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A Scramble for the Arctic? Maintaining Peace in the High North Region

By Avan Fata

Head of the Indo-Pacific Desk

Summary: Although tensions remain, the Arctic region is unlikely to become the flashpoint of a new geopolitical contest so long as the various parties abstain from escalating their current actions.

In recent years, political commentators and foreign policy analysts have shifted their collective gaze northwards towards the Arctic region, often highlighted as the potential theatre of a brewing multilateral competition for security and resources. Yet, for all the attention which 'Arctic politics' has received since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the current picture provides a far more cool-headed outlook on the region's prospects for confrontation. Indeed, as far as international security is concerned, the ever-shifting geopolitical landscape has left the Arctic largely untouched, and a stable modus vivendi between the main players in the region has prevailed despite tensions heating up in other parts of the world.


In political terms, the security architecture of the Arctic regions today would seem largely similar to a Cold War-era observer. All territories in the Arctic—with the notable exception of the North Pole—are administered by the ‘Arctic eight’ states: Canada, Denmark, Finland, Norway, the Russian Federation, Sweden, and the United States of America. Unlike in the South China Seas, there is no dispute over the sovereignty of claimant states to Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) is generally accepted as de jure law for economic passage and territorial rights. On land, the picture is even less turbulent: since the settlement of the Hans Island dispute between Canada and Denmark in 2022, no disputes exist over islands or borders in the Arctic.


Yet insofar as the Arctic remains a trouble-free zone of disagreements over territorial rights and sovereignty, there is still trouble in paradise. Most notably, the Norwegian island of Svalbard has continuously proven a thorn in relations between Oslo and Moscow. Although the 1920 Svalbard Treaty recognised the sovereignty of Norway over the archipelago, Russia—following in the footsteps of the former Soviet Union—has continuously raised concerns over Norway's adherence to the provisions of the Treaty, particularly with regard to the Fisheries Protection Zone (FPZ) and the deployment of military assets to the islands. The latter concern gained newfound importance when, in January 2022, an undersea cable linking the SvalSat satellite station—one of the largest in the world—to the Norwegian mainland was severed under unknown circumstances. Despite these grievances, however, in practice, Russia has cooperated with the Norwegian authorities on economic rights and acknowledges that any attempt to rewrite the Treaty will likely result in even more complications given its current isolated position.

Strategically, the Arctic regions have also become a hotbed of activity for security planners in Europe and North America. With the accession of Finland and Sweden as NATO members, the alliance's northern borders with Russia have extended significantly. As such, further preparedness in the ‘High North’ has become a sticking point in the policy of the alliance's overall strategy. However, these tensions have not translated into a severe escalation between the Arctic states, as both sides have tacitly accepted that their best interests lie in keeping to the oft-quoted Norwegian slogan of 'High North, Low Tension' in order to avoid expanding the scope for conflict from Eastern to Northern Europe.


From the view of the Kremlin, these developments have also made it clear that any attempt to undermine the status quo in the Arctic through intense military build-up is unlikely to yield any long-term benefits in light of NATO’s assertive posture. As it stands, the main priority of the Russian military in the region is to ensure the security of the country's long northern coastline and to explore the economic viability of developing the North Sea Route (NSR) as a corridor for commercial activity with other states. Economically, the Arctic also contains Russia’s lifelines for its energy production: the Yamal Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) project is due to be bolstered in its output with other operations through other extraction facilities such as Arctic LNG 2. Although recent sanctions and a shortage of ice-capable tankers have hampered the Kremlin’s ambitions of owning 20% of the global market share by 2030, the importance of Arctic security as a corollary to economic development has only increased for President Vladimir Putin’s regime.


Militarily, the war in Ukraine and subsequent sanctions have severely impacted the capabilities of Russia’s Arctic assets, but they nonetheless remain a threat in an unlikely future scenario of war breaking out. In particular, the Northern Fleet Joint Strategic Command—the main regional presence for Russia's armed forces—contains the largest contingent of ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) and forms the core of Russia's second-strike nuclear capabilities. In a hypothetical conflict, control of Arctic waterways, namely the Barents Sea and Greenland-Iceland-UK Gap, would enable Moscow to bolster its coastal defences in the Barents Sea and potentially carry out limited offensive actions along the coast of northern NATO members. For the time being, however, it appears that any risk of further Russian build-up in the region has been tempered by the military's significant losses in Ukraine and the crippling impact of Western sanctions on armaments, technologies and other crucial resources.


