Text by: Joanna YORK
Russia shares a maritime border in the Arctic with European and American members of NATO. While environmental concerns and economic interests have typically dominated collaboration in the region, the war in Ukraine threatens to upset this careful balance.
Russia’s senior diplomat at the Arctic Council intergovernmental forum, Nikolai Korchunov, spoke out on April 17 about NATO’s increased presence in the Arctic since the war in Ukraine began. He said long-planned military drills between NATO, Finland and Sweden in the region in March were “a cause for concern” for Russia.
“The Alliance recently held another large-scale military exercise in northern Norway. In our view, this does not contribute to the security of the region,” he said.
If the Western military alliance continues its Arctic activities, “unintended incidents” might occur, he said, without specifying what these might be.
In such a unique part of the world, “incidents” of any kind could disrupt a fragile balance.
The Arctic is a potential goldmine for energy resources and shipping routes, often governed by complex bilateral agreements between the Arctic states. The eight Arctic countries – Canada, Finland, Denmark, the United States, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Russia – typically collaborate. United by their shared Arctic coastline, harsh environmental conditions have led them to forge agreements on maritime law, environmental balance and security needs as basic as conducting effective search-and-rescue operations.
“The relationships in the Arctic are not ones that can be broken apart quickly, easily or lightly, nor should they be,” said Dr Melanie Garson, lecturer in international conflict resolution and security in the political science department of University College London, in an interview with FRANCE 24. “There are critical issues in the Arctic that need to be kept stable for short-term and long-term stability.”
But there are signs that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is already disrupting this careful balance. Russia now shares the Arctic coastline with five NATO member states, plus Finland and Sweden – all of whom are sending military and financial support to help Ukraine fight against the Russian invasion.
All the members of the Arctic Council aside from Russia announced in March they would boycott talks in Russia, currently chairing the Atlantic Council until 2023, due to its “flagrant violation” of Ukraine’s sovereignty. As such, the group’s work has been put on hold.
“It’s very unusual,” Garson says. “The Arctic Council has survived periods of tension, but what we’re seeing in the Ukraine is a huge turning point in history. We can’t dismiss how that might affect tried and tested alliances.”
‘A fifth ocean on top of the world’
Political and economic concerns in the Arctic are defined by its unique and rapidly changing climate. While the south Arctic is covered in forests, further north the land becomes treeless, dominated by tundra, deserts and ice that is rapidly melting due to climate change.
In the past 30 years the thickest ice in the Arctic has declined by 95 percent. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at their current rate, the Arctic could be ice-free in the summer by 2040.
Increased human presence poses an additional threat to a natural landscape that is already under pressure.
Traditionally, the urgent climate situation has been a key reason for international cooperation. The first step towards the formation of the Arctic Council was the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy signed in 1991 as an agreement between the Arctic states and Indigenous people’s organisations.
But the dramatic loss of ice is changing the political and economic landscape in the region. “We have basically a fifth ocean opening on the top of the world,” said Katarzyna Zysk, professor at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies. “And when that ocean is open, it will be used for economic and military purposes.”
In Russia, loss of ice is also changing the military focus. Of the total Arctic Ocean coastline, 53 percent is Russian. “It is a huge, vast area,” Zysk says. “Those borders were protected by ice, but now the ice is disappearing. That means the region can be used, potentially, in an attack on Russia.”
Consequently, Russia has been increasing its military presence in the far north. The most obvious example of this is its Arctic navy, the Northern Fleet, based on the Kola Peninsula near the border with Finland and Norway.
Its arsenal includes submarines armed with nuclear-powered missiles, anti-submarine aircraft, aircraft carriers and ships armed with missiles, among others. “The Northern Fleet is the strongest part of the Russian Navy,” Zysk says. “Russia has their largest share of strategic submarines and other important non-nuclear capabilities on the Kola Peninsula.”
‘Ukraine was a game changer’
In 2014 – the same year that Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine – the Northern Fleet became the main component in a strengthened military presence in the north, called Northern Fleet Joint Strategic Command. To international observers, Russia’s military activities in the Arctic took on an increasingly aggressive stance, raising the stakes for other Arctic states.
