Arctic nations continue militarizing the Arctic

Arctic nations continue militarizing the Arctic

Arctic nations have in recent years unveiled plans to upgrade military capabilities, allowing for operations in the harsh Arctic region. Yet while these developments affirm the increased strategic value of the Arctic, tensions in the north are unlikely to arise.

In 2007, Russia symbolically staked its claim to the waters around the North Pole by planting a Russian flag on the seabed. At the same time, the Canadian government announced plans to purchase up to 18 military vessels capable of defending Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic region. Also in 2007, the Norwegian national strategy published in the Soria Moria Declaration gave northern Norway and the Svalbard Archipelago top billing in the national defense doctrine.

Global warming has made it increasingly possible to exploit the substantial deposits of natural resources in the Arctic. Growing attention to this potential opportunity for gain has made Arctic nations – Russia, Norway, Denmark, Canada and the U.S. – more vigilant in defending their northern territories.

Most of these countries have in recent years published national strategies that signal a stronger military focus on defending and operating in territories north of the polar circle. They are, to varying degrees, upgrading military capabilities for this purpose.

Yet while the potential for conflict lingers – perhaps most visibly in the case of opposing Russian-Canadian claims to the continental shelf at the pole area – there is little to suggest tensions in the Arctic are likely to develop into a security issue.

Increased awareness of strategic importance

When Stephen Harper assumed the premiership of Canada in 2006, he wasted little time articulating a far more assertive, and according to some, aggressive, foreign policy. His ambitious “Northern Policy,” which aims to revitalize economic interests and assert Canadian sovereignty in the northern territories, has been much criticized for lacking substance and progress.

Nevertheless, Harper’s time in power has greatly raised Canadian national awareness of the strategic and economic value of its vast, sparsely-inhabited Northern territory, and has seen a growing dispute with Russia over ownership of part of the continental shelf under the North Pole.

The Arctic has historically occupied a special place in the Russian national identity. It is hard to exaggerate the region’s strategic and economic importance: a major share of Russian petroleum reserves are located within or close to Arctic latitudes, and the country stands to gain significantly from increased exploration and shipping in Arctic waters in the future.

Under Putin’s leadership, Russia has often emphasized its strong national interest in the Arctic. A day after Canada formally presented its plans to claim the disputed Arctic seabed, Putin responded by instructing the Russian military to “devote special attention to deploying infrastructure and military units in the Arctic.”

Plans for military upgrades

Russia is by far the country with the largest military capabilities in the Arctic. The Northern Fleet, its largest and most powerful, is permanently stationed in Severomonsk close to the border with Norway.

Russia has also announced its intention to create a dedicated military command for the Arctic, along with soldiers specialized in Arctic operations to be based on the neighboring Kola Peninsula. However, according to a recent study by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIRPI), all five of the Arctic littoral states have started to acquire military capabilities for Arctic operations.

Denmark has highlighted the growing geostrategic importance of the region through its continued control of Greenland and the Faroe Islands, along with its plan to create a separate Arctic command and an Arctic Response Force.

Norway has substantial fisheries and petroleum interests in its Arctic territories and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Its military strategy has traditionally been fixed on Russia, but in the last decade it has shifted to focus on conflicts of interest in the Arctic area more specifically. The majority of its military forces and installations are located north of the Arctic Circle, and the navy has been upgraded with an important focus on better operational capacity in Arctic waters.

The Arctic so far plays only a minor role in U.S. national defense policies. Nevertheless, the Pentagon is becoming aware of its growing significance for global security and in 2013 launched a National Strategy for Arctic Regions.

Cordial relations in the north

There is, however, nothing that indicates that an arms race is taking place in the polar areas. The strategic and economic importance of the Arctic has until the last decade largely been neglected by its littoral nations.

As SIPRI notes, recent developments and plans to upgrade are more about patrolling already-established sovereign territories – in case of future conflict of interests – than about projecting power. Russia’s general armament strategy under Putin has largely been interpreted as an upgrading to functional military capabilities from the catastrophic decay of the 1990s. Recent events in Crimea might, however, push analysts to rethink their analysis.

Relations in the Arctic are also characterized more by cooperation than tension. In 2010, Norway and Russia demarcated maritime boundaries in a 175,000 square-kilometer area in the Barents Sea, effectively settling a 40-year-old dispute and paving the way for increased exploration and fisheries regulation.

The two countries have for a century coexisted on the massive Svalbard Archipelago. Through participation in the Arctic Council, the regional body set up at the end of the Cold War to manage relations in the north, the members have successfully established frameworks that restrict behavior in the region.

Little chance of conflict

Despite the frequent portrayal in the media of militarization, precious little real “militarization” has so far occurred in the Arctic. Most territorial boundaries in the area have been demarcated, and the five littoral nations have so far cooperated successfully through the increasingly important Arctic Council.

The Council’s future role is, however, restricted by its prohibition on discussing security or military issues among the nations, which likely needs to change as activity and interests in the Arctic are only expected to grow in the coming decades.

Categories: International, Security

About Author

Havard Bergo

Håvard is a foreign policy analyst who works in Kampala for LPC Consult International, a consulting company that specializes on developing projects in East Africa and Mozambique. He has previously worked with the United Nations in Bangkok and as a project manager for a research project in Montreal. Håvard graduated with an MSc in International Relations from the London School of Economics (LSE).