Thus, for all the attention that the Arctic has garnered in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, it remains largely confined to low-level tensions and familiar yet not unmanageable manoeuvres by both sides to reassert their defensive capabilities in the region. Beyond the modernisation of Russia's Arctic assets and the biennial NATO exercises in Norway, there has been little in the way of aggressive power projection by any Arctic state or its allies. Indeed, the matter of Arctic cooperation is considered to possess particular geopolitical exceptionalism since other nations have broadly acknowledged that the region's security and management lie chiefly with the eight Arctic states.


In this regard, it is also worth noting that the main forum for Arctic cooperation, the Arctic Council, is exclusively concerned with promoting scientific collaboration, the protection of indigenous rights, and climate change mitigation in the region. Although some viewed the Council's apparent immobilisation following the Russian invasion of Ukraine—which came during the former's chairmanship (2021-2023)—as a death knell to any hopes of continued Arctic governance, Norwegian leadership of the body has since restored some faith in the possibility of resuming environmental and scientific cooperation. Granted, the Arctic Council remains far from the only source of governance or international law in the region, but its value as the primary forum and platform for inter-governmental discussions should not be overlooked. This is remarkably prescient in light of the high likelihood that there will be a newcomer to the geostrategic and economic picture. One with the potential to upset the status quo or at least embolden Russia to adopt a stronger stance against its Arctic colleagues: the People’s Republic of China.


In a 2018 policy paper, Beijing controversially described itself as a 'near-Arctic state' and outlined its ambitions to tap into the economic potential of the NSR as a new 'Polar Silk Route' for the modern age. Unsurprisingly, its main competitor in the superpower competition, the United States, was quick to label these ambitions as a threat to the peaceful modus operandi in the Arctic. So far, China's significance to the future of Arctic cooperation has remained largely rhetorical since Beijing's actions have been largely confined to scientific projects and economic investment through Russia and other trading partners in the Arctic eight.


Though unlikely to manifest beyond the occasional joint rendezvous or low-level naval exercise, Sino-Russian military activities in the region are nonetheless a latent concern for Washington, especially as the main theatre of operations for the two Powers would encompass the Bering Strait. On this point, the best approach for the U.S. and its NATO allies would be to signal a clear position on the prospect of further Chinese interest in the region: China's engagement with regional parties on matters such as climate change and economic development should be encouraged, whilst any attempts to upset the geostrategic balance by deploying military assets or conducting unilateral naval operations ought to be heavily discouraged. In this regard, Beijing's acquiescence also rests in part on the willingness of Moscow to support it in any future endeavours, a condition which would prove to be a double-edged sword to the latter since it would constitute inviting a potential economic competitor and adding another player to the crowded Arctic table. For now, present trends suggest a simple policy of 'wait and see' vis-a-vis China's interests in the Arctic, especially as the Sino-Russian partnership appears preoccupied with their respective non-Arctic foreign policy aims.


On one point, at least, there is unanimity. There is no need to attract further international attention to the Arctic region by bringing hard security questions to the forum where most flashpoints are given their time in the spotlight: the United Nations Security Council. To date, no debate on Arctic matters has appeared on the agenda of a meeting of the 15 member states, and for good reason. Besides the fact that three of the five Permanent Members on the Council possess either Arctic or near-Arctic status, there is also the simple reality that no outstanding multilateral disputes presently exist between the Arctic eight. As such, peace has largely prevailed in the High North.


The grand paradox of the Arctic for geostrategic planners is that the low-level challenges to security in the region are primarily confined to bilateral or multilateral issues between the Arctic eight and their allies. Indeed, using the term 'Arctic' when referring to the geographical scope of these issues is misleading since the area spans a whole host of sub-regions with their own hierarchy of powers: the U.S. and Canada are far more involved in questions over the Bering Strait and Northwest Passage than they are in the Barents Sea or the NSR. Likewise, Russia and China are tending to their own economic interests in the region; defence and development are the watchwords of the day for the states engaging in Arctic multilateralism.


In summation, the Arctic is still a bastion of geopolitical exceptionalism, and despite the presence of three major global players and a host of middle-powers, it is in the best interest of all concerned to keep their activities in line with the unwritten preference for low-level tensions. With Great Power competition flaring up elsewhere in the world, escalating military projection or aggressive foreign policies in the Arctic will only lead to overstretch and unnecessary complications at a time of considerable international turmoil. In the Arctic, there is almost a strange modus unmatched in any other region of the world. To the tune of business as usual, the Russian bear dances with its own domestic security objectives, the American eagle remains a stalwart supporter of its European allies, and the Chinese dragon keeps a watchful eye for any commercial opportunities. If this odd yet workable dynamic can be kept afloat, the world may not need to worry about a future scramble for the Arctic or a conflict at the top of the Earth.


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