On Friday, NATO General Jens Stoltenberg stated that climate change is making the High North, or Arctic region, more appealing militarily and financially to the alliance. He also stressed that the coalition considers the Far North “strategically important for Euro-Atlantic security.”
Stoltenberg also wrote for the Canadian newspaper “The Globe and Mail” on Thursday that Russia and China’s cooperation in the Arctic posed a strategic challenge to the alliance’s values and interests, adding that Moscow “has significantly increased its military activity in recent years” in the region. China is also expanding its presence in the area, declaring itself a “near-Arctic state” and planning to build a “Polar Silk Road” connecting it to Europe via the Arctic, according to the secretary general.
The Russian interest in the Arctic
The High North or the Far North has become a field of fierce competition between the Arctic, sub-Arctic and non-regional powers. The “hard” and “soft” power tools are being used. Since 2008, the NATO bloc has significantly expanded its activities in the Far North; a series of exercises have been held under its auspices. But several NATO countries have their own ambitions and claims to this region, which led to conflicts between the United States and Canada, Denmark and Canada, Denmark and Norway on specific issues of Arctic policy (determination of zones of economic influence, division of the continental shelf, etc.).
Russian policy in the Arctic is focused on the extraction of fossil fuels and is becoming increasingly militarized. This forces the Nordic countries, together with the US and NATO, to increase their military presence in the region, which is increasingly attracting China with its ambitious geostrategic plans. Climate change inspires both hopes for increased use of the Northern Sea Route and fears that, at least theoretically, it will make the Russian coast of the Arctic Ocean less protected. But at the same time, the melting of the polar ice is expanding the operational capabilities of the Russian military, which worries the NATO countries.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu previously said that the official participation of Helsinki and Stockholm in NATO and the possible provision of these states’ territory for the deployment of offensive weapons would change security conditions in the Baltic region and the Arctic, necessitating a revision of approaches to Russian territorial defence. Stoltenberg echoes this in his article, stating that “seven of the eight Arctic nations will be NATO members” if Sweden and Finland join NATO. Five countries on the Arctic coast, Canada, Denmark (Greenland), Iceland, Norway and the United States, are members of NATO, which Russia considers its geopolitical adversary.
Russia is taking advantage of the indecisiveness of its Arctic rivals; the objective importance of this region for Moscow is reflected in the fact that Russia began to pay close attention to the Arctic much earlier than other countries. Over the past few years, attention to the Arctic has increased and is reflected in published materials, ranging from official documents to newspaper articles and analytical publications. Russian experts, expressing their point of view regarding the Arctic, often both accept and challenge the position of the West. Then there is a bipolar rivalry between the US and Russia in the Arctic.
The Arctic is extremely rich in minerals: researchers estimate that there are about 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil reserves. The Arctic zone also contains deposits of natural gas, nickel ores, rare metals, gold, diamonds, tungsten, mercury and other minerals. In the Russian Arctic, a significant part of the country’s fossil resources is already being mined.
The Chinese Interest in the Arctic
China is increasingly openly demonstrating its desire to expand its presence in the Arctic. At the same time, Beijing is interested in opportunities to invest in mining in the Far North of Russia and use the route along the Russian coast as a kind of Arctic Silk Road and military options. Parts of the Chinese fleet could be transferred along this route from the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic, and deploying Chinese submarines in the Arctic Ocean would reduce the theoretical time for ballistic missiles to reach US territory.
Russian and Chinese Arctic interests
Earlier this year, Beijing and Moscow pledged to increase practical cooperation in the Arctic as part of a deepening strategic partnership that challenges NATO values and interests, wrote Stoltenberg.
Neither Russia nor China will want to play the role of a junior partner in the Arctic, and the construction of Chinese icebreakers, including nuclear ones, is interpreted as proof that “Beijing will remain a difficult and autonomy-oriented partner” for Russia.
Ice ceases to be a natural shield
“Eternal ice” has long served as a natural shield for Russia’s 24,000-kilometer-long northern maritime borders. The situation is rapidly changing now, as the Arctic is warming three times faster than the rest of the world.
Russia’s northern border from the Kola Peninsula in the Barents Sea to the Chukchi Sea was unimportant for many centuries. But now, she fears that she will become vulnerable along these newly accessible sea routes, that there will be open flanks and convenient places for potential enemies to invade. Warships could theoretically attack from the east, via the Bering Strait, or from the West, via Greenland and Norway.
Strengthening northern border defences is in Russia’s legitimate interest. At the same time, Moscow has used this process in recent years to broaden its sphere of military influence in the Arctic as a whole. After all, melting ice exposes the sea borders of neighbouring countries Over time, the United States faces the growing threat of Russian conventional and nuclear weapons systems in the Arctic.
A new sea route is up for rivalry
Both parties are keen on the establishment of new trade and shipping routes. Russia is interested in the Northern Sea Route, which connects China and Europe and runs along the Russian Arctic coast from the Kara Sea to the Bering Strait. Canada and the US are interested in the Northwest Passage, which runs along the northern coast of North America via waterways through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago to Europe.