Great-power politics could undermine Arctic stability, a new Danish threat assessment warns

U.S., Russian and Chinese actions in the Arctic are increasingly being driven by their global rivalry, Denmark's external intelligence agency says.

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The Upgraded Early Warning Radar at Thule Air Base in Pituffik, Greenland provides missile defense and space surveillance. It is an essential element of US mainland defense but virtually unprotected from an attack by Russian fighter jets that are now stationed on that Nagurskoye Air Base. (Staff Sgt Alexandra M Longfellow / US Air Force)

Arctic states continue to have a shared ambition of keeping the Arctic a low-tension region, but growing suspicion between the U.S., Russia and China will be the dominating issue in the year to come, Denmark’s annual threat assessment, published on Thursday, concludes.

“The rivalry between Russia and the U.S. in particular, but also with China, is now apparent. It is likely that changes in the military balance of power and increasing activity in the region will pose a challenge to collaboration between Russia and the other coastal states,” in the Arctic, wrote the external intelligence agency FE.

On both the military and economic fronts, this rivalry impacts Greenland, a part of the Kingdom of Denmark together with Denmark and the Faroe Islands. Denmark remains responsible for defense and foreign affairs for the entire kingdom, but the three countries have differences of opinion about their foreign relations.

Greenland, for example, welcomes what the FE describes as China’s “sustained, long-term” interests, while Denmark has taken a more cautious view. The Faroe Islands, for its part, has profited handsomely by continuing to export salmon to Russia after Denmark and other European countries imposed sanctions on Russia after the 2014 annexation of Crimea.

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The three countries also occasionally disagree on internal issues. And these differences of opinion, the FE warns, could be exploited by Russia to “cause a rift” in an effort to improve its own position in the region. Such concerns were first aired in 2018, in connection with the most recent Greenlandic general election, while, in 2019, a letter purporting to be sent on behalf of the Greenlandic foreign minister was sent to U.S. lawmakers.

A key development in the past year, according to the FE, is the establishment of Russia’s Nagurskoye Air Base. Located some 2,000 kilometers from Greenland, fighters based there would be able to operate close to Greenland.

That, according to Jon Rahbek Clemmensen, an academic with Forsvarsakademiet, the Danish defense college, is a concern to Denmark and its American allies because the limited Danish radar coverage in Greenland would make their operations virtually undetectable.

The next step, he reckons, will be for the U.S. and Denmark to respond by seeking to protect Thule Air Base, a key U.S. installation located in far northern Greenland, from attack. The development could point to the start of an arms race around Greenland.

“The U.S. needs to respond in order to deter Russian aggression. The key point is how it responds matters. If the U.S. builds up military capabilities that can be used offensively against Russia, then I would imagine that the Russians would respond by increasing their presence as well, and then we are moving one step up the escalatory spiral,” he says.

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The FE’s annual assessment is a thematic look at the issues that it believes will be of most concern to the Kingdom of Denmark in the year ahead. The Arctic, along with relations with Russia and China in general, terrorism and the treat of foreign computer attacks, have become fixtures of the publication, which this year also includes the situation in the Middle East, West Africa and Afghanistan.

Separating the Arctic out from overall relations with Russia reflects Moscow’s delineation between its relations in general with Denmark and its relations with Denmark in the Arctic, according to the FE.

“Even though Russia feels that Denmark pursues a generally anti-Russian policy, Russia has a positive view of Denmark’s willingness to collaborate on Arctic issues,” the assessment states.

While the FE foresees Moscow continuing to take a “constructive” approach to the region, it predicts that it will do so only as long as it suits Russia’s interests.

“Russia sees collaboration as a means of keeping tensions low so that it can attract investments, gain an advantage in efforts to demarcate its border and, in particular, to prevent the West from building up its military. Collaboration is also a way to help Russia avoid further Western sanctions against Russian projects in the Arctic.”

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Russia, along with Denmark and Canada, has claimed part the ocean floor in the central Arctic Ocean as extensions of their continental shelves. Russia’s claim, which is overlapped by the Danish claim, is currently being reviewed by a UN commission, and the FE suggests that, if it is approved, Moscow will seek to pressure Copenhagen and Ottawa to negotiate a settlement instead of waiting for the UN to rule on their claims.

“Russia has, until now, shown a constructive approach to the question of the continental shelf. It is likely that Russia will continue to give the impression that it is a constructive negotiating partner that follows UN procedure. Russia probably deems this to be in its best interest for now. But it is possible that Russia will take another approach if UN procedure doesn’t produce an acceptable result for Russia,” the FE writes.

When it comes to China’s commercial interest in Greenland, the FE notes that, while its activities there remain marginal, Chinese investments in mining projects appear to be following a pattern seen in other countries, in which its firms establish relations that, early on, benefit the other country more.

Greenland has openly courted Chinese investment, but the FE cautions that its investments are not without risks, given the links between Chinese firms and the country’s leadership. In a small economy such as Greenland’s, the FE adds, foreign investments can have an outsized impact on the country and its decision makers.