Arctic Geopolitics: Less Ice, More Tension

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4 mins read

By Erik Carlqvist

AS PLANET EARTH CONTINUES to warm up as the climate crisis unfolds, a major transformation in the Arctic is underway. The Arctic ice continues to melt, meaning that the ocean in the High North sees dramatic changes, altering the dynamics of geopolitics, trade, and global security. This vast region contains disputed territory, unexploited natural resources, and emerging alternative trade routes. These all play a part in explaining why we now should look northward as this new chapter unfolds. 

Scientists estimate that by 2035, the Arctic will be partly ice-free during the summer months. Recognizing the geopolitical changes this brings, major powers have turned their eyes up north, as shown in recent policy changes. In January 2018, China for the first time officially declared itself a ‘near Arctic state’, in its publicly published Arctic Policy. Moreover in 2020, the United States reopened its consulate in Nuuk, the capital city of Greenland, after this diplomatic presence had been gone for almost 70 years. 

One explanation for the region’s rise in geopolitical interest is the prospect of faster maritime commercial travel. The Arctic becoming ice-free during summer opens up shipping routes that will dramatically reduce the transit time between Europe, the U.S., and Asia. Some of these new Arctic routes may require between 30% and 50% less time than shipping through the well-established Suez or Panama Canal. This percentage number can amount to saving between 14 and 20 days.

But not everyone is agreeing on the terms of these increasingly viable alternative routes. Russia claims that the Northern Sea Route, which largely runs off the coast of northern Russia and connects the Pacific and Atlantic Ocean, passes through Russia’s sovereign territorial waters.In addition, Canada claims that the Northwest Passage, also connecting the Pacific and Atlantic Ocean but along the Canadian coast, passes through Canadian internal waters. In both these cases, on the other hand, the United States does not recognize the sovereignty and claims that these are international waterways. 

However, it is not only quicker shipping routes that make countries look to this region. Approximately 30% of the world’s unexploited natural gas and 13% of the world’s unexploited oil may be found in the Arctic, according to an article published in 2009 by the United States Geological Survey. Most of this is thought to be located offshore, and less ice in the Arctic would facilitate offshore exploitation. 

Approximately 30% of the world’s unexploited natural gas and 13% of the world’s unexploited oil may be found in the Arctic.”

In this shifting geopolitical landscape, many security concerns arise. In terms of military might, Russia is in many ways a dominant force in the region. Virtually all of Russia’s northern coast is above the polar circle. The country has a large number of military bases, airstrips, and ports in the region, continuously building more infrastructure. For the parts of the Arctic covered by ice, Russia also has a fleet of more than 40 icebreakers, significantly outpacing other nations. By contrast, the United States operates two icebreakers and is currently working to increase this number. 

According to international law, the five states with coastlines within the Arctic Circle – Canada, Denmark (through its autonomous territory Greenland), Norway, Russia, and the United States – can all rightfully claim up to 370 kilometers of their coast as their sovereign economic zone. However, in 2007, Russia made headlines after planting its flag on the seafloor of the North Pole. This was viewed as a symbolic claim to resources in the region and provoked reactions from other countries. Peter MacKay, Canadian Foriegn Minister at the time, commented on Russia’s action with contempt, saying “This isn’t the 15th century. You can’t go around the world and just plant flags and say ‘We’re claiming this territory’”. We should note that Canada, Denmark, and Russia’s sovereignty claims overlap in the Arctic Ocean, notably at Lomonosov Ridge. This has led to scientific expeditions from these countries, with the goal of proving extensions of continental shelves that potentially could back their respective claims. In other words; states seek to fortify their geopolitics through geology. 

Sweden does not have a coastline along the Arctic Ocean but still has significant national interests in the Arctic region. Above the polar circle, the Swedish mining city of Kiruna is found. The Kiruna mine is the world’s largest underground iron mine. Mining is conducted by LKAB a Swedish state-owned company that alone accounts for approximately 0.7% of the Swedish GDP. Sweden’s arctic territory is also the main place for Sweden’s space research, notably with Esrange Space Center which conducts research and rocket launching, near Kiruna. In 2023, the Swedish Parliament has seen discussions of the re-opening of a military regiment in Kiruna, as a result of the renewed interest in the Arctic.

It should be known that although the Arctic was highly militarized during the Cold War, the region has largely been viewed as a low-tension area in recent decades. Multilateral cooperation has been carried out through the Arctic Council, founded in 1996, which consists of Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States. In addition to these eight nation-states, six organizations for different indigenous groups participate in the council work. The council addresses issues connected to climate, science, and culture. However, there is one critical subject that the council does not deal with directly: security policy. This can easily be understood since seven out of eight countries are Western states, and the eighth country is Russia. 

“The Arctic is indeed heating up both literally and figuratively, and its geopolitical future is uncertain.”

The division in the council became clear after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, which had major consequences for this cooperation in the Arctic. Since early March 2022, the formal cooperation in the council has been put on hold. During the fall of 2022, part of the council’s usual business continued, albeit excluding activities involving Russia. This naturally raises the question of what the future of Arctic cooperation will look like, and who is to be involved. As shown in this article, trends in the Arctic nations suggest that the world will likely witness increased militarization of the region moving forward. 

In conclusion, the Arctic is indeed heating up both literally and figuratively, and its geopolitical future is uncertain. What developments we will see will depend on many complex variables. For one; will the ice continue to melt at its current rate in the years to come, or may an increase or decrease in global emissions either speed up or slow down this process? It becomes obvious that the fate of this geopolitical issue is, at its core, intertwined with how humanity deals with the climate crisis in the coming years. Moreover, other global developments and various conflicts that the major powers are involved in, or are not involved in, will also affect what power resources will be at the disposal of the actors in the region to project their power and will. However, we can be confident that the trend points to this region’s increasing importance, and that we now should keep the Arctic in mind – more so than we may have done before – when seeking to understand the current state of international relations and world politics.

By: Erik Carlqvist

Photography: Stein Egil Liland

NB: This article has been discussed with Radio UF. More insights here.

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