The Rising Temperature and Tensions in the Arctic
Soldiers crunch snow underfoot, heavy treaded tyres roll over ice, giant nuclear-armed submarines emerge from underneath glaciers. For the first time since 1990, Soviet-era bases are being reactivated in the most northern area in the world, the Arctic circle.
In the face of constant nuclear threats and the ongoing Ukrainian war, a block of ice at the end of the world may seem rather redundant, but the Arctic circle is quickly becoming an intersection for climate change, warfare, diplomacy, and trade.
Russia, China, the United States and NATO are the central players with interests in the Arctic. Each one has released arctic policies in the last couple years. Despite generally harmonious cooperation; including data sharing, search and rescue missions, crisis responses and environmental protection, the last 15 years have seen policial friction mounting in the Arctic. The suspension of the Arctic Council - an intergovernmental forum between the eight Arctic states and the crux of almost all cooperation since 1991 has become the most recent alteration. The move came from western allies in retaliation for the Ukrainian war and has meant the closing of the most crucial line of communication in Arctic affairs.
An area larger than the US, the Arctic circle encompasses eight countries; Iceland, Finland, Sweden, Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the United States – of these 8, the latter five hold the most significant borders. Russia, who has the most to potentially gain or lose, holds by far the largest.
Melting at a rate 3 times faster than the rest of the planet, it is possible that by the middle of the century there will be little to no ice in the Arctic for the duration of the summer months. This has created a plethora of nuclear, territorial and economic threats for Russia, the West and observing states to contend with. Simultaneously, it has opened up opportunities as previously unavailable gas and energy reserves and new military-strategic routes are realised as the ice melts.
The Key Players
Releasing its Arctic strategy from 2020 to 2035, Russia has unambiguously declared its goals and intentions for the north. Its foremost priorities include the extraction of natural resources, solidifying its territorial sovereignty of the area, increasing combat capabilities and the expansion of the Northern Sea Route (NSR).
However, given the many surmounting pressures on the Russian state at present, it will require great effort and strategic planning to see these into reality.
Rich in resources, it’s estimated the Arctic within Russia’s borders could contain 43 trillion cubic metres of gas – equivalent to approximately 40% of its current gas reserves. In the face of tough western economic sanctions that could see Russian GDP contract by a predicted 6%, Russian reliance on newly unearthed hydrocarbons from the area is likely to deepen. However, as global investment shifts from fossil fuels to renewables, it may become more and more difficult to find a market for such high-pollutant hydrocarbons and may even ignite protests from climate conscious countries.
Moscow must contend with the security threat posed by the United States and NATO as it faces new territorial vulnerabilities. One of these vulnerabilities for Russia – posed by Finland's decision to enter NATO, is the Kola peninsula. An area in northern Russia near the border of Finland, the peninsula plays host to a majority of its nuclear powered and armed submarines known as the Delta IV series. Last year, Russia’s Federation Defense Ministry publicly released a video of three of these Delta IV’s successfully surfacing through layers of ice in a boast of its abilities and a demonstration of its commitment to the stockpiles of its Northern Fleet. Given Finland’s decision to enter NATO, Russia's entire Northern Fleet now faces a higher level of threat from its very doorstep. Moscow’s stance thus far has been to defend and deter as it scrambles to protect its newly exposed coastline from what it views as an encroaching NATO.
As a key point in its Arctic strategy, Russia is hoping to continue the implementation of the Northern Sea Route (NSR). As the ice continues to melt, it is now possible to create a trade route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans for the entirety of the year, no longer just during summer months. Reaching from Asia to Russia and/or Europe, the NSA could provide crucial trade as Russia attempts to circumnavigate sanctions and move away from its reliance on Europe. Potentially 30% shorter than going through the Suez Canal, Malacca Straits or around East Africa, the NSA offers an economic opportunity and the ability to control an important geopolitical area. As of yet, actually passing through the area remains a logistical nightmare. 2020 saw only 331 ships travel some portion of the NSR with only 62 of those completing the entire route. This year the NSR is unlikely to see any travel at all. Despite present difficulties, as time progresses, the route will likely continue to grow in attraction to both Russian and Chinese exporters and large companies alike.
As pressure mounts, Xi Jinping will be forced to consider the benefits and consequences of supporting or ignoring Russian endeavours in the Arctic. At present the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has already stated great interest in the region, controversially declaring itself a ‘near Arctic’ state and releasing its own Arctic Strategy. Among its goals it hopes to increase its involvement in the region and take advantage of the NSR to transport goods from Asia to Europe. Like Russia, China has outlined their own hopes for the NSR, labelling it a ‘Polar Silk Road’. Furthermore Chinese efforts are already underway to build a new heavy-duty icebreaker, the third in its fleet and by far its largest.
