To carry out its grand strategy in the Arctic, Russia relies on eroding the positions of other regional players. Denmark, a fellow member of the Arctic Council, is seen by Moscow as a relatively easy target, since Copenhagen can only remain an official stakeholder as long as it maintains control over Greenland and the Faroe Islands (FI). In his 2010 book, Battle for the Arctic, Artur Indzhiev argues that “Greenland and the Faroe Islands could scramble the West’s plans in its struggle for Arctic resources… This could be used by Russia to obtain possession of Arctic treasures and deliver a blow to the unity of NATO [the North Atlantic Treaty Organization—of which Denmark is a member]…” Specifically he recommends that “Russia has to use the mounting tensions [between Denmark and its Arctic possessions] for its [Moscow’s] own benefit… [by weakening] the Danish claims. Second, we will pay them [the West] back in kind for their anti-Russian policy and support of the Chechen separatists [sic].”
Russia’s actual policies vis-à-vis Greenland and the Faroe Island are, in fact, more elaborate and far-reaching than even Indzhiev’s recommendations. And they are presently based on the following three pillars:
– The first is public diplomacy, with the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) having become one of the key actors on Moscow’s behalf. Illustratively, on June 1–4, 2019, ROC Metropolitan Anthony (head of the Diocese of Korsun and the Patriarchal Exarchate in Western Europe) visited the Faroe Islands with the explicit blessing of Patriarch Kirill. There, Anthony met with the mayor of Runavík, Tórbjørn Jacobsen, and with Arni Dam, the honorary consul of Russia to the FI. According to the ROC, one of the main subjects discussed pertained to the possibility of opening the first parish of the Moscow Patriarchate on these Arctic islands (Patriarchia.ru, June 4). Aside from the Orthodox Church, Russia’s efforts are also backed by various cultural and scientific initiatives. Between May 22 and 23, the A. M. Gorky Institute of World Literature, the M. I. Rudomino All-Russian State Library for Foreign Literature, as well as the Russia-Iceland Friendship Society (supported from Moscow by the Embassy of Iceland and the Representation of the Faroe Islands) held a joint conference in the Russian capital. The event, entitled “Interconnection of Cultures in the Arctic Region: Russia–Iceland–the FI (Literature, Language, Culture),” put special emphasis on political developments in the region. Importantly, the conference program underscored that “the Icelanders and the Faroese are indigenous populations of the Arctic region,” thus implying that Danish ties to the region are not inherent (Imli.ru, accessed June 5).
– The second pillar of Russian policy involves building up economic leverage. Ever since Europe and the United States introduced sanctions against Russia in 2014 (for the latter’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea), Moscow has been searching for a “weak spot” in the Western alliance. The fact that the autonomous government of the FI not only refused to join Western efforts, but actually intensified economic cooperation with Moscow, invigorated the Russian side (Regnum, March 23, 2017). And this economic cooperation was further buttressed in March 2015 with the creation of the above-mentioned Faroe Islands diplomatic office in Moscow and Arni Dam later becoming Russia’s honorary consul to the FI (Government.fo, Faroeagency.fo, accessed June 6). The Russian media, in turn, has held up the FI as an example of “non-alignment with anti-Russian sanctions [being] a path to economic growth.” For instance, in an interview with Radio Sputnik last year, Russian political scientist Aleksey Zudin insisted, “The Faroe Islands in this case are a clear embodiment of what countries that supported sanctions lose. …those [countries] that imposed sanctions [were] ‘punished.’ ” For instance, a quarter of the FI’s seafood exports (increased to $383 million since 2013) now goes to Russia, which has substituted EU producers (Radio Sputnik, December 29, 2018).
– The final element of the Russian policy toward Greenland and the FI is anti-Danish and anti-American information operations (IO). Russia actively uses economic arguments as a means to undermine the relationships between the FI and Greenland on the one hand and Denmark and the Western alliance on the other. Namely, Moscow argues that with its population of approximately 50,000 people, the FI are heavily dependent on fisheries (around 95 percent of all exports), and their “annual subsidy annually received from Copenhagen is not nearly enough to justify Denmark’s interference in local affairs” (Sputnik News.com, December 29, 2019).
In dealing with Greenland, Russian IOs are even more elaborate, targeting not only Denmark but US-Danish relations as well. The main argument put forward by Russian media is that the US presence in Greenland (and Copenhagen’s acquiescence to it) are ruining the local economy and environment. Russian outlets thus extensively quote local activists and opposition forces, such as lawmaker Sara Olsvig, who promote this narrative (Sputnik News, September 26, 2016). Pro-Kremlin media sources also encourage the Greenland authorities to assume a tougher stance toward Copenhagen and push it to “denounce the treaty of 1951, which allowed Washington to establish 33 military and satellite bases in Greenland… including the Camp Century military scientific research base… that are ruining the local environment” (RT, November 26, 2016). Even more pointedly, a Regnum news story from 2016 characterized Greenland as the US’s “trash bin” (Regnum, October 18, 2016). Russian media carefully selects opinions from local public figures that are in line with this argument. For example, Vittus Qujaukitsoq (a former Greenland minister of finance, minerals and of foreign affairs) was quoted by Sputnik News saying, “For 75 years, the Americans’ presence has been nothing but trouble, nothing but environmental pollution, and it has created a crisis of trust between Greenland and Denmark.” Thus, he argued, the autonomous government in Nuuk would like to have more direct say over Greenland’s fishing industry (90 percent of exports), which, if taken under the Arctic island’s full control (along with other natural resources), would easily replace the subsidy of $550 million it receives every year from the Danish budget (Sputnik News, December 14, 2016).
As Indziev notes in his 2010 book (see above), “When the population of Greenland starts pursuing a more independent policy, it will rid itself of American military bases… What we need to do, is to help them in their struggle for independence… which could trigger similar sentiments in Alaska and Canada. Russia should understand one thing—the fight against NATO’s expansion should not be fought on our borders, but on the territory of the Alliance.”