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Things are about to get real in the Arctic

Usually when I talk about conflict on this website, I talk about conflicts that are in progress across the globe or that took place in the past but still impact people’s lives today. This isn’t a particularly challenging task, because conflict generally affects huge swaths of the population and tends to lead to loss, which ‘sells papers,’ which lets me read about it, and then all I have to do is form an opinion and pretend to know what I’m talking about for two thousand words twice a week. 

The conflict I want to talk about today is different in that it both hasn’t happened yet, and so far only directly affects a comparatively small portion of the population, which also happens to be indigenous, so people are taking longer to care. I’m talking about the Arctic, and what you might not have known is that shit is starting to heat the fuck up up there.

Wait, no, I meant metaphorically. Everyone knows that things are physically getting warmer at the poles, what I meant is that the (literally) changing landscape is (figuratively) heating up geopolitical tensions over territory that states never really cared about until right now. Melting ice means new opportunities for resource extraction, new trade routes which also means new smuggling routes, and new opportunities for military and political posturing. 

Apart from the fact that conflict in the Arctic is so remote and only exists in the future, discussing the implications of such a struggle is also difficult because the actual scale is quite difficult to grasp. So before I go any further, I want everyone reading to do a quick exercise. The world map we’re used to seeing in classrooms and on google is something called a Mercator projection (which was invented in the 16th century and is lowkey all sorts of problematic but that’s another article). 

For some reason this version of the world is the one that everyone’s just sort of accepted, but in this instance it becomes unhelpful because it places the Arctic states — Canada, the US, Greenland(Denmark), Iceland, Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Russia — very far away from each other. So, for the sake of contextualizing ourselves, I would like everyone to just stare at this map of the Arctic below so that we can get some understanding of the space we’re working in. It’s not perfect, but guess what, all maps are an illusion, and we live in a simulation our brain creates for ourselves. Just stare at it for like a minute.

Map of the Arctic and list of Arctic Council members and observers

Okay cool, so now that we did that like I’m Dora the fucking Explorer, I hope you can see where I’m going with this. Recent weeks have seen the development of a controversial new Russian military base in the extreme North Franz Josef Land archipelago as well as a meeting of the Arctic council (whose members I listed above) in Reykjavik. Now, the meeting basically only served as a forum for Biden’s secretary of state, Anthony Blinken, to clean up the mess his predecessors left with regard to climate change, and to have his first face to face meeting with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov. This bores me, but it does prove that this story is current, and that you should pay attention to it. Also, when everyone isn’t too preoccupied with the US and Russia’s rhetorical symbolism, it shows that there are a fuckload of different interests at stake in the region. 

My original idea for this story was to go through each Arctic country’s foreign policy and do a little analysis on how it could go wrong, but for those not counting like I wasn’t, that’s seven NATO countries, plus Russia, and — wildcard! — China’s trying to get up in there too, because of course it is. That’s way too many countries for me to care about at once, plus, analyzing fucking Finland’s foreign policy is a good way to anesthetize my entire audience and do just about nothing else. So instead I’m going to pick a handful of random stories that are both interesting and have to do with the Arctic because I think that’s going to be a lot better for everyone’s attention span, and maybe it’ll give you an idea of the magnitude of the policy challenges that are bearing down on the region. I’m sure there are some other more boring websites that do in-depth Finland coverage if you’re pressed. 

It would be irresponsible to talk about the Arctic without acknowledging the impact that global warming and resource extraction has on Indigenous populations. Northern communities are among the most vulnerable in the developed world, regardless of which colonial power they live under. But for this first story, I want to focus on Russia’s Northern indigenous communities because the Kremlin and its private sector allies are both uniquely environmentally destructive and uniquely repressive, and also because I honestly didn’t know shit about Indigenous peoples in Russia, which is embarrassing. 

The Russian government recognizes 40 distinct Northern indigenous peoples, some with populations numbering in the hundreds and most numbering in the thousands. Many of these people are nomadic and rely on traditional connections with the land to survive. However, the expansion of natural resource industries have forced indigenous peoples into smaller and smaller territories as oil and natural gas pipelines continue to sprawl across the permafrost, both legal and illegal logging plague Siberia’s massive taiga, and industrial byproducts poison the earth.

