Russia provokes in the Arctic

Green men in the snow: Screenshot of a Russian “Victory Parade” on May 9th in Barentsburg Picture: Alexander Teterin/VK Video

The Arctic was once considered a model for cooperation between East and West in times of crisis. But Russia has upgraded and is self-confidently provoking the other states.

At first glance, the march looks like a military parade. A helicopter hovers over the motorcade, large Russian flags wave from the windows of the black cars, and the men on the snowmobiles wear green suits. A “victory parade” took place not only in Moscow on Tuesday, but also in Barentsburg. This is on Svalbard and, like the entire archipelago, is a demilitarized area. A video of it was shared by the Russian Ministry for the Development of the Far East and the Arctic on Telegram. According to local media, the operation was carried out by employees of the Russian state mining company Arktikugol, which has a monopoly on the site.

Actions of this kind are fueling concerns about increasing tensions in the Nordic countries Russia, especially in the Arctic. The incident is “worrying”, but fits into the development of recent years: Russia is massively arming itself in the Arctic region and is making increasing claims, says Tobias Etzold, who researches at the Norwegian Institute for Foreign Policy in Oslo.

Far north, low voltages

Spitsbergen has belonged to Norway since 1920. However, other states that have signed the archipelago treaty are allowed to use the area commercially and for research purposes. The region is regarded as a model of peaceful international cooperation. The Arctic Council, of which the neighboring countries are members, discussed the urgent issues that arise in the region, primarily due to climate change.

There was cooperation in the Far North, regardless of what was going on in the rest of the world. High North, low voltages, it was always said. There was talk of the “Arctic exception”. But that’s all over since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Cooperation in the Arctic Council, which Russia currently chairs, is suspended. Norway will take over the presidency from this Thursday, but has already announced that it will not resume cooperation.

Russia is mining in Barentsburg, and many Russians and Ukrainians work there. For a long time this went largely without tension, but the war and the sanctions also have consequences here. On a small scale, since Russian bank cards no longer work at Norwegian ATMs. And also on a large scale, because many people have now left the Russian-influenced place. “Ukrainians, but also Russians who oppose the invasion, are all gone,” says a Russian woman who now lives in Longyearbyen on Svalbard on the phone.

Russian fishing boats spy

In the Nordic countries there are almost daily reports about the danger posed by Russia in the region. It is about espionage by Russian “research ships” and fishing trawlers. The latter are said to be responsible for cutting cables to Spitsbergen in late 2021/early 2022. Only on Tuesday did the national authority for Norwegian security warn that the country’s gas, electricity and electronic communications lines were at risk of sabotage.

Militarily, the attitude towards Russia in the region is meanwhile becoming much tougher. This year, for example, the multinational military exercise called the “Arctic Challenge” in northern Europe is bigger than ever. This time around 150 military aircraft are to take part from the end of May, including exercises on the Russian border. In principle, however, the region has fallen behind militarily compared to Russia.

Pekka Toveri, Major General of the Finnish Army and Member of Parliament in Helsinki, says the West has behaved “naively” in the Arctic, Russia has never kept promises on climate protection, for example, but has massively upgraded its military and carried out a series of provocations. In a recent paper with researchers from the Finnish Institute for International Affairs (FIIA), Toveri wrote that Russia has systematically exploited the paradigm of “Arctic exceptionalism” to “outmaneuver” the West in the region. The mantra of the exception in the far north is a “trap”. The West’s hope for multilateral cooperation helped keep NATO out of the region. Western military capabilities in the region are about “ten years behind those of Russia.”

Russia must be “escorted out”

Toveri now says it is necessary to show the Kremlin that it has to pay a price for its provocations. “The only language that Russia understands is that of strength.” If the country does not behave accordingly and, for example, hold military-style parades in the demilitarized zone on Svalbard, the Russians will have to be “escorted out”. The stationing of significantly more NATO troops in the far north is necessary, and the alliance finally needs a plan on how to defend the Arctic. It is unpredictable when there will be cooperation with Russia again.

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Researcher Etzold says that geography alone makes it difficult to avoid talking to Russia about Arctic issues in the long term. “Many problems in the region can only be solved together with Russia.” In the long term, the costs of a lack of cooperation could also be high, for example if China becomes a stronger player. He points out that the Arktikugol mining company recently announced that Russia, in cooperation with the other countries of the BRICS group (Brazil, India, China and South Africa), wants to set up an international research station on Svalbard.

Source: FAZ

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