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Faroe Islands still open for Russian vessels. High risk of sabotage?

Strategically located in the middle of the North Atlantic, the Faroe Islands continue to cooperate with Russia in fishing and are becoming more independent of Denmark. At the same time, the government is thinking of terminating the Russian agreement after pressure from Copenhagen.

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The previous Faroese administration renewed the agreement with Russia, allowing Faroese fishermen to fish for cod in the Russian part of the Barents Sea and Russians to call at the islands’ ports, until the end of 2023. The judgment was criticized by the Ukrainian government in Copenhagen as well as the European Union.

“Fishing drives our economy, it gives us the opportunity to play an important role in the North Atlantic,” emphasized Faroese head of diplomacy Høgni Hoydal in Copenhagen during a meeting with international media.

Hoydal is the deputy prime minister in charge of trade and fishing; the non-EU Faroe Islands have gained considerably in recent years from the agreement with Russia.

Fishing El Dorado

Fish and fish products account for 95% of overall exports in the country. The Faroese catch 700,000 tonnes of fish and seafood each year, and they consume 13 tonnes of fish per capita, the most in the world.

Russia is the single largest buyer, purchasing close to a quarter of all exports in 2021. The government said in a statement that its fisheries agreement with Russia “does not allow” restricting the vessels’ access to the ports.

During the presentation, the head of diplomacy demonstrated that Faroese GDP growth averaged 2.6% between 2008 and 2011, higher than the OECD average of 1.5% and Denmark’s 1.2%. This is yet another case for the archipelago’s independence. The Faroe Islands will be responsible for marine navigation issues in their waters beginning on June 1, 2024.

The income from fishing has also allowed for the accumulation of capital “for worse times when fish prices fall”, modeled on the Norwegian Pension Petroleum Fund.

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Shadow War

The investigative report ‘Shadow War’ by the Nordic public television channels, broadcast at the end of April, showed that the Russians could, however, also use Faroese territory to prepare acts of sabotage.

Two Russian fishing vessels with military radio equipment on board were reportedly discovered to have docked more than 200 times in Faroese harbors between 2015 and 2022. These ships are suspected of having been used for espionage and transport of warfare.

“The Faroe Islands are fully capable of assessing what is happening in their territory,” said the Faroese Foreign minister. Simultaneously he warned Copenhagen following accusations that Russian fishing ships docking there were being used for espionage.

He stressed that “Russian ships are controlled by the Faroese authorities and that Denmark is responsible for the security and secret service issues”. “We do not see Russia behaving suspiciously in our waters after the invasion of Ukraine,” he announced. The politician also admitted that he is also not worried about a boycott among Faroese fish buyers because of cooperation with Moscow.

The decision

The Faroese are strongly divided on Russia. They also have different views on independence from Denmark, it was decided to analyze the costs of giving up Russian fisheries in the Barents Sea.

The end of the agreement with Russia is being called for, among others, by Social Democrat member of the Danish Parliament from the Faroe Islands Sjurdur Skaale, who supports the government of Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen. Meanwhile, the Faroese Fishermen’s Association, fearing the loss of jobs for its members, is campaigning to warn against breaking off cooperation with the Russians.

Big plans

The ambitions of the small archipelago in the middle of the North Atlantic are high. According to Hoydal, as the Arctic ice melts, it will enable new shipping routes in which Faroese ports will play an important role. The Faroe Islands are located in a strategic position in the North Atlantic between the U.K., Norway, and Iceland.

The Faroe Islands have opened diplomatic representation in Brussels, Copenhagen, London, Reykjavik, Moscow, China and Tel Aviv. There are plans to open an outpost in Washington DC in 2024 and to launch direct flights to the U.S. this autumn.

The Faroe Islands, which are not a member of the EU, supported the sanctions imposed on Russia following the invasion of Ukraine while maintaining their long-standing trading connection with Russia. Sanctions allow governments to exempt commerce in food products, and the Faroe Islands, unlike Denmark and the EU, permitted the largest Russian fishing vessels into Faroese harbors.

According to Hoydal, the Faroese authorities have strengthened regulations on all fishing, transport of products, and related activity. He went on to say that any illegal activity in Faroese waters would be prosecuted.

The Russian presidential office’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, refuted in a statement that Russia is mapping the infrastructure of offshore wind farms, gas pipelines, power, and internet cables in the Nordic region.

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