Winter 2022

Reducing Risks in the Arctic During a Time of Increased Volatility

– Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod

With new opportunities come new challenges, including a dramatically changed security environment.

Last year in May, I had the pleasure of participating in the Arctic Council Ministerial meeting in Reykjavik. To me, this meeting once again confirmed the immense value of the Council and the constructive cooperation that we have among the Arctic States. However, there remain issues in the Arctic that must be considered outside the Council; the increased risk of misperceptions and unintended military incidents is one such issue that we must address.

Sweeping changes are taking place in the Arctic. Global warming, with all its disastrous effects, also makes the Arctic more accessible. A more accessible region, along with increased global attention, means greater potential for economic development, benefiting the people living in the Arctic. Reaping the fruits of new opportunities is at the center of common efforts from the Arctic States to secure constructive development of the region.

With these new opportunities, however, come new challenges. A key challenge is that the global security context has changed dramatically. The cold winds of the renewed global great power competition have reached the Arctic and North Atlantic regions, putting considerable pressure on the shared goal of maintaining low tension in the region. 

This could lead to increased tensions, if not handled properly. Civilian activity in the region has expanded, and the ambitions of non-Arctic States have risen due to the growing interest in the Arctic’s natural resources, sea routes, and the desire to influence Arctic issues. 

We must be clear-eyed about the situation. We need to build situational awareness, defense, and deterrence to prevent conflict.

At the same time, we see that both Arctic and non-Arctic States have increasingly directed their military focus toward the region. Russia has put significant resources into strengthening regional military capabilities. The build-up is primarily defensive in nature, but increasingly includes offensive elements. Most notably, the build-up includes reinforcement of its Arctic military bases, with a special focus on tactical air force capabilities and new hypersonic missiles that can reach and jeopardize both warships and other critical military installations in the area. Apart from the military implications, this has had a significant psychological and political effect, creating a sense of increased vulnerability throughout the region. 

This has prompted other Arctic States to strengthen their Arctic military capabilities and secure situational awareness. The Kingdom of Denmark also has increased its presence in the North Atlantic and the Arctic. With a 240 million USD capability package, we are strengthening our surveillance, command, control, and communications in the region from 2023 onward.

Danish Thetis-class vessel in Greenland. Thetis-class vessels are used for asserting sovereignty, supporting civil authorities, as well as carrying out fisheries inspections and search and rescue operations. Photo courtesy Brian Djurslev.

We must be clear-eyed about the situation. We need to build situational awareness, defense, and deterrence to prevent conflict. The immediate problem is that the unpredictability and lack of transparency present challenges to all Arctic States. The potential for misperceptions and the risk of unintended military incidents – or even conflicts – increase when more military assets are present in the region unless appropriate risk-reducing measures are established. 

These developments create uncertainty, potentially hinder economic investments, and thus imperil the development of a safe, stable, peaceful, and prosperous Arctic, demonstrating the urgent need to address security risks in the region. 

Strong Institutions and the Need for Risk Mitigation Measures 

Current cooperation in the Arctic is based on international law, norms, and strong institutions. In many ways, the Arctic is unique with increasing breadth and depth of regional cooperation compared to other geographical areas. The 2008 Ilulissat Declaration encapsulated the shared goal of the coastal Arctic States to ensure that the Arctic region develops in a safe, stable, peaceful, and prosperous way, to benefit the people living in the Arctic and beyond, and clarified that differences must be solved peacefully through dialogue.  

The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) sets a common framework, while institutions like the Arctic Council are deeply rooted, constructive, and trust-building. However, the Arctic Council does not, and should not, have a mandate to handle security policy. This leaves us with few measures in place to address the challenges of unpredictability, lack of transparency, misperceptions, and risk of unintended military incidents. 

It is in the interest of all Arctic States to confront the growing unpredictability of Arctic security and insist on full Russian transparency.

The new security risks in the Arctic region are also directly exacerbated by the absence of consistent opportunities and dedicated tools to mitigate risks before or after they surface. Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the Arctic Chiefs of Defense forum was discontinued while the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable continued without Russia, leaving the Arctic states with no fora for multilateral military dialogue. Except for the Open Skies Treaty, which is in crisis, other traditional arms control, or confidence- and security-building measures do not apply to the region.

