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THE STRATEGIC IMPORTANCE OF THE ARCTIC AS A RESULT OF GLACIER RECESSION

Mary Sue Bickel, Kelli McCauley, Caterina Anni, Historical Analysis (HA)

Week of Monday, May 17, 2021


Arctic Administrative Areas and Capitals[1]


As the Arctic opens up because the Arctic ice is beginning to melt making the region more accessible, it is becoming a conflict zone over trade routes, territorial claims and boundaries, environmental concerns, state influence, and national security objectives. The Arctic states are using this unregulated region to expand their influence and reap the economic gain, including territorial claims resulting in access to untapped mineral resources. Pre-emptive measures need to be taken to deal with boundary disputes, the realities of allowing trade through the region, and maintaining a power balance between the Arctic states, specifically the United States, Canada, and Russia.[2]


The Arctic region hosts numerous environmental problems such as global warming, the rising level of the seas, and increasingly severe weather patterns. However, the region is becoming more important to the world as glaciers melt and trade routes begin to emerge. Increasing trade rates could eventually lead to the alarming loss of fish stocks, birds, and marine mammals in the North Atlantic.[3] An increase in economic activity likely comes with environmental risk, so any environmental regulatory cooperation that occurs between the eight Arctic Council member states, including Canada, the Kingdom of Denmark (housing Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States, could set a new precedent, determining whether or not they will follow in Antarctica’s lead, making it a trade route free region.


While the Arctic is a strategic advantage to the states in the High North because it holds the most exploitable natural and renewable resources, long-range transportation pollutes the ocean and increases maritime traffic. With the environmental importance of the Arctic, environmental disasters will not only affect the eight Arctic countries, but the whole world, as it would affect the ecosystem, economies, and the shipping industry. Governments must consider greener options when making laws and granting permissions for companies to operate in the Arctic, including exploiting freshwater into hydroelectric schemes, in the hope of off-setting the environmental damage that can occur from shipping. Trade also means that human activity must be taken into consideration as trade and shipping business increases, bringing enhanced human presence with it and increasing the environmental impact. While North America has a historic interest in the Arctic, particularly during the second half of the 20th century, this region was not a strategic chokepoint for the trade industry yet, as access to the Arctic was limited.


With the Arctic being able to be turned into a ground for World War 3, the lack of pre-emptive action and agreement among the Arctic states leaves the opportunity for conflict and chaos to reside in the Arctic region. The Arctic is of strategic importance to the Arctic states and other states such as China, who would benefit from emerging Arctic trade routes as the distance would cut the current distance in half. Claiming and maintaining territory in the Arctic is a key mission for many of the Arctic states, as it provides 200 nautical miles(nm) at the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) as granted under the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).[4] Due to their geographic positioning, many state boundaries within these 200nm overlap, create boundary disputes such as the Belfort Sea between the United States and Canada. Ensuring power and claim over this territory also allows the legal ownership of resources within the maritime domain, including the oil resources that sit under the sea. This territorial claim and the influence that comes from maintaining power in the Arctic currently holds little governance in the region, outside of what is outlined in UNCLOS. The Arctic states would do well to take pre-emptive measures working with the Arctic Council to set forth regional regulations and policies to determine legal protocols and agreements to cover environmental concerns and boundary disputes, restricting states from claiming more territory than legally obligated and their stance on enhancing trade.

The Arctic is a region full of uncertainty due to a lack of regulation and an ambiguous timeline for when the Arctic could, realistically, be accessible for transit. Combatting these concerns over boundary disputes, environmental threats, and Arctic regulations should include coordination by the Arctic states along with international interests. Due to this region's enhanced importance to Arctic states (in particular the United States, Russia, and Canada), claimant states have developed government departments and divisions to focus solely on their Arctic policies and objectives. The Arctic currently has little investment, which allows states the opportunity to gain an increased return investment if the region proves economically successful.[5] Untapped minerals and oil, which are continually becoming attainable, promote competition between states, increasing the likelihood of interstate or regional conflict. It would be the responsibility of each Arctic state to retrieve their resources, dependent on their extraction capabilities, which would likely be easier for the larger Arctic states, such as the United States and Russia, to collect their royalties. With states claiming and enforcing their regional security over their Arctic territory, conflict is likely to ensue over boundaries and territory disputes. The Arctic state’s national securities will continue to be threatened as the Arctic opens and become increasingly accessible, as global threats have a new more accessible way to attack, particularly the United States.


