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Arctic Circle

The Consequences of Geopolitics for the Arctic

Tjorven Bellmann, Political Director, Federal Foreign Office, Germany
at the Arctic Circle Berlin Forum 2024

It is an honor and a pleasure to be with you here today at this important Arctic Circle Forum and in one of my favorite Berlin venues, the Radialsystem. This year’s conference could not be timelier for our work at the Foreign Office. Therefore, I look forward to hearing your expertise and sharing with you our outlook on the broader geopolitical shifts we face, and the effects we believe they have on the Arctic.

Not so long ago, we talked about the Arctic as a successful and cherished example of functioning multilateralism – even in difficult times. There was broad agreement on the need to keep the region free of conflict. And while this ambition still holds true, the challenges we face have increased dramatically. We see two decisive factors for this, and you know them very well. Firstly, the warming of the Arctic – up to four times faster than other regions of the Earth. This poses questions on the future use of sea passages and access to Arctic resources, with the potential for exacerbating geopolitical tensions.

Secondly, of course, the fundamental geopolitical shift that has so radically changed security in Europe and beyond, ever since Russia began her aggression against Ukraine in 2014, and that has culminated in the ruthless full-scale war and invasion of Ukraine since 2022. The consequences will be felt for decades to come. We are faced with a Russia that has imperial ambitions beyond Ukraine, is internally ever more repressive, cultivates propaganda of the West as an enemy, and systematically destroys the most basic principles of international law and what is left of our rules-based international order. Russia has dismantled key security and arms control structures: including openly breaking agreements, like the INF, or preventing their modernization, like the Vienna Document. And the trend continues. Russia has shifted to war economy. It invests heavily in the modernization of its nuclear and conventional posture and engages in irresponsible nuclear saber-rattling. It is undertaking the biggest military reorganization in decades and engages in malign activities on our soils. In the Arctic, Russia has pressed ahead with remilitarization, including the military buildup and activities of the Northern fleet. Russia has watered-down references to the Arctic Council and other multilateral formats in its most recent Arctic policy update. This reflects Moscow’s overall approach to aim for conflict instead of cooperation, spheres of influence instead of rules-based order, and strategic instability instead of stability.

For Germany, the Arctic is a key arena for upholding the rules-based international order...

At the same time, China is pursuing an increased role in the Arctic, however, we are not sure about its objectives. China, also an observer to the Arctic Council, is increasing its strategic presence and investing in economic and scientific resources, such as the development of new icebreakers – yet it is also developing military and dual-use capabilities. In this context, the increasing cooperation between Russia and China is potentially a source of concern, which also holds true for the Arctic. We are watching these developments closely, as referenced in our 2023 China strategy, and are coordinating with allies and partners. For Germany, the Arctic is a key arena for upholding the rules-based international order, and that includes the law of the sea. Freedom of navigation, and secure maritime routes are crucial for the global economy, however, we need to be prepared to react to challenges to the security of the region.

With regard to security policy, the High North has become a stronger theme at NATO. With the accession of Finland and Sweden, seven of eight Arctic countries are now NATO members. Safeguarding our collective defence in the High North, as a response to Russia’s intensified military activities, has naturally gained importance. That Finland and Sweden did want to become Allies, of course, is a direct consequence of Russia’s war of aggression. With the accession we now have two very capable new Allies that will strengthen our common security and bring key “Nordic” assets to the Alliance and also the High North in particular. This does not mean that we are engaging in militarization ourselves. Safeguarding the Arctic as a region with low tensions remains our goal as a defensive Alliance. In the present security situation, however, we collectively need to be prepared to react to current and future security challenges. For Germany, the needs of our allies in the region are guiding us here. NATO will put greater focus on the Northern flank. Situational awareness, deterrence and defence of the High North are well reflected in NATO’s new regional plans and in NATO’s command structure. In addition, NATO and Allies conduct exercises to better prepare for the specific challenges of extreme weather conditions in the Arctic. Germany is a regular contributor to this, for example, most recently at the Nordic Response defense exercise. With melting ice and, as shown by recent sabotage and damage of critical subsea infrastructure, protecting critical data or energy infrastructure is at the heart of the Alliance’s security interest. This is one reason why at the initiative of Germany and Norway, NATO intensified its work in this area and increased its vigilance. It is a known fact that there are no established structures in the Arctic per se for dealing with security policy challenges. Since 2014, Russia is no longer involved in dialogue among the Arctic states or in the annual meetings of the Arctic security forces roundtable.

Let me stress that we fully support the Norwegian Chairship in continuing the important work of the Council, especially on polar and climate research.

At the same time, we remain committed to keeping the Arctic an area of low tension. Given Russia’s current stance, I personally am skeptical of whether there can be a way back to cooperative and reliable security structures for the Arctic in the foreseeable future. While we are open to risk reduction, we must not be naive! Nevertheless, it is always wise to keep channels of communication open, also on Arctic questions. While there can be no business as usual with the current Russian regime, the Arctic Council plays an important role in this context. Let me stress that we fully support the Norwegian Chairship in continuing the important work of the Council, especially on polar and climate research. We believe that the decision of the Arctic Council Member States to suspend more political work, whilst resuming most of the research work is very well balanced.

Germany has been an Observer State to the Arctic Council since 1998 (26 years!) and is active in the working and expert groups, as well as task forces of the AC. In 2019, Germany published its first cross-government Arctic policy guidelines. At the time, the guidelines had a strong focus on climate, environment and research. Indeed, a key German contribution in the Arctic is its research engagement, which for many years circumpolar in nature, but which now, alas, has had to be shifted. Germany has a formidable research fleet, which allows us to cooperate with partners from around the world. I need not remind you of the great multinational Mosaic expedition of the Polarstern whose data is still being analyzed by scientists from many disciplines. As a result of the Zeitenwende caused by the Russian aggression, Germany has published its first-ever national security strategy. It identifies robustness, resilience and sustainability as key themes for dealing with the current situation. Given the changed security environment, we have decided to update our Arctic Policy Guidelines.

The three aforementioned themes of robustness, resilience and sustainability will also play a key role in the updated Arctic Policy Guidelines of the German Government we are working on. The updated version will reflect the changes in the geopolitical environment and the deepening climate crisis. It will place a stronger focus on security cooperation, including the role of NATO. However, the themes of environment, sustainable development, climate and research are no less important now than they were in 2019. Across the board, the new guidelines will take into account the perspective of Arctic indigenous groups and those living in the Arctic. We are planning to publish the new guidelines in the second half of 2024.

See below the full speech on our YouTube channel.

Tjorven Bellmann

Political Director, Federal Foreign Office, Germany

Tjorven Bellmann holds the position of Political Director since January 2022.

In this role, her responsibilities include bilateral relations with the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Turkey, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Western Balkans, EFTA-Countries and Russia, as well as G7, NATO, EU Common Foreign and Security Policy, OSCE and Council of Europe.

Previously, she was Director for Security Policy and served in various roles in the field of security policy, in the Press Division at the Foreign Office as well as in the German Embassies in Tel Aviv and Tehran.

She studied Islamic Studies and European Political Studies.