Arctic

Arctic leaders unsure what Russian aggression means for the region’s future

Arctic Encounter Symposium, Dena'ina Civic and Convention Center

Russia’s invasion and military campaign against Ukraine has destabilized the Arctic order, leaving many who focus on the region to wonder what comes next.

“My view of the future of the Arctic changed on Feb. 24,” said Ambassador David Balton, who leads the U.S.’s Arctic Executive Steering Committee.

“Since Feb. 24, I’m worried. Because some of what made the Arctic special, made it exceptional seems not at hand at the moment. And we need to find a new way forward,” Balton said during a panel discussion Friday.

Policy experts and stakeholders from around the world, along with high-ranking diplomats from seven of the eight Arctic nations, gathered in Anchorage on Thursday and Friday for the Arctic Encounter Symposium. The conference is the U.S.’s largest policy event focused on the Arctic each year and, after years convening in Seattle, was held in Alaska for the first time.

In the days of panel discussions and casual mingling, a recurrent theme came into focus: Russia’s war in Ukraine and the resultant backlash and sanctions have upended the previous geopolitical order in the Arctic, and are ushering in a new phase for the high north. There are major implications that will have direct impacts on the lives of Alaskans, Americans and residents all across the Arctic in the coming years, 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 Sept. 11 attacks, with the potential to reorganize pillars of the world order.

“Maybe there are things we can take from this crisis and make better than before,” he said.

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‘Putin is unifying us’

The Arctic has been militarizing for years, with countries moving more military hardware and capacity toward the region for at least a decade. But the current crisis is accelerating that trend.

Nordic countries are increasing their defense budgets and purchasing advanced American weapons systems, and among those not formally part of the North American Treaty Organization, there is a growing interest in joining, according to diplomats attending the symposium.

“Are we worried? Yes, we’re worried,” said Norwegian Ambassador to the U.S. Anniken Krutnes. “We haven’t seen a spillover so far, but I don’t think you can disconnect the North Atlantic and Arctic from what’s happening in Ukraine.”

Arctic Encounter Symposium, Dena'ina Civic and Convention Center

Norway is one of the countries that has ramped up defense spending, including purchasing new surveillance aircraft and submarines, as well as 52 F-35 fighter jets from the U.S.

“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’re seeing in Ukraine today is a sore and sad disappointment,” said U.S. Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who spoke at a press conference Friday alongside diplomats. “These Arctic neighbors need to stand shoulder to shoulder.”

“What is happening is that instead of dividing us, Putin is unifying us in Finland,” said Finnish Ambassador for Arctic issues Tiina Jortikka-Laitinen. She added that for the first time ever, there is a majority of support among Finns for joining NATO — something that elicited enthusiastic clapping from West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, who was on hand with Murkowski for part of the conference.

Finland has also purchased dozens of F-35s from the U.S., part of a large rise in its domestic budget for defense. The spending is particularly notable given that Finland shares a border with Russia.

“We have had very tight cooperation between our borders,” Jortikka-Laitinen said. “That is all frozen. There’s nothing between our countries right now. It is a new situation.”

‘He’s weaponized energy’

The chilled relations with Russia are reconfiguring trade and energy markets among Arctic nations.

“The government of Greenland has decided to impose sanctions. And there is a price tag to it,” said Minister Kenneth Høegh, head of Greenland representation in the United States and Canada. Greenland annually conducted billions of dollars in trade with Russia, which has now halted.

“That is something we are going to feel, quite hard,” Høegh said.

As a result, Greenland is looking at Canada and New England for expanded trade relations.

“We hope that we can find new markets in terms of what we’re losing,” Høegh said.

Europe relies heavily on Russia for energy, importing huge volumes of oil and gas. That’s meant that even as governments there condemn and sanction Russia’s violence in Ukraine, they continue paying enormous amounts of money for hydrocarbons.

The second-biggest energy supplier to the continent is Norway, and Ambassador Krutnes said Europeans do not currently want the country to slow down oil and gas production.

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“We are doing a green shift. But for the next decade we still need fossils,” Krutnes said.

A European move away from Russian energy supplies may also lead to increased production in the U.S., including on Alaska’s North Slope.

[President Biden banned the importation of Russian crude. What does that mean for Alaska?]

“This is Putin’s war,” Manchin said. “He’s weaponized energy.”

Arctic Encounter Symposium, Dena'ina Civic and Convention Center

Manchin spoke about the need for an American “all-in energy policy” that keeps the U.S. energy independent, and has the potential to benefit and assist allies.

“That’s what we’re striving for,” he said.

‘We cannot put climate change on the back burner’

Originally, Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. was scheduled to attend the Arctic Encounter Symposium, but he notified organizers he was unavailable just days before Russia’s invasion began, according to Arctic Encounter executive director Rachel Kallander.

The country’s absence from diplomatic circles and pariah status in global politics means that ongoing scientific research and policy collaboration in the Arctic is uncertain, just as climate change is transforming the region.

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“We cannot put climate change on the back burner,” said Icelandic Ambassador to the U.S. Bergdís Ellertsdóttir. “We need to find ways to finish the work without Russia.”

Arctic Encounter Symposium, Dena'ina Civic and Convention Center

After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began, seven of the eight members of the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental entity that fosters collaboration among Arctic nations, announced a pause on activities. U.S. State Department Coordinator for the Arctic Jim DeHart said the challenge ahead is how the council can keep collaborative scientific research efforts from withering.

“I think the overarching concern is how do we move forward in a way that doesn’t permanently harm the council,” DeHart said.

Russia is about half of the Arctic. Without them, there will be huge gaps in emergent understandings of sea-ice retreat, fish stocks, navigation routes, weather patterns and other areas of study.

“The uncertainty is really hard to grapple with 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 contend with in the region going forward.

“I see the Arctic 20 or 30 years from now as a much busier place. But also less predictable,” DeHart said. “We have to do something that democracies aren’t very good at, which is plan.”

Zachariah Hughes

Zachariah Hughes covers the military, dog mushing, politics, subsistence issues and general assignments for the Anchorage Daily News. Prior to joining the ADN he worked in Alaska’s public radio network, and got his start in journalism at KNOM in Nome.

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