Nir Levitan

Denmark at the focus for Arctic region superiority


A few weeks ago, Danish authorities detained a Russian research vessel and confiscated the ship’s documents, according to a statement from the Russian embassy in Copenhagen. The Russian news agency RIA reported that 61 people were arrested, including researchers from the Institute of Russian Academy of Sciences, while refueling at the port of Skagen. The Russian embassy stated that although the ship owned by the Russian Federation, which was used by the Institute for scientific purposes, it was detained by Denmark.

The seizure of the vessel was made as part of the ongoing activities of the Scandinavian country in the region but indicates a more complex status. Part of the tension between Denmark and Russia stems from the tension over the Arctic region, where Denmark is increasing its presence and commitment as part of the NATO alliance, especially towards the US. Denmark seeks to strengthen its course of action against government agencies for military purposes.

The struggle for influence in the Arctic is also reflected in the visit of NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg to Copenhagen, where he praised Denmark’s’ major contribution to the military alliance. The Prime Minister of Denmark, who hosted the Secretary General, also discussed with him the preparations for the NATO summit in Madrid next year and during his visit, the Secretary General attended a meeting of the 73rd Nordic Council. He called on NATO members to show solidarity with challenges from Russia and China, noting that China’s rise is a fundamental challenge.

Military tension continues to be high and in 2018 a NATO exercise held in Norway included a large-scale demonstration of military power in which NATO armed forces practiced a wide-ranging offensive that included an attack on the Arctic coastline. The US is also refining its policy in the region and deployed a B1-Lancer squadron in Norway, set up a naval operations center in Iceland, and is conducting submarine-based exercises to maintain high operational readiness in the north. In 2022, they are expected to host the largest military exercise within the Arctic Circle in Norway since the 1980s.

These actions correspond with Denmark’s policy in Greenland (which holds sovereignty over the vast island) and banned a Chinese company from building an airport on the island. Despite being an autonomous territory under the Kingdom of Denmark with extensive self-government, most foreign and security issues are dealt by Copenhagen. However, Greenland’s capital city Nuuk has taken a step towards greater autonomy in policy areas (Mainly in future claims for control areas in the North Sea).

According to its new strategy, the EU also plans to open an office in the Greenlandic capital to increase its regional presence and develop economic, educational and research networks. The EU has earmarked financial support of around € 220 million over the next seven years.

The struggle for control of the northern region continues to increase the level of tension between the Nordic countries and non-Western powers. Most are working closely with the NATO alliance and also within the Arctic Council to reach diplomatic agreements without the use of military force. In early 2021, Russia began its term as president of the Council for the next two years after replacing Iceland. As Council members have agreed to continue cooperating to address ongoing challenges arising from climate changes, new paths and activities of non-Arctic powers still remain in question.

Another legal issue that Russia is involved in is related to the maritime borders between them of the land shelf (CLCS) that may give access to the vast natural resources in the region that Canada and Denmark are claiming.

The decision on this issue is expected to be made through a ruling based on scientific research to determine its geological validity and therefore increases mutual distrust, alongside the request of more countries to gain access to the region even though they are not members of the Arctic Circle.

The impact resulting from the geopolitical changes makes the Arctic region vital for Moscow. Russia sees the Arctic as an opportunity for economic development that relies on natural resources. Therefore, it may be seen that the detained Russian research vessel was received with suspicion and raises concern for its purposes.

Until then, news headlines are expected to report on detainees of unknown research groups and expose the political tension between NATO allies and non-western powers in the race for control of the Arctic region.

About the Author
Nir Levitan is a Ph.D. from Bar-Ilan University's Graduate Program in Conflict Resolution, Management and Negotiation. Currently, he is a research fellow at Europa Institute and a research affiliate at Center for Cold War Studies at the University of Southern Denmark
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