As the Arctic thaws, are we able to keep its peace?

A new struggle for resources, trade and military might has polarised the Arctic states. As the region thaws, strategic competition is heating up.
Russian soldiers carry out exercises in Arctic conditions.
Officers of the Russian National Guard special operations forces practise retaking a hijacked vessel in Krasnoyarsk in Arctic Russia. Credit: Denis Kozhevnikov TASS via Getty Images.
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American concerns about the Kremlin’s massive military build-up in the Arctic were ‘completely groundless,’ said Russian president Vladimir Putin after his three-hour summit meeting with US president Joe Biden in Geneva on 16 June 2021. Putin told reporters that Russia was simply restoring its old Cold War border controls and national defence infrastructure, working on initiatives to protect the environment and looking to enhance search and rescue capabilities along the Northern Sea Route (NSR). Putin further pointed out that in the Far East, Russia and America were direct neighbours – with Alaska and Chukotka separated merely by the Bering Strait, at its narrowest only 55 miles apart.

Putin expressed his deep conviction that ‘we can and we should’ co-operate on Arctic matters. ‘Just like the United States, Russia is one of the eight Arctic Council members,’ he said, asserting that this ‘should motivate us to pool our efforts.’ And he believed ‘if the stakeholder states and members of the Council work together… there is no issue that we could not solve.’ 

Biden agreed. He told the world media that Washington and Moscow needed ‘to be able to have some kind of modus operandi,’ not least to ensure that now and in the future the Arctic region remained conflict-free. Yet, to quote a US State Department official, for all of Putin’s conciliatory rhetoric, America had two serious concerns: first, ‘the steps we see Russia taking that suggest that it is interested in militarising more [of] the region’ and second, that this is ‘exactly contrary to our stated desire to ensure that the Arctic remains an area of peaceful cooperation.’

The Arctic is a traditional zone of Russian geopolitical interest. Since Stalin, all leaders in the Kremlin, except Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, have exploited it as a special arena for asserting Russian ‘great-powerness.’ In the process they have challenged their Arctic neighbours – from Norway and Finland in the west to the United States and Canada in the east – drawing into strategic contest both the smaller, neutral states and the Atlantic Alliance (NATO). What’s at stake today, as the Arctic seascape melts and new economic opportunities open up, is the potential for fiercer international competition in the context of the global climate emergency and the legal order that has helped keep the peace on the planet’s last great frontier. This peace seems increasingly fragile now that China has entered the great polar game and Biden’s America has picked up the gauntlet.

In late March 2021 the conning towers of three Russian nuclear submarines simultaneously punched through several feet of sea ice to the surface in the Russian archipelago of Franz Josef Land, 900 kilometres from the North Pole. Meanwhile soldiers from Russia’s Arctic motorised rifle brigade were seen training on those islands, and MiG-31 fighter jets were flying above the North Pole. The world could witness the spectacle thanks to a video released by the Russian Ministry of Defence. Putin lauded the military exercises as an unprecedented ‘integrated Arctic expedition’ – something he would continue to promote together with further ‘research in the Far North to help ensure Russia’s security.’

The ‘Polar Bear-2021’ drill was only the latest display of the Kremlin’s dominance in the Arctic. US Alaska Command reported in April they had intercepted more Russian military aircraft near the Alaska Air Defense Identification Zone in 2020 than at any other time since the death of the Soviet Union in 1991. Satellite images that same month showed Russia amassing unprecedented military might in the circumpolar region: refitting old Cold War bases, airfields and radar facilities, as well as modernising Soviet-era infrastructure including ports and railway lines. Billions of roubles have flowed into stealth jets and strategic bombers and a massive fleet of fifty icebreakers. Russia is regularly testing novel high-tech weapons, from hypersonic cruise missiles to nuclear strategic torpedoes, in the area.

These activities need not be seen as the prelude to an inevitable conflict. But they have unsettled the Euro-Atlantic community – taking place against the background of a collapse in the international arms control regime that first emerged when the Cold War began to thaw. The treaties on the reduction of Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF, 1987), of Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE, 1990) and on Open Skies (1990) have recently all unravelled. Only the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START, 2010) remains intact, having been extended by five years this winter upon Biden’s accession to the White House.

