Geopolitics has reached the Arctic. But it has been there before, during the Cold War, leaving battle scars that can still be seen today – often near Native communities.

At the annual Arctic Frontiers conference held this week in stormy Tromsø, Norway, high-ranking politicians from Norway, Finland, Sweden, and the U.S. all seemed to agree on one thing: that “geopolitics have reached the Arctic.” So proclaimed Maria Varteressian, State Secretary, Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Anu Fredrikson, executive director of Arctic Frontiers, similarly declared, “Polarization has reached the Arctic.” Yet she also stressed the need to build narratives that “unite, not divide.”

Many officials, however, seemed all too keen to trumpet the securitization of the Arctic and the hardening of lines between the so-called “Arctic 7” and Russia. US Deputy Secretary of State Doug Jones observed, “When Sweden joins, 7 of the 8 Arctic nations will be NATO. There will be more NATO in the Arctic. There will also be more Arctic in NATO – it’s going to transform the alliance as well. There will be tremendously more opportunities for integration.”

Treating the Arctic as a sports game, Randy “Church” Kee, Director of the Ted Stevens Center for Arctic Security Studies in Anchorage, Alaska, said that he was “thinking about getting a bunch of jerseys printed with 32 and putting them on people when Sweden joins NATO – celebrating.”

To counter the Western bombast, Professor Oran Young, this year’s winner of the Mohn Prize for excellence in Arctic research, cautioned, “We are in need of a new narrative to guide Arctic cooperation today, one that avoids the simplistic tropes of great power politics.” He characterized the previous period between the collapse of the Soviet Union and Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine as both “the Age of the Arctic” and as a period of “High North, Low Tension.” During that thirty-year interregnum, when there were “no intractable conflicts rooted in the region itself,” he offered that “the Arctic provided an opportunity in the post-Cold War environment to promote east-west cooperation.”

Those chances seem to have largely evaporated following Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. But as an under-the-radar meeting at the Arctic Council illustrated earlier this week, there are still small opportunities to keep ties between people from Russia and the so-called “Arctic 7” states alive.

Kirkenes: A crucial back door for Russian cooperation – and resupply

Norwegian Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide, who is often credited for masterminding Norway’s High North strategy released in 2006, spoke with more nuance about the need to bolster transatlantic cooperation in the north while preserving what remains of pan-Arctic cooperation. He offered, “The U.S. and Canada are just on the other side of the little ocean, which we thought was just ice, but now we realize it’s an ocean. That creates some political opportunities that we also have to reap. We have to develop and maintain, where we can, Arctic cooperation, with full recognition of the new limitations.” That big limitation to circumpolar Arctic cooperation, of course, is Russia, which contains half of the region. That entire half of the Arctic’s territory and population is indefinitely shut out from high-level international Arctic cooperation.

Yet though ties between Moscow and the seven other Arctic capitals are frayed, cross-border ties with Russia persist at lower scales. While there are still no face-to-face meetings of the full Arctic Council, the Permanent Participants are able to gather with in-person representation from Russia.

On Monday in Tromsø, the Chair of the Arctic Council Senior Arctic Officials (SAOC) convened a meeting with groups’ six Permanent Participants, which represent Indigenous Peoples in the Arctic. They discussed the Norwegian Chairship’s program implementation and the Permanent Participants’ activities, along with youth engagement and Permanent Participant involvement in the Arctic Council’s Working Groups, which carry out projects relating to topics such as Arctic monitoring and assessment, search and rescue, and sustainable development.

The meeting was attended in-person by two representatives from the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON): Vice-President Vladimir Klimov, who is based in Tyumen, Russia, and specialist of the RAIPON’s international department, Arina Tadyrova. Valentina Leonova, Vice-Chair of the the Inuit Circumpolar Council (Chukotka), participated online. Klimov noted RAIPON’s ongoing legislative initiatives regarding traditional fishing and hunting, while Leonova spoke about the need to promote Indigenous languages and traditional knowledge. President Vladimir Putin clearly sees this as a non-threatening agenda that he can get behind. During his first-ever official visit to Chukotka last month, where he toured greenhouses and held plump tomatoes in his bloodstained hands, the warmonger spoke about the importance of reviving publishing in languages like Even, Chukchi, and Yukaghir.

The Russian delegates were joined by other leaders of the Permanent Participants and youth representatives as well from the Aleut International Association (Okalena Patricia Lekanoff-Gregory), the Arctic Athabascan Council (Chief Gary Harrison), the Gwich’in Council International (Edward Alexander), the Inuit Circumpolar Council (Sarah Olsvig), and the Saami Council (Hun-Britt Retter).

The current head of RAIPON, Anna Otke, is under EU sanctions, and was therefore unable to represent the organization at the meeting in-person in Norway. Instead, she participated by Zoom. Her very active Telegram page contains propaganda posts such as this one featuring a group of eight reindeer herders in Chukotka chanting praise for Vladimir Putin.

