Russia’s ‘River of Blood’

Today, Siberia’s Daldykan and Ambarnaya rivers are running red with 20,000 tons of spilled oil. In response, President Putin has declared a state of emergency

The epicenter of this environmental catastrophe is Norilsk, second largest city of the Arctic Circle. Norilsk contains the largest nickel-copper-palladium deposits in the world, and is a bustling industrial hub in Russia’s ‘sleeping land’. It is also the namesake of Norilsk Nickel, or Nornickel, the Russian mining and metallurgy giant.

The leak occurred after a fuel tank collapse at Norilsk power plant. Due to exceptionally hot temperatures, Arctic permafrost is melting away out of season. As a result, the ground holding the fuel tank suddenly sunk, causing the tank to rupture. Norilsk’s local environment is infamously polluted, emitting so much heavy metal pollution that the soil surrounding the city can be mined

Plant managers attempted to resolve the spill on their own, and hid it from local authorities. By the time they discovered the catastrophe, it was too late to contain the bulk of the oil. The plant director is currently in custody as federal authorities work to contain the leak.

This isn’t the first time the Daldykan became a ‘river of blood’. In 2016, Nornickel’s Nadezhda Plant suffered a dam overflow. Investigations were inconclusive as to whether the area suffered from aftereffects. 

The situation is complicated further by Nornickel’s considerable political influence. Oligarch Vladimir Potanin took shares in 1995 amidst Russia’s post-Soviet privatization frenzy. Since, he’s gobbled up over a third of Nornickel. 

Potanin and Putin are close. However, this hasn’t stopped Putin from threatening him in the past. A decade ago, the Russian President warned he would levy fines against Nornickel if they refused to modernize and reduce emissions. After the 2016 spill, Nornickel was fined an undisclosed amount – but the maximum possible was a paltry $635.

Given the spill’s magnitude and visibility, it’s likely that Putin will make a point of rectifying the issue. Whether this takes the form of serious fines or symbolic punishments is difficult to know.

Despite the Arctic’s relative emptiness, the region is an intricate web of industry, military investment, untouched environments and resource politics. The Norilsk oil spill illustrates the necessity of sound Arctic policy and organization – and what happens when it fails.


Norwegian State Secretary Contradicts PM on China Threat

Last week, China acquired nearly 13% of Norwegian Air. This week, Norwegian leadership can’t agree on whether the People’s Republic poses a threat. 

Prime Minister Erna Solberg singled out Russia and China for their aggressive position in the Arctic this April. PM Solberg denounced the two, saying they “do not see the value of…democracy, rule of law, nor…undisputed rights.” Her Defense Minister agreed, and outlined plans for an eight-year military spending increase amounting to $1.7 billion.

“These [China and Russia] are countries where the authorities do not see the value of neither democracy, rule of law, nor the fact that people have undisputed rights… Over the last years, these forces have become increasingly visible and gained more influence.”

Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg in April, 2020

However, State Secretary Audun Halvorsen of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs pushed back against Solberg’s China policy this week. Responding to US State Department warnings about increased Sino-Russian cooperation in the North Sea, Halvorsen said Norway does not “perceive China to be a threat.” Halverson has a habit of minimizing China’s ambitions. Last year, he tamped down American concerns over the Chinese state’s involvement in Kirkenes, a strategic Northeast Passage port town.

Last May, Kirkenes welcomed ambassadors from the world’s largest port infrastructure developer. That developer is the state-owned China Communications Construction Company (CCCC). A successful CCCC bid for Kirkenes’ port infrastructure project means a CCP foothold in the High North. 

With a Kirkenes port, China’s ease of access to the Arctic increases significantly. A permanent CCP presence along the Northeast Passage means more power projection, more investment, and more influence. All to the detriment of Norwegian interests. 

Norway needs a coherent policy about Chinese intervention in the Arctic

Once Norway allows the People’s Republic in, there’s no going back. Secretary Halvorsen said China has “so far played a constructive role” – ‘so far’ being an important qualifier. If Kirkenes becomes flush with CCP cash, Norway would pay a political price for any future action against them. 

Norway needs a unified China policy to safeguard itself in an increasingly competitive Arctic. Halvorsen himself called for “unified Norwegian policy in the High North”, despite contradicting his own Prime Minister. PM Solberg is right. Norwegian sovereignty depends on fortified defense, NATO cooperation, and a frank acknowledgment of the CCP threat.


The Dangerous Myth of Arctic Adjacency

‘From Wuhan to the world’: so addressed were the plague-parcels silently shipped to docks and airports. Coronavirus has unleashed global economic devastation unfathomable mere months ago. China is anything but contrite or penitent. Instead, the People’s Republic prowls the rubble, waging an opportunistic campaign of corporate conquest. Amid Scandinavian aviation’s desperate bid for survival, China made off with a substantial stake in Norwegian Air.

In order to meet Norway’s bailout requirements, Norwegian Air had to reduce its debt. Accordingly, the airline converted a portion of its financial obligations to organizations providing aircraft lease agreements into equity. Bank of China (BOC) Aviation acquired 389,053,742 shares, or nearly 13% of Norwegian Air. Just like that, Norway’s largest airline became subject to Chinese control.

The labyrinthine ownership structure between BOC Aviation and the Chinese state obscures their relationship. BOC Aviation is controlled by Sky Splendor Limited, which is controlled by BOC Group Investment Limited, and so on. Eventually, this subsidiary chain leads back to “the government of the People’s Republic of China”. China used a global crisis of their own creation to carve out a corporate foothold in the Arctic.

This is no isolated incident. It’s merely China’s latest Arctic acquisition in their ‘Polar Silk Road’, legitimized by a fabricated ‘near-Arctic’ identity. No international authority recognizes ‘near-Arctic’ status, but that hasn’t stopped the People’s Republic.

After becoming an Arctic Council observer state in 2013, China began a frenetic blitz of Arctic development projects. Often in conjunction with Russia, China has invested in, constructed, and improved numerous ports, research centers, oilfields, and natural gas deposits. Even Iceland, Norway, and France have partnered with China in their polar pursuits.

As other nations devote resources and assets in the region to secure their national interests, America cannot afford to fall behind.

Luke D. Coffey, Heritage Foundation

The People’s Republic’s quiet expansionism shows no signs of stopping. Norway is just the first Arctic nation to have its sovereignty diminished. If the United States refuses to accelerate its Arctic development, China’s influence will only grow. The High North’s future and freedom depend on American leadership.