19.05.23 Review

Polarising Pole: The melting Arctic has emerged as a new arena for geopolitical fragmentation

Russia's two-year chairmanship of the Arctic Council came to an end in May, with Norway set to assume the role in June. However, the Council will no longer function as it was. Of the eight member countries, all except Russia are either NATO members or are set to become members in the near future, and they have all ceased their interactions with Russia since its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Nevertheless, the Arctic had already become a stage for political tension and militarisation even before the war. The rapid melting of Arctic ice, which opens up fundamentally new opportunities for navigation and exploitation of the region's natural resources, has made the Arctic a subject of geo-economic desire not only for Arctic states but also for other global players. At the same time, after severing ties with the West and facing extensive sanctions, Russia is unlikely to undertake technologically complex projects for Arctic development on its own and has practically been forced into close partnership with China, which has gained an invaluable opportunity to participate in Arctic competition. Thus, the Arctic is becoming another arena for the formation of ‘block thinking’ and geopolitical fragmentation.

Norway will replace Russia as the chair of the Arctic Council in June 2023. The Arctic Council, established in 1996, consists of eight ‘Arctic’ countries: Denmark, Iceland, Canada, Norway, Russia, the United States, Finland, and Sweden. The Russian invasion of Ukraine paralysed the Council's operations. Initially, Western countries suspended their work in the Council, and then resumed their participation but only on projects that do not require Russian involvement. As a result, approximately one-third of the Council's 130 projects have been frozen, and new ones cannot be implemented. According to Reuters, Western and Russian scientists no longer share observations on climate change, and cooperation on potential search and rescue operations or oil spills has ceased.

According to a report by the non-profit ‘Arctica,’ the Arctic is warming about four times faster than the rest of the world. From 1971 to 2017, the average annual temperature in the region increased by 2.7 degrees, and the spring snow cover has fallen by more than 30%. Perennial ice is giving way to seasonal ice. As a result, by the mid-21st century, the Arctic is expected to have a complete absence of ice cover during the summer months. For RS3 class icebreakers, which can navigate through ice year-round, navigation through 90% of the region's territory will become possible. For vessels of the RS6 class (operating in seasonal ice), it will be possible to navigate through 60% of the area.

This radical change in navigation conditions fundamentally changes the significance of the Arctic and opens up enormous opportunities for the exploitation of its natural resources and for the establishment of trade and transport routes. The Arctic seabed is believed to contain significant reserves of fossil fuels, metals, and essential minerals needed for modern digital devices. According to the latest estimates from the US Geological Survey, approximately 90 billion barrels of oil and around 47 trillion cubic metres of natural gas lie beyond the Arctic Circle.

Russia is considered the primary beneficiary of the melting ice as its Arctic shelf holds the most natural resources. The main object of competition in the Arctic is the Lomonosov Ridge, a part of the continental shelf that stretches from Canada and Greenland to the shores of Siberia. Russia, Canada, and Denmark have claimed rights to this territory at the United Nations. These three countries argue that the Lomonosov Ridge, which runs across the pole, is an extension of their continental shelves.

The natural resources and potential new shipping opportunities are attracting non-Arctic countries to the region as well. The most active new player is China, which refers to itself as a 'near-Arctic state.' In addition to conducting scientific research, China is already engaged in economic activities in the Arctic. It has invested in rare earth metal extraction in Greenland, participated in mining projects in Canada, and is involved in the Russian ‘Yamal LNG’ project. Further, China is building its own icebreaker fleet and implementing the 'Polar Silk Road' project, which aims to reduce logistical distances in its trade with Europe.

As transportation accessibility expands and changes occur to the global energy market, the region is developing potential for the emergence of new points of military and political tension, according to the 'Arctica' project report. The situation has become even more complicated as a result of the war in Ukraine. Finland and Sweden will soon join NATO, leaving Russia as the only non-NATO member in the 'Arctic' club. Experts are already characterising the current situation as a 'security dilemma,' where the military buildup of states for defensive purposes might be perceived as preparation for offensive actions, thus provoking reciprocal militarisation to maintain a balance of military-strategic capabilities.

According to the experts from the ‘Arctica', several Soviet military bases, abandoned after the end of the Cold War, have recently been revived. Russian strategic bombers have resumed patrolling the Arctic borders, and there has been an increase in the deployment of air defence systems and radar jamming capabilities. NATO's activity has also escalated following the Russian invasion of Ukraine: in the spring of 2022, the largest Arctic exercises in 30 years took place in the Norwegian Sea, involving 27 countries and around 30,000 military personnel.

However, Russia's capacity for Arctic development has significantly diminished since the start of the war, the cessation of cooperation with the West, and the imposition of broad sanctions. Technologically complex Arctic projects are unlikely to be achievable for Russia independently. This creates a need for cooperation with 'friendly' countries that have not joined in with the sanctions regime. As Bloomberg has noted in its review, the Arctic section of Russia's Foreign Policy Strategy, signed by Putin on March 31 of this year, no longer mentions 'constructive international cooperation,' but instead promises to respond to unfriendly attempts at militarisation in the region and to establish closer ties with non-Arctic states that have a 'constructive policy towards Russia.' Analysts rightfully presume that these states primarily include China and possibly India. However, the role of China, which demonstrated its Arctic ambitions even before the intensification of geopolitical tensions, will undoubtedly be crucial. Russia has been practically doomed to forge a close partnership with China, granting China an invaluable opportunity to engage in Arctic competition and secure influential positions in the development of Russia's Arctic shelf.