A little less quiet on the northern front | Polarjournal
Thule Air Base: something American in the state of Denmark (Photo: Heiner Kubny)

If there is one theme that runs through Denmark’s annual threat assessment, it is the increasingly tense relations amongst the United States, China and Russia. Directly or indirectly, the three powers are expected to drive developments that influence all of seven of the main issues that will be of concern for the Danish intelligence community in the coming year.

“The balance of power amongst the United States, China and Russia is shifting. This poses a challenge to Western alliances and partnerships, such as Nato and the EU, that are of crucial importance for Denmark,” the assessment, compiled by the FE, Denmark’s external intelligence agency, and published at the end of December, states.

As with previous years, the assessment predicts that collaboration, rather than conflict, will be the order of the day in the region in 2022 , and that China, in spite of all the fearmongering, will continue to have limited influence.

That convivial relations remain possible is thanks to the continued efforts of Arctic countries not to make disagreements in other regions become their own. This is important to Moscow in particular, since it pushes the Arctic as a stable investment environment.

As a result, “low-tension” will remain a defining characteristic of relations in the region, but, with all three powers now taking a military interest in the Arctic, the FE has added “unintended conflict” and “escalation” to its watchwords.

The FE gives Russia’s military build-up along its Northern reaches partial blame for the situation. To be sure, the FE accepts that Moscow has always had an edge over potential rivals in the North, and that its new military capacity there is “primarily defensive” in its posture, but that does not, the assessment warns, mean that it cannot be used to threaten Western interests in the Arctic or further south.

The West’s response, in the form of a military build-up of its own, has not made it harder for Arctic countries to get along, and, in fact, Moscow is seeking to use its chairmanship of Arctic Council and the Arctic Economic Council, two groups in which all eight Arctic countries are represented, more clout. Still, the FE expects that, with the region now entering into the strategy-making of military brass on both sides, the Kremlin will increasingly need to put Russia’s security interests over its economic interests.

This great-power rivalry reduces Denmark to a bit player in how the Arctic shapes up, the FE admits (according to the assessment, that will be a matter, firstly, of how relations between Russia and the America develop, and, secondly, the rivalry between the America and China globally) but, for the Danes, this has always been the lot of the small country. Less palatable in Copenhagen will be the potential influence this has on relations within the Kingdom of Denmark, which is made up of Denmark, Greenland and the Faroe Islands.

A game of letters (Image: Naalakkersuisut)
Click to to view full letter

One concern is that Russia and China will use espionage and misinformation to seek to drive a wedge between Copenhagen, Nuuk and Tórshavn. A letter (pictured above) that was purportedly sent from Greenland’s foreign minister to a US senator in 2019 suggesting that its independence was imminent is a sign to FE that these types of shenanigans are already going on, though it has never publicly named the suspected source of the letter.

More likely, though, is that the three countries will find somethings to disagree about in the realm of foreign relations without outside involvement. Denmark remains responsible for defence and foreign affairs for the entire kingdom, but Greenland and the Faroe Islands are free to establish limited official ties with other countries. One of the results of this has been that the Faroe Islands has been able to turn a tidy profit by continuing to export salmon to Russia after Denmark and other European countries imposed sanctions on Russia after the 2014 annexation of Crimea.

Greenland, for its part, welcomes what the FE describes as China’s “long-term” interests in its nascent mining industry, even though Denmark is less keen on it. For the time being, no projects that rely on Chinese money are underway. Moreover, Chinese interest appears to have cooled off, which, the FE — in keeping with the theme of its assessment — reckons, may be tied to the increase in American activity there in recent years.

Kevin McGwin

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