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International Relations and Defence Committee

Corrected oral evidence: The Arctic

Wednesday 17 May 2023

10.30 am


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Members present: Lord Ashton of Hyde (The Chair); Lord Anderson of Swansea; Lord Boateng; Lord Campbell of Pittenweem; Baroness Coussins; Baroness Morris of Bolton; Lord Robertson of Port Ellen; Lord Soames of Fletching; Lord Stirrup; Baroness Sugg; Lord Teverson; Lord Wood of Anfield.

Evidence Session No. 4              Heard in Public              Questions 54 – 61



I: Professor Niklas Eklund, Professor of Political Science, Chair of politics and public administration, Umeå University, Sweden; Minna Ålander, Research Fellow, Finnish Institute of International Affairs.






Examination of witnesses

Minna Ålander and Professor Niklas Eklund.

Q54            The Chair: Good morning. Thank you very much for coming via the wonders of technology. It is very nice of you, and we are very grateful. This is our fourth evidence session in our inquiry into the Arctic. We will concentrate today on the interests and concerns of Finland and Sweden.

This is a public session that is being streamed live on the Parliament website, and a transcript will be sent to you, once it is available, so that you can check that everything has been recorded correctly. I remind members that if they have interests pertinent to the inquiry they should declare them when they first speak. To our two witnesses, if you could briefly introduce yourselves when you answer the first question, that would be very helpful for us.

We are looking at Sweden’s and Finland’s approach. To what extent does the Arctic feature as a distinct area? That might sound obvious, given that you are both Arctic states, but only 3% of the population lives there, and I believe it is a declining population. How important is the Arctic as an issue for policymakers in your country? What are your two countries’ main objectives for the Arctic?

Minna Ålander: I am a research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. As a fun fact, I am one of the people in the 3% population in the Arctic. I was born and raised there. I live in Helsinki now.

For Finland, the Arctic is certainly a distinct area of interest. Apart from the population, the Lapland region is one of the largest in the territory of in Finland. Finland has had regular Arctic strategies, for example. The focus of Finnish Arctic policy has been very much on soft policy fields so far: international co-operation in the area; climate change, which is the utmost priority; and how to secure livelihoods. There is also the Sámi population and their own issues, which are a frequent feature of how we in the Arctic region secure their traditional livelihoods and so on.

It is a region with particular challenges because it is so very sparsely populated and the distances are so vast. I would like to highlight that the last Arctic strategy Finland published in 2021 also brought the growing tensions in the security environment into the situational picture of the Arctic. In the Finnish Government’s 2021 defence policy report, the traditionally very strong focus on security and defence in the Baltic Sea region has shifted towards viewing the wider Arctic, North Atlantic and Baltic Sea region as one coherent strategic area.

Professor Niklas Eklund: I am also one of the few per cent. I am a professor at Umeå University in the north of Sweden, although originally I was from the south to begin with.

A lot of the things that Minna is saying about the high north of Finland will also be true for the high north of Sweden. This is why you can see, in security political terms, how Sweden and Finland have tried to move in lockstep and enter NATO at the same time and so on. In purely geopolitical terms, Sweden and Finland share a lot of things in this part of the world. The sparsity of the population is just one of them.

I would add, though, that we have significant economic interests in our respective norths. In Sweden, this has really been exacerbated in policy terms of late. I will probably get back to that as we enter into other questions and issues today.

On the level of policy and the Swedish policy change, what does Sweden want out of this? There is one important thing to note. This also echoes some of the things that Minna said for Finland. In the case of Sweden, the current Swedish Arctic policy is from 2020. We all know that war unfortunately came back to Europe in February 2022. There is just no exaggerating the knock-on effect this has had on the importance of security and security perspectives vis-à-vis the Arctic and the European high north.

If you look at the current Swedish policy, which is from 2020, to begin with you will find all the normal things. The first section stipulates very clearly that peaceful, stable and sustainable development in the Arctic is a key national interest to Sweden. You will also find that there is an element of looking for constructive international co-operation. This is what the policy said before the whole security situation in Europe changed so drastically. There is, of course, no way of telling right now. I cannot sit here as an academic and pretend that I know what will be in the next Arctic policy, but my sense is that the proportions will change somewhat when it comes to Swedish policy, with security definitely moved up as opposed to the softer values that the 2020 policy speaks of.

There is one more thing I would like to add. I will only talk about Sweden. The Swedish north is very interesting today because it is riddled with uncertainties relating to the developments inside Sweden and what positions Sweden might take in the future as regards northern areas.

