By Cmdr. Rachael Gosnell, U.S. Navy, and Dr. Katrin Bastian, Marshall Center professor
The European High North is poised to become an increasingly strategic region that has the potential to alter future global geopolitical dynamics. The region, commonly considered to be north of the Arctic Circle (approximately 66 degrees 33 minutes north), was becoming a global hot spot long before Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. Over the past decade, interest in the economically rich and environmentally fragile region has grown significantly as a warming climate opens new maritime corridors. The region’s geopolitical, technological, economic and environmental developments are attracting interest from not only the eight Arctic nations — Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States — but from other actors such as China, India and Japan. Indeed, the Arctic Council includes 13 European and Asian non-Arctic observer states. Many nations — particularly Germany — have developed robust research programs in the Arctic to better understand the impact of climate change, but other nations — namely China — have pursued aggressive Arctic programs in the name of national interests.
During the fall of 2022, the Marshall Center hosted two important events that brought together international experts on the European High North and broader Arctic region to discuss emerging security trends. The first, the European Security Seminar-North, was co-hosted by the Marshall Center and the newest U.S. Department of Defense Regional Center, the Ted C. Stevens Center for Arctic Security Studies. It included more than 50 senior policymakers, security practitioners and academics from 15 nations. The event focused on the implications of the Ukraine conflict on the European High North and Baltic Sea regions, where increased securitization and rising tensions have negatively impacted regional stability. The second event, the Marshall Center’s Strategic Competition Seminar Series, explored the nature of the functional axis that exists between Russia and China, while also considering Russia’s evolving risk calculus. The event brought together more than 40 experts who sought to enhance the understanding of strategic competition while advancing strategic relations. In particular, the event focused on the China-Russia relationship extending into the High North. This included the significant implications of the strengthening Sino-Russian cooperation in the Arctic.
A Brief History
The Arctic is a complex region at the crossroads of evolving geopolitical, economic, climate and security trends. The High North has a disproportionate impact on global security because of its economic potential and strategic location connecting North America, Europe and Asia. Though the Arctic has emerged as a region of exceptional cooperation in recent decades — giving rise to the term “Arctic exceptionalism” — it must be remembered that the region has experienced periods of conflict throughout its history. That history is long and rich; Indigenous peoples have inhabited the region for close to 20,000 years, and the first European Arctic exploration dates to the Greek explorer Pytheas, who may have reached Iceland as early as 325 B.C.
Maritime corridors have long been sought to connect global trading centers, and as early as 1525, Russian diplomat Dmitry Gerasimov suggested a northern passage existed with the potential to connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Peter the Great later sponsored numerous expeditions to find that route. Indeed, economic interests led to the signing of the Spitsbergen Treaty (later known as the Svalbard Treaty) in the 1920s and later guided the opening of the Northern Sea Route to Soviet vessels in the 1930s. The ability to connect and resupply the northern communities of the Soviet Union was a driving factor in the initial establishment of the Northern Sea Route, though military bases would soon be established throughout the region to protect the Soviet Union’s northern border.
The Arctic was obviously of great geostrategic importance during the Cold War. The region played an important role in nuclear deterrence and nuclear strike capabilities, though the superpowers were predominantly concerned with the air and underwater domains. The threat of nuclear strikes gave rise to the Cold War race for Arctic air and maritime superiority. Yet the region sustained some cooperation on scientific matters — such as polar bear studies — even during the height of the Cold War.
The long-standing cooperation in the Arctic that emerged during the post-Soviet peace-dividend years can be traced to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his 1987 “zone of peace” speech in Murmansk. Although Gorbachev’s goal of eliminating nuclear weapons in the Arctic was never realized, some of his other proposals — such as opening the Northern Sea Route to international vessels and increasing scientific cooperation — became reality and initiated years of peaceful cooperation that gave rise to the adage “High North, low tension.” The multilateral Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy was signed in 1991 and established a cooperative framework that led to the 1996 Ottawa Declaration, founding the Arctic Council. The Arctic Council has been the premier regional governance mechanism, bringing together the Arctic states and representatives of Indigenous communities to discuss regional matters. The inclusion of 13 non-Arctic observer states lends an international perspective, though the privilege to vote on Arctic matters is not included with observer status. Under the Arctic Council and other important regional organizations, the Arctic has experienced significant cooperation. The Council has predominantly focused on the region’s unique challenges, such as the fragile ecosystem, rapidly evolving climate, sustainable economic development and the challenges unique to native communities. With its mandate specifically prohibiting the discussion of security matters, the council achieved enhanced dialogue and cooperation despite geopolitical trends elsewhere.
