelight.

The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the globe. A consequence of diminishing sea ice is the fact that new sea routes become available – for better or worse.

An increasingly ice-free Arctic will open the sea route between for instance China and Russia and make transport between the two countries significantly shorter than what is the case today. The Chinse will in fact be able to save two weeks when transporting goods through the Northern Sea Route compared with the Suez Canal. They will also avoid narrow straits controlled by India and the USA, who are not exactly their closest allies, and can rather go through the friendlier Russia.

However, then CMA CGM – the world’s fourth-largest container shipping company – announces that it will not operate in the Arctic due to environmental concerns. The company’s decision came in the wake of French president Emmanuel Macron’s discouraging use of new shipping routes in the Arctic. Other major shipping companies, including Germany’s Hapag-Lloyd follow suit. And big brands like Nike decided to boycott shipping companies that ship through the polar seas, and encourage others to do the same.

Liberation anniversary
25 October 2019 marked the 75th anniversary for the Soviet Union’s Red Army marching across the border of East Finnmark in Norway, which was the beginning of the end of the German occupation of Norway’s northernmost county.

The event was duly celebrated in Kirkenes, and guests included HRH King Harald V, Prime Minister Erna Solberg, Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide as well as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov – amongst others. High North News was, of course, also there.

Meetings with people
However, at High North News we did not only cover big politics and accidents. Throughout the year, we have met with wonderful people who live and work north of the Arctic Circle.

In May, we visited Russian Nikel in relation to the celebration of Victory Day, which marks the end of WW2. We met with 86-year old Maria Kiselyeva, who was just a little girl when she lost both her parents at the outbreak of the war.

In October, we followed in the footmarks of the Red Army, which in the fall 75 years ago liberated eastern Finnmark from German occupation. Our journey started in Murmansk and an interview with war veteran Pavel Losnov (93). We also met with enthusiastic volunteers who every summer dig out fallen soldiers from the bloody battles on the Litsa front in order to allow them an honorable burial.

In Shies, Russia, the construction of an enormous waste landfill in a forest in the Russian High North has spared an engagement never seen before – one that in the longer term may have consequences for the Russian political elite. We visited their tent camp and met with a.o. Yuri Alekseyevitch Shigaryev (59), who is member of a small group of well-organized protesters from all layers of society, who will not give in until they are physically carried away.

And on SvalbardNorwegian Hilde Fålun Strøm and Canadian Sunniva Sørbye have spent 90 out of 270 days of their overwintering stay.

Even further north, polar explorers Mike Horn and Børge Ousland have crossed the polar ice cap, skiing from the far eastern Russian side across the North Pole to the ice edge near Svalbard while the ice was literally breaking under their feet. At present, the two have been on board the former research vessel Lance for about two weeks – and the ship is currently stuck in sea ice.

We have also been to Vladivostok, meeting with a.o. North Norwegian Lars Sundquist and three Norwegian companies that are at the starting line of bringing home money from the enormous, yet sanctioned Russian market – in a time when Norwegian-Russian business cooperation is plummeting. True, French President Emmanuel Macron has succeeded in bringing together the leaders of two Slavic neighboring countries for the first time since 2016; however, there is still a long way to go before there is a solution to the conflict that has caused a deep crisis in trust between Russia and the West.

This year, we also introduced our brand-new longread format with its rather delicate design, if we dare say so ourselves.

In addition to the above-mentioned longread from the Shies, Russia garbage demonstrations and the women who are overwintering at Svalbard, we have published the following longreads:

Make Vardø Great Again
Why President Trump’s Idea of Buying Greenland is No Joke
The Town of Bodø Could Be the First Arctic European Capital of Culture
Cyber Defense: The Glue and Digital Armor of the Armed Forces
The North Pole: That Great Center
Fight Against Ocean Plastic May Secure Norway UN Influence
Most widely read
Our top 3 stories this year are:

  1. New Satellite Images Reveal Extent of Russia’s Military and Economic Build-Up in the Arctic
  2. Crossing the North Pole, Ice Breaking Under Your Feet
  3. China to Use First Atomic Icebreaker as Test for Future Nuclear Aircraft Carriers

Editor at Large
Our Editor-in-Chief Arne O. Holm was a guest when Norwegian broadcaster NRK and Hurtigruten last summer sailed around Svalbard to record a minute-by-minute show that is to air in February, as that marks the 100th anniversary for the Svalbard Treaty.

He also went to Alaskawhere tax revenues from marihuana sales is the highlight of a rather gloomy presentation of the economy of the American state, and also accounts for the largest relative job growth

And towards the end, Holm nominates this year’s winners and loser when he writes: “At the end of a year in which the military industry wins and the Truth loses, I chose to cling to the belief that the Arctic fellowship is stronger than the wedges that some try to squeeze into it.
And that concludes our final newsletter of 2019.

We wish you all the best for Christmas and the New Year!
Siri Gulliksen Tømmerbakke
News Editor, High North News



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