Over the past several years, Moscow has been remarkably successful in convincing the Faroe Islands and Greenland, two Danish dependencies, to adopt different and less hostile policies toward Russia than North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member Denmark. Now, some in the Russian capital fear that independence for Greenland, something they suggest the United States and the United Kingdom are promoting, could change that. The Kremlin believes that the US would have far greater influence over an independent Greenland than Denmark has under the current autonomy arrangements. (On Moscow’s successes in the Faroes, the smaller and less significant of the two, see Fondsk.ru, May 13; on its hopes for Greenland and its growing fears of what complete independence would mean for Russia, see EDM, June 22, 2021; Goarctic.ru, April 8; Vpoanalytics.com, May 20.) Now, the Russian government hopes to involve China in opposing the West’s moves in Greenland, as commentaries covering Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin’s visit to Beijing this week have stressed (Goarctic.ru, May 22). As a result, Greenland, which many have ignored up to now, is set to become a new locus of controversy between the East and the West.
While many in the West have adopted an attitude toward Greenland well captured in John Griesemer’s 2002 dystopian novel, No One Thinks of Greenland, Russian analysts and policymakers have long focused on the world’s largest island, not only because of its location in the Arctic but also as an increasingly important source of valuable natural resources (see EDM, May 19, 2020). Although the US has had the Thule Air Base in Greenland for decades, only in recent times, with climate changes easing difficulties in exploiting the island’s rich holdings of oil, gas, minerals and especially rare earths, has Washington focused on what is happening there. This new focus was highlighted in 2019 when former President Donald Trump suggested that the US buy Greenland from Denmark, a proposal that outraged both Copenhagen and Nuuk, the island’s capital (Vpoanalytics.com, August 21, 2019). But if an American purchase is not on the table, independence for Greenland is closer than ever before. At the end of April 2023, Copenhagen presented a constitutional draft that, in addition to offering a continuation of the current course or a Puerto Rican–style association with Denmark, opens the way for that outcome for an island that is the world’s largest but has fewer than 60,000 residents and thus is likely at risk to greater outside influence (TASS, April 28).
According to Moscow security analyst Aleksey Baliyev, the US and the UK would stand to gain the most from Greenland’s independence. The two powers, in his telling, are primarily interested in gaining such influence to enable exclusive access to the island’s oil, gas, water, fishing and mineral wealth, including numerous rare earths, all of which are becoming more accessible due to climate change (Vpoanalytics.com, May 20). Just how important Greenland could be is highlighted by the following statistic Baliyev cites: While Russia has the largest holdings in the Arctic of oil and gas reserves with an estimated 105 billion tons, Greenland is tied with Norway in second place with 65 billion tons—more than Canada with 61 billion tons and far more than the US with 40 billion tons and Iceland with 16 billion tons. If the US and the UK succeed in pushing Greenland’s independence and then taking full control of its natural resources, that in and of itself would change the world’s geo-economic and geopolitical balance. In truth, other natural resources in Greenland’s possession—particularly, the rare earths—may make the island’s independence even more consequential.
Yet, according to Baliyev, “the Anglo-Saxons” have another interest almost as compelling: isolating Russia and China and putting themselves in a position to block, or at least control, the Western entrance to the Northern Sea Route while projecting power into Russia and its sphere of influence. “Like the Faroe Island, which have resisted anti-Russian Western sanctions,” he says, today “the Greenland autonomy remains outside of the EU and, until recently, cooperated with Russia as it did with the USSR.” In December 2022, to be sure, the West did pressure Greenland to suspend its cooperation with Moscow on fishing; but significantly, Baliyev says, the document announcing this did not mention the war in Ukraine but rather suggested that such a suspension was needed due to the exhaustion of resources. Moscow sees this verbiage as suggesting that Greenland still wants to cooperate, something the US and the UK might be able to prevent if Greenland were fully independent (EurAsia Daily, December 20, 2022).
Another development complicates this situation and may make it more explosive. China has become more active in Greenland, offering development aid and becoming actively involved in building three airports there, reflecting its desire to play a larger role in the Arctic (see China Brief, March 12, 2018; Euractiv, September 5, 2019; The Diplomat, January 5, 2022). Some in the West have dismissed this Chinese presence as irrelevant because it appears to be so small (Regnum, October 26, 2022). But such dismissals miss a key point: In a place such as Greenland, with so few people and so little infrastructure, even the number of workers Beijing has sent in and the size of the projects it has launched are comparatively enormous. Indeed, one reason Greenland is so attractive to China, and presumably to other countries as well, is that small investments promise enormous returns.
During Mishustin’s visit to Beijing on May 23 and 24, Russian experts on the Arctic, including St. Petersburg’s Aleksey Fadeev, have celebrated the possibility that China will now work more closely with Russia to oppose the expansion of Western influence in Greenland, presumably by opposing independence for the island, among other approaches (Goarctic.ru, May 22). Given that, even in combination, Moscow and Beijing would be in an unlikely position to match Western investment in Greenland, the two powers may very well decide to try to convince Greenlanders that they should remain part of Denmark, an arrangement that has allowed Russia in the past and could allow Russia and China in the future to have more influence than they would if Greenland became independent.
Ironically, that puts them in the somewhat ironic position of defending the overseas possession of a NATO member against two other NATO countries, the US and the UK. Of course, that may contribute to Russia’s efforts to divide and thus weaken the Western alliance. As a result, tensions over Greenland are certainly going to increase and may soon require enormous diplomatic efforts to avoid a disaster.