An Arctic ‘Great Game’ as NATO allies and Russia face off in far north

Members of the Jarfjord border guard team pose for a portrait near the seaport of Kirkenes, Norway, on June 7. (Sébastien Van Malleghem for The Washington Post)

VARDO, Norway — The officers in tracksuits looked a little nervous as they rapped on the window of the rental car.

They wondered what we were doing here, on an island high above the Arctic Circle, some 4,000 miles from Washington and not far from where Russia bases some of its most sophisticated submarines. Was there a reason we were taking pictures of the hulking white radar stations that look out from Norway to Russia’s Kola Peninsula?

“Because of the political situation, we are checking everything,” one officer said.

For several years now, European and U.S. security and intelligence officials have been keeping a closer eye on the world above the Arctic Circle, knowing that melting polar ice will open new trade routes, propel a race for natural resources and reshape global security. Western officials watched as Russia revived Soviet-era military sites and while China planned a “Polar Silk Road.”

But the war in Ukraine and the dramatic deterioration of Western relations with Moscow have put the frostbitten borderlands between Norway and Russia on heightened alert, while increasing the geostrategic importance of the Arctic.

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The result is an uptick in military, diplomatic and intelligence interest that could usher in an iteration of the “Great Game,” the 19th-century rivalry between the British and Russian empires for influence in Asia.

For Russia, because the war in Ukraine has diminished Moscow’s conventional military forces and hobbled the Russian economy, its Arctic assets have become more critical. “The Arctic has become more important because the nukes are more important,” said Maj. Gen. Lars Sivert Lervik, the chief of the Norwegian army.

Meanwhile, NATO has increased its stake in the north, with Finland and possibly soon Sweden joining their neighbor Norway in the alliance.

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This spring, a U.S. aircraft carrier made a port call in Norway for the first time in 65 years, stopping in Oslo before participating in exercises with NATO allies in the north. Around the same time, Secretary of State Antony Blinken toured the region and announced that the United States would reopen a diplomatic post in Tromso, a coastal city in the Norwegian Arctic. The U.S. diplomat expected to arrive next month would be the first posted there since the 1990s.

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Diplomatic drama and intrigue abound.

A cable car view of Tromso, a coastal city in the Norwegian Arctic, leading to Mount Storsteinen, on June 9, 2023. (Video: The Washington Post)

The Arctic Council — an intergovernmental forum that promotes cooperation — is in disarray because seven of its members refuse to work at a political level with its eighth member, Russia, disrupting collaboration on critical issues such as climate change.

In the past year, Norwegian media outlets have reported about drones buzzing airports and oil and gas installations, the expulsion of Russian diplomats as spies, and the case of a man accused of illegal intelligence gathering while posing as a Brazilian guest researcher at a Norwegian university.

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For NATO allies, “a flashing yellow light turned red, and we need to think more carefully,” said a senior U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss alliance thinking. “Countries need to be sharing more information on destabilizing actions, on things that look strange, and we need to be less naive and more aware.”

From a watchtower near the seaport of Kirkenes, young Norwegian soldiers peer across the border into the Russian wilderness, surveilling a summer landscape of smooth rock and low pine — a view that shifts only with the seasons.

In January, not far from here, a man claiming to be a defector from Russia’s Wagner mercenary group ran across a frozen river in the dead of the polar night. Since then, the soldiers said, things have been quiet.

To Lervik, the chief of the Norwegian army, calm at the northeastern frontier is not particularly reassuring. Russia’s capabilities in the north, including nuclear weapons, remain intact and very dangerous, he said.

Members of the border guards head for the Jarfjord station, stocked with supplies for the soldiers stationed there. (Video: The Washington Post)

Western officials worry, too, that Russia could block commercial shipping lanes or U.S. Navy ships en route to Europe, particularly at a potential maritime chokepoint called the “Greenland, Iceland, U.K. gap” that separates the Norwegian and North seas from the open Atlantic Ocean.

