May 29, 2024

Europe

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Two guards stand on a dock in front of a large gray ship.
The missile cruiser Peter the Great, part of the Russian Navy’s northern fleet, at its Arctic base in Severomorsk in 2021. Russia, China and the West are all seeking to expand their military presence in the Arctic. Credit…Emile Ducke for The New York Times

As polar ice melts, Russia, already a major Arctic power, wants to make the region its own. China has ambitions for a “Polar Silk Road.” And NATO is embracing Finland — and Sweden too, Washington hopes — giving the alliance new reach in the Far North.

Climate change is accelerating and amplifying competition in the Arctic as never before, opening the region to greater commercial and strategic jostling just at a moment when Russia, China and the West are all seeking to expand their military presence there.

The rising importance of the region is underscored by the travels of Antony J. Blinken, the U.S. secretary of state, who will attend an informal meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Norway on Thursday.

Mr. Blinken is making a point of visiting Sweden and Finland as well, meeting the leaders of all three countries as they press Turkey to ratify Sweden’s quick entry into NATO. He is scheduled to deliver a major speech on Russia, Ukraine and NATO on Friday in Helsinki, the capital of NATO’s newest member.

For a long time, countries were reluctant to discuss the Arctic as a possible military zone. But that is quickly changing.

Russian aggression plus climate change make “a perfect storm,” said Matti Pesu, an analyst at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. There is a new Cold War atmosphere, mixed with melting ice, which affects military planning and opens up new economic possibilities and access to natural resources.

Two men shake hands at the bottom of the stairs to an airplane.
Tobias Billstrom, the foreign minister of Sweden, welcoming Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday. Credit…TT News Agency/via Reuters

“So all these are connected and are magnifying each other,” Mr. Pesu said. “It makes the region intriguing.”

While NATO has been cheered by Russia’s difficulties in Ukraine, the alliance in fact has significant vulnerabilities in the north.

Russia remains a vast Arctic power, with naval bases and nuclear missiles stationed in the Far North but also along Russia’s western edge: in the Kola Peninsula, near Norway, where Russia keeps most of its nuclear-armed submarines, and in Kaliningrad, bordered by Poland and Lithuania.

change, shipping routes are becoming less icebound and easier to navigate, making the Arctic more accessible and attractive for competitive commercial exploitation, as well as military adventurism.

Russia has said it wants to make the Arctic its own — a fifth military district, on a par with its other four — said Robert Dalsjo, research director at the Swedish Defense Research Agency.

China has also been busy trying to establish itself in the region and use new unfrozen routes, one reason the NATO considers China a significant security challenge.

In its most recent strategy paper, adopted last summer in Madrid, NATO declared Russia to be “the most significant and direct threat to allies’ security and to peace and stability,” but for the first time addressed China, saying that its “stated ambitions and coercive policies challenge our interests, security and values.”

How to create a “northern bubble” to deter Russia and monitor China is one of NATO’s newest and biggest challenges.

In response to NATO’s enlargement, “Russia is putting increasing emphasis on the Arctic, where they’re stronger and less surrounded by NATO,” said Mr. Pesu of the Finnish Institute. Russia may have drawn down its troops to fight in Ukraine, but retains its air power, northern fleet, nuclear submarines and nuclear-armed missiles in the northern realms.

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Rows of colorful houses in a snowy coastal landscape.
Longyearbyen, Norway, in 2022. Fearing the Russian threat, Sweden, Finland, Norway and Denmark are merging their air forces, creating one with more planes than either Britain or France.Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

“So it remains a pretty urgent concern,” he said. Finland, Sweden and Norway “see this most urgently,” even if some in NATO do not, he said. As a consequence, Finland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark have decided to merge their air forces, creating one with more planes than either Britain or France.

Until now, competition in the region was largely mediated through the Arctic Council, founded in 1996, which includes Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States, and promotes research and cooperation.

But it does not have a security component, and soon all members but Russia will be NATO members. The council has been “paused” since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. When Russia’s chairmanship ended in May, Norway took over, so activity may pick up again.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 caused rethinking throughout NATO, and there was new anxiety about the Baltic States — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — combined with submarine hunts in Sweden and more serious war gaming, said Anna Wieslander, the director for Northern Europe at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based research institution.

Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, then the supreme allied commander Europe, called for “an anti-access area denial” — to deny Russia entry to the Baltic Sea from Kaliningrad, the isolated Russian toehold with access to the sea.

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Camouflaged soldiers conduct a training exercise in front of two tanks.
Swedish Army conscripts during a training exercise on the island of Gotland, Sweden, last year. A NATO command created in 2018 defends the Atlantic sea routes, Scandinavia and the Arctic.Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times
Washington started reinvesting militarily in the Arctic then with more ships, planes and military exercises, as did other NATO countries in the region. In 2018 NATO went so far as to set up a new operational command — a kind of regional headquarters that plans and conducts military operations to defend specific areas of NATO. The new command, based in Norfolk, Va., is navy-focused and defends the Atlantic sea routes, Scandinavia and the Arctic.

There remains a concern that China, which now has even closer ties to Russia, remains active in the Far North, building big icebreakers. “China will reach Europe through the Arctic,” Ms. Wieslander said.

One main question is whether the real Russian threat to Scandinavia will come from the sea, as Norway fears, or from the land, with a possible Russian invasion of the Baltic States or Finland, then a move westward.

Both Finland and Sweden, when it joins, want to be part of the same NATO operational command, given their long history of defense cooperation.

Norway belongs to the Norfolk command, and there is a logic to making both Finland and Sweden part of that command, since reinforcements would likely come from the West, across the Atlantic.

But there is perhaps more logic, given the current threat from Russia, for them to join the land-oriented command based in Brunssum, the Netherlands, which is charged with defending Central and Eastern Europe, including Poland and the Baltic nations.

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Icebergs near Kulusuk, Greenland, in 2019. Climate change is opening new sea routes and economic possibilities in the Arctic.
Credit…Felipe Dana/Associated Press

“There is logic for both,” said Niklas Granholm, deputy director of studies at the Swedish Defense Research Agency. “It’s not yet resolved.”

According to the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper, NATO is recommending putting both countries in the Brunssum command, despite Finland’s early interest in being part of Norfolk, which Sauli Niinisto, Finland’s president, visited in March.

That’s because it is easier for Finland to be reinforced from Norway and Sweden, Mr. Pesu, the Finnish Institute analyst, noted.

The fear is that a modernized Russian Northern Fleet could swing down through the straits between Greenland, Iceland and Britain, a move known in NATO as a “red right hook,” to cut sea lanes and underwater cables and threaten the American East Coast with cruise missiles.

Mr. Dalsjo of the Swedish Defense Research Agency, calling himself a heretic, cautions in a recent paper that this threat is real but may be overblown, especially after Russia’s losses in Ukraine.

Russia is predominantly a land power, and its northern fleet is considerably smaller than it was during the Cold War, when there were worries about the kind of major Soviet naval attack depicted in the Tom Clancy novel “Red Storm Rising.”

“If they didn’t do it then with 150 ships,” Mr. Dalsjo asked, “why would they do it now with 20?”

Andrei Medvedev fought with Russia’s Wagner mercenaries in Ukraine, then requested asylum in Norway. The authorities there must now weigh his plea against solidarity with Ukraine.

A man in a baseball cap and jacket leaning against a building.
Andrei Medvedev, who fought with Russia’s Wagner mercenary group, is seeking asylum in Norway, while providing information on Wagner’s fight in Ukraine. Credit…Andrea Gjestvang for The New York Times
Sipping a $12 beer in one of the world’s wealthiest capitals, Andrei Medvedev reflected on the question hanging over him since he left the battlefields of Ukraine: Is he a hero or a war criminal?

He claims to have deserted from Russia’s notorious Wagner mercenary force during the monumental battle for the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, and later to have escaped his native Russia by running across a frozen Arctic river. Now in Norway, Mr. Medvedev, 26, is seeking asylum, while providing information on Wagner to Norwegian authorities.

Since arriving in the country in January, Mr. Medvedev has voluntarily attended about a dozen interviews with Norwegian police officers investigating war crimes in Ukraine, including his potential role in them. Mr. Medvedev has described killing Ukrainians in combat and witnessing summary executions of comrades accused of cowardice. He claims that he did not participate or witness war crimes such as killings of prisoners of war and civilians.

