In many public debates around the globe, the narrative of ‘”Arctic War” has become the predominant narrative of the future of Arctic security:
Driven by climate change, the Arctic ice cap is melting and large amounts of untapped oil and gas resources as well as lucrative shipping routes are becoming increasingly accessible. As a part of their response, Arctic states are making far reaching territorial claims in order to secure this tremendously rich treasure, and some, especially Russia, are emphasizing their regional ambitions by increasing their military capabilities in the High North. Trapped in an unavoidable arms race, the Arctic states are on a slippery slope toward military confrontation.
While advancing this narrative, supporters too easily apply interest-driven predictions of an uncontrollable arms race in the High North. Interestingly enough, one region seems to be exempted from this trend: the Arctic itself. This either means that the Arctic is “sleepwalking” into “unavoidable military escalation,” blinded by its long history of cooperation, or that it is worth taking a second look at the “narrative” of Arctic War.
Natural Resources, Territorial Claims, and Militarization?
First, what would be the source of a potential Arctic conflict? For many observers this seems to be very clear: economic interest. In 2008, a U.S. Geological Survey considered the Arctic to contain most of the world’s still undeveloped oil and gas. In addition, as the ice melts, lucrative shipping routes, like the Northwest Passage and the Northern Sea Route, are becoming more and more accessible. Since then, nearly every national submission to the extension of the Arctic state’s continental shelf (and thus the right to exploit the resources in the seabed) is considered a “provocative,” sometimes even “offensive” act.
This entirely disregards the actual nature of this process, which is nothing more than a filing of scientific findings to a scientific body, the U.N. Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. The commission will assess the findings and make recommendations, but lacks a mandate to resolve possible overlapping claims. However, the Arctic has a long history of resolving such disputes peacefully and in line with international law, such as in 2011 between Norway and Russia.
There is also little reason why this should change in the near future. Hans Island, a “rock” in the Nares Strait between Canada and Greenland, became sort of a symbol for territorial disputes in the Arctic, as militaries from both states started to leave each other bottles of Danish schnapps or Canadian Club whiskey as well as welcome signs. Then, in August 2015, Russia indicated its willingness to negotiate its overlapping claims with Denmark in regards to the North Pole. Other remaining overlapping claims also carry little potential for military escalation.
Second, what would war in the Arctic actually look like? It is probably not too surprising that the military presence in the Arctic is comparably low, considering that the Arctic is covered mainly by a large ocean and temperatures in winter can drop below -40 degrees Celsius. Historically, the High North continuously played an important geostrategic role, hosting, for example, Russia’s strategic nuclear missiles and air defense systems as well as serving as a “natural habitat” for strategic missile submarines. However, the harsh climate poses severe challenges to people and equipment, making a military presence in the Arctic very costly and often primarily symbolic.
Denmark’s “Slædepatruljen SIRIUS,” an elite Danish navy unit, is a good illustration of this. The 14 soldiers of the unit split up in teams of two, patrolling 9942 miles of northeastern Greenland on dogsleds. Because very low temperatures make rifles operating with gas much less reliable, the soldiers are equipped with the M1917 Enfield, a rifle used during the first World War. Its main purpose is less military, but rather to protect them from straying polar bears. As former Canadian Chief of Defense Staff General Natynczyk put it: “If someone were to invade the Canadian Arctic, my first task would be to rescue them.”
This leads directly to the last question: who would this “someone” be? Most recently, after Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and the subsequent significant freeze in NATO-Russia relations, many seem to argue at least for one side of a military conflict in the Arctic. Russia’s military modernization program, the reopening of military infrastructure, changes in its maritime doctrine, and strong statements by high-level officials, such as by Deputy Prime Minister Rogozin or Defense Minister Shoigu, to feed suspicion about Russia’s ambitions in the Arctic.
At the same time, it is advisable to take a sober second look at what is actually happening on the ground. As for most of the Arctic coastal states, the thawing ice and expected increase in shipping call for additional search and rescue capabilities and makes Russia’s northern border more vulnerable to security challenges such as piracy, terrorism, and trafficking. With this in mind, new air defense systems, radar sites, airfields, border infrastructure, icebreakers, and patrol vessels are less an issue of aggressive military power projection. At the same time, Russia recently carried out several large-scale and unannounced military exercises, some also involving its troops in the Arctic. It would nevertheless be wrong to directly link these exercises to Russia’s regional ambitions rather than to a general shift in its policy towards the West and, in particular, towards NATO.
Even if one rejects the history of close cooperation in the Arctic, a similar shift in Russian policy towards confrontation in the High North seems very unlikely. The main reason for such a conclusion is that only through playing by the rules will Russia be entitled to the largest share of the unexploited resources in the Arctic—more than it will be able to exploit in the next 100 years. Even more so, Russia will need to cooperate since the harsh Arctic climate makes search and rescue, oil and gas production, and border security, particularly risky, technologically challenging, and consequently very expensive tasks. Any announcement of unilateral action must thus be met with an appropriate amount of skepticism.
The Necessity of Sustaining Good Cooperation
In the past, the hostile Arctic environment has always led to particularly close cooperation between all Arctic states, a cooperation that is not only visible in the work of the Arctic Council, but also in various cross-border projects by researchers, civil society, or indigenous peoples. At the same time, while there is no automatism that links an increasing military presence to a more aggressive national behavior, it is also not a given that the good level of cooperation sustains itself. The expected changes in the Arctic security environment will thus require firm and proactive actions by all actors involved.
Meanwhile, some of the recent military saber rattling by Russia has at least increased skepticism about the country’s interest in sustaining its good relations in the region. Nevertheless, before considering the outbreak of armed conflict in or even over the Arctic as a “very likely future scenario,” one should first always answer a series of important questions: Who is supposed to fight against whom, and for what reason? What would this conflict actually look like, and what would they actually gain, particularly in relation to what they already have? So far, those framing the narrative of “Arctic war” do not sufficiently address most of these questions.
Benjamin Schaller is a PhD candidate and research fellow at the Centre for Peace Studies at the Arctic University of Norway in Tromsø focusing on issues of Arctic security, arms control, military cooperation, and transparency. He is also a member of the Research School on Peace & Conflict, a collaboration between the Peace Research Institute in Oslo, the University of Oslo, and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.