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“Russia’s ability to disrupt reinforcement is a real challenge to the alliance,” said one senior Western intelligence official, also speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss security matters.

There is also concern that Moscow has mapped critical undersea infrastructure and could engage in sabotage against Europe. Last month, NATO launched a center for protecting undersea pipelines and cables.

The defense policy director at the Finnish Defense Ministry, Janne Kuusela, said that the risk of conventional military confrontation in the Arctic remains low but that does not preclude conflict in the years ahead. “We all see how Russia is acting,” he said.

In his newsroom, Barents Observer editor Thomas Nilsen pulled out a map.

He pointed to where we were in Kirkenes, just a few miles from the Russian border. And there was the Kola Peninsula, home to Russia’s Northern Fleet and some of its most advanced air and naval assets, including the core of its second-strike capability.

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Nilsen dragged a pen along the page to show what Russia considers its bastion and where its submarines could go to hide.

But he said he is equally concerned about what Russia is doing on the ground in Norway, in and out of view.

“There are ways to send in ‘small green men’ and make this a buffer zone for Russia,” he said, referring to armed soldiers without insignia of affiliation. “That is the game.”

Last year, he wrote a story about a Russian bishop who wanted to build a chapel next to Vardo’s radars — U.S.-funded assets that have loomed over the town for decades.

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Members of the Russian Orthodox Church, which has historic ties to Russian intelligence services, he wrote, also were also interested in studying Kirkenes’s water supply.

Frode Berg, a retired Norwegian border inspector who spent 23 months in a Moscow prison on espionage charges, said Norway is still not prepared for possible Russian operations.

Berg, who admitted that he cooperated with Norwegian intelligence and traveled to Russia as a courier, was freed in a prisoner swap. He is now back in Kirkenes and concerned by the lack of alarm.

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“Because of what happened to me, I can see spies,” he said. “Other people close their eyes.”

The man who identified himself as Jose Assis Giammaria, a 37-year-old Brazilian researcher, had purportedly come to Tromso to work on Arctic security — which made sense, as Tromso is a hub for research and diplomacy on polar issues.

But when Norwegian authorities arrested him in October, they said he was, in fact, a 44-year-old Russian national named Mikhail Mikushin. His previous time at Canadian universities, officials suggested, was part of an effort to develop a backstory for his fake identity. “We are quite certain that he is not Brazilian,” said the Norwegian Security Service’s Thomas Blom last fall.

The arrest shocked Tromso, a city where “Arctic exceptionalism” — the idea that the region can be protected from politics — still held sway.

For more than three decades, diplomats and scientists in the north have argued that the critical work of protecting the Arctic ought to stand apart from politics — “high north, low tension,” as some Norwegians like to say.

But the spy case and the diplomatic discord at the Arctic Council — which has its secretariat in Tromso — have pointed to a resurgence of Great Power competition in the region.

“Our main mission at this time is to keep the council intact, surviving,” said Morten Hoglund, the chair of the Senior Arctic Officials of the Arctic Council.

Marc Lanteigne, an associate professor of political science at the University of Tromso and an expert on Arctic affairs, said the forum may not be salvageable.

“If we are dealing with a long-term freeze — for lack of a better word — we might need another forum to discuss climate change and the ships paddling around the Arctic,” he said.

“We are definitely going to see more tacit power-balancing in this part of the world,” he added. “And I wonder if Tromso is ready for it.”

Lanteigne is a member of the Grey Zone, a research group at the University of Tromso that focuses on hybrid threats. Before his arrest, Giammaria (a.k.a. Mikushin) was listed on the group’s website.

Lanteigne chuckled at the irony of an alleged deep-cover Russian agent posing as a researcher of hybrid threats.

“It was a really interesting illustration of how, when we talk about security, it’s not only a question of military security,” he said. “All of sudden, we see a glaring example.”

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