How exactly do Russian representatives travel to Norway?

When I asked one person who attended the Arctic Council meeting how RAIPON’s representatives would have traveled to Norway, they indicated that they crossed the border on foot in Kirkenes and then continued via domestic transportation in Norway. Vladimir Klimov’s VKontakte page corroborates this account, as he reports traveling from Moscow to Kirkenes and then to Tromsø, and then back again via Murmansk and St. Petersburg. One has to wonder how these sort of circuitous travels will work once Denmark takes over as chair of the Arctic Council in May 2025.

The caption for a photo Klimov shared to his Telegram page says, “Tromsø. Norway. 29 January.”

Fortunately for RAIPON representatives, unlike any other Schengen land border with Russia, Norway’s crossing still remains open for Russian citizens to visit for regular travel, leisure, and shopping. Some Norwegians have observed Russians buying machine oil, which they are rumored to be passing on to the Russian military. In November, Thomas Nilsen of the Barents Observer reported that Russians were coming in minibuses and in cars with Belarusian plates (as Russian private vehicles are banned from entering Norway) to buy goods that were repackaged and sent on to the front in Ukraine.

Russian people selling their goods in Kirkenes, back when the border town was even more open. Photo: Mia Bennett, June 2019.

The battle scars of Cold War militarization

With Kirkenes grocery stores turning into Russian resupply stores (and the Arctic University of Norway, in Tromsø, still dealing with the fallout of a Russian spy who posed as a Brazilian researcher), geopolitics has most definitely arrived in the north. Yet this is not the first time that the global war machine has gripped the high latitudes in its steely shackles. On the last day of Arctic Frontiers, during a “Big Picture” session on Arctic security, Swedish representatives talked about the opportunities for local companies in places like northern Finland and Sweden to chip in to the build-up of “total defense capabilities.” Already, one person described, a baker is provisioning the military, while a Sámi company is manufacturing woolen insoles to keep soldiers’ feet toasty.

The warm and fuzzy picture of loaves of rye and knit socks paints a cozy picture of the military as it rears its head once again across the entire Arctic, from North America to Scandinavia to Russia. Yet while the smell of fresh baked will waft away, the military will inevitably leave harsher scars on the landscape. Recalling the traumas of Cold War militarization in the Arctic, Gwich’in Council International Director Edward Alexander reminded, “We need to remember White Alice sites and the impacts on their communities.”

The White Alice Communication System was a series of 80 massive radio stations built across Alaska during the Cold War as part of an early warning system. While WACS was largely decommissioned in the 1970s – in part because satellite communications rendered the gigantic installations obsolete – clean-up and remediation efforts were half-hearted. Fuel-contaminated surface water, for instance, was found openly flowing at one former WACS site in 1994. War never came to the Arctic, but the region still bears deep battle scars.

A White Alice station finally being taken down in 2003, decades after being decommissioned.

At the White Alice site on St. Lawrence Island, Alaska, which Yup’ik people have inhabited for generations, pesticides, carcinogens, flame retardants, solvents, and degreasers were just some of the toxic compounds that the military left behind. Decades after the soldiers went home, these continue to stain the environment. There are over 100 sites of military contamination across Alaska, many of which are near Native communities, as environmental science writer Elizabeth Grossman details.

What kind of Arctic security?

Edward Alexander addresses the audience during a session on Arctic Security at Arctic Frontiers, Tromsø, February 2, 2024. Photo: Mia Bennett.

When we think about making the Arctic safe, secure, and resilient, we need to not only consider national and military dimensions on annual and decadal scales, but ecological dimensions over millennia, too. Edward Alexander, the Gwich’in Council International Director, underscored the importance of securing vitality rather than territory. In his closing off-the-cuff remarks, he noted that when he and his fellow Gwich’in leaders met late last year to discuss security, one type of security took precedence:

“They were talking about the security of the moose in Yukon Flats – the security of moose to access the food they need, the security of caribou, of muskrats. My Sámi friends, they’re always concerned about the ice on the snow, about protecting their reindeer. My Gwich’in friends, they ask: why are they allowing the country to burn up? Why are they allowing this to happen? Why are all of these lives not valued? Where is the respect for all nature?

Animal security, plant security, water security – for fish to continue to exist as they are. It is not about us. Everyone’s always asking the plants and animals to do more for humans. They’ve done enough. We need to ask, what can you do for the communities of the Arctic? Not just the human community but the caribou communities, the reindeer, the fish, the water. All of those things, they intersect with human security as well.”

Categories: Geopolitics


While hard lines are drawn at Arctic Frontiers, cooperation with Russia continues off-stage

  1. Thank you Mia for this great and deep account. For those of us not able to travel to Tromsø this time, this is gold! Please write more.

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