Arctic Equipment Upgrade: Denmark has ordered nine extreme climate MH-60R Seahawk helicopters to operate off new frigate and patrol craft. (MC2 Shannon E. Renfroe/US Navy)
HELSINKI — The Ukrainian crisis has rekindled doubts and reopened old insecurities among the Nordic nations as to whether Russia’s military intervention could sour years of bridge-building and cooperation in the High North and wider Arctic regions.
The regional instability caused by Russia’s involvement in Ukraine and Crimea will be at the forefront of talks May 26-27 when Nordic prime ministers meet in Iceland.
Nordic governments are eager to consolidate capacity-building cross-border projects and enhance military asset-sharing to improvesecurity and defense in the region.
“Naturally, the situation in Ukraine and the challenges it presents for defense, foreign policy and political security in this region will be discussed, as will other important issues, including the next NATO summit,” said Antti Vänskä, a special adviser to Finland’s Ministry of Defense.
The “Russia factor” is reinforcing interest among Nordic nations to strengthen High North cooperation. Alongside defense, Norway and Finland added an Arctic partnership to their bilateral relationship on May 14, deepening cooperation in economic and scientific collaboration.
Russia’s scaled-up war games in the High North, and large-scale exercises by combined Russian forces along Finland’s 833-mile eastern border with Russia, serve as a constant reminder of the challenges faced by the Nordic states, individually and collectively, said Børge Brende, Norway’s foreign minister.
“A lot of effort has gone into developing strong economic and defense cooperation ties with Russia in recent years. Cooperation is always preferable to tension and instability. Nordic nations share common interests such as security, economic development and environmental concerns with Russia. We will continue to talk, but we must remain vigilant,” Brende said.
Regional unease over Russia’s intervention in Ukraine has intensified in the face of increasing military activity by Russian forces, particularly since mid-April, in the Arctic High North.
The growing number of war games and combined forces’ exercises by Russia in the High North has caused a spike in the number of incidents involving Russian fighters and bombers flying close to Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Finnish and Icelandic airspace.
Since mid-April, Danish and Norwegian F-16 fighters have been regularly scrambled to shadow Tupolev Tu-95 bombers. Likewise, British and Dutch fighters are routinely airborne to deal with Tu-95 and Tu-22M3 bombers, often escorted by Su-27, Su-34, Su-24M and MiG-31 fighters operating out of air bases in Murmansk on the Kola Peninsula.
“While there have been no actual violations of national airspace, Russian aircraft taking part in some of these war games have flown alarmingly close to the Norwegian, Swedish, Danish and even German coastlines. A lot of the traffic is routine, but some of it is new and quite strategic, and clearly intended to test the radar tracking performance and airborne response times of the individual Nordic and Baltic states,” said Stefan Eriksson, a Stockholm-based political analyst.
The depth of Nordic unease at the increase in Russian war game stealth flights rose in March when a Scandinavian Airline plane came within 90 meters of a Russian Ilyushin Il-20 surveillance aircraft, which was flying without an engaged transponder, thus rendering it invisible to all but primary military radar. The airline was alerted to the danger by Sweden’s Military Airspace Surveillance Unit.
Denmark and Norway are already allocating more than one-third of their entire military budgets to High North operations, including Arctic-capable extreme weather equipment procurement and manpower.
The stakes, in terms of ensuring sovereignty over their large Arctic territories, are high for both countries, and especially so as they sharpen investment strategies to increase oil and gas commercialization in areas bordering Russia and its Arctic areas.
With large-scale merchant fleets, Denmark and Norway are also pushing to develop trade along the Northern Sea Route, which could cut over a week off ship journeys between Europe and Asia, giving shipping companies a cheaper option to using the Suez or Panama canals.
“The melting ice cap will not only open up more areas of the Arctic to mineral development, it will also increase the mobility of European and Asian ships via the Russia-managed Northern Sea Route between the two geo-areas. Cooperation between the Arctic states will be key to future economic development,” said Arild Moe, a senior energy analyst with the Arctic-focused and Oslo-based Fridtjof Nansen Institute. “In this regard, Norway’s border treaty with Russia certainly helps reduce disputes and tensions.”
After 40 years of negotiations, Norway and Russia activated a landmark maritime delimitation treaty in 2010 covering once disputed areas in the Barents Sea. The treaty gives both countries the right to conduct oil and gas resource surveys and mapping in the Barents Sea, identifying prospective wells for possible commercial exploitation.
“Rather than disputes, we are seeing cooperation between Russia and Norway in developing the area’s mineral potential. Russia is eager to use superior Norwegian mapping and drilling technologies to locate and commercialize oil and gas deposits. This kind of relationship works to the self interests of both countries,” Moe said.
The security building measures being undertaken by Norway and Denmark will continue at pace. The core of Norway’s defense assets, including the planned F-35 joint strike fighter aircraft, extreme weather-dedicated rapid response forces and proposed new submarines, will be based inside or close to the Arctic circle. Norway’s Arctic territory covers 80,249 square miles.
In the case of Denmark, whose Arctic territories, including Greenland, extend to 1.6 million square miles, the Danish Defense Forces’ decision to establish an Arctic Command outside Greenland’s capital of Nuuk in October 2012 is connected to a government plan to build more useable Arctic-equipped air, land, naval and specialized forces to protect Denmark’s expanding commercial interests in the region.
Major recent equipment procurement programs run by Norway and Denmark are specifically directed at bolstering their ability to operate more effectively, and cost efficiently, in the Arctic.
Denmark added the blue ocean Arctic-class Iver Huitfeldt frigates and Knud Rasmussen-class ice-strengthened offshore patrol ships to its fleet. Additionally, Denmark ordered nine extreme climate MH-60R Seahawk helicopters to operate off new frigate and patrol craft. These are due to be delivered in 2016-2018.
Apart from the F-35s, Norway’s Arctic capacity-building initiatives have focused on acquiring Fridtjof Nansen frigates and strategic naval vessels. A new Arctic-class signals ship, the Ny Marjata, will be delivered in 2016.
The ship is being outfitted at the Vard Lansten shipyard in Norway.
“This is a vital project to ensure Norway’s interests in the High North. It constitutes a modern capacity to support our intelligence needs over the coming 30 years,” said Lt. Gen. Kjell Grandhagen, the head of the Armed Force’s Military Intelligence Unit.
At 126 meters long with a 23.5-meter beam, the Ny Marjata is substantially larger than the existing Marjata signals ship.
For Norway and Denmark, future Arctic acquisitions will focus on larger, more multi-tasking and longer-range drones to cover the more remote regions. Nordic state collaboration to acquire a shared communications satellite for Arctic territories is also a strong possibility.
Nordic militaries will be observing the advances and drone modernization program run by Russia in the High North.
In April, the Northern Fleet’s motorized brigade established a new short- and long-range drone unit. Equipped with night vision cameras, the Granat, Zastava and Orlan surveillance type unmanned aerial vehicles have a range of six to 95 miles. ■