Many questions remain on proposed Arctic rail link

In a wide-ranging interview, Finnish diplomat Matti Anttonen discusses and Arctic rail link and Finland's chairmanship of the Arctic Council.

By Arne F. Finne, High North News - November 28, 2018
Matti Anttonen, State Secretary of the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, says questions still remain about a proposed Arctic rail link connecting Finland to Norway’s Arctic coast. (Arne F. Finne / High North News)

In recent years, Finland has proposed the construction of a railway from Kirkenes, Norway to Rovaniemi, Finland, a proposal that was well received on the Norwegian side. That rail link could connect to a tunnel from Helsinki to Tallinn and a direct link to the European railway network. All this rests on a belief that the Northern Sea Route will provide a significant increase in trade shipping to and from East Asia.

In an exclusive interview with High North News, State Secretary of the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Matti Anttonen spoke about the challenges faces such a project:

“Basically, it boils down to a question of what to freight along this railway. We are at present waiting for a large report, or a study, that can say something about this,” he explains.

“Maybe the most important thing will be the moment of realizing that there is a proper railway from Tallinn to Europe — there is no such as the moment. And if it becomes a reality, so that one can transport a container fast and efficiently from Tallinn to Warsaw, Berlin, Belgrade or anywhere else in this part of Europe, then that is a situation that is completely different from the current one.

“I believe that will be the first, important part. Today, there is the Via Baltica, with car transportation from Helsinki to Tallinn and onwards to central East Europe, which works fairly well.

A “Rail Baltica” can change this image, says Anttonen: “A railway from Tallinn will have European rail track dimensions. There is an existing problem with Russian and European railway dimensions not being the same, and I do not know how we should handle that.”

Anttonen points out that there is a link between increased traffic and what he refers to as “the opening hours” along the Northern Sea Route.

“The NSR does not immediately re-freeze after one ship has passed, so more traffic will generate longer ‘opening hours.’ That is also a factor to consider when calculating future amounts of shipping.”

He points to the fact that it will not take long before some 30 million tons of LNG from the Yamal facility are to be transported south, a fact that in and of itself represents a significant increase in traffic.

HNN: Is it perceivable to consider the potential Arctic Railway a competitor of the existing railway line between Narvik, Norway and Kiruna, Sweden; a railway line that is linked to the Swedish and European railway network?

“First and foremost, it is vital to keep in mind that we only have this one railway now. I am convinced that the Swedish mining industry will keep using the port of Narvik,” says Anttonen. “The iron ore can only travel via rail and at the moment, they are maximizing the use of that capacity. The Arctic Railway and a Tallinn tunnel are still in their very early stages and we will await the study.”

“On this major railway, the constant question is: What should be freighted here? I have no idea,” says Anttonen, before he hastily adds: “We know that at some point the forests will grow faster in the High North, as a result of both higher temperatures and to some extent also the CO2 contents of the air. This means that there will be a lot more timber available, even in northern Finland. We do not know yet how that will affect traffic patterns.”

HNN: Does the freight demand have to be domestic? Is it not seen in combination with the NSR and a potential Tallinn tunnel, and from there to East and Central Europe?

“We need to keep in mind how soon potential container transport from the NSR becomes a necessity. Even though one containership from Maersk has already traveled the route, the hen-and-the-egg question remains; which comes first?

“Nevertheless, as I said, we are keenly awaiting the new study that is to be produced, regarding future transportation demands and opportunities. Without transport demands, one will not invest billions of Euros in a railway.”

Finland is about half-way through its two-year term as chair of the Arctic Council. Many consider Finland a country wedged between two blocs of power, having a historically difficult relation to Russia while at the same time not being quite “western.” Finland is an EU member, but has remained outside NATO, even though the country at times has participated in NATO exercises.

HNN: How does Finland perceive the current situation, located between two blocs that are not always on speaking terms and whose rhetoric can be rather hard at times?

“When I am to explain Finland’s relation with Russia, it is important to demonstrate that it is built on two factors. We are neighbors, and neighbors have obligations so as to create and maintain stability and as good conditions as possible, and to maintain dialogue with the neighbor.

“I believe that is a sensible way in which to relate to all one’s neighbors and to Finland, that also includes Russia. We have the border, we have trade, tourism, investments, and while not dominant, Russia is nevertheless an important partner for us.

“We export almost as much to the Baltic countries as we do to Russia. We would have loved to have more trade with Russia, however, with the current economic challenges that they are facing, there has been stagnation and even a recess in trade and tourism.”

Anttonen refers to tourism from Russia to Finland dropping dramatically during the past few years. Due to the weak position of the ruble, Russians can simply not afford it anymore.

“That is one side of the picture. The other side is the fact that we are EU members and the EU is more to Finland than just economic issues. It also has to do with politics and security.

