Blog: Vestiges of the Berlin Wall in the Arctic

A part of the Berlin Wall at the East Side Gallery in Berlin, Germany. (Mia Bennett)
A part of the Berlin Wall at the East Side Gallery in Berlin, Germany. (Mia Bennett)
On June 12, 1987, President Ronald Reagan stood at the Brandenburg Gate, issuing a challenge to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

“Tear down this wall!” he famously cried. In the autumn of that same year, in the Russian Arctic city of Murmansk, Gorbachev made a similar challenge to the world to end the divisions wrought by the Cold War in the Arctic. “Let the North of the globe, the Arctic, become a zone of peace,” he proclaimed. “Let the North Pole be a pole of peace.”

Both Reagan and Gorbachev’s visions were made real over the next few years as the Berlin Wall fell down and the Arctic became a peaceful region that fostered multilateral environmental cooperation. The 1990s witnessed both the reunification of Germany and the formation of the Arctic Council. A united Germany even became an Arctic Council observer, and the Port of Hamburg – revitalized by reunification – could one day help connect eastern Germany, the Czech Republic, and beyond to the Northern Sea Route, as I wrote a few months ago.

Twenty-fifth anniversary

So on Sunday at the Brandenburg Gate, millions of people celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the wall. But no such celebrations are taking place in the Arctic, for neither Russia nor the West is helping to realize Gorbachev’s vision of the Arctic becoming a zone of peace. In April, for instance, Canada boycotted an Arctic Council meeting in Moscow over objections to Russia’s occupation of Crimea. A new report by the European Leadership Network uncovered nearly 40 instances of “brinkmanship,” or close encounters between Russian and Western forces. I mapped the data provided by the ELN on Google Maps into a polar projection, and the clustering of encounters in the Baltic Sea remains clear. In the Arctic, though, there are also several encounters, mostly near Canada and Alaska and one instance south of Greenland. In the sub-Arctic, a couple other instances occur in the Sea of Okhotsk, though they are not shown in the map below. It was therefore perhaps not surprising that over the weekend at a ceremony in Berlin, Gorbachev warned that the world was on the brink of a new cold war. He intoned, “We must make sure that we get the tensions that have arisen recently under control.”

Gorbachev, as has been widely reported, has accused the United States, the West, and NATO of triumphalism. NATO has continually expanded its footprint east, bringing the former Soviet republics of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia into its fold and undermining Russian desires for a buffer zone along its perimeter. The Baltic states (which, it is worth noting, are occasionally described as “near-Arctic”) have thus lately been no stranger to Russian incursions. An Estonian policeman accused of being a spy was arrested by Russian authorities, with Estonia alleging that he was kidnapped from Estonian territory. A submarine, possibly Russian, was spotted somewhere off of Stockholm around the time that Lithuania’s new liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal was making its way to the port of Klaipėda. Russia is probably not thrilled about Lithuania’s new infrastructure, which allows it more flexibility in gas imports, and, importantly, decreases its reliance on Siberian gas. Additionally, unlike many other European countries which have 15- or 30- year gas contracts with Russia, Lithuania’s contracts with Gazprom expire next year, so it will be sooner able to restructure its gas portfolio. The first shipment of LNG from Norway arrived at the end of last month, and Lithuania signed a five-year gas supply deal with Statoil in August that could provide up to 20% of the country’s needs. Norway is undoubtedly the preferred Arctic partner for the republic that was the first to declare independence from the USSR.

September 18: A Day that will live in Arctic infamy?
Map showing close encounters with Russian military forces (source: European Leadership Network) and detention locations for Juros Vilkas and MV Arctic Sunrise. Location of Juros Vilkas is approximate. (Cryopolitics)
Map showing close encounters with Russian military forces (source: European Leadership Network) and detention locations for Juros Vilkas and MV Arctic Sunrise. Location of Juros Vilkas is approximate. (Cryopolitics)

Tensions between Lithuania and Russia, however, are not confined to the Baltic Sea. They have now extended into the Arctic. On September 18, 2014 – exactly one year to the day after Greenpeace’s MV Arctic Sunrise protestors were detained in the Barents Sea for protesting offshore drilling at the Prirazlomnaya rig – the Lithuanian-flagged fishing boat Jūros Vilkas (“Sea Wolf”) was detained by Russian authorities and towed to Murmansk. The ship, owned by Seattle based company Arctic Fishing, was accused of illegally catching 15 tons of snow crab in Russia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). While ships can navigate freely in a country’s EEZ, the sovereign country retains the right to all of the natural resources in the water column and seabed beneath.

