The New Arctic Frontier: Geopolitical Competition and Militarization of the Arctic

The circumpolar states find interest in the national growth, capability, and strategic ability of the Arctic region which is becoming a major reason for militarization of the region.

The earlier conflicts among arctic stakeholders included disputes over natural resources including fisheries, delineation, conflict between the USA and Canada over war and peacekeeping identities. Conflict between Norway and Sweden where the union king was considered threat to Norway’s autonomy. Where circumpolar states including Sweden, Norway, and Greenland remained a source of information and resources during World War 2. The major militarization of the Arctic could be seen during the Cold War. Still, the conflict potential was mitigated either through international cooperation on arms control or through US-Soviet diplomacy. Under this fragile polar environment, the circumpolar states and even the non-Arctic states find interest in the national growth, capability, and strategic ability of the Arctic region which is becoming a major reason for militarization of the region. 

Russia’s Military Dominance in Arctic    

Russia has economic, environmental, and military-strategic potential in the Arctic for being a test site for nuclear and missile technology, at North fleet, the submarines have around 81% of Russia’s sea base nuclear weaponry, hydro-meteorological facilities, a testing site for long-range missiles, site to conduct nuclear force’s exercises, around 50 plus military bases where Nagurskoye is northernmost Airbase in the world. Russia has 40 ships, several being nuclear powered, and spread across the Arctic Ocean as holds the largest fleet of icebreaker ships. Unique all-weather airfields, rocket fires, Onyx anti-ship missiles, anti-aircraft systems, radio-electronic warfare capabilities of Russia, ballistic missiles, hypersonic missiles to evade sensors of the US, etc. describe how Russia could claim to be the Arctic’s Military power whose military presence in the region has gone beyond defense.

Arctic Militarization: USA’s Strategic Interests in the North

 The USA Department of Defense considers the Arctic a secure region to safeguard vital interests. However, new arctic strategy published by USA army considers it as a platform for Global Power Projection and arena of competition for natural resources. USA’s military bases in Alaska and Greenland, and its work over the maritime search, scientific international expeditions, and pollution rate in the region indicate the seriousness of Arctic militarization and resources in front of the USA.

Arctic Geopolitical and Military Competition among Global Powers

NATO states also have moved sites for military and combat training exercises to polar latitudes thus megaphone diplomacy is becoming less considerable, for the Arctic has become a region of interest for many non-Arctic states too. NATO is making allies with Arctic countries for crucial links with GIUK gap. The Arctic Council states have economic, territorial, geopolitical, and social, etc. interests in the region and thus have a significant military presence. Canada pledged to spend around 10 billion dollars on early warning radar systems and overall militarization after Russia invaded Ukraine. China, Germany, India, etc. being observer states of the Arctic Council lack proximity to the region still china being explicit about resources and alternative economic opportunities, is showing huge interest in the region.  In the Bering Sea, a combined warship exercise by Chinese and Russian forces was also observed, perceived as a threat by the Pentagon to communication infrastructure. China considered itself a near-arctic state in 2018, publishing an official white paper along with a new arctic policy, and The National Development and Reform Commission on State Oceanic Administration of China also published a Vision document on Arctic routes under BRI. Who will control Arctic? The question remains there with the rising geopolitical competition among global powers and the changing world order. Russia, US, and China being the key players making roads in preserving their economic and political interests in the region through diplomatic means as well as strategic assets.

This direct deterrence in the region is due to the perception of a zero-sum game that has made nations move to a collision phase for potential conflict. This perception of a zero-sum game lies under the potential resources i.e. oil and gas, etc., new sea lanes and resources as the ice cap shrinks, minerals, alternatives to the south (Suez Canal and Panama Canal routes), and less time-consuming trade routes. The Northern Sea Route, transpolar sea route, and North West Passage are becoming prominent alternatives to traditional routes due to global warming’s effect on melting icebergs and ice sheets (specifically between Greenland and Baffin Island for North West Passage), connecting Northern Asia directly to Northern Europe. There are regional tensions between Russia and Canada due to the North West Passage, Russia makes claims over the Northern Sea Route whereas, the USA considers both North West Passage and Northern Sea Route as international passages, however, due to the increasing Strategic importance of Greenland because of North Atlantic trade routes, mineral resources and rare minerals, etc. tilt of USA towards Greenland is seen. Northern Sea Route being the source of connectivity between the Bering Sea and Barents Sea, is included under the Polar Silk Route project of the Belt and Road initiative, showcasing how desperate China is, for influence in the region.    

According to Alexander Grushko, new interaction algorithms could be formed for financing economic projects in the Arctic Region but the broader projection of regional power, strategic weapon systems, and core interests depict that Arctic region militarization could be resurfacing of the ‘old’ Cold War for West and Russia. China succeeded in the practicality of logistic possibilities to make a military presence in the Arctic, then there would be a threat of confrontation requiring Arctic Council resolution to prevent large wars in multiple regions, where accidental conflict escalation always remains a prominent threat. Climate change on one side providing alternate trade routes would be destructive for military bases, melting permafrost foundations of military infrastructure, eroding coastal sites that would impact radar sites, increasing sea levels, etc. Activism could help prevent international oil companies from drilling in fragile environments, and also prevent military activities but international organizations and legal protection of arctic are ineffective in preventing competition.

Laiba Awan
Laiba Awan
The author is an undergraduate student at National Defense University, Islamabad