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As the Arctic heats up, can its peace be preserved?

The US, China and Russia are engaged in a struggle over the character of a melting international order.

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On 26 March 2021 the command towers of three of Russian nuclear submarines simultaneously punched to the surface through several feet of sea ice near the Russian archipelago of Franz Josef Land in the Arctic Ocean. Meanwhile soldiers from Russia’s Arctic Motor Rifle Brigade completed a training exercise on the archipelago and MiG-31 fighter jets were flown above North Pole.

President Vladimir Putin lauded the military exercises, known as the Umka-2021 drills, as an unprecedented “integrated Arctic expedition” – and ensured the world could witness the spectacle via a video released by the Russian Ministry of Defence. Furthermore, recent satellite images reveal how Russia has been amassing military might in the circumpolar region, from refitting old Cold War bases, airfields and radar facilities to modernising Soviet-era infrastructure including ports and railway lines. Billions of roubles have flowed into stealth jets, strategic bombers and a huge fleet of 50 icebreakers, and Russia regularly tests novel high-tech weapons, from hypersonic cruise missiles to nuclear strategic torpedoes. 

While this sabre-rattling needs not be seen as the prelude to an inevitable conflict, it has unsettled the Euro-Atlantic community – especially since it takes place against a background of collapse in the international arms control regime. Under Putin and Trump, three major non-proliferation treaties – the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the 1990 Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty, and the 1992 Open Skies Treaty – have unravelled. Only the former US president Barack Obama’s New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, 2010) remains, having been extended by five years in February. And that was before US-Russian relations soured again.

Norway is particularly spooked. A direct neighbour of Russia in the European Arctic, the nation has long cultivated good relations with the Kremlin on issues such as the management of Barents Sea fisheries, coast guard cooperation and the administration of Svalbard and its surrounding shelf. Since Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, however, Oslo’s defence ties with Moscow have largely been cut, and Norway has watched with concern as Russian naval exercises inch closer to Nato waters. 

Today, Norway is planning the biggest joint military winter exercise inside the Arctic Circle since the 1980s – Cold Response 2022 – involving Nato allies and Nordic neighbours. Nato sent its own signal to Moscow on 31 May with an exercise that was part of operation Allied Sky, in which nearly 100 aircraft from 22 member states flew over all the North Atlantic alliance countries in the course of 12 hours. 

The Kremlin quickly condemned the Nato operation as provocative. It also expressed strong disapproval of what it considers the organisation's encroachment on the Arctic at Norway’s behest. As the Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov stressed in May, justifying Russia’s own build-up in its far north, “This is our land and our waters.”

But Russian Arctic policy is also more complex than it seems. On the one hand, Moscow is pursuing unilateral power projection. On the other, the Kremlin remains committed to cooperative regional engagement, as its immediate Arctic neighbours Norway and Finland readily attest to. 

How far can the Arctic's governance regime survive the broader challenges posed by global warming and the political competition between China, Russia and US?

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Since the end of the Cold War, the Arctic has largely been a model space for international governance – an arena of peace and collaboration among the regional stakeholder states. On the Arctic Council, Russia, America, Canada and the Nordic countries have worked together as eight equal partners in all the areas of “soft” power, from culture to ecology. And they have managed to prevent global dynamics and external crises such as Georgia, Ukraine and Crimea from encroaching on their region’s affairs. But the climate emergency is changing that dynamic.

 

 

 

As the sea ice melts and the continental permafrost thaws inside the Arctic circle with unprecedented speed, sea lanes are opening up, fuelling a rush for resources. Russia has taken the lead: it is sovereign over more than half of all Arctic lands. And it is pushing the region’s development with mineral and fossil fuel extraction and novel infrastructure projects on its northern shores. The resulting buzz has drawn more geographically remote actors into the game, from France to Singapore and, most importantly, China. 

These developments, which have dramatically swelled the ranks of observer states on the Arctic Council, have also unsettled the regional power balance. Tensions over control of the Arctic region are rising. The Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg has rightly identified climate change as a “crisis multiplier”.

Take, for example, the so-called Northern Sea Route – now increasingly accessible, thanks to the shrinking and thinning of sea-ice. Russia insists that this is an “historically shaped national transportation corridor”, giving it exclusive rights to develop the area, patrol ships and safeguard the marine environment. The US and others (including China), however, have rejected this view. Pointing to the UN Convention of the Laws of the Seas regime, they consider Arctic sea lanes to be international transit routes and “common domains” that should be kept “open and free”. 

