The Arctic Heats Up

The Arctic Heats Up

Nov 9, 2022 Ana Palacio

Recent geopolitical events – above all, the war in Ukraine – have seemingly solidified the Arctic region’s transformation into a major theater of global geopolitical competition. To prevent escalation, the West must strike the right balance between diplomacy and assertiveness.

MADRID – Less than a month after Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, NATO launched its largest exercise in the Arctic in three decades, with as many as 30,000 troops from 27 countries participating in land, sea, and air drills. Operation Cold Response 2022, hosted by Norway, highlights just how tense things have become in a region that has long been largely immune to geopolitical volatility.

Of course, the Arctic’s strategic importance is nothing new. During the Cold War, the region offered the shortest flight path for intercontinental ballistic missiles between the United States and the Soviet Union, as well as plenty of cover for submarines, thanks to deep ice and inhospitable conditions for ships. 

But the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union ushered in an era of declining militarization and increasing cooperation, especially on environmental protection. This shift was supported by the Arctic Council – an intergovernmental forum established in 1996 – which declares in its founding document (albeit in a footnote) that it should not “deal with matters of military security.” In recent years, however, the Arctic has been becoming an increasingly adversarial issue again. This is partly because of climate change – the Arctic is heating up 3-4 times faster than the global average – which has enabled the establishment of new commercial transit routes and unlocked greater access to, and competition over, the region’s natural resources. China, in particular, has been working to increase its presence. In 2018, the country proclaimed itself a “near-Arctic state” and announced plans to build a Polar Silk Road – connecting North America, East Asia, and Western Europe, through the Arctic Circle – as part of its Belt and Road Initiative. Those plans, together with China’s broader commitment to play a central role in the Arctic’s development, were enshrined in China’s 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-25). Recent geopolitical events – above all, the war in Ukraine – have seemingly solidified the Arctic region’s transformation into a major theater of geostrategic competition. Alarmed by Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, Finland and Sweden have broken with their long-standing traditions of neutrality and applied to join NATO. 

This does not bode well for the Arctic Council. Once Finland and Sweden’s NATO accession process is complete, Russia will be the forum’s only non-NATO member. Already, the rest of the Council’s members have boycotted any future talks held in Russia, which currently holds its rotating chairmanship. Then there is Russia itself. Though its military-strategic focus has traditionally been on the Black Sea and the Caucasus, Russia views the High North as an integral part of the larger Eurasian space. There is an important economic component to this logic: the Arctic territories account for a tenth of Russia’s GDP and a fifth of its exports. But it is also strategic: Russia reportedly maintains some 475 military assets in the Arctic, in addition to its Severomorsk-based Northern Fleet. In its latest Arctic strategy, published in 2020, Russia assumes an openly assertive stance. Departing markedly in both tone and content from its previous iteration, the strategy emphasizes the urgency of developing the Northern Sea Route as a “globally competitive national transport corridor” and ensuring Russia’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity.” For Russia and China – which announced a partnership “without limits” just before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – cooperation in the High North has obvious benefits. China can take advantage of Russia’s extensive institutional presence – including its technological infrastructure and research-and-development activities – in the region, and access shorter and cheaper routes to the major economic centers of North America and Western Europe. For Russia, the main benefit lies in strengthening its broader relationship with China – a powerful ally in its efforts to challenge the West’s global economic and geopolitical dominance. As an added bonus, China could fill technology gaps that have arisen from Western sanctions, much as the United Arab Emirates has done for the Russian natural-gas company Novatek.

The remilitarization of the High North has been decades in the making. Yet the West is only beginning to wake up to the challenge. The latest NATO Strategic Concept, adopted in June, identifies Russia’s “capability to disrupt Allied reinforcements and freedom of navigation” in the High North as a “strategic challenge.” The European Union’s Arctic Policy, updated in 2021, fails to lay out a coherent or integrated approach. To hope for an end to geostrategic competition in the High North would be naive. But efforts must be made to avoid escalation of tensions. To this end, the West – working with like-minded partners, such as Japan and South Korea – must strike the right balance between diplomacy and assertiveness. Efforts to preserve the Arctic Council are essential. If Russia withdraws over concerns about NATO’s dominance, regional volatility would increase. That, in turn, would create a strategic opening for China to gain a foothold in Arctic governance. 

Ana Palacio, a former minister of foreign affairs of Spain and former senior vice president and general counsel of the World Bank Group, is a visiting lecturer at Georgetown University.

The EU’s Arctic Vision

Oct 13, 2021 Josep Borrell  and Virginijus Sinkevičius

The Arctic faces serious, even existential, challenges – particularly climate change. The European Union stands ready to scale up and modernize its engagement to help ensure that collaborative approaches to addressing these issues prevail over potentially damaging strategic competition.

