Soldiers from the battalion of Intelligence at ski patrol. Photo: Hæren/Forsvarets mediesenter
For a decade, journalists and scholars have been engaged in debates on the potential for conflict over Arctic resources and territory. After more sober discussions prevailed the past few years, alarmist headlines have returned due to Russia’s expansionist behavior 2000 south in Ukraine.
Outright conflict over the Arctic, however, seems unlikely. At worst, claims over the North Pole’s seabed will lead to a diplomatic struggle. The potential for conflict over offshore resources is also vastly exaggerated. Yet, to contend, like some have, that the Arctic is ‘completely uninteresting geopolitically’, neglects the role that the region plays in the security considerations of some Arctic states, Russia in particular.
A Looming Conflict
Military activity in the Arctic is at its highest point since the Cold War. Russian bombers flying along the North Norwegian coast or across the North Pole from the Kola Peninsula continue at high numbers and with increasing complexity. Russian investment in military infrastructure in the Arctic is growing. Moreover, controversial statements by Russian deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin implying that Crimea and the Arctic are “all about the same”, do not help cool down Arctic rhetoric.
These trends have prompted debates in the other Arctic states over the need to invest in northern capabilities and presence. The Western media’s rhetoric and concern over Russian activity in the Arctic is also taking on increasingly harsh language, with headlines such as ‘Cold War Echoes Under the Arctic Ice’ (Wall Street Journal, March 25 2014) and ‘Russia prepares for ice-cold war with show of military force in the Arctic’ (The Guardian, October 21 2014).
Conflict over the Arctic?
Increased military activity does not, however, imply that an Arctic standoff is imminent. The prevailing argument for why there would be a conflict over the Arctic is the region’s energy and mineral resources. Yet, when examining the location and accessibility of these resources, it becomes apparent that they are predominantly located in what are already the economic zones of the Arctic coastal states. With the largest maritime border dispute between Norway and Russia in the Barents Sea settled in 2010, Arctic riches are more or less already divided.
Furthermore, the Arctic states are struggling to exploit their own riches, with limited or no petroleum and mineral activity commencing. Instead of inspiring a so-called scramble for the north, the Arctic states are actually mutually dependent on a stable political environment to develop the potential of their northern riches. As Rolf Tamnes and Kristine Offerdal argue in their seminal 2014 book ‘Geopolitics and Security in the Arctic’: “There is little to suggest today that the Arctic states see resources and territory in a more accessible Arctic as likely to trigger armed conflict”. With the marked drop in oil and gas prices, these conclusions have only become more relevant.
The often-cited dispute between Canada, Denmark/Greenland and Russia over who can claim the North Pole seabed is also unlikely to become anything but a diplomatic struggle, at worst. As argued by Michael Byers, the North Pole is a distraction. The Arctic states have neither the economic or strategic incentive to undertake any significant operation to further claim the seabed of the North Pole. Symbolism is undoubtedly of great value, but the cost of North Pole operations does not match the Pole’s perceived gains.
Conflict in the Arctic?
The Arctic states are, on the other hand, not exempt from conflict and instability. Although struggle over the Arctic is not cause for grave concern, the regional relationships with Russia in the Arctic cannot be sheltered from the deterioration of the relationship between Russia and the West. Subsequently the potential for small-scale incidents having a larger impact on the security situation in the region should not be underestimated.
Take the case of the Russian trawler ‘Elektron’, which was operating in the Fisheries Protection Zone around Svalbard in October 2005. When it became clear it had conducted legal offenses, the vessel fled toward Russian waters with two Norwegian Fisheries Inspectors on-board. Only bad weather hindered Norwegian Special Forces boarding the vessel.
Similarly, in the Bering Sea in 1999 the Russian fishing vessel ‘Gissar’ was boarded by crew from the United States Coast Guard cutter ‘Hamilton’, on charges of illegal fishing in US waters. With the boarding crew on the Russian trawler, both vessels were surrounded by a number of other Russian fishing vessels intent on blocking the ‘Hamilton’ from taking the trawler to a port in Alaska.
These examples highlight the volatility of the situations taking place in – or just outside of – the Arctic. Both cases were solved by a combination of diplomacy and competent handling by the coastguards, although the incidents had potential to escalate into a larger crisis. This is especially the case in incidents involving resource management when an Arctic coastal state is protecting its sovereign rights in areas that have been subject to dispute.
