What is behind Russia’s interest in a warming Arctic?

The last untapped area for shipping routes and exploitation is opening up and leading to new geopolitical tensions.

The Arctic is one of the last remaining untapped areas of the world.

Its harsh climate and temperatures hostile to human life have long acted as a natural barrier to development and exploitation, but the climate crisis is fast changing this.

Six countries surround the Arctic Ocean, perched on the top of the world: Russia, Canada, the United States, Denmark, Norway and Iceland.

Now, this remote wilderness is changing. The disastrous effects of global warming have melted the polar ice caps and access to resources, tens of trillions of dollars worth, are tantalisingly within humanity’s grasp. There are fish to feed growing populations, and fossil fuels within reach in an era of dwindling reserves as global industry continues to depend on the old ways of producing energy.

The increased international competition that this will bring has spurred military spending and the deployment of specialised forces to the region to protect claims and each country’s own interests.

The race is now on between countries surrounding the Arctic to assert claims in the area and the vital resources beneath the ocean’s surface. The country dominating this race is Russia.

A warming Arctic, untapped wealth

The climate crisis is having a sharp impact on the world’s economies and is fast becoming a strategic concern as weather patterns shift.

Polar ice is receding at an accelerating rate and some estimates predict that the Arctic will be completely free of summer sea ice by as early as 2035.

It is now possible for ships to sail through the Arctic on their way to and from Europe and northern Asia during the summer months. These new routes are significantly shorter than the classic trade routes via the Suez or Panama canals.

This ease of access to the region presents major economic opportunities both for commercial shipping using the northwest passage over the top of Canada and the northeast passage over the top of Russia, shaving thousands of kilometres off each journey.

The Arctic has vast deposits of oil, natural gas and minerals such as nickel, platinum, palladium and rare earth metals lying beneath the ocean floor and the northernmost regions of the countries surrounding it. Estimates vary, but roughly 16 percent of the world’s untapped oil and 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered gas lie buried beneath the ocean.

Add to that the vast number of fish that live in the plankton-rich Arctic waters and the region with its untapped wealth becomes increasingly desirable.

For commercial shipping, the advantages of viable northwest and northeast passages are huge.

To illustrate just how important these new passages are, consider the traditional route of Rotterdam in the Netherlands to Shanghai in China. In the early 19th century, a ship would have to travel around the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. That is a distance of about 26,000km. Once the Suez Canal in Egypt opened in 1869, the long, arduous trip around Africa could be avoided and the same journey became 23 percent shorter. The northeast passage shaves a further 24 percent off this journey, with vast savings in both time and fuel costs, making it a strategically important waterway.

Although traffic is low at present, in the very near future ships will be able to sail this route without the help of icebreakers – powerful, armoured ships that force their way through ice, creating a channel that normal ships can then travel through. Making progress this way is slow and costly. Warmer ice-free seas will allow large volumes of traffic to pass safely.

But just how to carve up all this recently accessible wealth is proving to be the sticking point.

The region itself is divided up by the territorial waters of the surrounding countries themselves and their exclusive economic zones – the area of coastal waters assigned to each country with a coastline that is exclusively theirs.

Claims to these waters and zones overlap and deciding who is entitled to what starts to get complicated, with several Arctic neighbours having to arbitrate between each other over ownership. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS, acts as a guide – but increasingly the US, Denmark, Canada and Norway and Iceland are deeply concerned about the expanding military clout of their northern neighbour, Russia. The invasion of Ukraine shocked the world, not just Russia’s neighbours.

Russia: the polar bear awakens

Even before Russia’s war with Ukraine, Russia had been rapidly expanding and modernising its military and the Arctic has been an area of particular focus. Although Russia’s military has been better equipped and trained, the idea of a new professional and effective Russian armed forces has been massively overblown – its military flounders in Ukraine, its soldiers undersupplied and badly led. Impassable polar ice once protected the country’s northern flank – not so anymore.

