Recent Developments in the High North.

Swedish Atlantic Council, Stockholm, 9 November, 2007.


I should like to begin by thanking the Swedish Atlantic Council for arranging this conference and for inviting me to take part in it.


I see it as my role to describe strategic developments in the North Atlantic as seen from Iceland – a founding member of NATO in 1949, with a bilateral defence agreement with the United States since 1951. Iceland was the only Nordic country to allow the Americans to station their forces within its borders during the cold war, so forming a link between the United States and a Nordic security system, which at that time was called the Nordic Balance.


US forces first arrived in Iceland in July 1941, taking over from the British Army, which had occupied the country in May 1940 in order to prevent Hitler from gaining a foothold in the North Atlantic after the occupation of Denmark and Norway.  It was only last year, in 2006, after nearly 65 years’ continuous presence in the country, that the US Government unilaterally withdrew its forces from Iceland, leaving the 1951 defence agreement intact.


During the cold war, the Icelandic Government kept a close watch on the growth in tension between East and West in the North Atlantic.  This reached a peak in the mid-1980s, with the unveiling of the new US Maritime Strategy, which aroused a great deal of discussion, also here in Sweden, where the Swedish National Defence Research Agency organized a symposium in September 1987, 20 years ago, on the Changing Strategic Conditions in the High North. 


Here we are once again, meeting in response to a Swedish initiative to discuss new trends in Nordic security, with a special emphasis on the Euro-Atlantic perspective on Nordic Defence Policy Cooperation, and the title of my speech is: Recent Developments in the High North.


Twenty years ago, it was pointed out that while the plans for attacking Soviet SSBNs in the High North attracted the widest attention, the part of the US Maritime Strategy that was of the most immediate relevance from the Nordic point of view was the one dealing with protecting the flanks; this was due to Soviet expansion in the North Atlantic.


At that time, some people feared that a firm response to Soviet military expansion would only result in an even more aggressive armaments policy on the part of the Soviet Union.  We now know that one of the main reasons for the collapse of the Soviet Union was precisely the fact that it was unable to outface a resolute NATO strategy under the leadership of President Ronald Reagan.


For example, much was said about the need for the High North to be a nuclear-free zone, while it was doubted that Iceland could be counted as part of such a zone because there was a possibility that the United States had brought nuclear weapons into the country secretly. Now, after the withdrawal of US forces from Iceland, nothing has been found to indicate that nuclear weapons were ever kept there.


It is appropriate to call these details to mind now, when once again the focus is on new trends and geopolitical changes in the High North and the North Atlantic.  We know that these changes are taking place because of the growing exploitation of gas and oil in the Barents Sea and the Arctic. And we also know that these changes call for greater preparedness in the field of security. 


General Sverre Diesen, the Norwegian Chief of Defence, has recently stressed that even though all the changes in the High North are obviously security related, “they are at the same time very different from the strategic parameters of the cold war period, and consequently they are also different in terms of their potential for military conflict.”


From his point of view, a confrontation in the Arctic would in all probability somehow be about the right to collect and exploit natural resources in the international waters and on the seabed of the polar region, be they energy or food resources – or about the command of the sea lanes of communication to and from the Arctic. A certain military presence should be maintained in the region, sending a signal about a nation’s interests and ambitions in a given area, since a military vacuum could be misinterpreted as a lack of national interest and priority.


The Norwegian general stressed the need to draw a clear line between the different state agencies employed specifically for resource jurisdiction and conventional military forces. It should be kept in mind, he pointed out, that coast guards, border guards and similar organisations and agencies operate within a political, strategic and judicial framework that is different from that in which military forces operate.  This means that there is no credible – or for that matter desirable – link between using a coastguard vessel and deploying a frigate to exercise resource jurisdiction, should the coastguard vessel prove insufficient. This would only serve to lower the threshold of legitimate intervention by military forces and would consequently play into the hands of the militarily stronger power – instead of referring the matter to be brokered in the proper international bodies and organisations. Conventional military forces should therefore be used with extreme caution, and preferably not at all, for resource management and jurisdiction purposes.


I agree with this analysis.  It would not be in any state’s interests to give occasion for military conflict in the High North; on the other hand, it is in the interests of all those who want to utilise natural resources, protect the natural environment and engage in profitable shipping operations in the region, to have in force the full security structures that are exercised by the civil authorities.  In addition, international agreements are in force, providing a framework for the peaceful and lawful resolution of disputes concerning rights to natural resources and the continental shelf lying outside national jurisdictions.


As Russia’s economic strength has increased due to rises in the price of oil and gas, there has been a corresponding increase in Russian influence in the High North.  The world’s attention was drawn to this at the beginning of August this year when the Russian flag was planted on the seabed beneath the North Pole.  Movements of Russian bombers have also drawn attention to the fact that what is taking place in the Kola Peninsula is no longer the decommissioning of military installations but rather their renewal and development.  Although all this can be seen as an attempt on the part of the Kremlin to boost the confidence of the Russian people, there is a geopolitical dimension to it all which must be given further attention.


