The Week Ahead: Tension and tranquility

An military exercise in Finland this week highlights the unusual relationship between Russia and its Arctic neighbors.

By Kevin McGwin - February 5, 2018

When it comes to military matters, determining where the tension of the Baltic and North Atlantic ends and the tranquility of the Arctic begins can be elusive.

This week, it will be Finland’s Northern Griffin, an annual exercise, that blurs the line. Most notable about the exercise is its length: the first phase of the exercise starts today in Lapland and runs until February 16. A second runs from February 26 to March 23.

If the Finns are preparing for a protracted engagement with a theoretical enemy, then the sort of conflict they expect will be one of limited intensity: in all, just 500 or so military personnel will take part.

Likewise, the type of units involved — special forces and helicopter detachments — and the form of training — reconnaissance and mobility in snow and at night — indicate that they reckon they will be on the receiving end of any sort of aggression.

As ever when it comes to these types exercises, the answer to the question of ‘by whom’ lies to the east, a fact that is underscored by the participation of NATO members Estonia, Norway, Poland and the US. Sweden, which, like Finland, is militarily non-aligned, but obviously oriented towards NATO, will also take part.

Fears of Russian involvement are not groundless. Though, for the most part, its own exercises have been directed at the Baltic and North Atlantic regions. For now, the Arctic is still talked up by both sides as an area of “low tension,” most recently by Mark Lancaster, the UK’s armed-forces minister, who told parliament in January that, “from a military point of view, the Arctic maintains a position where we have good cooperation.” The British read is that Russian military activity in the Arctic is defensive in nature, while actions in the North Atlantic are more ominous.

[Russia ready to work with non-NATO states that border the Baltic: Putin]

In the Baltic, Russia appears to show the same capacity to cooperate and antagonize at the same time. NATO, for example, released a report last month concluding that the Kremlin is seeking to drive a wedge between a closer Swedish-Finnish defense alliance, while also seeking to keep Sweden from deepening its relationship with NATO. So far, its method of influence involves increased intelligence gathering in non-traditional areas — political, economic, security and social issues, rather than military or industrial.

At the same time, Moscow has shown itself a willing partner in a number of areas in the region, including preventing cross-border crime, particularly in connection with this summer’s World Cup soccer tournament in Russia. Russia also talks up the benefits of working together with the countries of the region in the Barents Euro-Arctic Council, an intergovernmental group. This lends credence to the theory that Moscow will work with potential rivals if there is something to be gained from it. Collaboration is not simply for collaboration’s sake.

This is reflected in Moscow’s eagerness to participate in the Arctic Coast Guard Forum. During its most recent meeting, in Helsinki last week, one of the items on the commanders’ agenda was planning the 2019 Arctic Coast Guard Week. Ironically, as part of the event, ships from all eight coast guards will gather in the waters of the Baltic off Finland’s coast to show how well they can work together.

Also this week:

January sea ice update
This week, the National Snow and Ice Data Center, a Colorado-based outfit, is likely to release sea ice data for January. Day-to-day updates about various aspects of sea ice are available from a number of sources, but the NSIDC’s monthly overview is useful for the accompanying brief analysis.

A solidly winter month, January’s analysis is typically not as awaited as updates closer to the annual maximum (in mid- or late spring) or the annual minimum (early autumn). This year, however, early winter ice formation in many areas was slow, with the result that December 2017 saw the second-lowest extent since satellite record-keeping began in 1979.

[The 2016 Bering Sea heat wave was the warmest on record]

While this is in keeping with the trend seen in recent years, it was particularly pronounced in some areas. Of particular interest when the data are released will be the extent off Utqiaġvik (formerly Barrow), Alaska. At the same time as America’s eastern coast, including the area around Washington, DC, was suffering from extreme cold in January, the temperatures in Alaska were so far above normal for so long that the computer systems that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration uses to record temperatures, disregarded them, assuming they were a mistake.

In some quarters, the debate about whether climate change exists rages. In America’s northernmost community, that is a discussion that has all but ended. Persistently above-normal temperatures and disastrously poor sea-ice conditions now have people describing their situation as “climate changed.”

For more information:

Inuktut Language Month
In February, Nunuavut celebrates Uqausirmut Quviasuutiqarniq (Inuktut language month). Intended as an opportunity for Nunavummiut to learn more about Inuit language and culture, this year’s theme is Inuit beliefs and myths.

While celebrating a language gives the people who speak it a way to recognize where they have come from, where Inuktut, the collective term for Nunavut’s Inuit dialects, is headed has been the source of an ongoing, sometimes divisive, debate about how to harmonize them.

After six years of discussion, it appears that Atausiq Inuktut Titirausiq, a group set up to standardize the written language, will eliminate the characteristic syllabics introduced by missionaries at the end of the 19th century, in favor of the Roman alphabet.

[More people are speaking Inuktitut in Nunavut than 5 years ago, says Statistics Canada]

Among the benefits of doing so, the panel said, would be more linguistic “unity,” and improved educational opportunity, by being “easily taught, easy to learn and easy to write,” according to Monica Ittusardjuat, the language coordinator for ITK, the Inuit group organising the process. It would also make it possible to share learning material across what were once orthographic divides.

Another benefit will be as much psychological as linguistic: Roman letters aside, the new Inuit writing system will be the first developed by the Inuit, for the Inuit, Ittusardjuat told Nunatsiaq News at the end of January.

The process of coming up with an alphabet, grammar and spelling that can apply across several dialects has been a difficult one, however. “It’s hard. People are frustrated,” Ittusardjuat said.

Some language experiences are universal.

When and where: February, Nunavut
For more information: Uqausirmut Quviasuutiqarniq

Some 235 Canadian soldiers are in Resolute, Nunavut for the two-week Northern Exercise 2018, an annual training mission that aims to improve the military’s capabilities in the Arctic. While past editions of the exercise have focused on traditional military skills like survival, mobility and patrolling, this year, participants will respond to a simulated major air disaster scenario in the Arctic.

When and where: Feb. 3-14, Resolute, Nunavut
For more information:

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 e-mail [email protected].