A complex security situation, more military assets and activities, and the lack of appropriate tools to manage the risks of unintended incidents create a potentially dangerous cocktail that must be tackled. 

Addressing the Challenge

It is vital to introduce measures that can mitigate and reduce current and future security risks in the Arctic. 

The timing is certainly not conducive for establishing new fora, and the road ahead is now seriously challenged by recent aggressive and completely unacceptable Russian actions in and near Ukraine. Nevertheless, it is in the interest of all Arctic States to confront the growing unpredictability of Arctic security and insist on full Russian transparency. The ominous developments elsewhere have made it even more pertinent to address risk reduction in the Arctic. It is crucial that potential initiatives are carefully tailored to the geopolitical and environmental developments in the region, and are guided by our common goal of low tension. It is also imperative that new initiatives build upon what already exists and works. 

As a first step, we need to develop a comprehensive overview of security risks and potential corresponding measures to inform discussions between Arctic States and the political choices at hand. This work should occur in consultation with all the relevant states and the involvement of leading international experts. I am, therefore, pleased to announce that the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs is working with the Wilson Center’s Polar Institute to develop a Risk Reduction Matrix, outlining a broad range of potential bilateral and multilateral measures that could help address key security risks in the Arctic. 

Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod in Greenland in May 2021. Photo courtesy of Sissel Christine Søe, Danish MFA.

Potential risk reducing measures include the expansion of cooperation between Coast Guards (or equivalent bodies) of respective Arctic States, bilaterally and through the Arctic Coast Guard Forum. The existing cooperation could be leveraged to further build good relations and communication. Even incremental improvements would be valuable to all states in terms of building mutual trust that could have a ripple effect beyond the very important and practical cooperation itself.

Another example could be to explore technically and politically viable ways to establish networks of communication to rely upon in the case of a security incident. Alternatively, a common agreement or understanding — with specific guidelines— could be developed to establish bilateral mediation channels. If successfully implemented, this could further expand over time. 

Setting out a clear understanding of the risks and creating an overview of the possible mitigating measures could lead to selecting relevant measures for further development. This would not change security dynamics overnight, but it could lay the groundwork for forging a new interlocking security and confidence-building Arctic network. The scope and participants of such a network should be able to evolve over time and consist of practical bilateral and multilateral measures to reduce risks and increase transparency, together with common principles of international law. The resulting system of measures and mutual understanding could be a strong antidote against growing security risks, and would clearly be advantageous to our common security interests.

Looking Ahead

The Arctic States have a special role and responsibility to maintain peace and security in the region, but close coordination with all relevant state and non-state stakeholders is vital. For The Kingdom of Denmark, the issue of reducing risks in the Arctic at a time of increasing volatility is essential, and a personal priority of mine as Foreign Minister. 

I will therefore work to establish an interlocking security and confidence-building network that, in the spirit of the 2008 Ilulissat Declaration, contributes to dialogue and predictability among Arctic States. My intention is to chart the best way forward, first and foremost with our partners in the Arctic, but also to engage those with trusted expertise and sincere Arctic interests.

Our common goal must still be, as the Ilulissat Declaration stated, to ensure that the region develops in a safe, stable, peaceful, and prosperous way—to the benefit of the people living in the Arctic and beyond.

Jeppe Kofod was appointed Minister for Foreign Affairs of Denmark on June 27, 2019. Before that he was a Member of the European Parliament (2014-2019), where he served as Vice President of the Socialists & Democrats group and Vice Chairman of the EU-U.S. Delegation. Mr. Kofod started his political career as Member of the Danish Parliament for the Social Democratic Party (1998-2014), serving as Chairman (2011-2013) and Vice-Chairman (2001-2008), respectively, of the Foreign Policy Committee of the Danish Parliament. Mr. Kofod holds a Master of Public Administration from Harvard University (2006-2007) and he graduated from Roskilde University in 2004 (BA.scient.soc.).

Cover photo: Danish Thetis-class vessel in Greenland. Thetis-class vessels are used for asserting sovereignty, supporting civil authorities, as well as carrying out fisheries inspections and search and rescue operations. Photo courtesy Brian Djurslev.