Russia owns 60% of Arctic coastline and half of the region's population. In recent history, NATO has not been overly concerned with the defense of the Arctic region because the U.S. military has been focused on the Middle East. This is all changing since Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
KYIV — As important as the Arctic is for studying climate control and ecology, various states have eyes on it for another reason: resources. Climate change has made the Arctic more accessible for mining, and much of that area is in the Russian Arctic. In order to exploit these potential natural resources, Russia turned to foreign investors and foreign technology, from both the West and China. The war in Ukraine is throwing all of that into question.
Russia's invasion of Ukraine will have a profoundly devastating impact on the development of Russian Arctic infrastructure, as well as shipping routes through the Arctic. Western companies have left or are about to leave the market, and counter-sanctions threaten those who still cooperate with the Russians.
Given that Russia does not produce the sophisticated equipment to operate in such a complex region and soon will not even be able to repair the equipment it possesses, we can expect Russia's activity in the Arctic to slow down.
Yet, Vladimir Putin has continued to emphasize the Arctic as a priority region, and extended invitations to cooperate to both India and China.
Putin's confidence is based on the fact that the Arctic is a critical region with limited points of access. Many want to be involved in Arctic politics and economics but have no legal grounds upon which to do so.
A hunt for rare earth elements
Nuclear-powered icebreaker Sibir arrives in Murmansk, Russia
Such countries are granted access by Russia, which allows them to develop mineral resources, test their high-tech products, and participate in scientific research on its territory. The 2014 sanctions did not have much impact on Arctic cooperation, and even today, Russian partners are very reluctant to withdraw from Arctic projects.
In addition to oil and gas, the Arctic has significant deposits of rare earth metals, which are the main element for manufacturing batteries for smartphones, computers, and electric vehicles. Currently, most of the explored deposits of rare earth elements are located in China, with others in Latin America, Quebec, and Northern Europe and Greenland.
Despite the potential for rare earths outside of China, the vast majority of the world's current supply chain is China-based--that is, global technology and environmental progress is heavily dependent on resource supplies monopolized by authoritarian regimes.
Gorbachev had proposed to turn the Arctic into a "zone of peace."
In October 1987, the General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, Mikhail Gorbachev, proposed to turn the Arctic into a "zone of peace." At that time, the Russian part of the region was crammed with military bases and fortifications, as the USSR believed that America would attack the Soviets from this side.
That same year, the Finnish government launched the Rovaniemi Process, which in 1991 turned into the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy. This created the basis for cooperation between the eight Arctic states (Canada, the United States, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, and Russia) to solve common environmental and economic problems. In 1996, these states formed the Arctic Council, a collective supranational body that jointly takes care of the Arctic region.
When Finland and Sweden join NATO, all Arctic countries except Russia will be members of the Western military alliance .
Who owns the Arctic
Since its establishment, the A.R. has been declared a non-political organization; however, in 2014, after the annexation of Crimea and the Russian invasion of Eastern Ukraine, Russia had to leave Arctic Security Forces Roundtable (AR). In response, Russia strengthened its military presence in the Arctic. The number of weapons disproportionately increased, and the Russian military regularly conducted undeclared exercises while violating the Nordic countries' national maritime borders and airspace.
In early March 2022, the Arctic Council countries condemned Russia and announced a boycott of the meetings and a temporary suspension of the AR's activities. This is the first political statement of the Arctic Council since its inception.
But without Russia, the Arctic cannot be governed, as it owns 60% of the coastline and half of the region's population.In recent history, NATO has not been overly concerned with the defense of the Arctic region because the U.S. military has primarily involved in conflicts in the Middle East. This is changing given recent Russian military investment in the region, and particularly as a result of the changed geopolitical situation brought about by Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Since 2014, Russia has built at least 475 military facilities along its northern border, and has started to actively develop the port of Severomorsk in the Barents Sea above the Arctic Circle (the main base of the country's Northern Fleet) and the port in Vladivostok.
Militarization of the Arctic
Murmansk Region, Rusia, July 2022. A member of the Arctic cleanup expedition, on Kildin Island.
© Sergei Fadeichev / TASS via ZUMA Press
Russia thawed 50 mothballed military bases from the Cold War, including 13 air bases and ten radar stations. In addition, Moscow tried, contrary to its international agreements and without any permits, to build a military base on the Norwegian Spitsbergen, where, according to international law, the existence of military bases, even Norwegian ones, is forbidden.
Norway has forbidden the Russians to continue construction, and it is currently unknown what conditions these facilities are in.
Russia has also tested specialized hypersonic cruise missiles and nuclear-powered underwater drones in the Arctic. The country's Northern Fleet, which consists of nuclear submarines, battleships, landing craft, icebreakers, and support ships, has been significantly strengthened over the past decade and has become the leading power in the north, according to NATO's 2017 Arctic Strategy.
Russian activity has sparked an arms race among other Arctic states: both Canada and Norway have recently begun to rearm and conduct more frequent military exercises in the region. The United States has also started to give more strategic priority to the Arctic.
If Russia loses the war
Following the invasion of Ukraine, NATO countries launched Arctic military exercises, which have not been seen since the Cold War. Arctic countries are actively arming themselves and coordinating their actions. Recent events in Norway confirm that Russia poses a threat in the north. Explosions on the Russian "Nord Stream 1" gas pipeline, active reconnaissance activities carried out by Russia at Norwegian military and industrial facilities, and the exposure of Russian spies in Norway, are all evidence of Russian threats to nations beyond Ukraine.
Sanctions could deplete Russia to the point that it will have to mothball its military bases in the Arctic.
Arctic countries, without exaggeration, are the flagships of assistance to Ukraine in the war. The region, which most influential countries perceive as crucial, is now held hostage by Russia. Sanctions could potentially deplete Russia to the point that it will again have to mothball its military bases in the Arctic. The development of natural resources would then stop due to a lack of technical capabilities.
Perhaps Russia will admit defeat, and the world will see a subsequent redistribution of power or the creation of a new system of global security. In that case, it is imperative to understand that the Arctic will be one of those regions which, under the further distribution of forces, will be claimed by many international players.