“The major thrust of NATO’s interests in the Arctic came after the annexation of Crimea,” Zysk says. “Ukraine was a game changer, because even though Russia had been generally cooperative and predictable in the Arctic, NATO could not detach what Russia was doing in Ukraine from its military expansion in the Arctic.”
This meant also increasing NATO’s presence in the Arctic to ensure that if Article Five were triggered by a Russian attack in the region, the group could provide the required collective defence. However, Russia also continued increasing its forces. From 2016 onwards, it upped the frequency of its military exercises in the Arctic, even displaying an “ability to project power beyond its Arctic waters and assert maritime control”, according to the nonprofit policy research organisation The Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The current war in Ukraine has raised the stakes once again. If Sweden and Finland join NATO – as both are seriously considering doing – all the Arctic states except Russia will be part of the military alliance.
“NATO will then have a strategic re-evaluation of how the Arctic sits within the alliance, and decisions NATO will take will set the future relationship,” Garson says. “Given the rumblings from Russia about this potential NATO expansion, that could cause tension.”
Most recently, these rumblings include an April 14 threat that if Sweden and Finland join NATO then Russia would deploy nuclear weapons and hypersonic missiles to the Baltic region.
“There are some scenarios you could imagine, where Russia would challenge Article Five,” Zysk says. “One possibility is that Russia could do it in the Arctic because it has a relatively strong military presence there compared to the other NATO states.”
‘The leading actor in the Arctic’
However, Russia is not necessarily building up its military force in the Arctic for an attack –it has plenty there to protect, too.
A 2008 study by the US Geological Survey found that the Arctic could be home to the largest unexplored oil and gas reserves on Earth, storing billions of barrels of unmined energy resources. Much of the reserves are thought to be offshore, in Russian seas.
Oil and gas are not the only potential assets. “The region is very rich not only in energy, but also mineral resources, a lot of which are in the Russian Arctic,” Zysk says. “There are also very well-preserved fish stocks that are valuable, considering the growing food crisis in the world.”
In addition there is potential for a lucrative economic future as a transport hub. The Northern Sea Route that runs along Russia’s north coast is currently blocked by ice for most of the year – but if it weren’t, it could become a highly profitable shipping channel. For example, shipping times and fuel costs for transporting goods between China and Europe would be cut dramatically if they could travel via the Arctic instead of the current route via South Asia and through the Suez Canal.
These possible future scenarios have increased international interest in the Arctic. In addition to the eight core members with territories in the Arctic, the Arctic Council also has 13 council observers that can propose projects in the region. These include France, Germany, the UK and, most notably, China, which has been actively setting up Arctic research stations and investing in mining and energy.
This international interest in the riches of the Arctic has also compelled Russia to play a more dominant role in the region. “It has been stimulating Russia to strengthen its position, because Russia sees itself as the leading actor in the Arctic – and for good reasons, if you look at the geography,” Zysk says.
So far, however, there seems to be little appetite from Russia to extend this role to military clashes in the far north, despite the confrontation in Ukraine pitting Arctic states against each other.
“My reading is that Russia has been actually trying to avoid escalation,” Zysk says. Following NATO exercises with Finland and Sweden in early March, NATO troops participated in another exercise in Norway on March 25. The Russia response was muted – it released a statement in protest, and conducted its own military training exercises on the same day.
“Russia always protests when NATO does military exercises close to its borders,” Zysk says. “But we haven’t seen any provocative behaviour from Russia in the Arctic. I think Russia is actually trying to avoid escalating [international reaction to] the conflict in Ukraine, and also its military is already fully engaged there.”
Among Western allies, too, the war in Ukraine may prove to be a turning point for political relations in the Arctic, but not necessarily a rupture. “The Arctic Council has paused, temporarily, its work, but it’s not breaking apart,” Garson says. “More than anything, trust has been severely broken in relationships with Russia, so Arctic states are rethinking how they go forward.”
In a part of the world dominated by such a challenging natural landscape it might be that the necessity for collaboration and cooperation between Arctic states ultimately overrides political tensions. “The Arctic is governed by quite a complex web of bilateral and multilateral agreements, and I think the nations will be careful of walking away from them too quickly,” Garson says. “There will be a will for political cooperation.”