For much of history, the Arctic was of little strategic importance due to its hostile climate. However, the region was a large part of military escalation during the Cold War, marked by ICBM development and placement, production of nuclear-powered submarines, cruise missiles, and large radar installations (1). The Soviet Northern Fleet patrolled the Arctic; a group of submarines capable of patrolling the glacier-filled waters (1). After the Cold War, many Soviet military bases were left largely unused and the Arctic became something of an afterthought (1).
The Arctic Region is the polar, northernmost part of the globe. Its land is divided between multiple nations consisting of Canada, Denmark (via Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the U.S (1). Together, they are formally known as the Arctic Council.
The strategic importance of the Arctic has evolved in the era of climate change. The warming of the polar ice cap is likely going to reveal a large amount of untapped natural resources that were previously inaccessible. The U.S. estimates that about 15% of the world's remaining oil, up to 30% of its natural gas deposits, and about 20% of its liquefied natural gas are stored in the Arctic seabed (2). Additionally, less ice would allow for faster shipping routes. By 2030, the Northern Sea Route will be passable to shipping for nine months a year. The route could cut down travel time between Europe and East Asia by as much as 60% compared to current routes through the Panama or Suez Canals (2). The Arctic is no longer a frozen tundra, but a potentially lucrative region for multiple nations. The Arctic is a contested region, largely because much of it is ocean subject to incomprehensible international laws and boundaries. The UN has proposed a treaty that defines where each country is allowed to claim underwater resources. All Arctic Council members with one notable exception, the United States, have ratified it (3). These boundaries are further complicated by the fact that Arctic Council members are prohibited from discussing international security matters at formal meetings (diplomat).
Because possession of the Arctic is not clearly defined, numerous countries have been devoting military resources to the region to assert their dominance over the coming resources. Russia has been greatly increasing their military power in the Arctic in an unsurprising display of expansion for those monitoring their actions in Europe. Since 2007, Russia’s navy has been regularly patrolling the Arctic (4). It is currently undergoing a major military upgrade of its northern coast and outlying archipelagos. Russia is reopening or building a total of 49 military installations in the Arctic region, significantly more than all other Arctic nations combined. These include search-and-rescue stations, ports and airstrips, and military headquarters. To support these bases, Moscow is reorganizing and upgrading the Northern Fleet as the Russian Joint Strategic Command North (JSCN). This will not be just a naval unit, but also include air support and special operations teams (2). Russia has been flexing its new muscles with frequent Arctic training exercises involving thousands of troops. Additionally, Moscow has filed a request for the UN to recognize its continental shelf claims in the Arctic (5). I December 2015, Vladimir Putin signed a new military doctrine, according to which the Arctic was officially listed in the Russian sphere of influence (6).
Russia’s expansion has caused concerns amongst other Arctic Council members who want to claim the region’s resources and trade routes. Moscow issued an official statement denying their military buildup reflects a change in policy, saying, “The apparent militarization of the Arctic is merely a process of normative securitization...Russia reprises its Cold War role and is cast as the villain of the Arctic narrative...Discussion of Russia’s ‘rapid’ militarization is misleading, as Russia’s Arctic military might isn’t anything new.” (5) Despite Russia’s claims they are not trying to control the region, other Arctic nations are following suit. Canada has been expanding its military presence in its northern territories, including a Canadian Arctic Forces Training center in Resolute Bay and a $100 million deep water docking port (1). Since 2007, the Canadian military has held Operation Nanook in the country’s north every year, a training exercise aimed exclusively at exercising Canadian sovereignty. Apart from Nanook, Canada has also held Operation Nunalivut in the High Arctic and Operation Nunakput in the western Arctic (1). Norway has also gotten in on the action with the July 2013 troop maneuver— Exercise Cold Response – in which more than 16,000 troops from 14 countries are believed to have participated (4).
The United States has been conspicuously absent from this Arctic expansion. Despite having a significant amount of territory in the Arctic via Alaska and the Aleutian Islands, the U.S. maintains a small presence in the region compared to Russia and Canada. This is best evidenced by disparities in military hardware. For example, the U.S. maintains a fleet of four icebreakers (ships that can traverse glacial waters) with plans for four or five more. Russia has 41 and could dominate a naval battle as a result. (6) Based on current policy, Russia has the edge to dominate the Arctic in the near future.
The political dynamics of the Arctic Council are the biggest opposition to Russian control of the Arctic. Five of the eight Arctic Council members are NATO states (4). This means they are required to intervene in the event of an attack on a member’s sovereignty. Russia has no allies on the Arctic Council, meaning it is easy for NATO interests to be preserved if the member nations can cooperate on Arctic policy and establish themselves in the region. It would be in the Council’s best interests to follow Russia’s lead and expand their military presence in the Arctic. The United States may not have as much territory as nations like Canada or Norway, but they do have the most economic resources. Joint military operations and bases are a good way to establish a NATO presence in the Arctic and the U.S. has the money and military strength to make these happen. As the Arctic thaws, tensions between NATO and Russia will continue heating up. The NATO Arctic Council countries would be wise to prepare for this scenario before it is too late.
(1) Spohr, Alexandro P., Jessica Da Silva Horing, Luiza G. Cerioli, Bruna Lersch, and Josua Gihad Alves Sohra. "Future Security of the Global Arctic: State Policy, Economic Security and Climate." UFRGS Model United Nations Journal 1 (2013): 11-70. UFRGS, 2013. Web. 19 June 2016.
(2) Bender, Jeremy, and Mike Nudelman. "This Map Shows Russia's Dominant Militarization of the Arctic." Business Insider. Business Insider, Inc, 07 Aug. 2015. Web. 19 June 2016.
(3) Mccormick, Ty. "Arctic Sovereignty: A Short History." Foreign Policy. N.p., 7 May 2014. Web. 20 June 2016.
(4) Singh, Abhijit. "The Creeping Militarization of the Arctic." The Diplomat. N.p., 16 Oct. 2013. Web. 20 June 2016.
(5) "The Cold War Gets Icy With Russia and US Weapons Build-Up in Arctic." The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 23 Feb. 2016. Web. 19 June 2016.
(6) Danu, Tiberiu. "Russia's Arctic Expansionism: How Should the U.S. Respond?" American Thinker. N.p., 16 July 2016. Web. 19 June 2016.
Image: © Igor Akimov | Dreamstime.com - <a href="https://www.dreamstime.com/editorial-photo-launched-largest-head-nuclear-icebreaker-saint-petersburg-russia-june-baltic-factory-officially-arktika-image73033946#res14972580">Launched the largest head-nuclear icebreaker</a>