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.


In Support of the ICELAND Act, H.R.5496

Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-ME) recently introduced H.R.5496, also known by the long-form name: “The Iceland Commercial and Economic Leadership for Arctic and National Development Act” — or the ICELAND Act.

The ICELAND Act would include Iceland on the expansive list of countries that the U.S. State Department allows E1 and E2 visas from. These visas are meant to deepen the economic and innovation-focused relationships with our closest partners and allies.

As an organization, we believe whole-heartedly in the special relationships the United States has cultivated with our Arctic partners. The passing of the ICELAND Act would continue to increase trade and economic investment in both the United States and Iceland.

We support H.R.5496, the ICELAND Act, and will begin advocating for its passage on Capitol Hill.


In Support of the United States Ambassador at Large for Arctic Affairs Act of 2019

Back in June of 2019, Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) introduced H.R.3493, also known as the “United States Ambassador at Large for Arctic Affairs Act of 2019,” or …USALAA? He also introduced the same bill in March of 2017, March of 2015, and April of 2014. The bills themselves have gained little traction beyond getting referred to their appropriate committees, but Congressman Sensenbrenner’s commitment to Arctic security does not go unnoticed. 

The United States is likely the only Arctic country that lacks adequate, cross-agency representation in the High North. As an example, Canada, for the first time in its history, has a “Minister of Northern Affairs,” MP Dan Vandel, who works within PM Justin Trudeau’s cabinet to ensure the needs of the Canadian Arctic are being met. (They also have very helpful Twitter accounts in English and French that articulate Canada’s international Arctic policy.)

The U.S. must take diplomatic action to strengthen our role and maintain stability in the Arcitc

Congressman Sesenbrenner is looking to change that. In his press release announcing H.R.3493, he said: “At a time when Russia and China are expanding their ambitions and influence throughout the Arctic Circle, the U.S. must take diplomatic action to strengthen our role and maintain stability in this strategic region of the world. By assigning a permanent Ambassador at Large for Arctic Affairs, America can provide a check to these adversarial powers. I applaud Secretary of State Pompeo for acknowledging the importance of the region and urge my colleagues to pass this legislation as soon as possible.”

The United States needs a renewed commitment to the security of not only our own territory in the Arctic, but also of broader international security initiatives in tandem with our Northern allies. We believe that H.R.3493 is a step in the right direction, and encourage congressional leadership to take decisive action on this bill. 


The American Abdication of Arctic Policy

The United States is often forgotten as an Arctic nation, due not only to the remoteness of the American Arctic, but also the dereliction of a coherent and consistent foreign policy in the region. The only steady action from administration to administration has been neglect. 

The United States is an Arctic nation, but a small one

America is unlike most other northern powers in many ways, namely that an infinitesimally small portion of the American population (19,000 people, or 0.00006%) lives within the Arctic Circle, and we do not rely on the northernmost parts of our nation for a vast amount of resources like oil the way other countries (mainly Russia) do. 

However, that does not excuse or rationalize the lack of well-planned policy in one of the last uncharted and unexplored regions on Earth. The United States exists, in part, due to its never-ending quest to explore and discover the harshest and most-uncharted places known to man. It is distinctly un-American to abandon that in favor of a sedentary and unimaginative Arctic policy. 

America was built on the idea of exploration and a better future

This is not to blame those who have been working on this policy for years — There are a great number of scientists, researchers, and foreign policy experts that work diligently every day to secure a better future for Arctic-Americans, and all Arctic citizens. It is a much larger indictment of the appointee-class in Washington who refuse to dream big, or to listen to their own experts, to craft an intelligible policy in the High North.

The future of the Arctic rests on imaginative, restorative, and forward-thinking policy; executed in-tandem with dependable relationships alongside our Arctic partners. America, as a country, was founded on idealistic and visionary ideals — We would be remiss not to advocate for the implication of those same principles in the North.


United States to Open Consulate in Greenland

Though hobbled by an ill-fated campaign to purchase Greenland, the United States is still working to maintain a foothold in the Arctic region by reportedly working to open an American consulate in Nuuk as early as next year. This is a tremendous first step to relations in the region, though not likely to be reported on in the midst of impeachment and civil unrest in the Middle East.

According to Foreign Policy Magazine, the Administration has committed to seven diplomats in Kalaallit Nunaat, (“The Land of the Greenlanders” in Kalaallisut.) While this is only one diplomat per approximately 10,000 Greenlandic citizens, the strategic commitment speaks volumes to the Trump Administration’s renewed commitment to our neighbors in the Northeast.

History of American Presence in Kalaallit Nunaat

The last time the United States had an official State Department presence in Nuuk was post-WWII, during which the American military agreed to protect the Danish territory in the Kaufmann-Hull Agreement after Copenhagen was toppled by Hitler’s Germany. Danish Ambassador to the United States Henrik Kauffman worked swiftly with U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull to draft an agreement “relating to the defence of Greenland” that remains the basis for the United States Air Force’s presence at Thule Air Force Base 750 miles north of the Arctic Circle today.

Not since WWII, when American and Canadian special forces teams were tasked with finding covert German weather stations on sovereign Allied territory, has the free Arctic been in more danger from militaristic influence. China is declaring itself a “near-Arctic state” and Russia has 50 weaponized-icebreakers currently roaming the world’s northernmost ocean.

Freedom in the Arctic

The free and democratic nations of the High North must work together to defend the last unexplored frontier free from militaristic influence and profiteering. Check out our website for the most up-to-date developments on security in the Arctic.