Illegal fishing is no small matter in the Arctic (see this WWF document for a brief summary), and it is especially hard to enforce regulations there given the difficult conditions in which coast guards and other enforcement agencies must operate. Yet the issues surrounding Jūros Vilkas’ detention are complex. Supposedly, the ship’s crew thought they had been operating in the “donut hole” – the area of high seas in between the Russian and Norwegian EEZs in the Barents Sea, visible in the map above. In fact, however, the ship had illegally crossed into Russia’s EEZ, whose boundaries changed after the 2010 treaty with Norway to delimit the former “grey zone” in the Barents.

Russia notified the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission of the change, but according to The Baltic Course, the commission did not alert its member states, Lithuania among them, of this development. Alas, the view from Murmansk seems to be that there will be no forgiving buffer zones for wayward ships accused of illegal fishing in the Russian Arctic (even though Russian fishermen have themselves been described as “members of ‘the international mafia‘”). One has to wonder whether any of the Lithuanian and Russian fishermen who were onboard Jūros Vilkas are sitting in the same cells in the Murmansk detention center that the so-called Greenpeace “Arctic 30″ occupied for three months beginning one year ago.

Lines in the water

While detaining a foreign ship for illegal fishing is common practice around the world, Jūros Vilkas is being held in Murmansk on a bail of 2.25 million euros – an amount some might say is unreasonable since it is two to three times the value of the ship. Furthermore, last year, Chinese processors were buying snow crab from Alaska for around $5 a pound. If prices are comparable in the Barents, then the Lithuanian vessel’s total 15-ton catch, however illegal, was worth only $150,000.

The actions of the Russian coast guard fit the larger logic of Russia’s tough defense of its borders and, importantly, natural resources. When Greenpeace’s Arctic Sunrise was detained and its members prosecuted in court, the NGO’s executive director called it stiffest response his organization had encountered from a government since the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior in 1985. Soon after Arctic Sunrise’s detentionRussian President Vladimir Putin signed a lawallowing oil and gas corporations to establish their own private security forces to defend their infrastructure.

Today, there are thousands of segments of the Berlin Wall on display around the world. According to the head of a German NGO devoted to the Berlin Wall’s remembrance, it is “the only monument that exists on all continents,” except possibly Antarctica.” [1] But the real question we should be asking is not where those concrete slabs are displayed. Rather, the question is, where are the invisible traces of the Wall?

The answer, sadly and increasingly, seems to be in the Arctic.

[1] The Economist. The Berlin Wall: Twenty-five years on.” (Nov. 8, 2014)

This post first appeared on Cryopolitics, an Arctic News and Analysis blog.



Related stories from around the North:

Canada:  Will Russia’s actions in Ukraine affect relations in the Arctic Council?, Eye on the Arctic

Finland:  “Cold war looming, sanctions our best bet,” says Finland’s PM, Yle News

Norway:  Russian Su-34 fighter bombers flying off Norway, Barents Observer

Russia: Russia launches another missile from Barents Sea, Barents Observer

Sweden: Report calls for a study on Sweden joining NATO, Radio Sweden

United States:  Pentagon: Climate change is national security risk, Barents Observer


Mia Bennett

Mia Bennett is an assistant professor in the Department of Geography and School of Modern Languages & Cultures (China Studies Programme) at the University of Hong Kong. Through fieldwork and remote sensing, she researches the politics of infrastructure development in frontier spaces, namely the Arctic and areas included within China's Belt and Road Initiative. Read Mia Bennett's articles

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