Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine and Climate Change Significantly Impact Short and Long-Term Arctic Stability

23 September 2022


Climate change and the impact of Russia’s war in Ukraine have raised global attention to the Arctic. Understanding these geopolitical and climate changes and their impact on the Kingdom of Denmark was the main focus of a 12-15 September visit to Copenhagen and Nuuk by a joint delegation from the Defence and Security and Democracy and Security Committees of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. The delegation consisted of 18 parliamentarians from 11 different NATO member states and was led by Senator Jane Cordy of Canada. 

Climate change is a well-accepted and pressing global reality. Unfortunately, its impact is even more amplified in the Arctic. In fact, according to officials from the Danish Meteorological Institute, the Arctic is warming four times faster than the rest of the planet, and its future is ‘warmer and wetter’. This rapid warming and increased rainfall equal less ice and snow, faster river flows, a thawing permafrost and coastal erosion across the region.  

Dramatic environmental shifts, however, are not the only changes in the Arctic. Global geopolitical tensions are also creeping in, particularly since Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine on 24 February. Russia’s war in Ukraine is directly impacting Arctic cooperation, most visibly with the 3 March decision by seven of the Arctic Council’s member states to pause their participation in the forum in response to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Strong cooperation among the eight Arctic states had been a long-standing unique feature of the region since the end of the Cold War, often encapsulated by the dictum ‘high north, low tensions’.  

The Arctic is a central focus of Danish foreign policy. Both Greenland and the Faroe Islands are part of the Kingdom of Denmark. They have significant autonomy, but foreign, defence and security policy remains the responsibility of the Kingdom. Officials in Copenhagen and Nuuk were clear on the shared interest in a joint policy in the Arctic that not only ensures their respective interests, but also considers the impact of climate change in the region and weighs the evolution of growing global interest in regional development. As one official noted, “It is vital we work with the growing opportunistic business interests in the region to make sure they are balanced with the welfare of the region’s inhabitants and with respect for nature and the environment.”  

Options for Arctic cooperation and collaboration are narrowing, the delegation heard. “Russia’s war in Ukraine is adding uncertainty and unpredictability in the Arctic and, while it is too early to predict its direction, it is certainly focusing high-level attention among Arctic and non-Arctic states alike,” said Jesper Møller, Political Director of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark.  

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, officials in Copenhagen noted, has focused Arctic states’ attention on the region for different reasons. As Russia is increasingly blocked out of trading west, it is placing greater importance on the viability of the Northern Sea Route as a release valve for its trade with Asia. The other seven Arctic states, however, are or are soon to be NATO Allies whose major concern is the maintenance of not only transatlantic sea lanes of communication, but also freedom of navigation in the increasingly open Arctic waters. NATO’s recently published 2022 Strategic Concept underscores this position. 

Coupled with these concerns, however, is China’s growing interest in the region for access to its rich and vast natural resources and shorter shipping lanes. While China’s presence in the region is mostly scientific and economic, the delegation was told, it is likely these will be followed by a strategic military presence over the horizon.  

While experts told the delegation China has no military interests in the Arctic yet, Russia’s recent efforts to increase its military capabilities across its Arctic region have, by contrast, been significant, with Moscow re-activating or building over 50 new bases and installations. While the new Arctic investments have been mostly defensive, recent years have seen advanced air and missile systems deployed to the region significantly expanding Russian forces’ reach into the region. Russia’s 2020 Arctic strategy makes it clear Moscow aims to exert significant economic and political influence in the region.  

For Allies, increased militarisation of the Arctic with less mechanisms for dialogue presents a growing security dilemma. As a result, NATO’s Arctic Allies have issued new Arctic strategies in recent years, stepped up their patrols and exercising in the High North and increased investments in their own ability to have better situational awareness across the region.  

In line with its NATO Allies, Denmark is also increasing its focus on the Arctic. Danish officials told the delegation of the Government’s recent commitment, in agreement with Greenlandic and Faroese authorities, to up its Arctic capabilities to have a better view of activities across the Danish Kingdom’s massive Arctic area of responsibility. The agreement will result in the allocation of approximately USD 250 million to invest in long-range drones, radar systems, and satellite monitoring. In the agreement, authorities in Denmark, the Faroe Islands and Greenland noted their special responsibility for defence and security in the Arctic and North Atlantic.  

Greenland Foreign Ministry officials noted the importance of the Arctic capabilities investment, underscoring their understanding of the dual-use nature of the investment, which will benefit Greenland beyond the added security. They also stressed the dialogue and cooperation with the United States and other Allies to reach the Kingdom agreement – “Greenland is part of NATO”, one official said, “and it has a special relationship with the US, which Russia knows all too well. While there is no real threat of war in the Arctic, the Arctic is unfortunately increasingly reflecting global security politics.” 

This reality, Greenlandic officials noted, is pushing the government of Greenland to advocate for a better seat at the table when it comes to security matters. A concrete example of this is the recently successful bid by Greenland to post an official inside the Danish mission to NATO in Brussels. Further, Greenland has taken a public stance against Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and, though not a part of the EU, is cooperating with Denmark to implement EU sanctions on Russia. “This is a first for Greenland,” noted an official in the Greenlandic Foreign Ministry, “we generally do not take positions on international conflicts, but Russia’s brutal aggression elicited unprecedented condemnation here, and Ukraine’s struggle to remain a sovereign independent nation garnered significant sympathy.”  

The joint delegation’s visit to Denmark and Greenland was hosted by the Danish Parliament in Copenhagen and the Naalakkersuisut (Government of Greenland) in Nuuk. Over the four day visit, the delegation met with officials, parliamentarians and experts from the Danish Meteorological Institute as well as the Universities of Copenhagen and Greenland. The topics of focus of the visit included: 

  • Danish foreign and security policy priorities and challenges 
  • Security and political developments in the Arctic after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine 
  • Greenland’s economic, political and security interests 
  • The impact of climate change on the Arctic  

The delegation also visited the Joint Arctic Command (JAC) in Nuuk. The JAC’s primary mission in peacetime is to guarantee the sovereignty of the Danish Kingdom, including by monitoring the area around Greenland and the Faroe Islands. This massive area of responsibility includes contributing to the security of NATO sea lanes of communication across the North Atlantic by monitoring the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom (GIUK) Gap. In addition, the JAC assists with search and rescue operations, pollution monitoring, scientific research efforts, fishery control and policing support.  

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