The Arctic reflected, to a certain degree, the exceptionalism that kept it somewhat immune to other regional challenges. But that cooperation began to fray with the planting of the Russian flag beneath the North Pole in 2007. By 2011, Russian President Vladimir Putin was advocating that the Northern Sea Route would rival the Suez Canal, and by 2013 Russia had developed a robust Arctic zone strategy, which was updated in 2020. For Russia, the strategy reflects both domestic and international policies. It must be noted that Russia has more than 24,000 kilometers of coastline in the Arctic — just about half of the entire Arctic coastline — and about 2.5 million inhabitants in the region, according to the Arctic Council. The Arctic is of critical importance to Russia’s economic and security interests. Russia’s Arctic zone accounts for 12%-15% of its GDP and 20% of its exports. About 75% of Russia’s oil and 95% of its natural gas reserves are in the North, making the region of immense significance, particularly as climate change makes it increasingly accessible (though climate change will present challenges associated with coastal erosion, permafrost thaw and damaged infrastructure). Russia has invested heavily in its Northern Fleet and regional infrastructure as its northern border becomes increasingly accessible.
Indeed, Russia’s 2022 Maritime Doctrine emphasized the importance of the Arctic zone to the nation’s military, economic, political and environmental security. It also considers the region notable for its contributions to Russian history and culture. This was confirmed by the Maritime Doctrine, which warns against “efforts by a number of states to weaken Russian Federation control over the Northern Sea Route, a buildup of foreign naval presence in the Arctic, and an increase in conflict potential in this region.” Its expansive Arctic policy highlights the growing importance of the region to the Russian Federation, yet it is unlikely that Russia has the economic or technological capabilities to fully develop this critical area. Russia relied heavily on Western economic investment for oil and gas ventures before its 2014 annexation of Crimea. Now, it is increasingly turning to non-Western states to fill the void.
As Russia has embarked on a more aggressive foreign policy, cooperation in the Arctic has experienced a chilling pause. The illegal annexation of Crimea brought significant Western economic cooperation and military dialogue to a halt. However, scientific cooperation and work within the Arctic Council framework continued. Russian contributions to scientific research into climate change and the fragile Arctic ecosystem were vital to international efforts. From September 2019 to October 2020, the MOSAiC polar expedition, led by the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research, brought together more than 500 scientists from 20 nations (representing 37 nationalities) to study the effects of climate change in the central Arctic Ocean. The research relied on seven icebreakers and research vessels — including four Russian icebreakers — and would not have been realized without Russian collaboration.
Yet with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the international community — predominantly the West — has been forced to freeze Russia out of regional cooperation. This will be a long-term challenge because Russia cannot be completely frozen out of Arctic governance due to the size of its Arctic territory, and its scientific research and economic interests.
Ukraine and the Arctic
The world is now at an inflection point. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has altered global dynamics and this will continue to be felt acutely in the Arctic region. The world remains rightly focused on the ongoing war in Ukraine and the geopolitical implications of one of the most significant kinetic conflicts since World War II. But the changing dynamics of the Arctic should continue to demand attention to ensure that regional stability and security endure.
The war in Ukraine has had a profoundly negative impact on the Arctic’s governance, scientific collaboration, indigenous challenges, economic activity, scientific research and maritime transport. Shipping numbers along the Northern Sea Route are greatly diminished, with no international companies willing to risk sending valuable cargo along the route in 2022. The only non-Russian flagged vessels on the route were liquified natural-gas carriers transporting the valuable resource for the Russia-based company Novatek. Even China’s COSCO shipping company, which has consistently sent ships through for the past decade — including 26 voyages in 2021 — has stayed away, according to High North News. Russia’s unpredictability is simply bad for business — and Western sanctions have made the consequences of cooperating with Russian companies even more acute.
Unquestionably, the Arctic region is witnessing a rise in tensions. Perhaps the most notable strategic implication of Putin’s war was the near-immediate request for membership into NATO from two Arctic states that have long maintained neutrality: Finland and Sweden. Although NATO partners for years, the inclusion of these nations as full members will significantly alter the region’s dynamics. With seven of the eight Arctic nations aligned under the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty and, as the treaty states, “determined to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilisation of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law,” there is an emergence of like-minded democratic states committed to collective defense. This new “Arctic 7” will have a unique ability to shape regional dynamics in the military, environmental and economic spheres.
Notably, the addition of Finland and Sweden into the Alliance will shift NATO’s center of gravity northward. Russia’s risk calculus will be altered significantly as the Baltic Sea transforms into a NATO lake — with significant improvement in the Alliance’s ability to deter and defend against Russian aggression. A new NATO land and air bridge will link the Baltic Sea to the North Atlantic and Arctic, merging what was previously considered separate theaters into a single strategic space.
