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Arctic Militarisation and its Geopolitical Consequences

Updated: Nov 29, 2023

Editor in Chief

Arctic Challenge Exercise - 2013 - Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The ramifications of global warming have revealed arctic regions abundant in resources, opening up a new battleground for states to assert their dominance. Throughout history, the Arctic Circle has remained a mostly uncontested region due to the inhospitable climate and difficulty of vessels traversing through thick ice sheets. However, with the devastating consequences of climate change through the large-scale melting of polar ice caps, the Arctic is opening up as a modern gold rush; unclaimed territories rich in natural resources provide ample opportunity for new geopolitical competition. Competition that has resulted in an increasingly militarised north pole producing disastrous results for the environment.

The catastrophic melting of the Arctic provides both greater opportunity for resource extraction and strategic control over developing shipping lanes connecting international markets. Northern Sea Routes can cut transit times from Asia to Europe by almost two weeks, whilst the Arctic seabed possesses resources worth trillions. The Arctic is estimated to include up to 30% of the world’s remaining natural gas deposits, 20% of liquified natural gas deposits and 15% of remaining oil reserves.

Contestation over the Arctic is naturally emerging as nations militarise the region. In 2008, Russian President Vladimir Putin honoured a scientist who piloted a submersible to the bottom of the Arctic seabed, planting a Russian flag in a symbolic claim of territory. Whilst the United States, Canada, and Nordic nations have restricted development in the Arctic, Russia has taken the opposite approach. Postmaterialist concerns over environmentalism have become a significant force in Western democracies, influencing policy. Russia by contrast lacks both voter pressure, and voter accountability, whilst its geographic positioning leaves it with little reason not to expand into its northernmost regions.

Conflict over Svalbard

Increasing Russian presence in the Arctic has led to diplomatic conflict over territorial claims. On May 9, in commemoration of Russia’s victory in the Second World War, a military-style parade was staged featuring more than 50 vehicles by the Russian military. What made this parade unique was that it was being held not in Russia, but instead on the Norwegian-controlled Svalbard archipelago. Svalbard has been under Norwegian sovereignty since its recognition under the 1920 Svalbard Treaty, however this treaty, aiming to preserve Arctic neutrality, placed restrictions on Norway’s ability to politically and militarily control the islands.

Svalbard is unique due to the ability of anyone to work and live indefinitely regardless of citizenship due to it being a visa-free zone. The lack of regulation allowed for the establishment of Soviet state-owned mining corporations propping up Svalbard’s small economy; throughout the 20th century both Norwegian and Soviet communities were developed independently. And whilst tensions occasionally emerged, mainly due to Norway’s NATO membership, Svalbard’s geographical isolation and limited strategic benefit allowed for a continuing “condominium” that is present to this day.

Currently, Russian presence on the archipelago is mostly centred in the town of Barentsburg, a coal mining hub with a population of 455 ethnically Russian and Ukrainian inhabitants, and it is politically dominated by the Russian state-owned Arktikugol mining corporation. Artkikugol were responsible for organising the May 9th military parade, highlighting the Russian government’s renewed interest in the islands. As ice sheets melt, Svalbard’s position 1000km south of the Arctic will make it strategically important for controlling Arctic Sea lanes and re-fuelling vessels used for resource extraction. Russia has also announced its intention to establish research stations with “friendly states”, referring to its use of state classifications following the 2022 Invasion.

The influence of the Russia-Ukraine War over Arctic diplomacy is also evident in the breakdown of the Arctic Council. Established in 1996 by eight countries controlling territory within the Arctic Circle: Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States, the council has acted as a bulwark for northern cooperation. However, since 2022, Russia’s chairmanship of the council has caused its fellow members to cease membership activities. Naval excursions by the Russian Naval Fleet into Svalbard’s waters, an issue that would have been previously resolved through the council, have increased tensions between members as Western states actively back Norwegian efforts to reduce Russia’s military presence in the region without effective means for a diplomatic resolution.