Russia, the largest country in the world, spanning 11 time zones, has realised that the melting of the Arctic ice now means that its longest border – more than 24,000km in length – which lies above the Arctic Circle, is exposed.

This new vulnerability has realigned Russian military thinking and a major expansion of its Arctic assets has been made.

Russia has reopened more than 50 old, mothballed ex-Soviet military outposts in the north. Ten radar stations have been upgraded, search and rescue stations have been set up and border posts revamped. With the melting of the Arctic’s ice, Russia now has to consider a 360-degree view of its overall defence.

Vast distances need to be monitored and air power is key to this. The old air force base at Nagurskoye on Alexandra Land island, Russia’s northernmost military outpost in the Arctic, has been expanded. Modernised MiG-31 long-range, interceptor fighter jets are to be based there as well as anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile batteries.

The navy’s northern command, which has jurisdiction in the Arctic region, was upgraded in 2021 to become one of five Russian military districts, highlighting the region’s importance. It has begun trialling 13 new ships being inducted into its fleet and will arm its aircraft and naval vessels with the newly designed hypersonic missile, the Kinzhal. Naval marines and other troops have run exercises along Russia’s northern coastline, practising the defence and retaking of ports from imaginary enemies.

Alarm over spike in activity

The modernisation and expansion of Russia’s Arctic warfare capabilities have been in the works for a decade.

The annual Victory Parade that took place in Moscow in 2015 showcased rugged personnel carriers suited to the harsh climate and highly mobile missile systems that could be driven over rough terrain in extreme conditions, carrying troops and missiles safely to a battle zone.

Neighbouring countries have been alarmed by this spike in military activity.

Even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine changed the West’s strategic calculus, Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 had made her neighbours increasingly worried, showing them that when Russia thinks it has a strong enough cause it won’t hesitate to use military force in order to achieve its aims, defying international norms.

Over the last 10 years, Western powers have been looking to increase their own Arctic military capabilities as a result of renewed Russian aggression as well as the economic potential of warmer waters.

This is not just a question of moving military assets north.

Battling the extreme cold comes with its own suite of issues and the challenges of Arctic combat are significant.

Bulky clothing impedes movement and efficiency, vehicle lubricants freeze and materials become brittle. Small injuries, even scratches, can quickly become life-threatening as minor wounds, often unnoticed in the extreme cold, can become gangrenous, with the extreme cold also leading to frostbite. Engines don’t start, roads and runways get covered with thick ice. Troops need to be specially trained just to survive in such an extreme environment. On top of all that, compasses cannot be relied on and polar magnetic disturbances in the atmosphere mean communications are patchy.

Despite these challenges, the US and its allies have significant operational experience in the Arctic as a result of the Cold War when polar combat with Russia’s predecessor, the Soviet Union, was a distinct possibility.

US military operations in the Arctic

A string of early warning radar stations operates from Alaska across Canada to Greenland and Norway. The latest fifth-generation fighter aircraft are stationed in Alaska and US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) submarines regularly operate around and under polar ice.

The US navy is increasing the number of destroyers patrolling the Arctic from four to six, and sending regular patrols into the Barents Sea, long considered to be Russia’s “backyard” but serving as a timely reminder that these are international waters. Russia responded in 2019 by running live-fire exercises in the Barents Sea, signalling its displeasure.

The US and Norway, its NATO ally and one that borders Russia, have amended their long-standing agreement to allow US bases on Norwegian soil, augmenting three airbases and one naval facility to allow for expansion of military assets if the need arises. The US military stores large amounts of ammunition, weapons and vehicles in protected facilities in the north of the country, pre-positioned in case of any potential conflict with Russia.

In 2018, NATO held its largest exercise in years, Trident Juncture, sending more than 50,000 troops to northern Norway. This was backed up by hundreds of armoured vehicles and aircraft, stressing both the need and the ability for the alliance to protect its northern flank.