“Yes, I have killed, I saw comrades die. It was war,” he said in an interview at an Oslo bar. “I have nothing to hide.”

His unlikely journey has made Mr. Medvedev one of only a handful of publicly known Russian combatants to seek protection in Europe after participating in the invasion. His asylum request is now forcing Norway to decide a case that pits the country’s humanitarian ethos against an increasingly assertive national security policy and solidarity with Ukraine.

To his lawyer, the credible threat of revenge facing Mr. Medvedev if he were sent back home qualifies him for asylum. And some Norwegian politicians have said that encouraging soldiers like Mr. Medvedev to defect would weaken Russia’s army and hasten the end of the war.

But as Norway evaluates his claim, it is facing pressure from activists in Ukraine and Western Europe, who say giving safe haven in Europe to Russian fighters, especially mercenaries like Mr. Medvedev, fails to hold Russians accountable for the invasion. And the former fighter may have complicated his own request with bar fights and detentions in Norway, and by briefly posting a video on YouTube suggesting he wanted to return to Russia.

More broadly, Mr. Medvedev’s case puts a spotlight on a policy dilemma that European governments have largely avoided grappling with in public: How should the region treat Russian deserters, and the hundreds of thousands of combatants in Russia’s war in Ukraine, in general?

“It goes to the core of who we are in Europe,” said Cecilie Hellestveit, an expert in armed conflict law affiliated with Norway’s human rights watchdog and a former member of the country’s asylum appeal board. “It forces us to re-evaluate our approach to human rights in a way that we have not been willing to do until now.”

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Blue and yellow Ukrainian flags in front of buildings.
Ukrainian flags in near the Russian Embassy in Oslo. Credit…Andrea Gjestvang for The New York Times

The European Union, and affiliated states like Norway, have had to balance humanitarian needs with war crimes accountability before, most recently in processing immigration claims of people who fought in the Balkan and Syrian civil wars.

But the scale of the war in Ukraine, its proximity to the European Union, and the participation of two conventional armies means that the Russian invasion presents a much greater challenge to the region’s asylum system, Ms. Hellestveit said.

Four months after Mr. Medvedev requested asylum, his claim remains pending. Norway’s immigration agency said all asylum cases filed by Russians who fled to evade military service were on hold while they analyze the human rights conditions in the country. The agency said it could not comment on individual applications for privacy reasons.

Some humanitarian law experts in Norway say Mr. Medvedev’s unresolved request reflects the government’s reluctance to bring further attention to a case that could divide the public, get ahead of the policies of other European states and strain relations with Kyiv. Norway has been a fervent supporter of the Ukrainian cause, committing $7.5 billion worth of economic and military aid, and accepting about 40,000 Ukrainian refugees.

“This case has a lot of conflicting rights, a lot of conflicting obligations and a lot of conflicting politics,” said Paal Nesse, the head of Norwegian Organization for Asylum Seekers, a nonprofit providing legal aid to applicants.

Norway and E.U. countries have struggled to formulate a common approach for asylum claims submitted by Russians who have fled the country to avoid military service, a much larger group of applicants than men who engaged in combat, like Mr. Medvedev.

The European Union’s Agency for Asylum said in a written response to questions that it is up to member states to decide who deserves protection.

Pavel Filatiev, a former Russian paratrooper who requested asylum in France after fighting in Ukraine, said he was waiting for a decision eight months after submitting his application. A third publicly known Russian deserter in Europe, a former army mechanic named Nikita Chibrin, has had a pending asylum claim in Spain since November.

The legal uncertainty, financial problems and social isolation are difficult to bear, Mr. Filatiev said in a phone interview, but he added that he considered himself fortunate and was grateful to his French hosts.

“I understand that my decision to leave will always haunt me,” he said.

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A man in a white shirt sitting at a restaurant table.
Pavel Filatiev in Paris in September. A former Russian paratrooper who fought in Ukraine, he has requested asylum in France. Credit…Lewis Joly/Associated Press

Mr. Medvedev’s has a troubled history of antisocial behavior. Already, he has been detained twice in Norway for getting into fights in bars and once in Sweden for entering the country illegally. (He was returned to Norway.) In Russia, he spent four years in jail for robbery and getting into fights, according to court records.

