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How Putin's Arctic Dreams May Crack Under The Weight Of Ukraine War

With its vast untapped resources up for grabs, the Arctic region is where the climate crisis is now inextricably linked to a new global arms race. Now Moscow finds itself shut out in the cold after invading Ukraine.

Bird's eye view of ​Russian icebreaker Kapitan Dranitsyn supplying research Polarstern in the Central Arctic Ocean.

Russian supplies research Polarstern in the Central Arctic Ocean.

The worldwide impact of Russia's invasion of Ukraine extends from everything from food and energy supply to a massive refugee crisis to the revival of nuclear arms tension. Yet thousands of miles to the north, Vladimir Putin has his eye on another region with its own hefty weight on the future of the planet: the Arctic.

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The reason? 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.

And not surprisingly, Russia — one of eight countries with claims to the region — has positioned to maximize its stake. And also not surprisingly, Moscow now finds itself and Russian scientists shut out of vital ongoing negotiations over a range of policies in the region with economic, environmental and geo-strategic impact that cannot be underestimated.

Law of the Sea

The region is largely overseen by the Arctic Council, consisting of 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.

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 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.

Race for the resources

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 the rearmament of the Russian Arctic forces with the most up-to-date means of warfare.

Hopes may soon evaporate

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.

But while tensions over the Arctic have risen in the last few years, the global quest to halt planetary warming has simultaneously had a stabilizing effect. The hopes have been that increased global climate cooperation, like that seen at last year’s 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.

But with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, those hopes may be evaporating.

Close-up photo of \u200bRussian President Vladimir Putin after a meeting with President of Iceland Gudni Johannesson at sidewalks of the International Arctic Forum in Arkhangelsk, Russia

Putin after a meeting with Iceland President Gudni Johannesson in Arkhangelsk, Russia, in 2017

Sergei Karpukhin/Pool/Pi

Climate risks are geopolitical

Last week, the Arctic Observing Summit — a biennial meeting aimed at fostering international communication and response to system-scale Arctic change — took place in the Norwegian city of Tromsø. While the meeting brought together scientists from all over the world, it was closed to scientists from Russian institutions and organizations.

The Committee that hosts the events released a statement affirming its commitment to “peaceful scientific cooperation between nations,” but declaring it “cannot proceed as normal” because of Russia's invasion. It’s the first time the Committee has taken such a decision since its founding in 1990.

Indeed, across the Arctic, partnerships with Russian scientists to study polar bears, whales, walruses, have all been put on hold, according to a recent article in Hakai Magazine.

Making climate risks collide with geopolitical ones.

Beyond the loss of research about climate change’s effect on the Arctic, what many now fear is that the historical ability of Arctic nations to put their differences aside will come to an end — effectively making climate risks collide with geopolitical ones.

Already, seven of the Arctic Council's members — all except Russia, which currently holds the council’s rotating chairmanship — have agreed to boycott future meetings following the invasion of Ukraine. The boycott, announced earlier this month, halts council proceedings on issues ranging from climate change to Arctic oil drilling.

Norway's tightrope

Indeed, while the Arctic has always been considered relatively peaceful and cooperative, it is currently the theater of East-West tensions that runs a growing risk of becoming global as the war in Ukraine drags out.

Some Nordic collaboration with Russia still remains. In Norway, for example, the government has decided to let the two countries’ fishing trade continue, with Russia having caught €26 million worth of fish in Norwegian waters since the outbreak of the war, according to national broadcaster NRK.

The fishing also takes place around Svalbard, an archipelago between mainland Norway and the North Pole and one of the world’s northernmost inhabited areas. While Svalbard is part of Norway, an international treaty dating back to 1920 grants the right to 43 other nations to commercial activity like tourism and coal mining — but only Russia exploits the right so far.

In an interview earlier this month, the Norwegian Minister of Fisheries Bjørnar Skjæran argued against sanctions with reference to the Russian-Norwegian fishing cooperation. And indeed, the close ties over fishing have contributed to stabilizing the tightrope Norway has been walking between its NATO membership and maintaining a peaceful relationship with the Kremlin.

Pictures of melting icebergs and glaciers

Melting icebergs and glaciers

Danting Zhu

Maintaining peace

However, Katarzyna Zysk, a professor at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies, told NRK that the invasion will complicate continued cooperation — and that, too, will have ramifications beyond fishing, as Russia’s main interest in Svalbard isn’t commercial but geostrategic.

It has historically been important to Russia to maintain a presence on Svalbard as it’s relatively close to the Kola Peninsula, the base for the majority of Russia’s nuclear submarines. According to Zysk, Russia first and foremost wants to ensure that Svalbard isn’t used by the U.S. or NATO for military purposes.

The question today is how Norway and the remaining members of the Arctic Council will manage peace in the Arctic region should Russian aggression continue, or even worsen. While resuming climate research and cooperation will be one priority, it’s also about the more immediate task of avoiding the region from becoming a fuse for a wider conflict.

In other words, the wider discussion over how to best ensure European (and global) security must now be held with regards to an isolated area in the farthest reaches of the Northern Hemisphere.

NATO's role

This last month hasn’t only been a wake-up call about the true ambitions of Vladimir Putin but also a reassessment of NATO as the best vehicle to ensure transatlantic peace and security. Today, many argue that Europe must look to bolster its own military capacity and defense cooperation independent of the U.S.

Whether or not that becomes the future of European security policy, the Arctic could offer an example of what a beginning to European strategic autonomy might look like.

It was the first time the EU’s Arctic strategy included a chapter on geopolitics and security policy.

Already last year, 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 as well as geopolitical tensions. It was the first time the EU’s Arctic strategy included a chapter on geopolitics and security policy.

And indeed, if successful, the union might already have superseded NATO’s contribution to an Arctic equilibrium — even as all have their eye on the next move of the Russian bear.

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