The Alphen Group V-Conference: The Geopolitics of the Arctic, May 19th, 2021

The West must seek institutional solutions to conflict in the Arctic, but also raise the cost of illegitimate unilateral action”.

High North, Low Politics?

What should the West do about an insecure Arctic? The Arctic is where geopolitics, geo-economics and climate change meet with profound security implications for North Americans and Europeans.  The ‘settled’ sovereignty of the Arctic is increasingly contested by Russia which not only possesses more than 50% of landmass (and legitimate interests therein) surrounding the Arctic Sea, but is seeking to expand its jurisdiction from 370 kilometres (200 nautical miles) to 650 km.  Moscow’s strategic aim is to both expand Russia’s military footprint in the Arctic and to extend Russia’s ‘bastion’ defence far out into the Atlantic. If successful this would have profound implications for NATO defence and deterrence, and enable Moscow to control much of the $30 trillion in mineral riches believed to lie below the sea bed. Global warming could also open up a Northern Sea Passage that would shorten sea-lines of communication between East Asia and Europe by some 3000 km. It could also provide additional leverage for Russia and especially China over any collective, US led, effort against global warming.

The West’s response to such change has been slow.  Norway has worked for many years to increase NATO’s focus on the North Atlantic, including calling for a strengthened Allied presence in the Arctic to highlight the importance of the maritime dimension to transatlantic reinforcements during an emergency. However, most NATO members have little understanding of the Arctic or its strategic importance, whilst those that do have resisted NATO’s involvement. The five NATO Arctic States have traditionally seen the region as a locus for low politics rather than high politics.  For Denmark, the sovereign integrity of the Kingdom and its relationship with Greenland and the Faroe Islands has been a priority. For Canada, the status of its indigenous peoples was also deemed more important.  It had also been hoped that the Arctic Council would mitigate conflict and promote co-operation in the region, which to an extent it has.  However, the Arctic Council has no mandate to discuss military matters and Russia has withdrawn from fora that were established to promote peaceful mil-mil dialogue.  Although the US is now showing some interest in the region its response has also been slow with much of its effort is focused on Alaska, although the Biden administration plans to increase the number of military exercises and port calls in the European Arctic. 

A Frozen Conflict

In spite of the geopolitical competition evident in the Arctic it is still open to question whether sufficient unity of purpose exists between the Allies and partners. This lack of a coherent ‘we’ is further complicated by the US, Canada and Norway being members of NATO but not the EU, whilst Finland and Sweden are members of the EU but not NATO. Much will depend on the nature of Russia’s assertiveness, the extent to which China acts on its declaration that it is a ‘Near Arctic State’, and the degree to which Beijing and Moscow collaborate to exclude the West from the Arctic for geopolitical and geo-economic reasons. 

Game changer? Unlike in the past technology is now sufficiently advanced to enable such competition with two distinct world views now competing for influence over the Arctic – Western multilateralism against the Machtpolitik of Russia and China.  If the latter succeeds and, for example, the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) is eclipsed, a precedent would have been established with potentially profound consequences.  There are striking similarities between Russia’s behaviour in the Arctic and China’s behaviour in the South China Sea.  Climate Change is also acting as an accelerant for such competition.  

Speak softly but…

If the West is to engage to effect in a changing Arctic it will need first to collectively understand the scale and scope of the challenge it faces and then establish a hierarchy of interests which distinguish between the existential and the desired.  NATO?  It has become more engaged in the Arctic since 2014 and Russia’s seizure of Crimea, but now the Alliance must become far more involved.  At the very least the West must collectively seek to strengthen co-operation in non-military areas, but at the same time ensure the price for all and any unilateral military action in the region will be high. 

Julian Lindley-French