As global warming melts the ice covering parts of the Arctic Ocean, new opportunities are opening up for the exploration of natural resources, including oil. But the accelerating cooperation on climate objectives could wind up saving the Arctic from both business and military interests.
PARIS — Moscow is militarizing the North Pole ... China claims near-arctic state status ... Trump wants to buy Greenland ...
That sampling of headlines from the last few years is a testament to the emergence of the Arctic as a frosty point of potential conflict among the major geopolitical force reshaping our world. Most would still struggle to imagine why this distant place of drifting ice blocks and polar bears, historically considered a place too inaccessible and distant for governments to pay any mind, is suddenly emerging as a frontier of global power play.
So, what's really going on in the Arctic?
A new Cold War?
The most straightforward answer is — you might have guessed it: climate change. The glaciers and icebergs covering parts of the Arctic Ocean are melting away. In the last 40 years, the multi-year ice (the thicker part that stays throughout the summer) has decreased by roughly half, and estimates predict that the Arctic Ocean is heading for ice-free conditions by mid-century.
While that is bad news for the planet, as sea ice acts as a huge white sun reflector keeping our planet cool, it also means that lucrative resources such as oil, gas and minerals become increasingly accessible to the countries with territorial access to the Arctic.
Known as the Arctic 8, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Canada, Iceland and the U.S. each have claims to different territories that lie within the Arctic Circle. Currently, under a treaty called the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, signatory countries can exploit resources from the seabed out to 370 kilometers off their shorelines.
90 billion barrels of oil
While that might seem straightforward enough, the Convention also stipulates that if a country can prove its underwater shelf is an extension of its continental border, then its jurisdiction can be expanded deeper into the sea.
And so as the once-ice-covered resources are suddenly up for grabs, just as the technology for exploiting them improves. Several countries have already submitted papers to the UN claiming portions of the vast Arctic seabed. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the Arctic Ocean houses an estimated 90 billion barrels of oil — about 13% of the world's undiscovered oil reserves — and 30% of the planet's untapped natural gas.
The jostle for Arctic territory isn't news per se: Already in 2007, Russia launched a naval manoeuvre to plant a Russian flag (inside a titanium capsule) at the base of the North Pole. But the current scramble comes at a time when relations between the East and West have plunged to new depths — a fresh display being Russia's recent closing of NATO offices after the alliance expelled several Russian delegates for alleged spying.
An arctic arms race
Meanwhile, the old Cold War's main protagonists have been building up their military muscles in the Far North. In October 2020, Russian President Vladimir Putin adopted a new Arctic strategy involving rearmament of the Russian Arctic forces with the most up-to-date means of warfare, which will soon include a new air-launched ballistic missile that can be fitted with nuclear warheads.
Similarly, since 2020, the U.S. Armed Forces have announced one new Arctic strategy after another. Late last year, it reactivated the Atlantic Fleet — harking back to a time when the navy focused on operations in the Northern Atlantic — with the goal of countering both the Russian threat as well as China, which has declared itself a "near-Arctic state" as a way of expressing its desire for a seat at the polar table. More recently, the Joe Biden administration launched the "Arctic Warrior," an army training program to develop skills in cold-weather warfare.
Lawmakers play catch-up.
But tempting as it may be to view the Arctic through the prism of an ominous power struggle between Moscow and Washington, Europe remains the most important strategic theater for Russia and, so far, the broader approach of NATO — despite the U.S. advancing its interests — has largely been a hands-off approach to the region.
As Jan-Gunnar Winther, director of the Center for Sea and the Arctic, wrote in a recent article in Norwegian regional daily iTromsø, NATO is aware that the combination of climate change and more diversified business activities could have a destabilizing effect.
But on the other hand, lawmakers are busy catching up with new regulation, and the region features several cooperative bodies, such as the Arctic Council — the primary intergovernmental forum for promoting cooperation in the region — that have managed to stave off conflict in the past.
Even while Russia flirts with a version of its Cold War-era posture, the country is doing so with fewer resources and at a time when global military balance, especially with regards to air power, is tilted against it — making open aggression over the Arctic less of a worry for the alliance.
Another stabilizing factor is that northern countries by now have some experience in navigating Russian muscle-flexing in the region. Norway's relationship to Moscow has long been a tightrope between deterrence and defense through NATO, with bilateral efforts to accommodate and reassure its eastern neighbor. The six-million strong country may have urged NATO to pay more attention to the Arctic, but the official Norwegian government line is that Russia doesn't pose a military threat. According to Norwegian broadcaster TV2, the ambition of the newly elected center-left government is to strengthen relations with the Kremlin.
EU wants to ban new carbon exploration in the Arctic.
As for Sweden and Finland, they have in the last decade managed to walk a line of deepening cooperation with NATO without overly aggravating Moscow — and that's unlikely to change. The two countries share a neutrality policy, and have an understanding that a potential NATO membership would be a joint decision. As such, with climFinland sharing a 1,340-km border and difficult history with Russia, A Swedish-Finish application has so far been ruled out as a greater security risk than to formally remain outside the alliance.
Some are also hoping that increased global climate cooperation, like that seen right now at the COP26 in Glasgow, could replace some of the balance previously provided by a natural curtain of ice, with the Arctic Council in particular focusing on sustainable development and environmental protection.
Earlier this month, the EU put forward proposals that could see it pushing to ban the tapping of new oil, coal and gas deposits in the Arctic to protect the region from further disruptive climate change. What we can also hope is that as growing global players like China will try to gain access to the region, the polar nations will find new motivation to collaborate to protect what is theirs, and what is not.
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