We have a lack of population; as you mentioned, we are very sparsely populated. We have a few city areas that are booming, and a lot of that is to do with the green industrial initiative that was quite recently taken by industry in northern Sweden. If we had more people up here, the whole place would be rocking, basically, which is interesting. The shortage of people in the area is an interesting factor.

A lot of investment is coming our way currently. Depending on what happens to Swedish migration policy, over the next few years you will see an influx of people to the high north in Sweden. That may or may not be significant, but, if industry gets its way, a lot of growth will be happening in this part of the country.

Generally, Swedish Governments will look to participate in a rules-based system. The idea of a rules-based world is crucial to any and all Swedish Governments, regardless of what part of the right/left scale they are on.

Lastly, on policy development and the increasing interest in security issues and so on, what will probably colour the next policy more seriously than the last one is that the US, China and Russia come head to head in our part of the world. We should remember the old adage about the Arctic not deciding for itself and not being populous enough to have a democratic view about what goes on, and that what happens in the Arctic is always decided by and steered by things happening in other parts of the world. We can never forget, including at the level of policy in all the Nordic countries, that in our part of Europe, which is the European Arctic, the US, China and Russia go head to head.

Q55            Baroness Coussins: I would like to ask you about the governance of the Arctic and what impact on Finland and Sweden there has been following the suspension of co-operation by the seven other Arctic states with Russia following the invasion of Ukraine. Has that had a particular impact on Finland and/or Sweden? How do you regard the future governance of the Arctic in this context?

In particular, Minna, you might also include a comment on how Finland sees the role of the indigenous people’s permanent representation within the governance of the Arctic, which has been one of the important features up to now. I noticed that one of Finland’s strategic priorities is stated as the will to promote and protect the rights of indigenous people, so how do you see that being preserved and protected within future governance?

Minna Ålander: On governance structures, that is correct. Co-operation with Russia has now been suspended on all levels, including the scientific. Norway still has some search and rescue co-operation with Russia in the Arctic waters, and on fishery issues, which is a big issue for Norway. Other than those, more or less everything is on hold indefinitely. This is quite an issue, especially for scientific co-operation on weather data, for example. This seems to present a big problem on a global scale, because Russia’s territory is so large that if you do not get weather data from there, weather forecasting accuracy overall might suffer.

There is the distinct problem right now that, because the Arctic has been considered a zone of peaceful co-operation and there has been this narrative of a certain kind of Arctic exceptionalism, the Arctic is somehow secluded from developments elsewhere in the world. Softer forms of co-operation have been very resistant to any other kinds of tensions, especially with Russia. They withstood the invasion of Georgia, the first invasion of Ukraine and Russia’s campaign in Syria, and only now has this been brought to halt.

That is quite significant, at least in Finland, where a recent government-commissioned report assessed the future outlook as very bleak because of Russia's growing military assertiveness in the region and, as Niklas mentioned, because there are so many great-power interests there, including China and the US, due to this whole security dimension coming into the picture in a much bigger way.

There has been a lot of co-operation on environmental issues, which is also a challenge. Half of the European Arctic is in Russian territory. Co-operation has been resumed without Russia among the Arctic seven. If you look at the Arctic as a whole, there is only half a point in co-operating without Russia because it is so vast and it has such a long Arctic coastline and, if Russia does not care, that is a problem.

There have been co-operation issues. Russia has often used co-operation in relation to environmental concerns, which are very important to the Nordic countries, to advance its own other interests in a covert manner. I can give you more examples of that later, but this has also been the case in the Baltic Sea region. Quite recently, there was a report about Russia’s strategy and how it means to use environmental co-operation and environmental concerns as a smokescreen for other activities in the Baltic Sea region. That has, to an extent, also been the case in the Arctic. There is the problem that, if and when co-operation is resumed, there can be no illusions about Russia as an actor, in that it is very unlikely to act entirely in good faith, we can no longer be naive about this, and we have to assume that Russia may well use co-operation formats against us. It is, unfortunately, a very pessimistic outlook currently.

The Sámi population is quite a contested political issue in Finland. The Government have it in their strategies that the Sámi people’s livelihoods and position must be improved and protected. Last year, there was a parliamentary vote on Sámi rights, and it failed.[1] Our previous Prime Minister, Sanna Marin, got quite a lot of criticism for not managing to get one party in particular in the Government, the Centre Party, to vote.

The Centre Party is an interesting political party, in the sense that it is very strong in the Lapland region, but it very much represents the interests of Finns in the region, not the Sámi people. Unfortunately, the Sámi people are too few to have their own party that would advance their interests on a national scale.