BRUSSELS – The Arctic is changing rapidly, owing to the impact of global warming, increasing competition for resources, and geopolitical rivalries. Regarding the region’s future, the European Union has both interests to uphold and a meaningful contribution to make. We intend to step up our engagement there through climate action, international cooperation, sustainable economic development, and putting people first.

The European Green Deal will make Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050, and our legally binding commitment to cut greenhouse-gas emissions by 55% by 2030 stands as a global benchmark. The Green Deal and the EU’s new approach to fostering a sustainable blue economy are at the heart of the Union’s Arctic strategy. Among our core proposals are a call for oil, gas, and coal to remain in the ground, including in Arctic regions, and the establishment of a permanent EU presence in Greenland. This task could not be more urgent. Climate change is on everyone’s mind, but it is happening more than twice as fast in the Arctic as elsewhere. Some of the region’s coastal stretches will soon become ice-free during summers – and eventually during winters, too. Melting ice and thawing permafrost are releasing large amounts of methane, further accelerating global warming, while rising sea levels are increasingly threatening coastal communities around the world. The August 2021 report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stressed that human actions lie at the root of these developments. Already, receding Arctic ice is opening up shipping routes and easing access to oil, gas, and minerals – some of which serve as key inputs to help meet the world’s growing demand for innovative technology products. No wonder, then, that the Arctic is becoming more crowded, with a growing number of actors expanding their engagement. Increasingly, the kind of strategic competition that is so prevalent elsewhere in the world is now also shaping the Arctic landscape. China, for example, has described itself as a “near-Arctic state,” and has added a “Polar Silk Road” to its transnational Belt and Road Initiative. It has been investing heavily in Russian liquefied natural gas fields and is eyeing shorter shipping routes. Russia, meanwhile, is building heavy icebreakers and looking at the Northern Sea Route to increase domestic and international shipping, as well as rebuilding military capacities in the region that had fallen into disuse since the end of the Cold War. These developments show that Europe must define its geopolitical interests broadly to promote stability, safety, and peaceful cooperation in the Arctic. Of course, the eight Arctic states have the primary responsibility here, but many issues affecting the region can be addressed only through regional or multilateral cooperation. The EU will thus expand its collaboration on such matters with all interested parties, and notably with allies and partners such as the United States, Canada, Norway, and Iceland.

Regarding maritime search and rescue, for example, we need regional or circumpolar cooperation between national coast guards, and should make greater use of our satellite systems to reduce risks at sea. Likewise, the EU is committed to the success of the agreement to prevent unregulated high-seas fishing in the Central Arctic Ocean. Another regional priority is social inclusion: the challenges that indigenous reindeer herders face do not stop at national borders. We are also more effective working together when it comes to zero-emissions shipping standards, best practices in telemedicine, renewable energies, or reducing plastic pollution. With decades of experience in fostering regional cooperation, the EU will play its part. We are a leading proponent of multilateralism and take our multilateral commitments seriously – particularly those related to tackling climate change. And the Union is of course itself part of the Arctic. Three of our member states have territory there, and we make laws that apply in five Arctic states. We are active in several regional bodies, including the Arctic Council, the Barents Euro-Arctic Council, and the Northern Dimension, where we work with Russia, Norway, and Iceland, particularly on environmental clean-ups. The EU will expand its Arctic engagement across the policy spectrum. That includes paying special attention to the interests and views of youth and indigenous peoples, who have unique knowledge of local landscapes and are firsthand witnesses to changes that pose imminent threats to us all. Clearly, we need an integrated approach. This means combining our climate and environmental goals with economic opportunities and joint action against shared security threats, including those arising from the climate crisis. For example, stimulating a robust green transition will enable Arctic regions to create jobs in sectors such as carbon-neutral energy, as well as develop sustainable approaches to connectivity, tourism, fisheries, and innovation. Europe will continue to use its substantial research budget and expertise in Earth science to understand better and counter the effects of climate change. And we will seek to increase the EU’s strategic autonomy in minerals that are important for the green transition, ensuring that the extraction of these key raw materials is carried out in accordance with the highest environmental standards. The Arctic faces serious, even existential, challenges. The EU will scale up and modernize its engagement to help ensure that collaborative approaches to addressing them prevail over potentially damaging strategic competition.

Josep Borrell

Josep Borrell, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, is Vice President of the European Commission for a Stronger Europe in the World.

Virginijus Sinkevičius

Virginijus Sinkevičius, a former minister of the economy and innovation for Lithuania, is Commissioner for Environment at the European Commission.