The Geopolitics of the Arctic

There are many regions in the world which have ongoing territorial disputes between various countries. Some areas have been fought over for centuries, whether due to population, resources, or strategic significance. Some of these disputes are relatively recent, thanks to changing political situations and border revisions.

One region, however, is unexpectedly home to a number of modern disputes and disagreements. And because of ongoing changes in the global climate, we can expect this area to be of increasing importance as we progress further into the 21st century. This region is the Arctic, the northern expanse of ice capping the earth. This article will outline the complexity and importance of the territorial disputes in the Arctic, and look at what we can expect to see happen there in the coming decades.

Map of Arctic waters, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Map of Arctic waters, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


At the northernmost point of Earth we find the Arctic, a region measuring roughly 14.5 million square km (5.5 million square miles) – almost the same size as the southern polar region of Antarctica. But unlike Antarctica, which remained unexplored until relatively recently, the northern Arctic lands and seas have been inhabited by various peoples for around 20,000 years. The Arctic is named for the north polar constellation Arktos, which is Greek for “bear.”

It is surprisingly unclear what exactly constitutes the Arctic. While most organisations and governments define the Arctic as anything within the Arctic Circle, others have defined it as the region where the average temperature for the warmest month (July) is below 10 °C (50 °F). For the purposes of this article, however, I will refer to anything within the Arctic Circle as the Arctic.

The Arctic is home to a host of indigenous species, but some of these are threatened due to global climate change and a decline in the volume of Arctic Sea ice. For example, the Polar Bear, perhaps the most iconic Arctic animal, is under increasing threat due to habitat loss and pollution from shipping and oil and gas exploration. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the polar bear is important as an indicator of Arctic ecosystem health, and is not alone when it comes to its future being under threat. Many other species will be at risk during the 21st century. Global climate change, and the resulting decline in polar sea ice, is the biggest single force driving geopolitical change in the Arctic.

Arctic Sea Ice decline, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Arctic Sea Ice decline, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Geopolitics in the Arctic

In July 2007, the Russian Arktika scientific expedition left St. Petersburg and sailed toward the Arctic ice through the Baltic Sea, past the Nordic nations of Sweden, Denmark and Norway. The expedition paused at the northern Russian port of Murmansk before continuing on to the North pole, accompanied by an ice breaker and equipped with two military helicopters. Once there, a small crew piloted a submersible vessel and descended over four thousand metres to the Arctic seabed. Following this, a Russian flag made of titanium was planted into the Arctic sea floor, and images of this soon spread around the world. Almost from nowhere, Russia had seemingly a made a grand gesture of sovereignty over the Arctic and North Pole.

Immediately, the international community, especially those states with their own Arctic territorial claims, expressed concern at what the planting of the flag might mean for the geopolitics of the Arctic. Former Canadian Foreign Minister Peter MacKay went as far as to say: “This isn’t the 15th century. You can’t go around the world and just plant flags and say ‘We’re claiming this territory’.”

In response to these claims, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated: “The aim of this expedition is not to stake Russia’s claim but to show that our shelf reaches to the North Pole.” While this may initially appear to brush off any kind of official territorial claim over the Arctic, the mention of the Russian continental shelf has strong implications for the politics of the North Pole. Russian government officials later said that they hoped any territorial claims in the Arctic can be resolved through existing maritime laws, such as the International Convention on the Law of the Sea. This is a key point, however, as under this law, Russia can extend its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) up to 650 kilometres from its coastline if it can prove that the continental shelf extends beyond that point. Through this EEZ, Russia would have the right to exploit any natural resources that exist beneath the Arctic seabed.

The Arctic is a region extremely rich in hydrocarbon and mineral resources. According to a 2008 US Geological Survey, there may be up to 90 billion barrels of oil, 47 trillion cubic metres of natural gas and 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids within the Arctic Circle. It is estimated that up to 22% of the world’s undiscovered hydrocarbon resources lie beneath the Arctic seabed. While previously it was entirely impractical to access these resources, global warming, resulting in a receding level of Arctic ice, has led to a renewed interest in these resources from governments and multinational corporations. Currently, low energy prices mean that it may be some time before these resources become financially feasible to extract, but if prices increase, there is certain to be a revival in interest. Environmental concerns also linger over the exploitation of Arctic hydrocarbon resources, but this barrier will likely prove surmountable if there is enough money at stake.

While it may be many years before we see a permanent presence in the Arctic from energy companies, there are other opportunities presenting themselves due to the receding level of Arctic Ice. As the global climate changes, and the polar sea ice decreases in size, there is the potential for new shipping routes to become active during the warmer summer months.

Northern Sea routes, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Northern Sea routes, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Looking West

The Northwest Passage, a sea route which connects the northern Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, was previously inaccessible to regular marine shipping. However, since 2009, the decline in Arctic sea ice in northern Canada has made these northern shipping routes more navigable and potentially viable for a larger amount of cargo shipping. The Northwest passage, passing through the labyrinth of islands and ice of northern Canada, appears to be a part of Canada’s internal waterways, especially from a traditional legal perspective. However, due to the geopolitical importance of such a shipping lane, the United States and many European countries believe that the Northwest passage must be designated as an international strait, and should therefore not fall under the direct sovereignty of the Canadian government. This would result in all shipping being able to pass through the Northwest Passage freely. If Canada had more geopolitical influence, it might be able to dispute these claims, but due to its relatively small population and reliance on other countries for trade, it is likely that the Northwest Passage will eventually be designated as an international strait. For the time being, there will remain a disagreement between the interested parties of the exact status of the Northwest Passage.