This remains a somewhat contested issue because there are, for example, a lot of mining interests in Lapland, which often do not fit well with Sámi people’s traditional livelihoods and land use rights. There are quite frequent disputes, and this continues to be a political issue in Finland.

Professor Niklas Eklund: As regards governance in the Arctic, from 2011 onwards, Sweden has taken a very active role. I have published before on this. I have studied the enthusiasm with which Sweden joined the Arctic Council, and all the measures taken. There was a lot of hope on the part of Sweden, until only a few years ago, that the Arctic Council would be the model for the future and the Arctic.

If you follow Swedish policy and how it evolved from 2010 to today, you will see that there isto use the same expression Minna used a minute agoa somewhat naive wish to believe in rules-based governance, even in the Arctic. As things have changed, you will not find anybody in the Swedish Government today saying the same things or having the same ideals in front of their eyes. The element of pragmatism that has snuck into Swedish policy and practice when it comes to these issues makes Swedish and Finnish positions more alike than dissimilar.

It is the same for Sweden, particularly for researchers. Something that we have lamented and that has been in the press and even public debates is the fact that we are missing out on so much information now. We used to have good research connections and co-operation, not least in natural sciences and weather sciences, and this is no longer happening. In Sweden, we also had a system of local governments with sister cities or municipalities. They still do in a lot of countries, but we also have those in Russia and everything is just cut off. Part of the public discussion currently is, “Is this really for good or ill?” We are flying blind, or at least that is the sense of it. We do not know what the Russians are up to right now. There are probably a bunch of things that we should be talking to them about, but we cannot and we do not. I cannot add anything on policy to what Minna described just now.

There have been a number of major legal cases lately—when I say “lately”, I mean over the past 20 years—where the issue of indigenous people’s rights has been tested. More often than not, the Sámi situation in Sweden comes up against the fact that the minority of Sámi are the ones who live in the north, herd reindeer and live traditional lives hunting, fishing and that type of thing. The majority of Sámi live in the southas Swedes, as it were, but in big cities.

The Sámi diasporaif I may use that expressionis quite significant in Sweden. This has led to a very interesting development. Originally, Swedish law was that only the Sámi who were designated as reindeer herders could claim land in the north of Sweden. This was recently challenged by another legal case. Even the Sámi organisations and the Sámi Parliament—we have one of those in Sweden as well—are opening up to the fact that it may be a good idea to let other Sámi in as well, to move towards more of a cultural definition, in order to build up their strength but also to safeguard the rights of diaspora Sámi who are not reindeer herders but who still identify as Sámi and to whom the homeland is significant. I am a political scientist by training and with uninhibited habits. To me, this thing is in flux and I am not ready to pronounce on it, but it is undergoing change.

Lastly, again in the case of Sweden, this ties in with the fact that we have industrial expansion in northern Sweden right now. Energy taken from water power is a traditional bone of contention between the majority of society or modern society, if I may call it that, and the Sámi population. Those things were regulated decades ago. The power stations are there and the Sámi have learned to live with them and try to bypass that type of structure.

The same thing can be said for mineral resource extraction, which is another major league Swedish export and a huge industry. The thing right now that is going on, though, is that we have an energy crisis. We recently had a serious one and are still in the aftermath. The Government are paying a lot of attention to and beginning to spend money on building out or expanding wind turbines, for instance.

Here is an interesting political conundrum for you all to think about. In the north of Sweden, we currently have several different interests at loggerheads. One is the governmental interest, which is, “Let’s expand wind power. Let us build these windmills or turbines all over the country. Particularly where the weather is slightly harsh, with a lot of wind and so on, it would work perfectly, not least in the north of Sweden”.

The second interest is our defence forces, which are specialists in the area. You cannot build them anywhere, because that goes against the interests of security, with fly zones and that type of thing. The Swedish defence is still out to lunch as regards how much we can expand on this. We cannot just build them anywhere. You have the Sámi saying, “You’re at it again. You’ll steal our land. You’ll build these huge things that’ll scare our reindeer”.

The fourth interest is business interests. This ties in with the security dilemma and is something that you in Britain will recognise from the Huawei affair a few years ago. A lot of what is done in building these huge wind turbines is dependent on Chinese exports and, to some extent, on what may or may not be a hybrid threat for the future, which is the Chinese control capabilities of this.

There is this hugely interesting mix. If you listen to Swedish media todaythe Government chime in—you will find that this greening of industry and the bright future for the high north is well under way and everybody believes in it. It will be a new phenomenon and something that will show the rest of Europe how terrific things can be in the high north, industrially and so on. However, the four interests that I just counted off on my fingers are not really compatible. We are in a situation right now where, from a policy point of view, there are a lot of difficulties still waiting to come to the surface.