Russia’s military budget has increased six-fold since the turn of the century and its intellegence has penetrated all corners of Europe according to a new study just published by the European Council on Foreign Relations.


In this context I want to draw your attention to a statement made by the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, on Russia’s large role in the global energy sector. Last July he said in an article: “Russia does, however, consider energy to be a strategic sector that helps safeguard independence in its foreign relations. This is understandable given the negative external reactions to Russia’s strengthened economy and enlarged role in international affairs, in which Russia lawfully employs its newly gained freedom of action and speech. It should not be criticized by those who frown on a stronger Russia.“


The Foreign Minister urged Russia, the United States and the European Union to work together to preserve the integrity of the Euro-Atlantic space in global politics, and his idea is that such a “troika” could “steer the global boat into untroubled waters.” Mr. Lavrov has also said: “Perhaps it is time to think of a new definition of Atlanticism that does not exclude Russia.”


I agree with the view that there now exist military parameters that are different from those of the cold war period.  What the Russian foreign minister is presenting, on the other hand, is a new set of political parameters based on turning a blind eye to the existence of NATO in the North Atlantic, proposing instead a “troika” in which Russia would be an equal partner alongside the European Union and the United States.  This fits in well with President Vladimir Putin’s criticism of NATO expansion, US foreign policy and the unipolar model in his famous Munich speech last February, which called to mind some of the old Soviet tactics.


When Russia’s ambassador to Iceland was asked, a few weeks ago, about the purpose of flights by Russian bombers around Iceland or along the coast of Norway down into the North Atlantic to the neighbourhood of the Faroes and Scotland, his reply was that Iceland would have to get used to this air activity, since notice of it had been given by President Putin on 17 August. It seems to be Russia’s intention to let this air activity to become part of the normal situation in the GIUK-gap – NATO’s front line during the cold war.



The Arctic and the Barents Sea are fast becoming an important energy province and thus meeting a significant share of the world’s future energy needs - in particular those of the United States.

Arctic shipping, with the opening of new, lucrative shipping routes -  namely, the potential opening of the North East passage to the Pacific Ocean, and also oil and gas shipments from Russia and Norway to the United States through the Norwegian Sea, and the Greenland – Iceland – UK gap, will continue to grow. It is estimated that by 2015, a total of 500 oil tankers of 100,000 tons each will pass Iceland in each direction every year.


On 20 October this year, the gas tanker Arctic Princess took on its first load of 145,000 cubic meters of liquid natural gas (LNG) from the Norwegian Snohvit-field at Melköya, near Hammerfest in Northern Norway. The Arctic Princess is 288 meters long and carries the LNG at a temperature of minus 163 degrees Celsius. A full cargo load of LNG is said to be  sufficient to cover the yearly energy consumption of all households in a city with a population of 45,000 people. Production at the new LNG plant is estimated at about 70 shiploads a year, and the gas is to be transported to Spain and the United States.

The US argument for its short-sighted decision to withdraw its military force from Iceland last year was its conviction that Iceland no longer faced a credible conventional military threat, since the Cold War was truly over. The Russians had at last stopped all military air deployment in the North Atlantic. In fact, there had been only one incident of fighter jets intercepting a Russian plane near Iceland since the Soviet Union ceased to exist. That incident occurred in 1999, when two Russian aircraft, based on the Kola Peninsula, practiced a missile attack over the North Atlantic.

Under the new US-Icelandic defence arrangement, regular US and NATO military exercises are to be conducted in Iceland. The first one took place last August. About 24 hours after the military exercise ended in Iceland, Russian bombers resumed their flights over the North Atlantic and have come close to Iceland on four occasions since then.


On 8 November 2007 it was announced at a NATO allocation-meeting at SHAPE headquarters in Mons, Belgium, that a three year NATO Air Policing plan from Keflavik Airport in Iceland, the former US military base area, would start early 2008 by French interceptors, being stationed for six weeks in Iceland. US aircraft would also be there in 2008, Denmark, Spain and the US would provide aircraft o in 2009 and Poland in 2010.

History has taught us that it is up to the United Kingdom or the United States to prevent a European continental state from expanding into the North Atlantic. The European Union has not formulated any security policy based on a North Atlantic dimension.

Nowhere is maritime security a more urgent matter than on energy shipping routes – and here I use the word ‘security’ in the broadest sense, covering both the threat of terrorist attacks and the danger of accidents at sea. Pollution resulting from disruption of oil or gas cargoes is one of the most serious environmental threats of our times. Taking care of these security concerns is the role of civil authorities – mainly the Coast Guards of our individual nations.




Allow me briefly to give you an account of the current status of Iceland’s defence and security arrangements.


As I mentioned earlier, the two most vital pillars of Iceland’s national defence and security policy remain the bilateral Defence Agreement with the USA and our participation in NATO, but new pillars will be added, bearing in mind that Iceland can only take part in civil operations since it has no military force of  its own.