The focus for the United States is to expand its influence and ensure its security in the region, particularly around the Alaskan borders. The Alaskan region is the location of the United States and Canadian boundary dispute with the Belfort Sea, which is located in the claimed waters of both states. Legal solutions are unclear for this as the United States is not a party to UNCLOS, although they have stated that they follow what is outlined in the Convention. The United States will continue to maintain its security measures and influence in this region as the accessible Arctic is a threat to United States national security. The threat to the United States security is also prevalent in Canada, as they maintain a large territory in the Arctic, but lack in its military capabilities in comparison to the United States, resulting in a threat to the United States if Canada is unable to protect its Arctic borders. Canada has taken a more defensive approach, restraining itself from reacting to Russian aggression.[6] This has established a relationship between the two states to combat potential threats that may come from across the Arctic, including from Russia and the Middle East, taking a more continental protection approach as new military technologies and weapons would be able to be deployed across the Arctic to the United States or Canada. This cooperation resulted in the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line, a radar system covering Greenland to Alaska.[7] This multi-state cooperation shows the real threat that the opening of the Arctic can cause, and how the United States and Canada are moving towards continental protection, which is displayed through the use of this radar system.

While the Arctic remains a hotly contested region for military gain, Russia has progressed far more than any other Arctic Council member state at staking their claim militarily. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union (USSR) constructed military bases in the Arctic as a middle ground between the USSR and the West, due to enhanced opportunity in the Arctic. Russia is currently revitalizing these bases for its strategic advantage. Given the military expansion since 2007 under President Vladimir Putin, Russia will soon have military capabilities in the Arctic that far exceed the USSR’s potential at its strongest.[8] While 20% of Russia’s current Gross Domestic Product (GDP) comes from economic activity in the Arctic, trade routes are not the only source of equity within Putin’s reach in the North Atlantic.[9] Glacier recession from global warming has opened up access to the Great Circle trade route, not only providing a shorter journey for imports and exports but also a preferred passageway for the release of ballistic missiles targeting North America.[10] While trade route access and untouched natural resources would be major economic gains for the claimants, these open waters also provide each state that it borders with the potential for either a national security fortress or a dangerous vulnerability.


Each Arctic Council state has made its territorial claims beyond its exclusive economic zones, with Denmark, Canada, and Russia all staking claims to Lomonosov Ridge.[11] Since each state also wants access to the emerging trade routes, and untouched resources such as oil, gas, and rare-earth metals present in the Arctic, conflicts could erupt as the United Nations attempts to unscramble the aforementioned converging territorial claims of each participating state.[12] Above all, Russia is likely viewing the Arctic as a conquest to expand their sphere of influence back to that of the former USSR, and the ultimate showdown with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) states. Russia believes that the Arctic has fallen within their sovereign territory since the 16th Century, as a result of the Siberian conquest.[13] For this reason, Russia is likely to militarily defend the territory that they perceive to be their own, and since zero NATO states with the Arctic claims currently have been granted legal territorial rights in the region, this would not threaten any collective defense acts of NATO retribution per Article 5.[14] Though, as it stands, no other claimant country has tried to expand its military in a way that could rival Russia in the Arctic.


If conflict were to occur in the High North, it is likely to be a naval showdown due to the harsh conditions on land. Further, Russia’s preferred military tactic is hybrid warfare; therefore, proxy wars, misinformation, and cyber attacks of rivaling claimant states could grow in intensity. These tactics may not affect the Arctic specifically, but they could exacerbate tensions amongst claimant states if they are put into action. While the US Navy has reestablished its 2nd Fleet to detect Russian activity in the High North, Russian capabilities still greatly outnumber the United States in the North Atlantic with 27 operational military bases versus one for the United States.[15] It has been realized from this surveillance that Russia has 61 Icebreakers (nuclear-powered ships that are used in frozen waters) and ice-hardened ships, making their Arctic fleet the most ice-capable in the world.[16] It remains unknown what would prompt the United States to engage militarily with Russia in the Arctic, but Russia’s activity and expansion is currently being monitored and any threat of transporting ballistic missiles is likely to result in a military confrontation with the United States.