Q56            Lord Boateng: Professor Eklund, we have heard about Sweden’s commitment to a rules-based international system, and yet Sweden has refused to ratify the ILO convention concerning indigenous and tribal peoples in independent countries. How is that position squared? The Sámi people cover Finland, Sweden and eastern Russia. You referred to a number of legal cases that have been brought. One of them, I suppose, is the Girjas case, which seemed to recognise the right of indigenous people’s use of their land. That has led to an increase in hateful attacks against Sámi people, so Sámi organisations say. How is this playing out in the debate on Russia and China, which would question the sincerity of Sweden’s, and indeed Finland’s, commitment in these areas?

Professor Niklas Eklund: First, I should say that I am not an expert on indigenous issues, but at my university there is a whole department which does research on this from a critical perspective. To the extent that you find my answers lacking in detail, I would direct your attention to the fact that, at my university, we give room and resources to critical studies.

On the ILO treaty, there could be details there that I am not familiar with, but it comes down to the fact that, once you define who belongs to this population, you are stuck with that definition. Consecutive Swedish Governments will want to have the ability to be flexible.

I would direct your attention to what I said before. There is legal change taking place now that potentially includes more Sámi than the ones who were there in 1950 or 1960. I am not saying that this is because the Government are benign; I do not think they are. It is all to do with flexibility with regard to economic development.

As you probably know, in the north of Sweden, forestry, energy production and mineral resource extraction has been heavily exploited. These have been export staples, and all that comes from the north of Sweden and has done for the best part of the last century and this century. It is still a very heavy economic interest that is to do not only with what the people of the north think—the 15% that you mentioned—but with what the whole nation thinks should and should not be done.

If I go out on a limb, I would also say that there is a heritage that goes back to the 1800s and early 1900s, something that a lot of European countries shared at that point in time, which was not to look at indigenous peoples as people. I am not saying that this guides policy today—I sincerely do not think that it does—but I am saying that all the Nordic countries, just like a lot of other European countries with different types of minorities, come from a history of structural repression, and it is really difficult for countries to do away with that altogether.

Again, I want to be very specific in saying that I may be missing some details. You are getting an overview from me of what the issue looks like in the public discussion, but we also have to keep in mind that nationalism is alive in the Nordic countries. The majority populations are sometimes carried away by nationalism, as in other countries. This means that we are left with a legacy of dominant cultures believing in themselves and believing themselves to be small vis-à-vis the rest of the world, so they are very careful in guarding their interests and seeing that government guards their interests. If somebody comes from the outside and tells them, “Theres a minority you need to pay attention to”, some people just get offended. As a scientist, when it comes to these issues in relation to the history in Sweden and Finland, and in a lot of countries in Europe, we need more intersectional studies and analyses to come to terms with these things.

I apologise if my answer is too circumspect. Again, I lack a lot of detailed information to be able to answer in detail.

The Chair: That is very helpful. We can always follow up later if we think it is appropriate.

Q57            Lord Stirrup: Could you each give us an idea of your respective country’s view of the security threat posed by Russia in the Arctic? What are the risks of a conflict starting in the region? Professor Eklund has already touched on the fact that great powers are already beginning to confront one another in that particular region. What is the prospect of the Arctic becoming a significant theatre of operations in a conflict with Russia that starts somewhere else? What advantages and opportunities does it offer for military operations? Perhaps just to balance the picture, what challenges does it pose?

Professor Niklas Eklund: Again, if you asked me whether there is a risk of Russia starting a war in the Arctic, I would have to say yes, because Russian decision-making is steered by ideas that are different from ours. Power is total in terms of who controls the military resources. I am not going to say that the behaviour is erratic, although some might think so today, considering what we are learning from the war in Ukraine, but it is capricious.

Something else that we have learned from Russia’s war in Ukraine is the fact that, if you try somehow to make a rational western-style analysis of Russian thinking, policy and politics, you will wind up being wrong about pretty much everything. I would not exclude the possibility of armed warfare in the Arctic, certainly not when it comes to what Russia may or may not do, but, in terms of straight-out security interests, you have the follow-on effects of climate change.

If I go through the effects of climate change, you can see why I am reluctant to exclude the possibility of armed conflict there. We have energy and mineral extraction. All the Nordic countries, as well as Russia, are highly dependent on energy production and mineral extraction. We have the new transoceanic sea routes. Climate change will continue to warm up the Arctic, which opens up possibilities for business, for extraction and for a lot of different things. I looked at this only a couple of years ago, but, as far as I know, the fishing industry is doing great in northern Russia. All these things lead to disputes over territory and over who gets to do what, where, when and why. Moving forward from the situation today, competition will be very high in the Arctic.