Make the American Arctic Safe Again: UNCLOS Ratification is the Easiest Way to Protect Arctic-Americans

President Trump’s abandonment of military operations in the Middle East caused much consternation among foreign policy professionals in the Beltway, but while the media is focused upon Trumpism, the Trump Administration is neglecting its duty to prevent a military crisis in a new frontier, thousands of miles away from the Fertile Crescent: The Arctic. 

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is a treaty that gives nations the opportunity to expand their territorial sea claims from 200 nautical miles beyond their land border to the end of its continental shelf, up to 350 nautical miles. To date, 167 countries have ratified UNCLOS. The United States, however, is not one of them. If the United States ratified UNCLOS and submitted a claim for the Alaska Outer Continental Shelf, it would expand sovereign American territory by more than 291,383 square miles

The United States is the only Arctic nation that hasn’t ratified the Convention, and that poses a great risk to national security. Russia, Canada, and Denmark have all submitted overlapping claims to hundreds of thousands of square miles of territory. These claims meant little when the treaty was first signed, but are an ever-increasing flashpoint between sovereign powers as the ice melts and new shipping lanes and valuable resources are discovered.

Special interest groups in Washington on the political right, such as the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute, oppose UNCLOS ratification on the grounds that “U.S. can and should negotiate bilateral treaties with neighboring nations to demarcate the limits of its maritime and continental shelf boundaries.” While this may be true, the United States dictating the terms of its territory may not go over well with the other nations of the Arctic, considering that around 44% of the Arctic Ocean is bordered by Russia

The foremost way the United States can secure its claims and a seat at the table on the global stage is by ratifying UNCLOS, putting the nation on even-footing with every other nation in the Arctic Circle. Up to 25% of the world’s oil and natural gas reserves are in the frozen Arctic, and it would be regrettable if the United States had to fight with UN bureaucrats, or worse, Russia and China, to get access to Arctic resources within its potential 350 nautical mile border because we chose not to ratify an international treaty.

At present, Russia and China are overjoyed that America has abdicated its authority in the north, which has allowed them both to operate with impunity. China is now calling itself a “near-Arctic state,” despite Beijing being nearly 2,000 miles away from the Arctic Circle. Russia’s Vladimir Putin has presided over the creation and development of Arctic combat teams, 16 deepwater ports, 14 new military airfields, and over 40 icebreakers. By comparison, the United States currently has one solitary functioning icebreaker in the Arctic Circle, signaling its bare-minimum commitment to the region.

American reputation abroad and access to almost 300,000 square miles of new, internationally-recognized territory aside, there are over 19,000 Arctic-Americans living in remote areas of Alaska. By not investing in their national security and border enforcement via UNCLOS ratification, we put all of them at risk. These far-northern Americans are hard-working and sturdy, living in one of the harshest environments on Earth. We do them a disservice with second-rate safety and security compared to the contiguous United States. 

As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump promised to “Make America Safe Again.” Three years later, many American citizens of the Arctic must be wondering: “When will the President make us safe again?” It’s time for Congress to ratify the Convention, and reclaim America’s title as an Arctic power.


The Crisis Facing the Arctic

The Arctic Circle is 7,700,000 square miles of mostly-unexplored, uncharted territory. The average temperature each year is 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit, though in the winter, it can plunge down to -60 degrees. It truly is the last unexplored frontier on Earth.

Yet, the Arctic is still home to over four million people.

Russians, Norwegians, Americans, Canadians, Greenlanders – People have been surviving in close-knit communities, co-existing with the unforgiving climate for centuries. The Greenlandic Inuits have been speaking Kalaallisut while eating whale skin and dried cod since the 11th century. Great Russian explorers have been exploring their Arctic regions since the 12th century, nearly 850 years before the United States would purchase Alaska to become an Arctic power.

The Arctic is a New Frontier for the World’s Superpowers

While much of the world is focusing on the Middle East and the proxy wars occurring there, many are ignoring the danger of a new Cold War in the Arctic region.

Russia is rebuilding its Cold War-era military bases on their northernmost coast, the Chinese are investing more in icebreaking ships than any other country despite its capital, Beijing, being 1,844 miles from the Arctic Circle, and three countries (Canada, Russia, and Denmark) have submitted overlapping UNCLOS claims that may cover large oil deposits under the Arctic ice.

Not only is the Arctic under threat of becoming a disputed territory among the globe’s superpowers, but modernization and climate change are destroying the fabric of the Arctic people, lifestyle, and culture.

The Arctic Lifestyle is in Danger of Dying Out

So what should the United States do to help the 4 million Arctic people (19,000 of which are Americans living in Alaska) in danger of our evolving geopolitical landscape?

The United States should double-down on what it does best: Being an ideological leader and role model for freedom and democracy abroad. We should engage other superpowers on a ban of nuclear weapons in the Arctic, encourage private sector investment into infrastructure like roads, bridges, and high-speed internet, support free, independent, and sovereign democracies that seek to play a part in Arctic policy, and diligently work towards preserving and maintaining the culture and lifestyle of indigenous and native peoples of the Arctic.

That’s why I launched The Wallace Institute for Arctic Security. To advocate for a prosperous and secure future for the people of the Arctic region and the world at-large. We need a sharp course-correction as it relates to foreign policy, and The Wallace Institute aims to completely change the discussion we’re having about America’s position in the High North.