NATO in the Arctic
NATO and Russia will need to adapt to the new realities created by an expanded Alliance. Finland’s accession creates a 1,340-kilometer NATO-Russia border, which will affect military planning. Russia will be particularly concerned about the proximity of Alliance territory to its strategic bases in the Kola Peninsula, home to Russia’s most advanced fleet. The Northern Fleet is viewed as a critical enabler to Russia’s national security, nuclear deterrence, power projection and Arctic dominance capabilities. In January 2020, Putin elevated the status of the Northern Fleet to that of a military district — the only Russian fleet to attain such a status — in recognition of its important strategic role.
Indeed, the “High North, low tension” adage is rapidly transitioning to “High North, high tension.” Russia will seek to compensate for the overall degradation of its conventional military power stemming from its devastating military losses in Ukraine. This will result in an increased likelihood of tensions and suspicions from the emerging security dilemma dynamics, which could lead to an inadvertent conflict in the short term. However, in the longer term a strong, coherent NATO in the High North is likely to enhance the overall deterrence effect and reduce the risk of escalation. Indeed, a mitigation of the security dilemma dynamics can be achieved if aggression is perceived to have less of an advantage. Such dynamics may set a course for eventual collaboration with Russia on areas deemed to be mutually beneficial. NATO’s strategic thinking must consider these factors when balancing the need for enhanced security cooperation and development in the region with the mechanisms to reduce tensions and deconflict with Russia.
EU in the Arctic
During Finland’s presidency of the Council of the European Union in 2019, Prime Minister Antti Rinne called for “more EU in the Arctic and more Arctic in the EU.” The Council requested the EU Commission update the 2016 Joint Communication on the EU’s policy toward the Arctic. The resulting strategy was adopted in October 2021 and reiterates the original three pillars of the EU’s 2016 agenda for the High North: (1) climate change mitigation and safeguarding the Arctic environment; (2) sustainable development in and around the Arctic; and (3) international cooperation on Arctic issues. The new strategy adds two important elements: the push for a multilateral agreement banning the development of new oil and gas reserves in the Arctic; and the establishment of a permanent EU office in Nuuk, Greenland.
Given that three of the eight Arctic Council states are EU member states (Denmark, Finland and Sweden), and that two others (Iceland and Norway) are members of the European Economic Area, which adheres to the majority of the rules and regulations of the EU’s internal market, the EU’s profile in the region is bolder than often thought. The EU’s presence can be summarized in four aspects:
- The EU is a legislator in the Arctic. For example, all five European Arctic states are subject to the EU’s internal policies on climate change and environmental protection.
- The EU is a financial contributor, especially in polar research. Over 200 million euros have been spent on the EU’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation funding program. A central plank of the EU’s Arctic research efforts is the EU-PolarNet initiative, which supports an EU-wide consortium of expertise and infrastructure for polar research. At least 22 research institutions across the EU are working under this umbrella.
- The EU is a central actor in international climate change policies; it has committed to reducing its total greenhouse gas emissions by 55% by 2030 compared with 1990 levels, and to achieve climate neutrality by 2050.
- The EU is the Arctic region’s most important trading and economic partner. Among the major industrialized regions of the world, the EU is closest to the Arctic.
Taking all four aspects together, it is very likely that EU policies will have a significant impact on the Arctic region over time by combining the global shift toward green technology with financial resources and scientific know-how. One such example is the European Green Deal. If confrontation with Russia persists, the divide in the Arctic will increase, not only politically, but also socially and economically.
China has long maintained an interest in the Arctic region. In 1925, the Republic of China took its first significant step in the Arctic by signing the Spitsbergen Treaty. China’s scientific expeditions in the Arctic began in 1999 and include the founding of the Yellow River research station on Svalbard in 2004 and the completion of its 12th Arctic scientific expedition in 2021, with the successful deployment of its indigenously constructed icebreaker, the Xuelong 2. China released the country’s first Arctic Policy in January 2018, underscoring its interests and goals and calling itself a “near-Arctic” state. Meanwhile, Russia has increasingly relied on Chinese technology and economic investment to further its own ambitions in the Arctic. For example, China has made a significant investment in a joint gas project with Novatek known as Yamal LNG, which was completed in 2017. Encouraged by this cooperation, China decided to partner with Novatek again for a more ambitious project called Arctic LNG 2. In this endeavor, Chinese companies are doing more than just investing money. They are also involved in the prefabrication of components at Chinese yards, including BOMESC Offshore Engineering, COSCO Shipping Heavy Industry, Penglai Jutal Offshore Engineering, Wison and Qingdao McDermott Wuchuan. The components are shipped to a yard outside Murmansk for assembly. The completed modules are then towed to the Arctic LNG 2 site on the Gydan Peninsula for installation.