I would have loved to be a fly on the wall when Xi and Putin had their last meeting, because what Russia seems to be doing right now is pulling other global interested parties in. China is one of them. What they are doing and what they are planning is a little more oblique, but we know for a fact that India is there already. India has a very serious Arctic policy and is also breaking coal in the northern Siberian area. Today, Russia can probably find a lot of support from other major global actors in an aggressive stance in economic terms in the Arctic, and that could lead Russia to doing something drastic.

Another aspect that I would like to mention is the hybridity of Russian activity and the full spectrum activities that are taking place. In both Sweden and Finland, we are very aware of and getting used to the fact that the Russian air force always flies close to other flights. They are always showing strength. We have recently heard from Norway, for instance, that fishing vessels equipped with military radio equipment and that type of thing are trawling and destroying cables in the Arctic Sea. There is this constant full spectrum testing of our systems.

If you live in a Nordic country, this is run of the mill, because they have been doing this for ever, but it also shows us that they have resources. Most of what they have is tied up in Ukraine right now, and it is not going that well for them there, but they still have more stuff to do bad things with.

In terms of their air force and their maritime capability, they still have the Bastion defence, which brings Russian security and military interests all the way down to the north of the British Isles. The Nordic countries are all locked in. Murmansk is one of the major military seaports for Russia. They have their submarines. Anything could happen. I would not be painting this image unless I was afraid of the fact that the Russian political system is guided in a way that our systems are not.

Minna Ålander: I will try to be precise and add some more detail. It is quite easy to understand why the Arctic matters so much for Russia, because, from a Russian perspective, the Arctic is immensely important for their global power projection capability. Putin’s regime survival is also directly linked to an extent to the Arctic region and the energy resources there. For example, up to 80% of natural gas production happens in the Arctic. The revenue from Russia's energy resources is immensely important.

The Northern Sea Route is becoming navigable year round. That is an essential commercial interest to Russia, especially now that Asian markets are becoming more important. Niklas mentioned China and India. Russia is also building commercial infrastructure for energy transport particularly. LNG[2] is still a major export also to Europe, because it has not been sanctioned yet. Energy resources there are immensely important in terms of the Russian economy.

The other thing is that from the Russian Arctic you have to view the world from a different perspective, but if you look over the North Pole, they can reach US homeland territory. That is why they harboured their main second strike nuclear capability in the Arctic, in the northern fleet military district. This northern fleet has nuclear-capable submarines that constitute the main second strike nuclear capability and are protected by the Bastion defence posture that Niklas mentioned, which is Soviet-inspired. This is immensely important.

As Niklas also mentioned, their naval and air force capabilities are largely untouched by Ukraine, although the land force is getting depleted there, so these Arctic assets are still very much there. Russia has now rebuilt almost all its Soviet-era Arctic military bases. According to a recent estimate by the International Institute for Strategic Studies and Reuters, they have created four times more military bases in the Arctic than NATO countries,[3] so the balance is definitely in Russia’s favour up there.

The Nordic countries have been self-deterring. Norway famously had a dual-track approach of reassurance and deterrence. The reassurance part meant that they refrained especially from NATO military exercises in northernmost Norway. This is quite a concerning constellation, considering that Russia’s narrative is that not only Ukraine but the whole of the West is a threat, and this requires very careful attention. With Finland now in NATO—and Sweden following soon, I hope—this will inevitably become a relevant question for NATO. We cannot take the Arctic question lightly. It must be clear and unambiguous that Russia cannot misunderstand anything and that there cannot be similar miscalculations as there were with Ukraine.

This is essential. I am not saying that we should self-deter too much. It requires escalation management, of course, but we also need to show Russia where the limits and our red lines are. During the Joint Viking exercise recently, the Norwegian navy chief said that Russia’s military build-up in the Arctic in the past 10 years has forced its neighbours to react and to increase their military attention to the region so that the Arctic balance can, to some extent at least, be kept in check.

Q58            Lord Robertson of Port Ellen: I have an interest to declare, inasmuch as I am an adviser to BP. You may also remember that I was Secretary-General of NATO and tried very hard to get Finland and Sweden to join NATO during my time, but it was left to Vladimir Putin to be more successful than me. I very much welcome the fact that Finland and Sweden will be part of the Alliance.