“It is important to understand how we see this security issue. We participate in the shaping of EU’s policies, including those aimed at Russia. When Russia started her aggressive policy towards the Ukraine, it had consequences for Europe’s Russia policy. And here we are.

“Finland has participated in shaping the EU’s sanctions, we implement them and we live with them. Both Finland and Norway are affected by Russia’s counter-sanctions, and neither Finland nor Norway can affect their form; however, being realists, we live with these too.

“We would, of course, love to see Russia and the Ukraine getting better along just like Minsk has promised, however, it does not look very promising I’m afraid. If the relations between the EU and Russia are to improve, we need to make progress in the Ukraine questions.”

Anttonen, an experienced diplomat believes that opposition against the Russia sanctions is far smaller in Finland than in most European countries.

“That is because we believe that Russia using military force against its neighbors is not a good thing. The Finns strongly believe that this is not good. It is not about fear, but about how we believe one should treat one’s neighbors.

“You try everything in your power to maintain a good or normal relation to your neighbors, though how it works will also depend on your neighbor.”

HNN: Finland has held the chair of the Arctic Council for about a year now, and has one more to go. How much are issues like these on the agenda of the Arctic Council?

“Well, I do not directly participate in the meetings of the Arctic Council, however, I believe these security issues are not dominant on the agenda. The Arctic Council does not have this on its agenda, but rather has broad discussions about most issues related to security in the Arctic, such as safety of navigation and vessels, SAR cooperation et cetera.

“It is important to understand that the Arctic matters to Russia. It matters more to Russia in comparison to what it does to Canada or the USA. Even if Canada has large areas in the Arctic, there is rather limited economic activity there.

“The same goes for Alaska. There are oil and gas activities, however, it happens on-shore and products are transported south through pipelines.

“On the other hand, the Yamal-Nenets and Murmansk areas matter a great deal both economically and politically to Russia, far more than in many other countries.”

Anttonen agrees that the Arctic policy of both Canada and the USA is characterized more by the relationship to their respective indigenous populations rather than by the idea of economic development.

“That also leads to a lack of economically significant interest groups that could push for more development. It is more about preservation than development. It is a bit odd, but often when I meet with American colleagues in Washington or elsewhere, they often bring up the ‘In Finland, you are so close to Russia [etc] argument.

“I often respond that you are neighbors with Russia too, in Alaska – you can literally see Russia from American territory on the islands, and vice versa, however, they do not hold that same awareness about this in those countries,” Anttonen says.

“This is what we really should understand; how important the Arctic is to Russia. Even though I do not know quite how worried the Russians themselves are about the transport conditions, they nevertheless hold the responsibility for security along the transportation routes. Most of the traffic along the NSR is Russian, after all.

“If anything were to happen along for instance the NSR, then Russia is the only authority that can react. It is good for these important and complicated issues to be discussed within the framework of the Arctic Council; how to cooperate at sea in Arctic waters.”

HNN: If you were to hold out one example and say “this is what Finland has managed for the Arctic Council to achieve during its first year of presidency”, what would that be?

“I believe that would be our placing meteorology on the agenda; cooperating about data and the exchange of weather data. I believe this issue will remain non the Arctic Council agenda, because we have all realized that is crucial.

“Overall, we are quite pleased with our first year of the presidency, in particular with cooperating having been as good as it actually has been. I believe all eight member states as well as the observers will agree that we have selected issues that have been important for the Arctic while also being of interest to us all.

“There is, of course, widespread attention around climate issues, however, I also believe the issues of meteorology, weather data and increased traffic provide bigger challenges. Besides, we have focused on the dynamic that is created through increased traffic and climate changes — that affects our way of life,” says Anttonen.

“Focus on connectivity has also been, and still is, very important to us. When people live so sparsely and remote, when there is increasing transportation, how do you prevent accidents? And how do you act should something occur anyway?

“Questions related to the flow of information become essential when multiple countries are involved, and security depends on connectivity; one has to be able to communicate efficiently with one another.

“While the world is complicated, it makes it a little bit easier that there are only eight countries that need to coordinate their actions. The biggest responsibility nevertheless rests with these eight nations, and we thus have to join forces when looking at the region’s challenges.”

HNN: Are you confident that all actors, and I think mostly about the USA and Russia, share understanding of how important transparency and communication are related to this, or can there be contradictions between the need for connectivity on the one hand and the demand for national security on the other?

“It is hard to tell whether or not they share our understanding 100 percent, however, it is important to keep in mind that these countries also are stakeholders in the Arctic. Shipping through the Bering Strait must also work safely.

“If an accident were to occur, everyone realizes that we have to take joint action, and that is what we talk about in the Arctic Council.”

This article originally appeared in Norwegian and has been translated into English by High North News’s Elisabeth Bergquist.