In order to realise its Arctic grand designs the Kremlin – shackled by Western sanctions – has turned to China for money and markets. Yet, although the Russians and Chinese appear at times to be working together, in reality they are pursuing quite different objectives. Russia is using the region as a means of restoring its historical “great powerness”. China, by contrast, seeks to break into the region and recalibrate the mechanisms of governance in the Arctic space, announcing itself a “near-Arctic state” in 2018 and this year including the “Polar Silk Road” and the Arctic for the first time in its domestic five-year plan for 2021-25.

At the core of China’s Arctic effort is an attempt to push the US off its post-Cold War pedestal as the self-styled “unipole” and, in President Xi Jinping’s words, to secure recognition as a leading global power on an equal footing.

The new Biden administration has made a strategic choice to confront Xi’s powerhouse. During the testy Sino-American summit held in Anchorage, Alaska, on 19 March, the secretary of state Antony Blinken spelled out his “deep concern” about Beijing’s violations of common and universal principles through oppression and coercion (especially in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan). In response Yang Jiechi, China’s top foreign policy official, lambasted the US for a full 16-minutes, accusing Washington of being an imperial power that was weak on human rights and racism at home.

The ferocity of the public exchange was extraordinary; the views expressed were not. China has increasingly been stating that US democracy (with its policy of exporting liberal values) is flawed, and Beijing now openly repudiates what it describes as the “so-called rules-based international order”.  

The US and China (and to a lesser extent Russia) are thus engaged in a struggle over the character and rules of the global system. This is ultimately a contest of norms, narratives and legitimacy, revolving around ideas and practices that have governed international politics since 1945.

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So what next for the Arctic? 

China’s increased power to force changes in existing regional and global governance regimes has recently started to generate a backlash, especially among the smaller Arctic states. Greenland, Denmark, Iceland and Finland have all rejected Beijing’s proposed infrastructure and development projects in the circumpolar region on the grounds that they pose a threat to national and regional interests. Yet it is unlikely that these ructions will deter China from continuing to increase its foothold in the Arctic. 

Similarly, after a period of prevarication in the 2010s, Nato has recently begun to respond to Russia’s military build-up. In February the US Army carried out a training programme called “Arctic Warrior”, a return to Cold War-style exercises, to develop skills in cold weather warfare, and the US Air Force deployed B-1B Lancer bombers to north Norway for the first time for training purposes. Denmark has announced an extra $245m in defence spending, to improve surveillance capabilities in Greenland and air radar in the Faroe Islands. 

The Kremlin, meanwhile, has expressed strong disapproval of this “stepped-up activity of Nato member contingents”, above all from “non-Arctic countries", such as Britain. With non-Nato members Finland and Sweden broadly aligned with the Alliance, the eight circumpolar states have found themselves awkwardly polarised: it’s Russia vs everyone else.

This is an especially unfortunate state of affairs in light of Moscow’s recent commencement of its two-year stint as chairman of the Arctic Council 2021-23. At the Reykjavík meeting on 20 May, Lavrov proclaimed Russia’s desire to “keep up the ‘spirit of cooperation’” and “to strengthen constructive interaction between all member-states”. He also lobbied hard for a regional summit, while pressing for the resumption of the chiefs of staff meetings (suspended in 2014 over Russia’s annexation of Crimea). But it remains to be seen whether this is a tactic to reduce the constraints imposed on Russia after 2014, or part of a genuine strategy to secure the peace in Arctic and save the environment.

There is thus deep uncertainty about how to move forward. Nato under Stoltenberg is working on the implementation of its novel Nato 2030 strategy, which will be core to the Nato summit on 14 June. Here the Allies, too, will ponder their approach to the High North. How to confront the Russian bid for military dominance in the polar arena? How to manage the emergence of China as a power with Arctic ambitions? And how, simultaneously, to forge the intensive cooperation needed to mitigate Arctic environmental degradation and preserve peace?

The task for the Biden administration, as it, together with its Nato Allies and Nordic friends, seeks to confront the melting (Arctic) international order is two-fold: to manage engagement with Russia as a key regional player, and to pursue a containment strategy with China. How far fruitful relations among the Big Three can be fostered is an open question, but Blinken has coined a neat aphorism about Washington’s relationship with Beijing: “competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, and adversarial when it must be”. Making that work will require some nifty diplomacy – and a lot of luck.

[See also: The return of the West: can the G7 nations rebuild a global alliance?]

Kristina Spohr is Professor of International History at the London School of Economics and most recently, co-editor of The Arctic and World Order.