One new pillar will support more substantive bilateral civil security cooperation with our closest neighbours, such as Norway, Denmark and the United Kingdom. Another new pillar will support cooperation with the European Union, based on Icelandic participation in the Schengen scheme, which is bound to become more civil-security oriented. And since Russia wants to become an Atlantic power, I wonder if yet another new pillar will be added: one supporting an entirely new endeavour involving regional consultations and cooperation on law enforcement in the North Atlantic, energy security, maritime security and maritime safety. 


The nature of collaboration on security between Iceland and the United States has undergone a substantial change. The emphasis has shifted from national defence, in the traditional sense, to civil or homeland security, in which civil institutions will be increasingly involved, i.e. collaboration with the US Coast Guard, the FBI and customs and immigration authorities. Under international regulations on safety in aviation and shipping, security in these areas is now the responsibility of the civil authorities, both in Iceland and elsewhere.


As Minister of Justice, responsible for Iceland’s police, Coast Guard, civil defence, immigration and border control, I have defined three main priorities in introducing reform and modernization and addressing the need to ensure an active Icelandic contribution towards coordinated security efforts in the North Atlantic. These are:

·        Increased capacity of key security institutions.

·        Coordination of national  security operations.

·        An international dimension, in particular involving collaboration between key national security institutions and their counterparts in our neighbouring countries.


It has been my task to restructure the police and the Coast Guard in order to take on new responsibilities. Decisions have been taken to purchase a new fixed-wing coastguard aircraft and to build a new 4,000-ton patrol vessel; both are scheduled to be operational in 2009. A collaboration agreement between the governments of Iceland and Norway aims for a joint Norwegian-Icelandic tender for specially-designed long-range search and rescue helicopters –  two or three of them for the Icelandic Coast Guard.


Iceland’s contribution towards security in the North Atlantic is of a civil nature, and therefore fits in well with the analysis by General Diesen which I referred to at the beginning of my address, in which he mentioned the division of responsibilities between different state agencies and the need to keep the threshold for military security measure relatively high in regard to questions about jurisdiction, resource management and shipping security.




I consider it of great importance to strengthen cooperation between the Nordic countries situated in the west part of the GIUK gap, i.e. the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Greenland, to ensure, to the extent possible, the safety of shipping in that area.


Coordination of  defence and security efforts in our region is a vital issue.


Iceland and Denmark have made an agreement on close cooperation in these fields. This was signed by myself, on behalf of Iceland, and by Sören Gade, Minister of Defence, on behalf of Denmark, and covers fishing observation and reporting, pollution surveillance and the exchange of personnel.


Last April, Iceland signed political declarations on cooperation on security matters in the North Atlantic with Denmark, on the one hand, and with Norway on the other. Our civil institutions are key players in fulfilling the political intentions contained in these declarations.  Discussions with Great Britain, Canada and Germany are in progress.


Furthermore, in the near future, Iceland will accede to the convention between Britain, the United States and Canada on search and rescue operations in the North Atlantic.


I welcome the recent establishment, at a meeting here in Sweden, of the multilateral North Atlantic Coast Guard Forum, a new maritime security and safety organization in the North Atlantic and the Arctic. The forum will provide a framework for North Atlantic coast guards to interact and cooperate.


This could lead to all kinds of innovations in the regional context, such as a standing coastguard force in the North Atlantic and the Arctic, with member nations providing vessels and crews.




Twenty years ago, attention was focussed on the new US Maritime Strategy and its implications for strategic conditions in the High North.  We now know that this strategy transformed the entire situation for the better.  Soviet military power collapsed and the Soviet fleet and air force left the region.


Two decades ago it cost great political effort in some of the individual NATO countries to secure support for the US Maritime Strategy, not least here in the Nordic countries, which had direct security interests to defend. 


I recall a large number of conferences on developments in the North Atlantic which led up to the formulation of the NATO policy at that time.  It fell to the Nordic countries to draw attention to geopolitical developments and make people think about the importance of the Northern Flank.


Although military tension no longer dominates our analysis of the situation in the High North, it remains a matter of urgency and necessity to draw attention to what is happening in the region – in other words, on NATO’s Northern Flank.  We are witnessing important changes in activity, both at sea and in the air, which may affect geopolitical interests in areas extending far outside the High North.


There is a need to conduct a review and devise a strategy that calls on NATO and, for that matter, Nordic navies, coast guards and maritime industries, to move to a higher level of maritime collaboration in the North Atlantic for the benefit of all.


Such a review will help define the role of maritime forces in the North Atlantic in protecting vital interests, and a new maritime strategy will highlight the role of NATO sea power in the advancement of the vital national interests of the North Atlantic partners.


The interests of the High North, both locally and globally, are a Trans-Atlantic issue that can only be dealt with as part of a strong and realistic security policy and maritime strategy on the part of NATO.