Geopolitics of Arctic Climate Change and an Arms Race on Top of the World

The Arctic has, on the whole, played a relatively insignificant role in political history. Until recently, the region’s impenetrable frozen climate made any attempts at long-term engagement impractical, if not downright impossible. However, the dramatic receding of its icy borders has already begun to uncover waters whose ownership has never been determined. Though political discussions surrounding the region have long centred on the potentially devastating health and ecological effects of climate change, there has been much less effort made to address the ways in which current and future changes in the Arctic landscape will impact the geopolitical balance of the region. A 2009 Geological Survey conducted by the United States reports that an estimated 30% of the world’s natural gas and 13% of its undiscovered oil are located in this disputed area. The opening of two new major trade routes in an area brimming with natural resources offers a chance few modern states have previously encountered: the possibility of exploring virtually uncharted territory.

Image Courtesy of Wofratz © 2001, some rights reserved.
Image Courtesy of Wofratz © 2001, some rights reserved.

Historically, the Arctic was assumed to be virtually ungoverned – an international no man’s land, reserved for extreme adventure tourism and wildlife. As its sea was inaccessible, it was also of little interest. The first concerted effort to draw up any widely recognised sovereignty policy was by the United Nations’ Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS), coming into force in 1994. Of the Arctic’s neighbouring states – the United States, Canada, Denmark (via Greenland), Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Russia – only the United States is not a signatory of UNCLOS, though they are all members of the Arctic Council. The UN’s Convention grants each state an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) extending 370 kilometres from its shoreline. However, if a country can successfully demonstrate ownership of the continental shelf beneath their shores, they become eligible for an extension, granting them a larger chunk of the Arctic to own and exploit in the process. With a 2014 US Congressional Worldwide Threat Assessment predicting “ice-free seasons within decades”, plans for Arctic shipping have already begun to increase substantially. The northwest pathway, stretching along the north coast of Canada from the Bering Strait past Greenland into the North Atlantic, will create a faster alternative to the Suez or Panama canals, and access to northern Russia will be significantly eased. Though Russia, Canada, and Denmark have all submitted competing claims to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) for review in 2015, the latter typically takes up to a decade to process the claims – allowing for plenty of politicking in the meantime.

Key to claims of Arctic dominance is possession of Lomonosov Ridge, a part of the continental shelf that protrudes from Russia’s Siberian Islands past the North Pole nearing both Canada and Greenland. Both Russia and Denmark have staked claims. While Russia argues it has sole proprietorship, Denmark counters that it deserves its fair share. Given the American military’s seemingly global omnipresence, their subdued geopolitical approach to the region seems out of character. Some credit this subdued approach to issues with domestic approval, others to a need to avoid upset in Putin-related engagements elsewhere. In contrast, if Russia’s claim to Lomonosov Ridge were to be granted, it would possess nearly half of the Arctic Region, and the significant wealth that comes with it. As Russia clearly states its aims, its fellow Council members are slow to respond, deliberating between considerable economic opportunities and the potential compromising of national security.

As tensions mount, Russia has considerably ramped up its militarisation over the past decade, prompting concern from fellow Arctic Council members. At a Russian National Security Council meeting in 2014, President Putin announced that “Given the circumstances, we need to take additional measures so as not to fall behind our partners, to maintain Russia’s influence in the region and maybe, in some areas, to be ahead of our partners. These are our priority tasks.” The state-owned TASS news agency has launched its own “Arctic Project”, demonstrating Putin’s desire to carefully manage press coverage of his endeavours. Russia’s fleet of icebreakers far surpasses any other in both size and effectiveness, a superiority reinforced by the fact they are the only ones to have developed nuclear-powered ships. Moreover, Russia’s Office of Naval Research deployed drones beneath the ice to approximate the pace of its recession and to determine the composition of the previously unexamined Arctic Ocean floor. While these explorations are a unilateral delight to scientists, Arctic Council governments have been less enthused at the signal that they, too, must join in now if they want to be involved at all. Some have explained away Russia’s moves as simple pragmatic anticipation as huge stretch of their border previously protected by the natural barrier of inclement weather will soon be left unprotected. Military presence, they argue, seems only natural. However, NATO’s large-scale military exercises last week, conducted from the Mediterranean to the Baltic Sea, point towards a potential shift from this more passive stance: Canada, Denmark, and the United States are all members, and loaned troops for the Nordic exercises. Despite there having been no related political fallout as of yet, these clear moves of militarisation hint at potential escalation in the future.

The battle for Arctic dominance is still thought to be a quiet one. Diplomatic discourse remains strikingly civil, declaring commitments to friendly cooperation and constructive dialogue, and signing several treaties that uphold said values. Indications of the beginnings of an arms race at the top of the world, however, say otherwise. While there remains hope for sustained international cooperation faced with such a drastic change in the landscape of the region, whether the Arctic Council countries can maintain this balance remains to be seen.

Leave a Reply