I want to take you slightly further on the last question and to examine what real problems Russia has created. We have been told already by witnesses that the geopolitics of the Arctic are becoming much more fraught. The northern sea corridor is wide open, and there are communications cables running through this area of real and genuine importance to many countries.

What evidence is there that the Russians are actively engaged in jamming GPS signals, interfering with the underwater cables, and other military activity in the area? I know they have bases, but what visible military activity is ongoing in the area?

Professor Niklas Eklund: I do not think anybody missed it when they blew up the gas pipeline in the Baltic Sea. I say “they” consciously, because the latest news, as far as I know, is that it mirrored almost to a tee the pattern prior to the explosion of Russian vessels from the Baltic Sea being found increasingly off the north coast of Norway. Norwegian journalists have been very good at tracking what happens out to sea and have been especially interested in it. There was a feature on Svalbard, for instance, because the line was cut between Svalbard and the Norwegian mainland at one point. They could see the same pattern to the tee in what ostensibly civilian Russian vessels were doing in the area, and they concluded that this activity is not only visible but increasing.

I would like to go back to what I said before about the full-spectrum testing all the time. Sometimes they are just annoying, but they never cease. This brings us into another area, which I touched on brieflyall the types of modern industrialisation and forms of energy extraction that we have, such as wind turbines. We always have to keep a very close eye on the kinds of global networks we are tying ourselves into. China and India, two major global players, have commercial extraction interests.

The way I see it, the Russians are ready to be the soldiers for this, because if they can get a piece of the cake in a new world order, they will be as happy as clams. That, at least, is what the current Government really want. We are in their way, so we should see all the hybridity that is taking place right now. Finland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark are targets of this. Sometimes it is just annoying, such as the way they fly their planes or shut off their transponders, but then you link it with some of the practical activities that we see.

Back to the policy level, Sweden is taking serious steps right now to change the legal system so that we cannot have a repeat of what happened last year: a Russian businessman owning land opposite the Berga örlogsbas, the major Swedish east coast naval base. He could sit there sipping a drink and counting off our vessels from his own land in Sweden. That is just naive. It is an expression of the eternal peace thinking that was going on before, but we are taking care of that right now, which is interesting.

I agree completely with what Minna said. You cannot be wishy-washy on this issue. We have to make it much clearer where we stand.

Minna Ålander: Russia is using very many different tactics. There is the whole issue of nuclear waste in Russia’s Arctic coastal waters that has been dumped there since Soviet times. There are several reactors and two whole nuclear submarines, among other things. One was sunk on purpose in the 1980s and the other was lost accidentally in 2003 while it was being towed.

The Nordic countries have been investing a lot of money in trying to tackle this issue together with Russia. Norway and Sweden for example invested millions in their currency equipping a Russian vessel with the equipment necessary to deal with nuclear waste, but what did Russia do with this vessel? They used it in a nuclear testing programme. So there are these kinds of things going.

In the Gulf of Finland—to go a bit further down—a serious issue for civilian air traffic is that Russia has been jamming GPS signals. Military jets also frequently fly there with their transponders off, which has been a serious issue for civilian air traffic safety. The Russians have also had a lot of show-of-force military exercises in which they have simulated attacks on their neighbours. The most famous one was in the Baltic Sea region during the Russian Easter. Interestingly, Russia simulated what was found later in a NATO report to be a nuclear attack on Sweden in 2013. That was the wake-up moment for Sweden to start rebuilding its military.

Just last month, there was a big military exercise in the Kola Peninsula, another big military district. It is also notable that the Northern Fleet was made its own military district in 2021, which underlines the significance of it. They were extensively exercising their submarine activities in the region, for example. The submarines are hard to detect, especially below the ice, which is also quite a big headache from a NATO perspective.

Lord Robertson of Port Ellen: That is disturbing.

Q59            Lord Wood of Anfield: In light of your answers to Lord Robertson’s questions about the Russian threat, I wonder what you think NATO’s strategy should be. So far, no clear NATO strategy has been set out on the Arctic. What are the views in Helsinki and Stockholm about the role that you would like to see NATO play in deterring Russia? How many resources are being put into this inside Finland and Sweden? Are enough resources being dedicated to this in those countries?

Minna Ålander: I forgot to mention one thing in my previous answer about the evidence. Norwegian armed forces raised their readiness level late last year because of increasing Russian disturbance and interference activity around their energy infrastructure, since Norway became very important for all of Europe as a natural gas supplier.

