Arctic Geopolitics

Russia continues hostility as climate change melts ice caps

The chilling climate of arctic geopolitics in a time of global warming

June 3rd 2015 | Montana | Christopher Beddow

Photograph by Davide Monteleone

There are signs of climate change in nearly every aspect of our environment today, including the behaviour of the human civilisation.

Melting ice caps in the last 50 years have had a ripple effect on the world. A few decades ago, the media began highlighting concerns about shrinking polar bear habitats as a result of drastic climate change. Yet, in 2007, the hypothetical sea route known as the Northwest Passage was so devoid of ice that it was opened for shipping for the first time in recorded history, allowing a Norwegian cargo ship to successfully navigate the route in 2013 on a voyage from Vancouver to a port in Finland.

With foresight, the Russian government submitted a request to the United Nations in 2001 for permission to stake claim to a large swath of the Arctic. Even though the motion was rejected, Russia began moving submarines and aircraft through the region in a high profile manner. This activity sparked serious worries among other stakeholders in the Arctic, notably the Nordic countries, Denmark with its Greenland territory, and Canada.


Law and the Arctic Council

The Arctic is a rather difficult region to regulate, but is mostly covered by the UN Convention on Law of the Sea 1982 (UNCLOS) and the Arctic Council. Comprised of representatives from eight member states, the Arctic Council primarily addresses environmental concerns and the socioeconomic well-being of local communities in the region. It is made up of The United States, Canada, Russia, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, and Iceland.

In order to be compliant with the UNCLOS 1982, the territorial boundaries of Arctic Council nations must end 12 miles offshore, whilst their economic zones can extend up to 200 miles. The agreement also gives freedom of navigation through the region to all, an issue which is becoming increasingly relevant as melting ice actually opens up new trade routes for ships to sail through.

Photograph by the World Wild Fund

Commercial traffic through the Arctic has been growing significantly in the past decade, which creates the need for additional government presence in the region in order to provide security and safety. It is predicted to quadruple over the next twenty years as raw materials are shipped out in volume, construction materials are shipped in to support development, and melting ice leads to faster transit times.

The Arctic region is rich in natural resources, a trait that drives competition between nations in the same manner that has been seen throughout all of history. While Canada expects a growing output of minerals from its Arctic territories, much of the Arctic’s potential resources — including one third of the planet’s untapped oil and gas reserves — are not clearly owned by any member of the Arctic Council.

The council itself is intended to act as a barrier against any government establishing hegemony over the region, but increased Russian military presence, combined with Russian aggression in neighboring Ukraine and Georgia in past years, has made other Arctic nations cast a more serious eye on their northern coasts.


International relations

Whereas Iceland was seeking to establish better economic relations with Russia up until recently, it was discouraged by the war in Ukraine and Russia’s takeover of Crimea. This February, Russian bombers skirted along the Icelandic coast, further pushing Iceland into the grudging circle of Nordic nations against Russia.

Finland, a country whose older generation still recalls Russian and Soviet incursions during the first half of the 20th Century, is now questioning its security in the wake of recent events. This includes Russian military targeting Finnish research vessels in international waters, as well as repeated violations of Finnish airspace.

Likewise, Sweden is also growing wary of Russian activity, as seen by their efforts in pursuing a suspected Russian submarine that entered Swedish waters in the fall of 2014. Unlike other Nordic countries, neither Finland nor Sweden are members of NATO, but both recognise a need for increased security cooperation with their neighbors.

Norway made a show of strength its own response to Russia. Conducting an exercise called Joint Viking in the far northern Finnmark province, the Norway fielded more than 5,000 troops for the operation, making it the largest Norwegian military exercise since the Cold War. As a result, Russian navy was placed on high alert in the Arctic region, especially in areas bordering Norway and Finland.

Photograph by Reuters

Ironically, Norway and Iceland had both been warming their relationships with Russia in recent years. For Norway, this involved dismissing the notion that Russia is a threat to global security as it had been in the past, as well as a decommissioned Norwegian submarine base being rented to the Russian government.

On the other hand, Iceland had recently signed several agreements for economic and social cooperation, including the establishment of a joint center for collaborative development of geothermal energy. Now, it may be rolling back its willingness to work with Russia as it resumes a role similar to that of the Cold War years — when Iceland was the centre point of the Greenland-Iceland-UK gap (GIUK) that was patrolled to prevent Russian incursion into the North Atlantic.

The physical changes occurring in the Arctic are heralding a parallel transformation of economic, political, and social relationships in the region. This grand shaft, deemed the “respatialisation” of the north, is making the Arctic region less of a periphery and instead more of a functional, critical part of geopolitics. Whilst governments, private industry, and local communities in the north may experience increased prosperity as a result of melting ice caps, they will also require environmental stewardship to mitigate the risk of accidents and damages.

Russian commercial harbors along the country’s 10,000 mile coastline are being modernised, but investment in Russian military is also growing. Meanwhile, Canadian air patrols in the north have increased, and American military presence in Alaska continues to be marked by advanced missile testing ranges and regular deployment of paratroopers in frigid Arctic training grounds.


A cold future?

Despite the economic promise of the Arctic, it truly appears to be a case of geopolitical tension for the time being. The state of affairs is not one where Arctic Council members are collaborating for positive developments in the Arctic, but rather one where Russia has indicated its intentions to seek singular benefit and compete sternly against other Arctic stakeholders.

The gravity of the situation was further sealed last month by the emergence of a new Nordic defence agreement which calls for increased security cooperation against Russia in the far north. As in many other regions, it is now becoming clear that the key threat to peaceful economic cooperation in the Arctic is a solid alliance against Russian aggression.

As the northern landscape continues to morph into something navigable and inhabitable, geopolitics may dive in the opposite direction and leave an increasing amount of anxiety and hostility amid the chilling Arctic waters.

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