Russian military build-up has also taken place across Northern Siberia, in the Chukotoka peninsula; for example, two Arctic warfare brigades have been trained whilst 16 deep-water ports have been under construction. On 16 September 2022, it was reported that Russian nuclear-powered submarines based in these new ports were conducting large-scale training operations, including the firing of cruise missiles. With only a distance of 82 kilometres between the closest points of the Chukutoka Peninsula and Alaska, the United States has responded with its own military developments.

Rising competition between Russia, America and China

Direct competition over the Arctic Circle between Russia and America has resulted in the deployment of new icebreakers by the US Navy, whilst hundreds of millions of dollars are being directed towards transforming existing Alaskan ports into military hubs. Historically the US has had little motivation to develop Alaska beyond the state’s sub-Arctic regions. America’s geography provides easy access to international shipping routes, and Arctic resource extraction has been reduced as a result of public support for protecting the Alaskan wilderness due to concerns over indigenous rights and the environment. Yet as the Arctic Sea melts at an alarming rate of 13% per decade, the need for an active naval and industrial presence has necessitated more funding for icebreakers and arctic submarines to defend northern vulnerabilities. On top of this, the Arctic airborne division stationed in Alaska has reached 12,000 troops along with increased training drills with the Canadian military.

Last year, Senate members introduced the Arctic Commitment Act with bipartisan support, with the act calling for “a persistent, year-round presence of the Navy and the Coast Guard in the Arctic region”. Furthermore, the White House has issued a ‘National Strategy for the Arctic Region’ which explored new means for enhanced military activity in the region whilst balancing environmental concerns. America has increased its presence in Greenland, maintaining a military base on the island since 1943, by deploying F-35s. Likely in a show of force to ease Danish concerns over Russian challenges, both countries have also cooperated with Canada and Norway through NATO anti-submarine warfare exercises.

Increasing NATO wariness over the Arctic has also been heightened by the emerging role of China in the region; despite not possessing any Arctic territory, China has proclaimed itself a “near-Arctic state”. Seeing great potential in the polar north, China seeks to establish an Arctic silk road to further increase its economic influence across the globe. Russian diplomatic isolation has brought the two nations closer, with Moscow relying heavily on Chinese economic ties to alleviate sanctions. Thus, China has sought to leverage its influence through the establishment of joint Russian Chinese scientific stations and economic investments in liquified natural gas plants located in Siberia. Chinese state-owned companies already hold a 20% share in Yamal Liquified Natural Gas, and decreased foreign investments due to the Ukraine war will only increase China’s role in the Russian Arctic, naturally producing Chinese military involvement.

China has made further moves into Arctic politics through Greenland, attempting to buy an old maritime station near the island’s capital, Nuuk. Negotiations in 2022 broke down due to pressure from Washington, whilst Chinese investment projects into uranium and iron ore extraction facilities also came to a halt. Despite Russian and Chinese power projections in recent years, American influence over their Arctic allies is still strong enough to rebuke rising competition. However, this comes at a great cost.

Environmental Impacts

Sea levels increasing due to global warming have increased competition, a competition that produces greater industrialisation in the Arctic thus speeding up global warming. A vicious cycle is being created as nations militarise to defend their maritime borders and secure regional hegemonies at the cost of further damaging the planet. Every new port, military base, and drilling station comes at a great cost. The economic benefits of Arctic militarization and industrialisation are clear; the creation of new jobs, and greater energy independence are appealing to both governments and citizens, fuelling competition in the 21st century’s “great game”. These benefits, however desirable in the short term, will only further increase global instability as regions at risk from rising sea levels face catastrophic possibilities.

Thus, a return to Arctic neutrality and a return to diplomacy between the West and Russia is the only option moving forward. It is understandable why Western states have reduced dialogue with Russia in camaraderie with Ukraine, however, it is not possible for America and its allies to solely solve Arctic disputes. Russia lacks the geographic luxury of many nations; its geography requires expansion into the North to maintain competition in global markets, and this has only been worsened due to its invasion of Ukraine. With Moscow controlling over 50% of the Arctic coastline and in partnership with China, its presence is unavoidable. A resurgence of the Arctic Council with open dialogue is the best way forward for reducing Arctic militarization.


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