The Northwest Passage could be an extremely useful tool for large vessels that are unable to pass through the relatively small Panama Canal. Additionally, the journey through the northern straits, depending on the destination, could be much shorter than going south through the Central American canal, therefore saving a lot of money in fuel. If the Northwest Passage’s deep waters become completely ice-free in the summer months, they would be enticing for supertankers that are too big to pass through the Panama Canal and must otherwise navigate around the tip of South America.

Looking East

The Northeast Passage is another Arctic shipping route, connecting the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans through the waters north of Russia and Norway. Due to the harsh environmental conditions in the Arctic waters north of Russia, the Northeast Passage has historically received very little activity, and was only used as a shipping route when the Soviet regime subsidised Arctic shipping. Following the collapse of the USSR, however, this northern shipping lane was largely unused.

Since the early 2000s, the decline in the level of Arctic sea ice has made the Northeast Passage a more viable shipping route. In fact, unlike in Canada, parts of the Northeast Passage are now ice-free year-round, making the journey along Russia’s northern coast much more viable. While cargo shipping via this northern route is still a relatively inactive shipping route in comparison to the Malacca Strait or the Suez Canal, there is significant potential for growth moving forward. The Russian government has invested a lot of money into its Arctic fleet in recent years, and has begun to redevelop some of the ports and lighthouses which exist on its northern coastline. Furthermore, in simple shipping costs, especially for Asian exporters transporting their goods to Europe, the Northeast Passage could mean a dramatic cost saving in fuel. For example, a ship leaving Shanghai and sailing to Rotterdam (the busiest cargo port in Europe) would shorten its journey by almost 25% when using the Northeast Passage as an alternative to the Suez Canal.

While the opportunities presented by both the Northwest and Northeast Passages are tremendous, it is unlikely that they will become busy shipping lanes in the short term (5-15 years). The economic viability of these routes will depend heavily on geographical and political developments that are difficult to predict. Even so, it is clear that in the long term (25-50 years), some shipping, especially between East Asia, Europe and North America, will shift towards the Arctic region. This will likely have an effect on other major shipping straits, especially the Suez and Panama canals.

Northeast Passage compared with Southern sea route via Suez Canal. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Northeast Passage (blue) compared with Southern sea route via Suez Canal (red). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Arctic Ambitions

Change the Arctic is inevitable, and countries with direct interests in the Arctic will have to reevaluate their aims and interests in the region. Despite other countries such as Denmark and Canada rejecting Russian claims over ownership of several ridges and geographical features beneath the Arctic ice, it would appear that Russia is in the strongest position when it comes to claiming sovereignty and establishing control over the Arctic. There are several key factors which seem to point towards Russia having a distinct advantage looking forward.

All along the northern coast of Russia there are old Soviet-era naval bases and fortifications, many of which lie abandoned and derelict. However, in recent years, Putin’s Russia has invested money re-establishing many of these bases as operational. While they are not yet ready to host large numbers of troops, this move to re-establish a direct military presence in the Arctic signifies Putin’s intentions for the Arctic.

A key advantage for Russia in the geopolitics of the Arctic is the number of Russian icebreakers currently in operation. Even as Polar ice decreases, icebreakers will remain key pieces of equipment, as waterways will still need to be regularly cleared of ice. A quick glance at the ‘List of Icebreakers’ page on Wikipedia conveniently outlines the issue. Russia’s fleet of icebreakers dwarfs that of every other nation. Currently, Russia has an estimated 42 icebreakers in operation, with up to 8 more under construction. The United States, on the other hand, has 6 icebreakers in operation and 1 more under construction. This fact alone gives Russia a huge advantage in establishing de facto control of the Arctic and its shipping routes.

In the short term, maintaining a Russian presence in the Arctic, which will include its Northern Fleet, icebreakers and military installations, will be extremely costly for the Russian state. Due to the current sanctions imposed on the Russian economy and the resulting economic stagnation, maintaining its military and naval spending will certainly be a challenge for the Kremlin. The NATO states have a clear financial advantage over Russia in this regard.

Other countries with interests in Arctic, including Norway and Canada, have turned to NATO for assistance in establishing clear lines of sovereignty and control in the Arctic. The military might of NATO is not to be underestimated, but politically this is a difficult situation. NATO still lacks a unified Arctic strategy, as some of its members have conflicting claims over the Arctic waters. This stands in direct contrast with Russia’s clear, unified goals when it comes to the region.

Looking forward, it is clear that in both the short term and long term there are serious issues to overcome in Arctic geopolitics. Many observers may focus on preserving the fragile Arctic ecosystem, which will almost certainly be threatened in one way or another by the changes currently taking place. However, nation states which border the Arctic will have to look out for their own interests as the environment continues to develop and change. Failure to adapt to this new reality could result in disaster.


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