Fault-lines surface in Arctic as region turns into geopolitical hotspot

An icebreaker sailing through the Arctic waters. [Shutterstock]

As the Arctic ice melts, a new ocean with fresh trade routes and untapped natural resources opens up in Europe’s High North, leaving the region caught between cooperation and militarisation.

By as early as 2030, the Arctic Ocean could be largely ice-free in the summer, the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program of the Arctic Council estimates. And while climate change pushes the ice-shelves a little further north each year, a race to claim it is heating up too.

In 2018, a Russian vessel left Russia’s Yamal Peninsula, carrying the first India-bound shipment of LNG gas from the peninsula through Arctic waters via the Bering Strait.

At the same time, US President Trump abandoned his predecessors’ environment-oriented energy policy and opened almost all American offshore territory to oil and gas drilling –  projects in the Arctic region are planned to start this year.

Arctic nations bet on ‘blue economy’ to reconcile climate, development goals

From global warming to over- and illegal fishing, the ocean on which Arctic communities are so heavily dependent is under threat like never before, delegates heard at the Arctic conference in Tromsø, Norway.

Finland, Norway, Denmark and Canada have also proposed significant infrastructure investment within their respective Arctic zones.

For now, environmental concern and growing acceptance of the rights of the region’s indigenous population hold back the rapid development of those parts of the Arctic.

As much as 90 billion barrels of oil and 47 trillion cubic metres of natural gas lies in wait under Arctic water and ice, Chatham House estimates.

But apart from natural resources, the changing geographical value of the Arctic opens up new opportunities:

Cruise lines and cargo companies, with fuel and time saving on their minds, are eyeing the fabled North Eastern Passage, which could potentially cut the distance from East Asia to Western Europe by more than 10,000 kilometres compared to the current shipping routes through the Suez Canal.

But the commercial side is only the tip of the iceberg, experts suggest.

What belongs to whom?

Twelve years ago, a Russian-led polar expedition planted the country’s flag on the Arctic Ocean sea bed directly under the North Pole.

Under international law, Arctic states can claim an “exclusive economic zone” (EEZ) in the waters they border, up to 200 nautical miles (370 kilometres) offshore. The areas beyond the economic zones have an international legal status and are part of the world’s oceans.

Shipping giant announces trial run of Arctic sea route

Danish shipping company Maersk will this week send for the first time one of its ships along the Northern Sea Route, an Arctic shipping lane along Russia’s northern coastline that is set to become more important as climate change makes it more viable.

This means that everything is “up for grabs” as long as a country can prove to the UN that the outer zone belongs to them.

Only Norway and Iceland have made Arctic claims that have been approved by the United Nations so far. Several countries, including Russia, Denmark and Canada have overlapping claims that the United Nations has yet to rule on.

Call it a new cold war

But as Arctic states are starting to map up their territories to compete over resources, the rise of human activity raises the region’s potential as a conflict area. Recently, the US, NATO and Russia have started carrying out large scaled military exercises in Europe’s High North.

The growing military presence in the region has brought back old feelings of mistrust, Norwegian officials told EURACTIV during a conference earlier in January.

“The last years we have experienced new and upgraded Russian capabilities and increased Russian military activity in the High North,” said Tone Skogen, state secretary in the Norwegian defence ministry.

“This underlines the need also for NATO to monitor closely developments in the region, particularly in the maritime domain. The Atlantic High North, up to the North Pole, is part of NATO’s area of responsibility, and covered by Article 5,” he said.

NATO to launch exercises in Europe's north as Russia tensions grow

In late October, NATO will conduct its largest military exercises since the end of the Cold War in Europe’s North, amid growing tensions with Russia over Moscow’s development of new nuclear-ready missiles and uncertainty over the Trump administration’s commitment to transatlantic security.

Skogen pointed towards a recent government report which revealed that Moscow had simulated a mock attack with tactical bombers on Norwegian Arctic radars.

GPS jamming, which has caused concern for civil aviation in Finnmark, police and maritime services, as well as private companies in construction businesses, has taken place at least five times since 2017, coming from “military sources on the Kola Peninsula”, the Barents Observer reported.

The US plans to expand its role in the region, too. Navy warships will sail through Arctic waters in the coming months on what’s known as a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP), Washington announced.

Last year, a Russian anti-submarine aircraft flew to North America via the Arctic for the first time since the end of the Cold War. Tensions arose as the US and the UK were conducting submarine drills at the time.

Between cooperation and militarisation

“We all try to work for a situation where we have as less tension as possible in the High North, especially because there is some cooperation in the Barents Sea framework moving forward,” NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters in mid-February 2019 when asked about the alliance’s increased presence in Arctic waters.

Last October, NATO conducted its largest military exercises since the end of the Cold War in Europe’s North. Pointing to the increasing geopolitical importance of the Arctic region, experts described this as an “overdue shift of attention”.

“In recent years, Russia has boosted its military presence in the Arctic, including by re-opening Soviet-era military bases, deploying new weapons systems and radars and commissioning a new icebreaker fleet. Russia has also set up an Arctic military command. Allies are watching Russia’s Arctic build-up carefully,” a NATO official told EURACTIV.

China, on the other hand, considers itself a “near” Arctic nation without territoriality. In a White Paper detailing its Northern Sea Route plans, Beijing is pushing its way into the Arctic with ambitions to develop a ‘Polar Silk Road’.

Avoid politicising Arctic issues, expert warns

The Arctic has so far been largely conflict-free. If this ever changes, it will probably be the result of a spillover from other parts of the world, Arctic expert Svein Rottem told EURACTIV.com in an interview, in which he spoke about Arctic governance and the EU’s role in the region.

With three EU countries and two European Economic Area members being Arctic states, the EU has a strategic interest in the Arctic remaining a low-tension area, the EU’s 2016 Global Strategy stated, through cooperation on climate action, environmental research and search & rescue.

“The EU has been engaged in the Arctic for a long time, including as a de facto observer to the Arctic Council. The EU is a constructive player in the Arctic and contributes substantially in many areas, for instance in the area of climate science,” Norwegian Foreign Minister Eriksen Søreide told EURACTIV, emphasising the bloc’s soft power in the region.

The prospect of the Arctic becoming a theatre for conflict in the next few years, however, remains limited, experts say.

“If there is any conflict to meet the Arctic, it will probably spill over from other parts of the world. But I don’t think that Arctic issues as such will develop into conflict,” Svein Rottem of the Norwegian Fridtjof Nansen Institute told EURACTIV.

[Edited by Benjamin Fox/Zoran Radosavljevic]

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