There is quite an expectation that the Arctic will now be considered. The main point for NATO is that, although the focus has been very much on the Baltic states as the Achilles heel of NATO so far, and very much on the Baltic Sea region, NATO should also now start viewing this area as a wider geostrategic area, ranging, as I mentioned, from the Arctic over the North Atlantic and all the way to the Baltic Sea. This is how Russia views it, so we also have to learn to view it as a coherent strategic area.

In Finland, certainly the expectation is that this will be part of the regional defence plans and that nothing else would really make sense. We already have extensive regional defence co-operation with Sweden and Norway, for example. The three air forces already exercise on an almost weekly basis in the northern parts of the country. There is already quite a good basis to build on, and this would inevitably have to be a part of it. Finland has a major artillery exercise range in northern Finland, for example, close to my hometown in Lapland, where there have been constant exercises with NATO partners and very frequent participation by the UK. Finland, Sweden and Norway all have this specific skillset and knowhow in Arctic and winter warfare, so there has been a lot of exercise activity already with NATO partners on that.

On what needs to be done, we need Sweden as soon as possible so that we can get started with the regional defence plans, which will also, of course, have to include the Arctic sphere. There are question marks right now especially over military mobility in the region, because there is not that much infrastructure.

Another big question mark is the idea that troops would come from, say, the UK and North America through the north Atlantic and land on the Norwegian north Atlantic coast. How would they then get through Sweden to Finland? That needs to be looked into. There is not much railway infrastructure in the Arctic, for example, and it will have to be invested in. There is awareness of that, but as Finland’s NATO policy is still in a very nascent stage we will get more clarity on that this year with the new Government.

Professor Niklas Eklund: All of the above is great, and you can see very clearly why Finland and Sweden tried to hold hands in entering NATO. From a policy perspective and from the perspective of Governments, we are each other’s strategic depth.

On the question that we discussed before, full-spectrum thinking is important when it comes to what might happen, what certain behaviour can turn into, the risk of war and people shooting each other and so on. When we talk about this more strategic aspect, it is really important to see that the Governments of the Nordic countries, particularly those of Sweden and Finland, have realised that we are locked in together.

The transportation issue is being discussed in Sweden as well as in Finland. We need to do something about the infrastructure, because whatever happens in the north of Finland will have to be supported by what happens in the north of Sweden. There really is a meeting of minds when it comes to Sweden and Finland in particular, which is why it is highly unfortunate that my country is still outside. It delays a lot of the work that we need to do.

There is an upside to that. I do not know if you are familiar with this, but in Sweden the popular saying is the gold card that we have with NATO, which means that we have NATO military training on our territory and we join the training exercises in the Baltic, the Arctic and so on. Sweden still has a fairly significant air force that can contribute. Basically, we are members in everything but name, and it is just unfortunate that European politics plays out the way that it does, because it delays some of the steps that are necessary for us to take.

If we play around with the map a bit, the perspective changes and brings us more towards the kind of thinking that takes place in Stockholm and Helsinki right now about why NATO membership is so important to both our countries. It is along the lines of what Tim Marshall did in a recent book on geopolitics, where in a map on one of the pages he showed an image of the view from London. Instead of the Mercator projection, where you have Sweden, Norway and Finland at the top and the rest of Europe and the UK out here in the periphery somewhere, he shifted that around so that the view from London showed the European continent and a very clear northern flank that you need to worry about, which includes the sea and the peninsula that is the Scandinavian countries.

This is very important. We have to look at all the Nordic countries together as the territories and actors that can safeguard that flank somehow, because Russian access to land on the Scandinavian peninsula will affect whether the Russian Bastion defence can be kept out of the North Sea. This is of global importance, so it has to be a joint effort on the part of NATO. It has to bring Sweden and Finland in, and it has to increase co-operation between all interested parties in keeping this flank safeguarded.

Q60            Lord Anderson of Swansea: How concerned are your two countries about the presence and activities of China in particular in the Arctic? What is the scale and nature of its activities? Is it territorial or space? How much of a threat is that, given the broad dependence of Russia on China economically? Here is an area where Russia can contribute to the bilateral relationship.

Minna Ålander: Especially with China, there has been a development. In the first half of the 2010s, there was quite a welcoming attitude towards Chinese investment in the Arctic and so on. Part of China’s belt and road initiative was that it wanted to build a railroad that ends somewhere in Finland, a little above the Arctic circle at the moment, to continue that all the way to the Arctic Ocean and then to build a tunnel to connect Finland and Estonia. The tunnel project between Finland and Estonia is apparently still ongoing and might happen, but at some point around 2018 or 2019 there was a moment of awakening in Finland and policymakers and the media started viewing it more critically: “What exactly is China up to here?”

