The Russian government is already signaling that it plans an activist approach during its three-year term as chair of the Arctic Council (see EDM, April 22, May 13, 26). It is scheduling various meetings to discuss how that regional body can be mobilized to promote Russian interests (Pnp.ru, November 27, 2020), including boosting the size of the Council’s secretariat and the role of Greenland, which is owned by Denmark and thus grants Copenhagen a seat on the Council. Recent events have convinced Moscow that it has a good chance to gain an important geopolitical victory in a place few in the West have focused on (National Accent, November 27, 2020).
The importance of Greenland in Russian thinking was heightened when former United States President Donald Trump suggested in August 2019 that Washington should purchase the enormous island from Copenhagen. This way, the US could gain access to Greenland’s vast mineral wealth and solidify the position of its military presence there—something many commentators described as having the potential to make Greenland “a second Alaska.” Given how central the Arctic is to President Vladimir Putin’s thinking about Russian security and how long Russian analysts have talked about opposing the West not primarily in the central zone but in outlying areas where Russia may have an advantage, such conclusions triggered a new round of discussions in Moscow about how the Russians should respond.
A decade earlier, Russian commentator Artur Indzhiyev argued in a book titled The Battle for the Arctic (in Russian; Moscow, 2011) that “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 [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] expansion [sic] should not be fought on our borders but on the territory of the Alliance.” Moscow promoted that idea through investing in propaganda; but its officials recognized that they were simply supporting a trend Greenlanders had already adopted rather than changing the direction of the island. Moscow they can do this easily and on the cheap given the small size of Greenland’s population. Indeed, Russia has already pursued similar initiatives against smaller member countries of other international organizations like the International Olympic Committee and the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) (see EDM, June 20, 2019; Vzglyad, April 26, 2018).
But in the wake of Trump’s remarks, which Denmark quickly and unambiguously rejected, Moscow expanded its attention to this issue and increased its activities in support of Greenland as an autonomous or even independent actor. Moscow-based analysts warned that Russia must be ready for conflicts with the West over Greenland and made an expansion in Moscow’s role there a primary goal of Russian policy (see EDM, May 19, 2020 and May 13, 2021). Having assumed the three-year rotating chairmanship of the Arctic Council last month, Moscow is in a stronger position than earlier to promote such goals; and there is growing evidence it is now doing just that.
By a happy coincidence from Russia’s point of view, just a month before Moscow took over the chair of the Arctic Council, Greenland held extraordinary parliamentary elections. Their results showed, as Moscow analyst Katerina Labetskaya of IMEMO argues in a recent Nezavisimaya Gazeta article, “a sharp growth in national self-consciousness, a striving to an independent role in the world arena, and greater independence from Denmark” (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 17). The senior Moscow specialist on the Arctic, in general, and Greenland, in particular, says that statements by members of the island’s new government indicate Greenland now wants to be the subject of politics rather than the object of Danish or Western plans. Moscow can and should back that position, Labetskaya asserts, especially since Greenland is becoming an ever more important place geopolitically due to ongoing regional changes caused by global warming.
At the Reykjavik meeting of the Arctic Council, where Moscow formally assumed the chair, Greenland’s delegation stressed that from now on, it intends to put the polar island’s interests above all in any discussions, although the officials stressed they were not looking to stir up fresh conflicts. After returning home, the delegation members expanded on this and declared they were developing their own Arctic strategy. It will likely diverge from Denmark’s 2020 document, but how different it will be, remains “an open question.” In Reykjavik, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov welcomed this new spirit of independent-mindedness among Greenlanders and invited Pele Broberg, the 48-year-old politician responsible for the island’s foreign policy, to come to Moscow. Such a visit might become the occasion for the opening of a Greenland office in the Russian capital. Greenland already has missions in Brussels, the US, and Iceland and will open one in Beijing by the end of this year. Russia, for its part, has appointed an honorary consul in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland.
Greenland’s increasingly independent stance has three important consequences, all of which Moscow is ready for and able to promote. First, it reduces the influence of Denmark on the island and thus opens the way for Russian development of mineral resources there. Second, it raises the question about the continuing local presence of US-NATO bases, even though Nuuk so far has denied discussing any change in their status. And third, it gives Moscow yet another ally in the Arctic when it comes to its claims to large portions of the seabed—notably, Broberg has said Greenland does not have any differences with Russia on that question (Mnr.gov.ru, November 18, 2019).
In short, and at a time when most of the world is looking anywhere but at Greenland, the 60,000 people of that island are seeking to play a more independent role, having concluded that the autonomy they currently enjoy from Denmark is not enough. Not surprisingly, officials in Moscow are both promoting and exploiting this both because of the importance of Greenland itself and because any shift in the island’s position could have a profound impact on the Arctic Council: it could eliminate one of its NATO members (Denmark) and give Russia a geopolitical victory against the West at apparently low cost—unless and until the West decides to make the status of Greenland an issue of its own.