As a Canadian, I know exactly how that shit works: the state or players from an industry that has influence with the state scouts a location for development. They enter into cursory negotiations with the indigenous peoples to whom that land actually belongs and pressure them into handing over territory for much less than it’s worth. The state then enforces the results of those negotiations while industry slowly and decisively destroys the environment and poisons the livestock around it. This threatens the traditional livelihoods of indigenous people and forces them into urban centers where they face racial discrimination and addiction. In the Soviet Union, the government tested nukes on indigenous land, leading to high cancer rates and birth defects, and in the 90s, the government covered up spills, which still happen all the fucking time, and left the locals to clean them up. 

The Russian government has prioritized resource extraction even in the face of drastic environmental consequences and has moved to silence advocates for indigenous rights in the region. One of the loudest voices calling for change used to belong to the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON) before the government forced its leader, Dmitry Berezhkov, into exile in Norway, and labeled it a “foreign agent” because, according to, of its ties to Canadian Inuit advocacy groups. 

Dmitry Berezhkov, an indigenous rights activist who just looks like the most wholesome guy. Not to minimize his work or anything, but look at him. What a nice guy.

Listen Russia, I appreciate the shoutout cum thinly veiled justification for political punishment,  but the idea that an indigenous activist group is in any way a shill for the Canadian government’s interests is hilarious. That would be like shutting down PETA for being in the pocket of Colonel Sanders; they’re just not on the same side no matter how you look at it. But it’s not the only time Putin has positioned Canada as a threat to its interests in the North. In April, Russia filed a submission with the UN that claims territory — including the oil-rich seabed — which extends right up to Canadian waters. 

Canada also faces threats to its sovereignty from both the US and the EU which claim that Northwest passages through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, which are emerging for the first time in modern history due to melting ice, are international passages, while the Canadian government claims they are internal. The US and Canada also dispute a slice of the Beaufort Sea to the North of the Yukon and Alaska, which has natural resource implications. 

You might be familiar with the Northwest Passage if you’re a fan of Stan Rogers and for no other reason, but it’s extremely important because you can bring a ship straight from Europe to Asia without having to go through Africa or Central America. For this reason, China has also begun to position itself as a player in the region with some disturbing tentative support from Russia. We’re a little ways off from the Northwest Passage constituting a consistent trade route, but Canada’s Northern waters have already seen activity from organized crime. 

In 2007, a boat from Halifax allegedly sailed to Greenland, picked up a member of the Norwegian Hell’s Angels, and brought him over to Nunavut, before eventually being picked up by the RCMP on a delayed alert from the Coast Guard. It’s shit like that that gets scary if this country’s allies don’t allow it to govern the Northwest Passage. This trade route isn’t a straight shot like the Panama or Suez canals — the gaps between Nunavut’s islands are wide, and there are a lot of them fuckers. Smuggling could get bad quickly. 

A map of where the Northwest Passage will be, when it starts existing. Also, the Unleash the Archers cover of that song is an absolute banger, 10/10 recommend.

The last thing I want to touch on before I shut up about the Arctic is the whole China thing. I get  that the region is resource-rich and that when the ice melts, shipping and mining will explode, but China isn’t an Arctic state. Even the CCP can’t bullshit past this fact, which is why its Arctic policy identifies itself as a “near-Arctic state,” whatever that means. The policy lays out plans for infrastructure development that, much like its other infrastructure projects across countries in Africa, would expand the Communist Party’s influence into a region with burgeoning geopolitical significance. 

I’m not sure how China would be qualified to lead infrastructure development in the Arctic seeing as, again, it’s not an Arctic country, but facing down pressure from the West, Beijing might be willing to strike a deal with Russia, on which it already relies for cheap oil and lumber (remember the Siberian taiga from earlier). Tentative moves have already been made toward this end with new Russian reactors being installed in Chinese nuclear plants, accompanied by warm dialogue in contrast to both countries’ current relations with the U.S. and, in this specific case, Canada. 

Basically, the melting Arctic represents a huge threat to Canadian sovereignty from multiple angles, to the environment, to indigenous populations, and even to a Western dominant world order if this is the thing that brings China and Russia together. And that will all come to a head when the clock runs out. That’s why I said this conflict takes place in the future, not that there might be a conflict in the Arctic in the future. There is no ‘might.’ It might not represent a new Cold War, but it does represent a direct border between Russia and North America, and has managed to align the interests of the West’s two fiercest opponents, which is far from nothing. 

It’s hard to talk about the future, so I’m going to stop now, but my hope is only that you don’t forget about the Arctic when you’re stressing about all of the existential threats the modern world has to offer. When you take out your Mercator projection, don’t forget that the world is a damn sphere and those Northern countries are a lot closer than you think. This is not something you want your governments to drop the ball on, and I kind of think they already did. But we’ll find out. It’s just a matter of time. 


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