Greenland Defense: Working the Problem


2014-05-23 By Robbin Laird

Dateline: Copenhagen, Denmark

The Russian actions in Ukraine have reminded Europe of the direct defense of Europe challenge.  And part of Europe is clearly the Arctic and securing their Arctic interests during the Arctic opening.

And a key element of managing that opening is safety, security and defense, with the Russians as a key player, either in working the problem collectively or positioning for dominance.

The Ukraine events have gotten the attention of the Nordic states with regard to the second might be more important in the near and mid-term than the former.  Indeed, discussions in Denmark have highlighted growing concern with how best to deal with both Baltic and Arctic security and defense.

We will publish interviews with some Danish experts on how to understand the challenges seen from the Nordics in the next few weeks.

But a recent comment by the Prime Minister of Iceland highlights the concerns:

Russia’s actions in Ukraine could cause problems for international cooperation in the Arctic, says Iceland’s prime minister. Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson said Russia’s strong-arm tactics in its former satellite could make it harder for the eight nations on the Arctic Council to reach agreements at a time when the region faces a series of critical issues.

“This has a ripple effect, even though the actual events are far from the Arctic,” said Gunnlaugsson, in Edmonton on a trade mission. “Clearly, it has made many players in the Arctic quite worried about developments and whether they might be a sign of what is to come.”

What the Ukrainian dynamics have underscored is the need for practical actions to bolster Baltic security and defense as well as that of the Arctic. 

From the Nordic standpoint, one simply has to look at the map, to understand the relationship of Russia to both Baltic and Arctic concerns.

Baltic Map

With regard to the Arctic, a key concern for Denmark clearly is the development of Greenland and the defense and security of the country as well. 

What makes Greenland a tricky issue is that Denmark is responsible for security and defense, yet Greenland is quasi-independent, and clearly aspires to see development and the enrichment of what is essentially a poor country.

A small population, which lives in the perimeter of the country, largely occupies Greenland and yet the opening of the country to mining is bringing with it significant outside influence, which can clearly disrupt the security and defense situation for Greenland as well.

Certainly, one of the outside powers which concerns Denmark most is China, and its engagement in the opening of Greenland.

A recent conference held by the Centre for Military Affairs in Copenhagen focused on the Chinese challenge in the Arctic.

As one contributor to the conference put it:

In Greenland, big scale mining in need of foreign investments are not only seen as a possibility for obtaining economic growth and the maintenance of welfare systems in Greenland, but also as one of the few possibilities for obtaining a sustainable economy, which is a prerequisite for obtaining political independence that is the promise on the Self-Government Act adopted in 2009 by the Greenlandic and the Danish parliaments after a Greenlandic referendum in which about 75 percent of the voters voted yes.

This could, of course, cause alarm in Denmark, and raise questions concerning whether Denmark, eventually, will lose the current arrangement with Greenland as part of the Danish community of the realm – if Greenland decides for independence.

So, the issue of China’s Arctic aspiration in the Danish political debate is clearly intertwined with the issue of the future of the Danish-Greenlandic relationship.


But more broadly, there is the defense challenge, which is a Danish, NATO, and a US challenge. 

Greenlanders live in the more temperate coastal areas; the rest of its two million sq km are covered in ice.
Greenlanders live in the more temperate coastal areas; the rest of its two million sq km are covered in ice.

The US has had a presence in Greenland and took primary responsibility for the defense of Greenland throughout the Cold War.  Yet the uncertainties of US policy, more generally and in the Arctic, as well as the dynamics of the Danish-Greenland relationship create an open-ended problem of how the security and defense of Greenland will be conducted in the period of the Arctic opening.

In an excellent overview to the challenge for the development and defense of Greenland, Mikkel Vedby Rasmussen, the head of the Centre for Military Studies, provided a way to conceptualize the problem.

The problem really is about the development of Greenland, the role of the local government in that development, the relationship between Denmark and Greenland in combining greater autonomy for Greenland while providing for defense and security and what role the US will have in the overall process.

In other words, the challenge will be to sort out in PRACTICAL terms how Greenland will be defended in the presence of greater outside powers influence through the mining companies, the dynamics of change between Denmark and Greenland, and the uncertainty about US policies and capabilities for Greenland defense and Arctic operations.

And in such a situation certainly, the Russians will play a role with a significant possibility of driving wedges among the players. The sort of game they have played in Georgia and Ukraine or Syria for that matter would seem to fit a Russian opportunity in the High North.