Regional Security and Russia
In addition to the conflict scenarios described above, the role of the Arctic in security considerations of some of the Arctic states cannot be neglected. These, however, vary across the Arctic states, as there are great differences in the emphasis and focus each country places on their northern areas.
For the Nordic countries, the Arctic is integral in national security policy considerations. This is particularly the case for Norway and Finland, who have extensive land and maritime borders with Russia. Similarly, Russia has military bases in the Arctic that are imperative to Russia’s access to the North Atlantic and its strategic nuclear submarines. Some of Russia’s increased military activity in the Arctic has therefore come as a natural consequence of replacing outdated and ineffective equipment leftover from the Cold War.
Another part of the activity increase, however, is directed at the Arctic itself, as a show of force to mark the Arctic’s strategic importance to Russia. As Katarzyna Zysk argues, Russian activity and rhetoric concerning the Arctic may seem contradictory. On the one hand, Russia continues to emphasize cooperation and low-tension, signaling a desire to keep Arctic cooperation unharmed. On the other hand, Russia expands its military posturing in the Arctic for both symbolic and strategic purposes, embodied by military investments and snap exercises.
On the other side of the North Pole, the Arctic does not hold the same seminal role in security considerations. In North America (including Greenland), the Arctic has primarily been the location of missile defense and surveillance equipment, in addition to a limited amount of strategic forces (in Alaska and Greenland). Beyond that, the North American Arctic states have not prioritized Arctic military investment, as the perceived threats in the north have been minimal.
Despite the overflow of rhetoric suggesting otherwise, Russian investment in the European Arctic consequently has limited impact on the North American security outlook. Due to the sheer size and inaccessibility of the region, the spillover of security issues between the various parts of the Arctic is limited. Indeed, Russian overtures with bomber and fighter planes may cause alarm, but the real threat for the North American states – Canada and Greenland in particular – is limited.
This is in contrast to the perception of an Arctic that generates its own hostile security environment. For that, the Arctic Ocean is too remote and vast, with not enough activity. Had the Arctic Ocean been as frequently traversed (and ice-free) as the Indian Ocean, security dynamics might have been different. Currently, however, security dynamics in the Arctic exist at a sub-regional level – i.e. in the Barents area, the Bering Sea/Strait area, and Baltic Sea region – and as an extension of conflicts with Russia originating elsewhere.
A Growing Security Dilemma
Although conflict over the Arctic itself is unlikely, the deteriorating relationship between Russia and the West does pose a problem for the Arctic states, in particular those that neighbor Russia. As trust deteriorates and traditional avenues of military cooperation are disbanded, the other Arctic states begin to observe regional Russian troop movements and exercises with greater skepticism, and vice versa. As Kristian Åtland argues, the effect of the conflict over Ukraine has thus been the development of an Arctic ‘security dilemma’.
In terms of hard security dialogue, formalized arenas developed to discuss security matters – like the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable and the Northern Chiefs of Defense Forum – have all been cancelled, postponed or held without Russian participation. At the same time, organizing Arctic security roundtables without Russia defeats some of the main purpose of why such venues were created. As Mark Schissler, the EUCOM’s director of strategy and policy, stated back in 2012: “not to single one nation out, but having Russia at the table matters”.
The Arctic states consequently find themselves in a catch-22. Re-instating the Northern Chiefs of Defense Forum or including Russia again in the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable encounters the problem of upholding a strong response to Russian actions in Ukraine. The Arctic states cannot cherry-pick what military-to-military contact to preserve, in fear of distorting the effect of a coherent response.
Recent hype concerning outright conflict over the Arctic is inaccurate. It does not disseminate the vastness of the region and the differing roles the region plays in the security outlooks of the Arctic states. Yet, there is still potential for conflict to take place in the Arctic, as the region stands as one of multiple theaters for clashes between Russia and the West. This has arguably little to do with symbolic quarrels over the North Pole, and everything to do with the West’s relationship with Russia at large.
At the same time, Russian behavior in the north is seen as ambiguous, at best. Having cut military-to-military contact with Russia, the Arctic states find themselves in a catch-22. However, there are ways to sustain practical dialogue while not being at odds with a coherent response to Russian actions in Ukraine. Including the Russian coast guard in a multilateral forum with focus on soft security concerns is one such action to avoid unintended mishaps and escalation in the Arctic.
Ultimately, further escalation in the broader conflict between Russia and the West determines the trajectory of the security environment in the Arctic. Russia holds the keys to the region’s future, while it also has the most to lose from a re-freeze in the Arctic.