China is in a potentially unique position to capitalize on Western sanctions against Russia by filling technological and economic investment gaps to increase its influence in the Arctic. However, in the aftermath of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, followed by the EU’s adoption of serious sanctions, China’s leadership has been cautious not to circumvent the EU’s measures and decided in May 2022 to halt the fabrication of LNG 2 components. In September 2022, many of the Chinese manufactured parts were sitting on Chinese docks, thereby risking considerable delay of the project. By mid-December that year, a Novatek project director expressed confidence that Arctic LNG 2 would meet the planned timeline of a 2026 completion. Further, there remains an opportunity to strengthen the development of China’s Polar Silk Road project, though sanctions and the inaccessibility of Western insurance on Russian cargoes will complicate the expansion of maritime traffic in the region, as will the perceived unpredictability of the Russian regime.
In return for economic investment, China will likely seek to receive significant quantities of natural resources and look for ways to improve its scientific research in the area. China will continue to propel its “global commons” approach to the Arctic, though this is contrary to Russia’s approach. Indeed, China is likely using its current relationship with Russia to establish itself in the region and to build sufficient knowledge and infrastructure to enable the use of the Transpolar Sea Route, across the international waters of the Arctic Ocean, when it opens, possibly around the middle of this century. China will further seek to exploit Russia’s natural resources as it strives to provide energy and protein to its population. However, China’s cooperation with Russia will be mindful of any perceived damage to its own global economic interests, as China will prioritize its economic well-being over that of Russia’s.
In an effort to counterbalance its growing dependency on China, a wary Russia is likely to continue attempts to court other non-Western nations to the region. It must be remembered that in 2007, Russia adamantly opposed China’s accession to observer status on the Arctic Council (although it removed those objections in 2013) and there likely remains a persistent wariness over China’s intentions. In particular, Russia has welcomed interest from India, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and the United Arab Emirates. States that are hesitant to adhere to the sanctions will be particularly sought after by Russian companies in order to fund development projects. Western nations must be mindful of the creation of two Arctics — one a unified region with collaboration and governance mechanisms of the like-minded Arctic 7 states, and the other developed by Russia and non-Western partners that seek to exploit the region’s economic potential.
An Uncertain Future
The Arctic is a unique region, with significant governance and cooperative mechanisms to address the numerous challenges of a rapidly evolving region. Climate change and economic development are affecting the Arctic at an unprecedented pace, and the Arctic will continue to emerge as a geopolitical hot spot. Without a doubt, Russia’s actions are damaging short-term Arctic stability and security. Mutually beneficial cooperation has halted in areas such as climate change, economic development, crisis response and military deconfliction, enabling China and other nations to gain leverage in the Arctic in a manner that may negatively affect the fragile environment, Indigenous communities and regional security.
In the long term, Russia will continue to be an essential Arctic stakeholder, with the largest Arctic territory and population. The West should be mindful of the regional impact given worsening relations with Russia in the Arctic. While it was essential to halt cooperation given the gravity of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it remains necessary to understand the implications on the fragile Arctic region and to proceed thoughtfully. Increased regional activity in the Arctic — particularly NATO activity — and the melting of ice that protects Russia’s northern border will further fuel its paranoia toward regional security. Yet, at a time when tensions are rising, the West lacks some of the mitigation and tension-easing measures previously available.
Collaboration should continue to occur within the framework of the Arctic Council, though experts must be realistic that far less can be achieved given Russia’s hostile actions. Until talks can resume freely among all Arctic nations — dependent upon an eventual Russian withdrawal in Ukraine — the Arctic 7 should continue extensive dialogue and cooperation in the region.
Finally, the presence of a strong, unified NATO in the region can enhance regional stability through deterrence. Yet, it is critical that actions are clearly communicated and understood by all sides, with exercises and operations carefully planned to avoid Russian misunderstanding, particularly given the longer border with Finland’s accession and the proximity of NATO forces to the strategically vital Kola Peninsula. Western policymakers and militaries must seek to understand regional tensions and sensitivities and work to avoid climbing the escalation ladder through inadvertent actions or misperceptions. The long-term vision for the Arctic should be maintaining a stable, inclusive and peaceful region, but it will require significant effort by all Arctic states to achieve this.
The authors wish to thank the Marshall Center, the Ted Stevens Center and the participants in their events for the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the challenges and opportunities in the High North.
The views expressed are the authors’ alone and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the U.S. Department of the Navy or U.S. Department of Defense, or of the Marshall Center or the Ted Stevens Center.