According to Rasmussen:

The military remains a Danish responsibility after the 2009 self-rule legislation. The Danish military presence in the Arctic is of a different nature than the American one, however. The Danish military presence relates to the internal affairs of the territory rather than to the geopolitical position of Greenland.

The United States military is stationed in Greenland for purely geopolitical reasons, and the bulk of the US forces left when these concerns could be dealt with differently and at lower cost. The Danish military presence was and has remained primarily a naval presence. The Royal Danish Navy is also the national coast guard and naval operations in the Arctic were primarily coast guard operations like Search and Rescue (SAR) and fishing inspection.

Apart from this the air force operated a few platforms for logistics and surveillance and the army operate the SIRIUS PATROL – a ranger unit that patrols the Northern territories by sled. The increasingly independent-minded government in Nuuk has been making demands of the Danish military in ways, which would never have been done of the US military.

With prospect of more traffic in the territorial waters and the need to more inspections following from prospecting etc. the call from greater resources have been heard from the military40 and politicians in Greenland, like the Greenlandic MP Sara Olsvig who argued that an increased defence presence was needed because ‘the minerals – including radioactive material – must be secured’

‘Greenland is a part of the Kingdom which will play an important global role in the future,’ defence minister Nick Hækkerup noted in 2012. Minister Hækkerup added that he believed operations in the Arctic would be ‘one of the areas were we will use more money in years to come’.

Rasmussen added that:

A key interest of the United States in Greenland will be the stability that allows access and which prevents Greenland from being a problem in Canada-US relations. As Natalia Loukacheva notes, the most important security relationship between the Inuit in Nunavut and Greenland is not with Ottawa or Copenhagen but with Washington.

For Canada and Denmark the risk of decoupling is part of the geopolitics of the Arctic. Perhaps one reason why the State Department did not grant the ambassador his wish for an office in Nuuk was that the United States might be more interested in Greenland remaining a part of the Kingdom of Denmark, if Greenland independence would create problems within the Canadian federation, this would lead to demands for more independence to Nunavut. The fact that military forces in the Arctic have come from the outside has made it obvious for the Inuit to focus on human security concerns, the fact that military forces has been non-indigenous have reflected the fact that the areas have been governed from the outside and with a geopolitical importance that attracted foreign forces.

The ambition of independence puts these geopolitical questions on Greenland’s political agenda for the first time.

The geopolitics of Greenland dictates that Greenland can only be a sovereign, independent country by providing for stability and control over its own territory in a way that ensures the United States of access and that the access of potentially hostile powers can be confidently denied. This is an issue anyone arguing for the independence of Greenland from the Kingdom of Denmark will have to be able to address.


And in another Danish paper which considers the evolving Greenland agenda, Admiral Nils Wang, one of Denmark’s leading Arctic experts and head of the Royal Danish Defence College, argues along with one of his colleagues, that the quest for sovereignty by Greenland will occur in a tough period where pressure from the outside is going up dramatically.

As a result, Greenland might well consider working with Denmark closely on sorting out security and defense arrangements as the Arctic opening unfolds.

In the paper, Dr. Damien Degeorges and Rear Admiral Nils Wang argue the following:

Greenland achieved self-rule in 2009, just as the Arctic was starting to draw global attention. This was by no means the beginning of the state-building process, but an important step on a long journey towards increased sovereignty and independence.

The big challenge for Greenland is to achieve economic independence and become a respected sovereign actor in the international system, capable of standing up to other regional actors such as Norway, Canada, Russia and the United States. After nearly 300 years of economic and political dependency on Denmark, economic independence now seems to be achievable within a foreseeable future.

However, the growing international interest for the Arctic in general is compounding the challenges for Greenland’s small population and its plans to develop a robust state apparatus, with the necessary institutional volume.

Greenland and the New Arctic.

In short, working the specifics of how the Greenland defense and security challenge is worked with Denmark, the Nordics, the United States and other Europeans is a key part of the future of Western defense and security.

It is not simply about an abstract Arctic security problem.

It is integral to the evolution of Europe and of NATO in the years ahead as wealth and influence shift North within Europe as a whole.

For my own presentation to the Centre for Military Studies on May 22, 2014 see the following:

The Greenland graphic is taken from a Financial Times piece on the Grab for Greenland: