The Week Ahead: Mind the GIUK

By Kevin McGwin - February 12, 2018
A Norwegian sign posted during that county’s 2010 Cold Response exercise. (Soldnytt / Wikimedia Commons)

Whether you believe that the Arctic is or is not an area that NATO should be paying more attention to depends on your opinion of Russia.

Relations between Russia and NATO member states in the region are alternatively held up as being a model for emulation (leading the Arctic Council to be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize earlier this year) or on the verge of conflict.

When the alliance’s defense ministers gather on Wednesday and Thursday in Brussels, it is likely that the bulk of their time will be spent on other matters, including finalizing plans to change its command structure in time for a decision to be made during the Nato summit in July.

[Canada should discourage Arctic NATO operations, experts say]

Other big topics for the alliance right now include things like cybersecurity and terrorism. Where relations with Russia are concerned, the situation in the Baltic and along the borders of its eastern European members takes precedence over the Arctic.

Still, that does not mean the region is not off the alliance’s radar entirely. Of the Arctic Council’s eight members, five belong to NATO, and two, though neutral, work closely with it. Meanwhile Russia, the eighth member, is undeniably placing renewed emphasis on its forces in the region. Both sides regularly hold exercises in the region of varying scale.

Debate remains over the purpose of Russia’s efforts to revamp its forces: dovish voices (which include some of those nominating the Arctic Council for the Nobel Prize) suggest the evidence points to the activity being defensive in nature, or as a way to shore up its claims of sovereignty and help keep shipping lanes open. Even those with a more hawkish bent admit much of what is going on is less of a build-up than a reconstruction of forces that fell into disarray after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Though not fully in the peacenik camp when it comes to the region, NATO military brass and government officials the alliance’s capitals appear less concerned with what Russia is doing in the Arctic than with what it could come dispatch from it, in particular, through the GIUK Gap.

The GIUK (short for Greenland, Iceland, United Kingdom) Gap refers to a choke point that naval vessels must pass through when crossing between the Barents and Norwegian seas and the open Atlantic.

[The Week Ahead: Tension and Tranquility]

Addressing the NATO Parliamentary Assembly session last May, Rose Gottemoeller, the alliance’s deputy secretary, noted that after disappearing from security discussions for the better part of a decade, the term is now back in fashion. Part of this revival is likely due to speculation that an increasing number of flights by U.S. reconnaissance planes from Iceland was a precursor to the re-establishment of a permanent presence there.

Debate over whether that should happen continues. As it does, Moscow must be asking itself whether it is a matter it ought to be paying more attention to.

When and where: Feb. 14-15; Brussels, Belgium
For more information:

Also this week:

First meeting of the Canadian Senate’s Special Committee on the Arctic
The agenda for the first meeting of the Canadian Senate’s Special Committee on the Arctic has but one point: “Consider the significant and rapid changes to the Arctic, and impacts on original inhabitants.”

The curt brief belies what could be a potentially heavy workload that includes contentious topics like oil and gas exploration, infrastructure, environmental conservation and Arctic sovereignty.

The need for a Senate committee to take them up, according to Charlie Watt, who represents Nunavut and is the only Inuk in the Senate, is not because they were not being discussed. The problem, he said when proposing the committee last May, is that the discussions that were going on lacked sufficient input from the people they would impact first.

“We are very concerned that the benefits of development may not be felt by Inuit,” he said in an address to the Senate. “Our homeland is rich in resources and is making some people very wealthy, yet our communities lack resources and have a limited economy in Canada.”

Monday’s meeting will be streamed live, which will allow people throughout the North to listen in as lawmakers in Ottawa talk about their situation.

When and where: Feb. 12; Ottawa
For more information:

Alaska Forum on the Environment
Put shortly, this is big-deal meeting with lots of Arctic and climate stuff.

In its 20th year this year, the Alaska Forum on the Environment brings together businesses, conservation groups, public agencies and community and youth leaders in an effort to “promote a healthy environment through communication and education.”

Attended by about 1,800 people, the meeting, say organizers, provides Alaskans with an opportunity to learn about the environment and for people to exchange opinions.

The wide range of organizations involved in its planning reflects its broad appeal. In addition to federal and state environmental agencies, the University of Alaska is also involved, as is ConocoPhillips, a big oil firm.

This year sees the Environmental Protection Agency again playing a significant role. The EPA is traditionally a major sponsor of the event, but last year the new Trump administration put the kibosh on most of its participation, resulting in some canceled presentations. It was pretty scandalous at the time.

 The agency explained the decision on the grounds that it was a money-saving measure, but the Alaska EPA headquarters is just at the federal building, a few blocks’ walk to the Dena’ina Center, where the event was being held.

When and where: Feb. 12-16; Anchorage, Alaska
For more information:

PAME meeting
PAME (short for Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment) is one of the six Arctic Council working groups. It is the focal point of the council’s activities related to the protection and sustainable use of the Arctic marine environment.

Its working areas include: marine pollution, shipping, marine protected areas, ecosystem approach to management, resource exploration and development, and the Arctic Marine Strategic Plan 2015-2025.

When and where: Feb. 12-16; Quebec Canada
For more information:

Recognizing indigenous rights and local perspectives
The closing seminar of the project of the Arctic Centre at the University of Lapland “Recognizing indigenous rights and local perspectives – lessons from Greenland, Norway and Finland.”

The seminar discusses the lessons learned in previous workshops conducted together with indigenous and local participants in Karasjok, Norway; Inari, Finland; and Ilulissat, Greenland, all of which sought to present local viewpoints relating to rights of indigenous and local people.

The purpose is to bring these perspectives to the awareness of Nordic decision-makers and wider audiences in order to improve the level of democracy in the regional development policies.

The seminar is arranged by the University of Lapland, in cooperation with project partners from Ilisimatusarfik/University of Greenland and UiT/The Arctic University of Norway.

The seminar will be streamed live.

When and where: Feb. 14; Rovaniemi, Finland
For more information: Recognizing indigenous rights and local perspectives seminar

TFAMC meeting
The mandate of the Task Force on Arctic Marine Cooperation is to consider future needs for strengthened cooperation on Arctic marine areas, as well as mechanisms to meet these needs, and to make recommendations on the nature and scope of any such mechanisms.

Arctic Council task forces are appointed at biennial ministerial meetings to work on specific issues for a limited amount of time.

Established in 2015, the TFAMC’s two-year mandate was extended in May 2017.

What and where: Feb. 15-16; Quebec Canada
More information available on the Arctic Council website

The Week Ahead is a preview of some of the events related to the region that will be in the news in the coming week. If you have a topic you think ought to be profiled in a coming week, please email [email protected].