NATO member Norway is particularly spooked by these new tensions. Sharing a border with Russia, Oslo has long cultivated good neighbourly relations with Moscow on issues such as the management of Barents Sea fisheries, coastguard cooperation, and the administration of Svalbard and its surrounding shelf. Yet, since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, defence ties between Norway and Russia have largely been cut. And Norwegians have watched with concern as Russian naval exercises inch closer to NATO waters. Then there are Russian troop reinforcements along the Finnish border, INF deployments in Kaliningrad, and constant Baltic airspace incursions. Add to these various ‘soft’ pressure tactics on NATO’s allies, from cyberattacks to propaganda campaigns among ethnic Russian minorities, and one can understand the atmosphere of unease, if not outright hostility, across the whole of Europe’s north-east.

After several years of prevarication, NATO has begun to respond to Russia’s military build-up. Earlier this year Biden re-launched a Cold War American army training programme called Arctic Warrior to develop skills in ‘cold weather warfare,’ and the US Air Force despatched B-1B Lancer bombers to north Norway for training purposes and the improvement of ‘regional stability.’ Denmark has meanwhile announced an extra $250m in defence spending, to improve surveillance capabilities in Greenland and air radar in the Faroe Islands; and Norway has started planning Cold Response 2022, the biggest joint military winter exercise between NATO allies and Nordic neighbours inside the Arctic Circle since the 1980s. On 31 May 2021, NATO sent its own signal of deterrence to Moscow when as part of its ‘Allied Sky’ drill some 100 aircraft from twenty-two member states flew over all NATO territory over the course of twelve hours. 

The Kremlin has expressed strong disapproval of this ‘stepped-up activity of NATO member contingents,’ above all from non-Arctic Alliance countries, such as Britain. Indeed, there is total condemnation of what Moscow perceives as the organisation’s encroachment on the Arctic at Norway’s behest. Contrasting NATO’s aggression to his own country’s natural position and fully legitimate activities in the region, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov insisted ahead of the May Arctic Council meeting: ‘This is our land and our waters.’

Geopolitics aside, Putin has also started to talk the language of environmentalism. His government had embarked on a major clean-up in the Arctic and Siberia – a policy triggered by the massive and unprecedented oil spill in May 2020 from Nornickel’s storage tank, when some 21,000 tons of diesel fuel seeped into the soil and waterways. But this is also a response to pressure from local authorities which have struggled for years with environmental degradation and the Soviet legacy of toxic waste dumps.

Interestingly, behind the modern make-over one can detect the harsh lines of classic Stalinism – the clean-up will be conducted, gulag-style, by forced-labour prisoners. The first such ‘correctional facility’ is being established near the industrial closed-city of Norilsk, itself grown out of a gulag labour camp, Norillag. These efforts at oil spill recovery and ecological restoration are being promulgated as an honourable project involving ‘mutually beneficial cooperation’ between the local authorities and a federal prison service trying to put the worst offenders from its overflowing penal colonies to good use. But the correctional facilities in the frozen north are a reminder of the brutal traditionalism underpinning Putin’s rule.   

Overall, Russian Arctic policy is more complex than it seems. On the one hand, Moscow is pursuing unilateral power projection. On the other, the Kremlin remains committed to cooperative regional engagement with its northern neighbours. And these dual priorities have been outlined in a flurry of policy documents over the past decade – most recently the ‘Strategy for Developing the Russian Arctic Zone and Ensuring National Security through 2035,’ signed by Putin on 26 October 2020. The trouble for Moscow is, that with non-NATO members Finland and Sweden broadly aligned with the Alliance, the eight circumpolar states – in spite of their stated desire to work together – have found themselves awkwardly polarised. It’s Russia versus everyone else.  

Given the climate emergency and renewed tensions in the North, the Kremlin’s two-year chairmanship of the Arctic Council comes at a critical juncture for the region. Can Russia constructively lead on a cooperative policy initiative, to confront global warming while shoring up the melting international order?

