Russia shares a maritime border in the Arctic with European and American NATO members. While environmental considerations and economic interests have typically dominated cooperation in the region, the war in Ukraine threatens to upset this prudent balance.
Russia’s senior diplomat at the Arctic Council’s Intergovernmental Forum, Nikolai Korchunov, spoke on April 17 about NATO’s increased presence in the Arctic since the war in Ukraine began. He said long-planned military exercises in between NATOFinland and Sweden in the region in March were “a cause for concern” Russia.
“The alliance recently held another large-scale military exercise in northern Norway. In our view, this does not contribute to security in the region,” he said.
If the Western military alliance continues its Arctic activities, “unintentional incidents” can occur, he said, without specifying what these might be.
In such a unique part of the world, “incidents” of all kinds can upset 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 – usually cooperate. United by their common Arctic coastline, harsh environmental conditions have led them to create agreements on maritime law, environmental balance and security needs as fundamental as to carry out effective search and rescue operations.
“Arctic relations are not one that can be broken quickly, easily or easily, nor should they be,” said Dr Melanie Garson, senior lecturer in international conflict resolution and security at the Department of Political Science at University College London, in a press release. . 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 cautious balance. Russia now shares the Arctic coast with five NATO members, plus Finland and Sweden – all of which are sending military and financial aid to help Ukraine fight the Russian invasion.
All members of the Arctic Council except Russia announced in March that they would boycott talks in Russia, which currently holds the presidency of 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,” says Garson. “The Arctic Council has survived periods of tension, but what we see in Ukraine is a huge turning point in history. We can not dismiss how it may affect proven alliances.”
“A fifth sea on top of the world”
Political and economic problems in the Arctic are defined by its unique and rapidly changing climate. While the southern Arctic is covered by forest, further north, the country becomes treeless, dominated by tundra, deserts and ice that is melting rapidly due to climate change.
For the past 30 years, the thickest ice in the Arctic decreased by 95 percent. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at the current rate, the Arctic could be ice-free by the summer of 2040.
An increased human presence is another threat to a natural landscape that is already under pressure.
Traditionally, the acute climate situation has been an important reason for international cooperation. The first step towards the formation of the Arctic Council was Arctic environmental protection strategy signed in 1991 as an agreement between the Arctic states and indigenous organizations.
But the dramatic loss of ice is changing the political and economic landscape of the region. “We basically have a fifth sea that opens up at the top of the world,” says Katarzyna Zysk, professor at the Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies. “And when that sea is open, it will be used for economic and military purposes.”
In Russia, the loss of ice is also changing the military focus. Of the total Arctic coastline, 53 percent are Russian. “It’s a big, big area,” says Zysk. “These borders were protected by ice, but now the ice is disappearing. This means that the region could potentially be used in an attack on Russia.”
Consequently, Russia has increased its military presence in the far north. The most obvious example of this is its Arctic fleet, Northern Fleet, established in 2014 and 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. “The Northern Fleet is the strongest part of the Russian fleet,” says Zysk. “Russia has its largest share of strategic submarines and other important non-nuclear resources on the Kola Peninsula.”
“Ukraine was a game changer”
The establishment of the northern fleet coincided with Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine. For international observers, Russia’s military activities in the Arctic took an increasingly aggressive stance, which heightened efforts for other Arctic states.
“The great focus of NATO’s interests in the Arctic came after the annexation of Crimea,” Zysk said. “Ukraine was a game changer, because even though Russia had been generally cooperative and predictable in the Arctic, NATO could not distinguish what Russia was doing in Ukraine from its military expansion in the Arctic.”
This also meant that NATO’s presence in the Arctic was increased to ensure that if Article Five was triggered by a Russian attack in the region, the group could provide the necessary collective defense. But Russia also continued to increase its forces. From 2016 onwards it is increased the frequency of its military exercises in the Arctic, even exhibits an “ability to project power beyond its Arctic waters and assert sea control,” according to the nonprofit research organization The Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The ongoing war in Ukraine has intensified efforts once again. If Sweden and Finland join NATO – which both are seriously considering doing – all Arctic states except Russia will join the military alliance.
“NATO will then have a strategic reassessment of how the Arctic is within the alliance, and decisions that NATO will make will determine its future relationship,” Garson said. “Given the rumors from Russia about this potential NATO expansion, it could cause tensions.”
Most recently, these rumors include a 14 April threat that if Sweden and Finland join NATO then Russia would deploy nuclear weapons and hypersonic missiles to the Baltic Sea area.
“There are some scenarios you can imagine, where Russia would challenge Article Five,” says Zysk. “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”
But Russia is not necessarily building up its military force in the Arctic for an attack – it has a lot to protect there as well.
A 2008 study by the US Geological Survey found that the Arctic may be home to the largest unexplored oil and gas reserves on earth, and stores billions of barrels of untapped energy resources. A large part of the reserve is believed 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 in mineral resources, many of which are found in the Russian Arctic,” says Zysk. “There are also very well-preserved fish stocks that are valuable, given 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 were not, it could become a very profitable shipping channel. For example, shipping times and fuel costs for transporting goods between China and Europe would be dramatically reduced if they could travel via the Arctic instead of the current route via South Asia and 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 which can propose projects in the region. These include France, Germany, the United Kingdom and, above all, China, which have actively established Arctic research stations and invested in mining and energy.
This international interest in the riches of the Arctic has also forced Russia to play a more dominant role in the region. “It has stimulated Russia to strengthen its position, because Russia sees itself as the leading player in the Arctic – and for good reasons, if you look at the geography,” says Zysk.
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 actually tried to avoid escalation,” Zysk said. Following NATO exercises with Finland and Sweden in early March, NATO troops participated in another exercise in Norway on 25 March. Russia’s response was subdued – it released a statement in protest and conducted its own military exercises on the same day.
“Russia always protests when NATO conducts military exercises near its borders,” Zysk said. “But we have not seen any provocative behavior from Russia in the Arctic. I think Russia is actually trying to avoid escalating [international reaction to] the conflict in Ukraine, and even its military is already fully engaged there. “
Even among Western allies, the war in Ukraine may prove to be a turning point in political relations in the Arctic, but not necessarily a rupture. “The Arctic Council has paused, temporarily, its work, but it does not break,” Garson said. “More than anything else, trust has been severely broken in relations with Russia, so Arctic states are reconsidering how they are progressing.”
In a part of the world dominated by such a challenging natural landscape, the need for cooperation and cooperation between Arctic states may ultimately override political tensions. “The Arctic is governed by a rather complex network of bilateral and multilateral agreements, and I think the nations will be careful to get away from them too quickly,” Garson said. “There will be a will for political cooperation.”
Originally published on France24