Apart from that, the idea of building a railway all the way up to the Arctic Ocean made no commercial sense at all. There is not enough traffic there and it would have disturbed the natural areas there, and again we get into indigenous people’s rights and so on. That was scrapped, luckily, because to be honest nobody wanted it in Lapland. It was quite a stupid idea, but there was this Chinese plan that included Finland, and the Chinese built some hotels in Lapland, as well as other activities. There was also a lot of Chinese tourism to Finland, which increased massively before the pandemic.

There has been a shift to being much more critical and suspicious about China’s interests there. China also had an increasing interest in scientific co-operation, especially on satellite data in northern Finland and the Arctic area. I would have to look up on the basis for that, but that was a couple of years ago. There started to be these concerns about what they were getting, which is positive.

Professor Niklas Eklund: I would say likewise on the awakening. When it comes to Sweden punching above its weight in industrial relations, business relations with China were booming at a certain point. There is serious Chinese investment in Swedish industry. Volvo is a case in point. This jumbles things a bit politically in Sweden. I would go along with what Minna said about Sweden, the awakening and the conceptualisation of China as a potential, if not hybrid, threat as one of the dangerous players. Our current government policies are outspoken about this.

When we get back down to earth and leave the lofty policy area and what we feel at heart, there is an interesting interaction. I would go with a concept that is a number of years old now, but James Rosenau talked at one point about linkage politics, which is a way of understanding the conundrum that Sweden has right now. NATO membership rides on the back of EU membership. The EU has all been about business and opening borders, particularly in the area of rampant globalisation. This has done something to the structure of the Swedish economy. If you realise China as a hybrid threat, which Sweden has, economic issues become jumbled with political and security issues. We still have a way to go to figure out what will come on top of the other thing. Sweden misses the UK being in the EU so much probably because we are staunch free traders.

Politically, what becomes difficult is that the Swedish Government currently are miffed at the EU and the new policy that came out just a day or two ago, which says that they will regulate the way we use our forests. We voted against this. This could be a security discussion in Sweden, because forestry is so important to our export industry. If the EU regulates our export industry in one of its major cornerstones, it will piss everybody off, if I may use that expressionpardon my language.

Politically, this becomes very jumbled, and we still have a way to go when it comes to fleshing out what will be at the top of the agenda and what will be at the bottom. We still have a little way to go on trade with China and ownership by Chinese companies.

The Chair: Thank you. If you want to add a bit later in answer to the last question, do write in. That would be very helpful.

Q61            Baroness Morris of Bolton: From Finland’s and Sweden’s perspective, would increased UK involvement in the Arctic be welcome? If so, what form might that take?

Minna Ålander: The UK is, of course, an essential player, especially now that hard security is becoming such an important issue up here. The UK constitutes part of the so-called Greenland-Iceland-UK—GIUK—gap, which is considered a backstop of Russia’s Bastion defence. Russia would have a big interest in disrupting that connection line so that North American reinforcements could not reach Scandinavian NATO allies, for example.

What is really important, and we are already a good way towards this, is Joint Expeditionary Force co-operation. As I mentioned, the UK has been one of the most active allies exercising with the Finnish defence forces ever since we submitted our NATO application. There is definitely an important role for the UK to play in regional defence planning, because in this maritime area it is vital that the co-operation works so that we can keep that very important GIUK line open for reinforcements from North America.

Professor Niklas Eklund: I will chime in on that, particularly when it comes to the Joint Expeditionary Force. To my mind, structures like the Joint Expeditionary Force are a primary deterrent in the Arctic and so very important, particularly when it comes to the bad sync in the way Finland and Sweden can join NATO, which we have talked about. As a complement to other efforts and political processes, providing a good strategic deterrent in the Arctic is key.

When it comes to the UK as a player, I will go out on a limb and say, without necessarily harking back to the discussion on special relationships and that type of thing, that you will find in the high north of Europe that the UK enjoys a high level of legitimacy among people in general, both culturally and in its policies. Therefore, if the UK can continue reminding our American friends of what the European realities are, we would be grateful.

The Chair: Thank you very much. I am sorry to push you at the last, because it is an interesting question. Thank you for being brief and summarising it so well. Thank you also for all your insights today. We really appreciate you taking the time to spend some time with us, so thank you. I should remind you that we will send you a transcript, and you can correct anything that we have got wrong. Many thanks again.



[1] Post-meeting clarification: the vote was on a new law on Sámi representation. The definition of who is to be considered Sámi was its most contested part.

[2] Liquefied natural gas

[3]  Post-meeting correction: Russian bases outnumber NATO bases by about a third.