The Arctic’s distinctive regional order deserves closer attention. Since the end of the Cold War, the Arctic has been a model space for international governance – an arena of peace and collaboration among the regional stakeholder states. This era started with the Mikhail Gorbachev’s Murmansk speech in 1987, in which he, seeking to defuse the East-West conflict, vowed to transform the Arctic into a nuclear-free area and international ‘zone of peace.’ He called for the ending of nuclear testing and restrictions on naval activities while urging joint development of resources and co-operation to safeguard the Arctic ecosystem.  

Gorbachev’s personal initiative complemented other systemic international shifts during the 1980s. His words reinforced the concerns of the burgeoning green movements in the West (and East) given the mounting awareness of the effects of pollution and climate change. They also fitted with the long-term aspirations for peace, security and environmental protection in the Arctic as articulated by the small NATO and neutral Nordic states, and as was pushed for by increasingly politically assertive Northern indigenous peoples, from the Inuit to the Sami and the Chukchi, who demanded to be heard.

Gorbachev did not outlast the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. But his ‘new thinking’ opened up a new era in the Arctic. In June that year, the eight circumpolar countries (USA, USSR, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finland) announced a joint Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy before creating the Arctic Council in 1996. In this new post-Cold War regional forum, the ‘Arctic Eight’ have worked together as equal partners in all the areas of soft power, from culture to ecology, although they have expressly left out of their remit the contested subject of military affairs. Crucially, over the past twenty-five years, they have managed to shield their fruitful regional cooperation from conflict elsewhere and external crises such as those in Georgia, Ukraine and Crimea.

The climate crisis has changed all that. As the sea ice is melting and the continental permafrost is thawing inside the Arctic circle with unprecedented speed, sea lanes are opening up, fuelling a rush for resources. Russia has taken the lead: it is sovereign over more than half of all Arctic lands. And it is pushing the region’s development with mineral and fossil fuel extraction and novel infrastructure projects on its northern shores.

The resulting buzz around the opportunities for development has drawn more geographically remote actors into the game, from Switzerland to Singapore, but, most importantly, China. This evolution (which has dramatically swelled the ranks of observer states on the Arctic Council) has been pivotal in unsettling the regional power balance and disrupting the collaborative Arctic regime of the 1990s. Tensions over control of the Arctic region are rising, and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has rightly identified climate change as a ‘crisis multiplier’.

Deep uncertainty reigns on the question of how to move forward. NATO, Stoltenberg has insisted, must develop an updated strategy – to confront the Russian bid for military pre-emption and to manage the emergence of China as a power with Arctic ambitions. Yet the mitigation of Arctic environmental degradation and the preservation of peace in the region will require intensive cooperation.

These two tasks are not easily combined, and neither will prove easy. Take, for example, the Northern Sea Route – now increasingly accessible, thanks to the unprecedented shrinking and thinning of sea-ice. Russia insists that this is an ‘historically shaped national transportation corridor’, giving it exclusive rights to develop the area, to patrol ships, and to safeguard the marine environment. The US and others, including China, have rejected this view. Pointing to the UN Convention of the Laws of the Seas they consider Arctic sea lanes to be international transit routes and ‘common domains’ that should be kept ‘open and free.’

De facto, Moscow currently controls the NSR – only its State Atomic Corporation Rosatom’s icebreakers and Russian-flagged ships are currently allowed on the route for transport of Russian hydrocarbons loaded within the region. There has been much Russian media hype about the prospects for the country’s Arctic shipping by the mid-century. But the challenges should not be underestimated: from the extremely inhospitable climate to the shallow straits, the lack of infrastructure on the Siberian littoral and the extremely high transportation and safety costs, all of which raise grave questions about commercial viability.

This is where Russia’s budding ‘strategic partnership’ with China comes into play. In order to realise its Arctic grand designs, from gas drilling to ports and pipelines, the Kremlin – shackled by Western sanctions – has turned to the People’s Republic for money and markets. And President Xi Jinping is happy to oblige. After all, aside from gaining access to resources, he has a political synergy with Putin. Yet, although the Russians and Chinese appear at times to be working together, in reality they are pursuing quite different objectives. Russia is using the region as a means of restoring its great power status. China, by contrast, seeks to break into the region and recalibrate the mechanisms of governance in the Arctic space. 