People who know him have said those actions could be a consequence of a lifetime of trauma: in a violent family home, a Siberian orphanage and Russian jails, and on Ukrainian battlefields.

In addition to his run-ins with the law, Mr. Medvedev said he had also repeatedly clashed in Oslo with Ukrainians, most recently while visiting a local Soviet military memorial on Victory Day.

Such run-ins have underlined the tensions between the Russian defectors and Ukrainian refugees across Europe. Natalia Lutsyk, the head of the Ukrainian Association in Norway, said the lack of international cooperation prevented Norway and other nations from thoroughly investigating war crimes committed in Ukraine.

“Thus, Medvedev and his companions remain unpunished,” she added.

The New York Times spent several weeks interviewing Mr. Medvedev and researching his personal history since he left the front in November and went into hiding in Russia. His account of his military service has contained contradictory or unverifiable claims. Some basic facts of his life, however, have been corroborated by public records and interviews with acquaintances.

The weight of this evidence shows that Mr. Medvedev enlisted with Wagner in July 2022, two days after finishing his latest prison sentence.

Wagner’s founder, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, in April called Mr. Medvedev a “jackass who spent two days in Wagner, who can’t identify anyone.” After his escape to Norway, Mr. Prigozhin called him dangerous. He has not publicly threatened Mr. Medvedev.

In an interview in Oslo, Mr. Medvedev described his new living conditions, provided mostly by the Norwegian state. According to him, they include a house, home visits by a Norwegian language teacher, an integration assistant, ski and mountain bike trips, and “Taco Saturdays” with a personal security detail.

He also claims to be a subject of a bidding war between filmmakers, an assertion that could not be verified.

But days after the interview, Mr. Medvedev declared that he had contacted the Russian Embassy to get help returning home.

“I hope that I could find peace and calm here, that I could leave behind the politics, the war, the army,” he said in a video published on YouTube. “It was not to be.”

He later deleted the videos and declined to speak again when contacted by phone.

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A memorial depicting a soldier in front of flowers and near graves.
Mr. Medvedev said he repeatedly clashed in public with Ukrainians, most recently during his visit to a Soviet memorial in Oslo during Victory Day. Credit…Andrea Gjestvang for The New York Times

His lawyer, Brynjulf Risnes, said his public comments should not influence the asylum claim, which is decided on humanitarian grounds. But Mr. Medvedev’s violent past and controversial behavior, which has turned him into a minor local celebrity, have confused and alienated many Norwegians, sapping sympathy for Russian defectors.

Under Norwegian law, refusing to fight in an illegal war may grant a right to asylum. However, this right does not apply to war criminals, and local prosecutors can charge people who they believe have committed war crimes elsewhere.

A Norwegian criminal police spokesman said Mr. Medvedev was a witness, not a suspect, in its investigation of war crimes in Ukraine, and that, to date, officers “have not found grounds for charges.”

Mr. Medvedev said his cooperation had helped investigators locate Wagner facilities in Ukraine and Russia and map the group’s structure.

The case is also being followed by Ukrainian officials, who are conducting their own investigation of Mr. Medvedev. Shortly after his arrival in Norway, Ukraine’s ambassador in Oslo told local news media that her government could request his extradition.

Such a request would present Norway with another dilemma, forcing it to choose between a show of support for an ally and upholding the basic principle of its asylum law. This law states that an asylum seeker cannot be sent to a country where they may not get a fair trial.

The office of Ukraine’s prosecutor general said in a written response to questions that it checked all Russian servicemen who arrive in foreign countries for potential participation in war crimes, and that it had requested Norway’s legal assistance in investigating Mr. Medvedev.

Mr. Medvedev said he had refused to see Ukrainian investigators who asked to meet him in Norway.

“They are always after me,” he said. “I’m helping them to end this war.”

Constant Méheut contributed reporting from Paris, Alina Lobzina from London and Natalia Yermak from Kyiv, Ukraine.