Sweden and the New High North

Sweden recently unveiled its revamped Arctic policy, having gone unchanged since 2011. The strategy’s details are familiar, focusing on climate change, multilateral cooperation, and sustainable development. The overhaul comes at a time of change in the High North. Facing new geopolitical pressures, Sweden is pressing forward with clear-eyed and agile Arctic policy.

Sweden and the EU’s Arctic Outpost

The Kingdom of Sweden’s Arctic position is unique in several respects. Their European Union membership provides them with substantial funding and avenues for collaborative effort in developing and defending their northernmost territory. Though formally a non-NATO state, in practice Sweden conducts joint operations with NATO frequently.

The economic and security benefits of a unified Scandinavian approach to Russia, China, and the United States generally outweighs any desire or ability for Sweden to act unilaterally. However, a formally unified strategy is far off. Near-Arctic and Arctic states alike are still in the midst of overhauling their blueprints for the region.

Sweden’s Arctic Interests

Sweden’s primary interests revolve around its resource rich Ferroscandian territory, specifically its iron, lumber, and hydropower. The new infrastructure and regulations needed for sustainable development of these resources is a key priority for the country moving forward. Historically, Swedish Arctic development conflicted with the indigenous Samí’s traditional practices modes of sustenance, such as reindeer herding. The Samí Parliament remains largely symbolic, but cooperation and mutual development with the Finno-Ugric group was earmarked in the updated whitepaper.

Though Sweden recognizes the possibility of further Chinese encroachment, the value of their trade networks and capital (especially with regards to mineral resource development) means that no significant action against the CCP is to be expected. However, Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist recently announced the reestablishment of five northern regiments to defend the country’s Arctic sovereignty. Expecting to increase military spending 85% by 2025, the five-year defense bill outlines a policy of increased cooperation with Norway and Scandinavia. Increasing tensions with Russia prompted the decision.


Sweden’s revamped Arctic policy is fairly standard fare, focusing on mineral resource development, climate change, Samí relations and sovereignty. The Kingdom will work via Arctic and European collaborative institutions to advance its interests, and will likely take on a greater role in Arctic institutional governance moving forward.


Russia’s Big Week

The last week saw five major developments in the Russian Arctic. The Federation sent a new icebreaker directly to the North Pole, recorded an unprecedented amount of Arctic shipping through the Northeast Passage, and oversaw a formerly dominant shipping corporation’s bankruptcy filing. Additionally, the Federation closed in on a Korean infrastructure deal, and uncovered new petroleum reserves with the aid of China.

Icebreakers and Ice

Built in 2016, the Arktika successfully completed its voyage to the North Pole, breaking through ice up to three meters thick along the journey. Despite a troubled construction, the nuclear-powered Arktika exceeded expectations by completing the voyage unscathed. On its route, the vessel recorded unprecedentedly northern Arctic sea-ice. This means that polar ice had receded closer to the poles than expected.

Russia’s nuclear-powered icebreaker Arktika leaves the port of Saint Petersburg on September 22, 2020 for its maiden voyage to its future home port of Murmansk in northwestern Russia where it is expected in two weeks after undergoing tests of its performance en route. – Designed to transport liquefied natural gas from the Arctic, the 173 metres (570 feet) long and 15 metres high giant vessel is touted as the most powerful of its kind and a symbol of Moscow’s Arctic ambitions. (Photo by OLGA MALTSEVA / AFP) (Photo by OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP via Getty Images)

Russia’s development of the Northeast Passage is paying off. From January to September, a record 22.98 million tons in goods were shipped along the route. Less than half of this amount passed through the passage in just 2017. Shrinking sea-ice and steadily improving infrastructure are working in tandem to make the Arctic Sea a maritime shipping superhighway.\

Boom and Bust

Amid the rapid expansion of Russia’s Arctic economy, the previously dominant Murmansk Shipping Company filed for bankruptcy. The company lost several crucial contracts, and was gradually overtaken by competitors.

Korean and Chinese Infrastructure Assistance

The Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering company is set to construct maritime storage facilities for Russian liquified natural gas (LNG). All of the LNG will be exported, and maritime storage will cut export costs substantially. The deal further cements growing ties between Russia and Korea.

Utilizing Chinese semi-submersible drilling infrastructure, state energy corporation Gazprom discovered new sources of gas in Leningradskoye field, significantly increasing the field’s value.

The success is emblematic of China and Russia’s partnership generally, whereby Chinese capital or technology is exchanged for access to Russian resources and sea-space.

Chinese paramilitary police border guards train in the snow at Mohe County in China’s northeast Heilongjiang province, on the border with Russia, on December 12, 2016. – Mohe is the northernmost point in China, with a sub arctic climate where border guards operate in temperatures as low as -36 Celcius. (Photo by STR / AFP) / China OUT (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)
The Arctic’s Russian Future

Holding vast swathes of Arctic territory, it’s only natural that Russia enjoys significant influence  in the region. Despite sanctions and isolation, the Federation’s mixed model of economic development, combining private, public, and military investment, continues to be successful. Arctic states should look to Russia for inspiration in charting their own courses to sovereignty and prosperity in the High North.

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Russia and China’s Maritime Advancements

This week, both Russia and China successfully completed two long term naval operations. The Russian vessel “Akademic Aleksandrov” returned to port after a months-long military research assignment. China’s Xue Long 2 icebreaker arrived in Shanghai after two and a half months in the Arctic.

The “Akademic Aleksandrov” — Photo courtesy of the Northern Fleet

The “Akademic Aleksandrov” carries nuclear ‘mini-submarines’, and its research expeditions are highly secretive. Prior expeditions and trials have focused on the development of underwater drone capabilities, though it is unknown whether this mission included drone testing.

The Norwegian Response

Lieutenant-General Morten Haga-Lunde, Head of the Norweigan Foreign Intelligence Service, chafed at Russia’s recent activity in the region. Haga-Lunde made reference to the Losharik submarine accident in his most recent statement on Russian reactor-powered submarine research and ‘seabed warfare’ programs. In his presentation of the Intelligence Services’ annual report, Haga-Lunde stated:

“The development will bring, additional to the military challenges, also challenges related to both environment and security. In 2019, about 25 Russians were killed during military activity near Norway…I consider the risk for more such unintended incidents in our neighborhoods to be big in the years to come.”

Lieutenant-General Morten Haga-Lunde, Head of the Norwegian Foreign Intelligence Service

With Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg striking a more defensive posture toward Russia and China, the recent “Akademic Aleksandrov” test may coarsen relations further.

The China Connection

The Xue Long 2 sailed over 12,000 nautical miles on its inaugural journey, and represents a substantial victory for China’s Arctic efforts. Though the icebreaker collected sediment samples and conducted climate research, the expedition also served to legitimize China’s presence in the region. The People’s Republic’s heavy investment in the Arctic will only increase as the region’s economic and military value expands.

The Xue Long 2

Russia and China are organized, efficient, and proactive in advancing their Arctic interests. The United States, Canada, and Scandinavia must mount a similarly coherent response in order to safeguard their own stake in the High North.