Great Power Competition in the Arctic

“This new ocean is appearing on our maps, and it has all kinds of different implications… If you think about the Mediterranean Sea, there were 1,000 years of war to determine the relationships of those countries surrounding it. The question is can we open the Arctic and avoid the conflict?”

– Angus King (I-ME) to CNN, October 2022

In 1992 Francis Fukuyama hypothesized in his book The End of History and the Last Man that the end of the Cold War marked the end of the ideological struggle between capitalism and communism, and that liberal democracy had emerged as the victor. Fukuyama argued this represented the “end of history” because there were no more significant ideological or political struggles left to be fought.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine proved Fukuyama’s conclusion premature at best. The war has entered its second year and in the process rekindled great power competition in Europe. It has breathed new life into old security alliances, strengthening relationships between NATO members on one side and between China, Russia, and other autocratic actors on the other. It has also profoundly altered the dynamics of cooperation and conflict in the Arctic, a region where political, economic, and environmental struggles are growing and changing along with the “new ocean.”

Talk of a new “Arctic Cold War” may be premature as well, but there is no denying key trends:

  1. As Arctic ice cover recedes, new navigation, resource exploitation, environmental, and security options are being created.
  2. These options are seen as critical enough by Arctic and so-called “near-Arctic” nations to justify significantly increased military and other logistical investments, e.g. reactivated military bases and new icebreaker construction.
  3. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has severely degraded the ability of key institutions like the Arctic Council to facilitate the peaceful and cooperative resolution of differences, leading to negative follow-on effects in areas such as scientific cooperation.

The Arctic has always been important to Russia, and some degree of military posturing in support of Russia’s interests is to be expected. The difficulty is that Russia’s actions in Ukraine have driven once-neutral actors like Sweden and Finland to petition for NATO membership. This in turn serves to reinforce the Russia versus the World narrative that Putin constantly returns to in support of his imperialistic activities. The Russian Arctic Threat, a recent report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, stated the obvious: “When Sweden and Finland join [NATO], every Arctic country save Russia will be a member of the US-led alliance.”

This increased emphasis on the balance of forces in the Arctic has been accelerating. Last month the Wilson Center and the Center for Maritime Strategy co-hosted a conference titled Deterring Russia at Sea in the High North. Attendees were told of Russian and Chinese naval forces operating together in the region. Two weeks later a Toronto conference echoed the need to counter Russian moves in the region, with a politician stating, ““It’s important for northern communities and ensures the world knows, including some of our more concerning neighbors, that the Arctic is ours and we can protect and defend it.”

Chinese assertiveness in the region is increasingly seen as less then benign, particularly in the context of recent and particularly ill-timed and increased Chinese surveillance activities over North America. Such activities are not entirely recent, of course, and not confined to the air either.

Across the pond the UK updated its Arctic framework to recognize the new Arctic competition in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and Denmark began implementing an Arctic Capability Package to enhance its presence and surveillance capabilities in the region.

By the end of February the increased emphasis on all things Arctic was at a high level. The US announced the appointment of the new Arctic Ambassador, the US Arctic Research Commission made a high-profile release of its Arctic research goals, and State Department officials were stating openly that cooperation with Russia had “…upended decades of collaboration and cooperation.”

Russia responded by updating its Arctic policy to remove references to the Arctic Council and emphasizing a “go-it-alone” attitude. The Arctic Council in turn is moving ahead with preparations for Norway to take over the suspended chair of Russia in May.

As scientists lament the effects of the big chill on research efforts (also here), there seems to be no immediate end in sight to the slow but steady escalation of tensions in the Arctic region and beyond. Despite a long-overdue meeting between Blinken and Lavrov, Russian escalatory moves continue amid fear that war is the “new normal” for Putin’s Russia.