Hundreds of people from across the country and around the globe are in Anchorage for the Arctic Encounter Symposium, a conference assembling experts in scientific research, resource development, and international policy within the world’s northern latitudes.
But on Thursday, one topic not mentioned on the agenda kept coming up: the implications of Russia’s war in Ukraine for global cooperation in the Arctic.
“As we meet here today, the foundations of the structures that support stability and peace … are being seriously shaken by Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, said Canadian Ambassador to the U.S. Kristen Hillman during remarks to a banquet hall filled with attendees at the downtown Anchorage Dena’ina Center.
“Russia’s barbaric actions have made a mockery of the principles of sovereignty and national integrity,” Hillman added.
She noted that America and Canada have coordinated on military and defense strategy in the Arctic for decades, and the country is currently expanding its presence along its northern border as climate change rapidly alters ice-filled waterways. That includes more over-the-horizon surveillance equipment and modern fighter planes to control airspace. It is increasing its maritime presence through patrol ships and vessel traffic.
“We’re also taking action to make sure we and our allies have the critical minerals we need,” Hillman said, referring to mining for materials used in advanced technologies, including renewable energy equipment. “We can’t have national security without energy security.”
She was hardly the only diplomat to highlight military resources and partnerships, even though the Arctic region has long been lauded as a region of peace and stability when it comes to geopolitics.
Russia currently holds the rotating chairmanship of the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum for cooperation among the eight countries with an Arctic presence. As part of the global backlash against Russia for its brutal invasion and siege of Ukrainian cities, seven members of the Council announced a boycott of council activities. No representatives of the Russian Federation were scheduled to speak as part of the Arctic Encounter Symposium, though officials from the seven other member states are on hand.
“There’s no way we can move on with business as usual,” said Danish Ambassador to the U.S. Lone Dencker Wisborg.
“NATO is increasing its focus on the Arctic, I think it’s natural with tensions rising,” Wisborg said, though qualified that the geopolitical anxiety is a longstanding trend, and Russia’s campaign in Ukraine during the last several weeks has not created a specific new threat to current Arctic security.
The Kingdom of Denmark is part of NATO, and Wisborg said the Arctic member states should have a special responsibility to the region.
“We are increasing our resources in the Arctic,” she said.
That’s true in Finland, as well, which shares a long border with Russia.
“We cannot accept what’s happening in our neighborhood. Shocking, horrible images,” said Tiina Jortikka-Laitinen, Finland’s Ambassador for Arctic Issues. “Nobody thought that we would witness such a situation in Europe. And actually, the whole security order is threatened.”
Though not a formal part of NATO, Jortikka-Laitnen said Finland has long maintained close relations with the military alliance and remains “as close as we can without being a member.” The country is increasing its airspace defense, agreeing last month to purchase 64 American-manufactured F-35 fighter jets in February that will arrive in the coming years. And while Finns do not feel the country is directly threatened by Russia at present, Jortikka-Laitnen said, the current war threatens Europe’s longstanding security architecture.
“NATO’s open door policy is important to us,” she added.
During a separate panel discussion focused on changing fish stocks in the Arctic, U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Nathan Moore said that while military officials operating in Alaska waters are constantly thinking about potential conflicts with Russia, there’s been no functional changes in shared maritime operations as a result of the invasion.
“We still have the ability to work with the Russian border guard,” Moore said. The countries have protocols in place for coordinating on things like oil spill response or mass rescues. “I don’t anticipate that to change at all.”
Even if there is no immediate military conflict in the Arctic that arises from Russia’s aggression, there is still a risk that chilled relations will hamper diplomatic and scientific cooperation in the region at a time when activity and interest are rising.
Russia constitutes around 50% of the landmass in the Arctic, with tremendous influence on transit routes and natural resource extraction. Icelandic Ambassador to the U.S. Bergdís Ellertsdóttir spoke about how if the Russia problem persists, it will stall cooperative conservation efforts to mitigate the worst effects of climate and economic changes.
“It’s a crisis for the Arctic,” Ellertsdóttir said.
The Arctic Encounter Symposium runs through Friday in Anchorage.