A permanent observer on the Arctic Council since 2013, China declared in 2014 that it intended to become a ‘great polar power.’ In 2018, it raised eyebrows by declaring itself a ‘near Arctic state’. This year Beijing included the ‘Polar Silk Road’ and the Arctic for the first time in its domestic Five-Year Plan for 2021-25 and its long-range objectives up to 2035.

China’s increased leverage to force changes in existing regional and global governance regimes has recently started to generate a backlash, especially among the smaller Arctic states. Greenland/Denmark, Iceland and Finland have rejected Beijing’s proposed science, infrastructure and development projects in the circumpolar region on the grounds that they pose a threat to national and regional interests. Yet, it is unlikely that these ructions will deter the PRC from expanding its foothold on the Arctic frontier. Beijing has nothing to lose.

At the core of China’s Arctic effort is the aspiration to push the United States off its post-Cold-War pedestal as the self-styled ‘unipole’ and to secure recognition as a leading global power on an equal footing with America. Relations with Washington are on a collision course. This became clear during the testy Sino-American summit held in Anchorage, Alaska on 23 March 2021. In contrast to the Trump administration’s impulse-driven trade wars with China, the Biden administration has made a strategic choice to confront Xi’s powerhouse head on. Calling China America’s ‘biggest geopolitical test of the 21st century’ and proclaiming it as the only country with enough power to jeopardise the current international order, the secretary of state, Antony Blinken, put down firm US markers. Leaving no-one in doubt of America’s zeal, he insisted ‘we will engage China from a position of strength.’ 

Beijing, in turn, now openly repudiates what it describes as the ‘so-called rules-based international order’ – preferring instead to describe a system that is most certainly not ‘US-anchored’ but recognised as ‘polycentric,’ if not, in Putin’s words a ‘post-West world order.’  America and China (and to a lesser extent Russia) are thus engaged in a struggle over the character of the global system and the rules that underpin it. Ultimately, they are engaged in a contest of norms, narratives, and legitimacy – revolving around ideas and practices that have governed international politics since 1945.

In this battle the Arctic may seem an exceptional region, but it is actually a crucial test case for international relations. This is because the co-operative regime of governance that emerged at the end of the Cold War among the regional powers of the circumpolar North seemed like a hopeful precedent. This era, marked by relative trust, collaboration and stability may be coming to an end. Is this a portent for the global future? Will the Arctic Council’s in many ways exemplary co-operative regime be swept away as the area becomes a strategic testing ground?

Even if Lavrov and Putin have proclaimed Moscow’s keen desire to ‘keep up the ‘spirit of cooperation’ between all Arctic Council members, in order to work out ‘together’ the ‘best solutions for the Arctic and its inhabitants,’ the global scramble underway is all too real. Significantly it is not so much a race for resources, but more insidiously a struggle for the authority to determine the region’s future, as part of a larger contest about a future international order.  

The task for the Biden administration, as it, together with its NATO allies and Nordic friends, seeks to tackle the dissolving Arctic international order, is two-fold. It must pragmatically manage engagement with Russia as a key stakeholder in the region, and decisively pursue a strategy of containment towards an ever more globally assertive China. Biden believes, as he told Putin in Geneva, that ‘it’s clearly not in anybody’s interest … for us to be in a situation where we’re in a new Cold War.’ And Blinken coined a neat aphorism about Washington’s relationship with Beijing: ‘Competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, and adversarial when it must be.’ How far fruitful relations among the Big Three can be fostered is an open question. For the sake of the Arctic and the world, however, such cooperation will certainly be necessary. It will depend on extremely skilful statecraft and a great deal of luck. 

Kristina Spohr

Kristina Spohr is Professor of International History at the London School of Economics (LSE) and Senior Fellow at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs of SAIS-Johns Hopkins University, Washington DC. A prize-winning author, she is currently writing a global history of the Arctic.

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