On Thursday, May 20, 2021, the Arctic Council met in Reykjavik, Iceland for their bi-annual ministerial meeting to promote cooperation and sustainability. This meeting ended on good terms, as the Arctic Council announced that the first strategic plan was adopted during Iceland’s last week as the chair. This plan will focus on enhancing cooperation in the Arctic through the next decade, however, Russia is the next chair of the council, and will hold that position for a term of two years.[17] At the time of writing, Russia maintains that they are open to multilateral dialogue on military issues concerning the Arctic region, but only time will tell if that remains true in the future, as deteriorating Russia-NATO relations in other regions of the world could exacerbate tensions in the North Atlantic. Further, trade in the region needs to be regulated by an agreement shared between the Arctic states with trade routes running through their territories, becoming a priority since the region is considered one of the most vulnerable on earth due to its delicate environmental situation and resource richness.


The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) HA Team looks upon significant events to help predict the safety and future of peoples and nations. We will remain vigilant in our effort to detect, deter, and defeat threats at the regional and global levels. CTG will continue to monitor the increasing tensions, disputes, and changes in the Arctic in the coming weeks, as new information emerges and the region grows increasingly desirable to states in the North Atlantic. In the case of an immediate threat, an alert will be created. CTG will keep its clients up to date on threats that could potentially affect their interests.

________________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)

[1]Arctic Administrative Areas and Capitals” by Arctic Centre licensed by University of Lapland

[2] Murray, R. “International Relations and the Arctic: Understanding Policy and Governance,” Cambria Press, 2014

[3] Arctic climate change, Arctic WWF, 2021, https://arcticwwf.org/work/climate/#:~:text=The%20Arctic%20is%20warming%20at%20a%20rate%20of,loss%20of%20fish%20stocks%2C%20birds%20and%20marine%20mammals.

[4] United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, G.A., December 10, 1982. https://www.un.org/Depts/los/convention_agreements/texts/unclos/unclos_e.pdf

[5] Nordquist, M. “Changes in the Arctic Environment and the Law of the Sea,” Martinus Nijhoff, 2010

[6] Murray, R. “International Relations and the Arctic: Understanding Policy and Governance,” Cambria Press, 2014

[7] Nordquist, M. “Changes in the Arctic Environment and the Law of the Sea,” Martinus Nijhoff, 2010

[8] Putin's Russia in biggest Arctic military push since Soviet fall, Reuters, January 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-arctic-insight-idUSKBN15E0W0/

[9] Why Alaska and the Arctic are Critical to the National Security of the United States, Military Times, January 2018, https://www.armyupress.army.mil/Journals/Military-Review/English-Edition-Archives/January-February-2018/Why-Alaska-and-the-Arctic-are-Critical-to-the-National-Security-of-the-United-States/

[10] Ibid

[11] Examining the Russian Federations claim to extend their Exclusive Economic Zone within the Arctic, The Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, May 2020, https://jsis.washington.edu/news/examining-the-russian-federations-claim-to-extend-their-exclusive-economic-zone-within-the-arctic/

[12] Why Alaska and the Arctic are Critical to the National Security of the United States, Military Times, January 2018, https://www.armyupress.army.mil/Journals/Military-Review/English-Edition-Archives/January-February-2018/Why-Alaska-and-the-Arctic-are-Critical-to-the-National-Security-of-the-United-States/

[13] Russia in the Arctic—A Critical Examination, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March 2021, https://carnegieendowment.org/2021/03/29/russia-in-arctic-critical-examination-pub-84181

[14] Collective defence - Article 5, NATO, February 2021, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_110496.htm

[15] Potential for conflict in the Arctic: The New Cold War?, Story Maps, July 2020, https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/a19b6a79bc5c4596b52531856af389c9

[16] Ibid

[17] Iceland to pass chair of Arctic Council to Russia, CBC, May 2021, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/north/arctic-council-iceland-1.6029980




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