With the war raging in Ukraine, the alliance emphasised its readiness to fight in the Arctic by running Cold Response 2022 in northern Norway, a series of realistic military exercises involving tens of thousands of Arctic warfare specialists and hundreds of vehicles, aircraft and warships.

Non-Arctic countries have also lent their expertise and military assets. The United Kingdom has offered Canada its help to bolster its northern defences, running naval exercises along with increased submarine patrols. Canada has bolstered its own defence capabilities by building naval refuelling bases in the far north of the country and constructing Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships (AOPS) to monitor any military activity in the region they consider suspicious.

The concern, however, is not just with Russia. China is now also increasing its focus on the resource-rich Arctic.

China’s interest in the Arctic

With its eyes on the vast natural resources lying beneath the Arctic Ocean, China considers the region to be of international importance and not just the preserve of the Arctic’s neighbours.

To protect its trade routes and expand its global reach, China has built research vessels to survey the icy northern waters above Russia.

Acknowledging the Arctic region’s growing importance, China has sent 10 scientific expeditions to the Arctic and is considering building nuclear-powered icebreakers. China is keen to connect the Arctic to its ever-expanding Belt and Road Initiative – the vast growing network of railways, highways and ports that act as the main arteries for China to receive vital resources from around the world. Offers have been made to buy Scandinavian ports, railway links from Finland to China have been discussed and an old Swedish submarine pen has been bought by a Chinese company.

This increased focus has been highlighted by Chinese offers in 2018 to build three airports in Greenland and an airfield in Norway’s northern Svalbard Islands. In March 2021, Finland turned down a request by China to help Finland expand its northern airbase so Chinese long-range aircraft could operate from there, ostensibly for research purposes.

The Chinese navy also has an interest in this northern route as Chinese naval vessels would have much faster access to the Atlantic Ocean, an area of long-standing focus for China as its global influence expands.

Slicing the Arctic pie

The new shipping routes in the Arctic will bring profits to boomtowns that will spring up along these new sea lanes. As the focus on these new routes increases, others will decline. Less traffic will go through the Suez Canal and the Strait of Malacca in Indonesia, while still remaining important, will no longer be the only major sea lane to China as new viable routes to and from the country become operational.

The race will be on to move away from global dependency on oil to alternative fuels, coupled with dwindling proven resources forcing increased competition for what is left.

India, like China, has declared that the Arctic and its resources should be shared with the world and not just the region’s neighbours. The Chinese Communist Party has gone so far as suggesting every country receive an amount proportional to its population. China, therefore, would be claiming a quarter of all the Arctic’s reserves.

Russia views the Arctic like a pie, with slices apportioned according to the coastline that surrounds it, and Russia by far the largest recipient. This idea is complicated by the fact that the Arctic is not a perfect shape and is made up of competing claims, long borders and international waters. UNCLOS is not clear cut on who owns what and it may ultimately be a case of possession being nine-tenths of the law.

This combination of unclear claims and large militaries in close proximity is bound to create increased tension, raising the chances of an accidental conflict. Russia, however, lost all legitimacy when it invaded Ukraine, defying international law – and a widening conflict involving NATO, whether accidental or not, is now far more likely.

To avoid any such disastrous scenario, international cooperation is needed and inroads have already been made into this. An agreement between the Arctic’s neighbours, the European Union, China, South Korea and Japan went into force in June 2021 banning extensive fishing.

The signees have all agreed not to commercially fish until scientific evaluations have been made about the viability of industrial fishing in the Arctic Ocean.

A ban for now but, with growing populations and dwindling global resources, how long will it be before large fishing fleets are spotted exploiting the last major fishing stocks on the planet?

The stage is now set for the next round of 21st-century competition over globally diminishing resources.

The stakes are high in this harsh environment. How this potential wealth will be shared is very much the question the world’s powers are now considering.