Despite tension as both the US and Russia conduct more combat exercises, renew military bases and seek to fortify their sovereignty, China has been pragmatic in its efforts. It aims to take advantage of the Arctic’s economic opportunities without escalating or overly entangling itself in the power struggle between the West and Russia. Its Arctic policy makes special mention of maintaining international law in the region including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the Spitsbergen Treaty and the maintenance of freedom of navigation rights. Its policy for the Arctic has been quite contradictory with its actions in the South China Sea (SCS); in the Arctic China has advocated the benefits and rights for all countries to utilise international waters, whereas it has simultaneously blocked naval ships from operating in mass sections of the SCS. It certainly brings into question China’s legitimacy in wanting to maintain international law for any reason beyond benefiting economically from a stable, open Arctic.
Looking forward, leveraging Russia's precarious position will be an enticing prospect for China. If China does assist Russia in its economic bind by cooperating in extraction and infrastructure, it will not be without receiving something in return. Greater influence and control in the region have been at the core of Chinese Arctic strategy and Russia’s new vulnerability may be leveraged by China to provide just that. Regardless of the outcome, it’s a surety that the Arctic is an immense test of the China-Russia relationship.
Up until now the US has maintained a somewhat passive role in the Arctic maintaining only 2 icebreaker ships, a stark comparison to Russia’s 53. Under the Trump administration, a refusal to recognise climate change and its security dimensions has also hindered any direct talk on the future of the region.
Undoubtedly influenced by its new NATO allies, Biden's presidency, and recent Russian development, the US has moved into rapid action. Releasing its National Strategy for the Arctic in October, it outlined its goals to protect its sovereignty, counteract and respond to climate change in the area, and uphold international law. After remaining dormant, the White House has finally appointed an ambassador to the Arctic Council, pledged to build further ice breakers and stated its intention to increase NATO exercises.
In a conference with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, NATO’s Secretary General made special mention of the Arctic. While highlighting the strategic importance of a missile-route over the North Pole, Jens Stoltenberg also emphasised recent changes to the situation, “the ill-fated, unjustifiable decision of Russia to upend nearly 70 years of peace and stability of rules based order by invading a peaceful neighbour has changed the way we need to look at the Arctic.” Much of NATO's action and policy has been spurred on by the situation in Ukraine and has represented a marked escalation of hostile relations. While an effort at cooperation and unity was made following Russia’s activation of combat bases in the Arctic, all such efforts have now been dropped. With no forum for discussion, the situation in the Arctic threatens to push into an action-reaction cycle.
More neutral states, such as Iceland and India, have carefully balanced risk and reward between the great powers. Iceland has strived to continue its allegiance to NATO forces while reaping the rewards of Chinese investment. In 2016, it allowed the construction of the Chinese Northern Lights Research Facility and promised to provide Beijing with geothermal expertise in a deal worth $250 million. Although China has consistently argued its developments in Iceland are strictly scientific in nature, it is not hard to imagine how such Arctic science could be used militarily or politically. Despite its cooperation in some areas, Iceland’s own security risks were highlighted when it blocked Huang Nubo – Chinese billionaire and member of the CCP, from purchasing 100 miles of Icelandic land to build a golf course. A strange and nonsensical plan as the frigid and gusty terrain makes playing golf an impossibility. The plan was ultimately rejected over regional security concerns.
Even non-Arctic countries are starting to engage. India – one of the observers on the Arctic Council, released its own Arctic policy in March 2022. It plans to study and monitor connections to climate change, cooperate on the extraction of natural resources, and potentially take advantage of the NSR in the coming decades. Given the Arctic’s pivotal relationship to climate change and nuclear weaponry, it seems no government can afford to ignore the situation playing out in the north.
While the world's eye remains firmly on Ukraine, a time dependent game of chess continues up north. Although we are unlikely to ever see full conflict breaking out in the Arctic itself, there is no ruling out its potential as a trigger issue for conflict. Given its role as host to Moscow’s entire Northern Fleet and its border between NATO and Russia, it may also potentially serve as a launchpad for an offensive or defensive attack. As communication lines halt, mistrust grows and development continues, the chance of an incident only increases.
As the ice cracks, so does a history of cooperation and peace in the Arctic Circle.
Hannah Scallion is a final year student completing a Bachelor of International Studies with a specialisation in Global Security at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. After working in abroad in Spain, she has developed a strong interest in European security and diplomacy and is interested in undertaking an internship in foreign affairs.