Arctic Diplomacy on Ice

Sophie Williams-Dunning

On the 9th of January 2023, the Swedish Defence minister announced the launch of bilateral talks with the US to negotiate a Defence Cooperation Agreement (DCA). By courting an enhanced US military presence in its territory, Sweden is following the lead of Norway and Denmark, which opened bilateral negotiations for an American DCA in 2022. The US and its Nordic partners are determined to shore up alliances in the High North outside of the NATO membership path, which has proven potholed with delays. This development is not surprising when one considers that Russia’s Northern Fleet headquarters and Arctic Strategic Command are located in Severomorsk, just over 100 miles from the Norwegian border.

The Arctic has been considered an area of “low tension” since the dying days of the Cold War when reformist Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev declared it a “zone of peace.” This maxim was ratified by the 1996 Charter of the Arctic Council, which committed the ‘Arctic Eight’ (the United States, Russia, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Finland, and Norway) to cooperate on issues such as ecology and indigenous rights, while expressly ruling out security discussions. However, prospects of peace and stability in the High North are melting along with the region’s ice cover. Newly passable sea routes and increasingly accessible oil and natural gas — representing an estimated 22% of global reserves — are piquing regional interest.

Russian ambitions in the region — while signalled in 2007 by the planting of the Russian flag on the sea bed of the North Pole — solidified after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the subsequent imposition of Western sanctions. It was in June 2014 that Russia’s Northern Fleet and Strategic Command were moved westwards to Severomorsk. The Arctic was also added as a sphere of influence in the Russian Federation’s official foreign policy doctrine and Putin spoke publicly about the region holding Russia’s “strategic reserve [of natural resources] for the 21st century”. Russia’s regional goals centre on remilitarisation, maritime trading routes, and resource exploitation. To these ends, they have, for example, re-opened over fifty ex-Soviet military bases, built the world’s largest icebreaker fleet, and launched Yamal LNG, a liquid natural gas extraction project which has secured funding, investment, and purchase commitments from Chinese state-owned companies.

Although China has no military presence in the region, and its claim to be a “near-Arctic state” is doubtful (its maritime route to the Arctic is about as long as Liberia’s), Chinese ambition in the region is not to be overlooked. China’s Polar Silk Road policy has raised alarm bells for some Arctic leaders, who have highlighted the need to monitor the potential “dual-use” of Chinese infrastructure, research facilities, and commercial projects. Indeed, a recent report has highlighted that while externally, China depicts its activity in the High North as peaceful and “win-win,” internal Chinese communications have emphasised “polar great power” competition and the assertive stance China must adopt to gain a foothold in this contested region.

The US was initially slow to respond to the increasingly competitive nature of Arctic affairs. It is the only Arctic country not to have signed the UN’s Convention on the Law of the Sea — meaning it has not staked a claim to a maritime Exclusive Economic Zone — and has a measly two icebreakers to Russia’s thirty-seven. A late turning point came in 2019 when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke out about Russia and China’s “aggressive” posturing in the Arctic. This prompted a spate of regional strategy documents, the latest of which outlines the need for the US not only to “manage tensions” in the region but also to “compete” and “defend American interests.” Published in October 2022, the document also points to Russia’s war in Ukraine exacerbating Arctic rivalries.

Russia’s expanded invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 alarmed its Nordic neighbours and removed any doubt about the sincerity of Putin’s revisionist rhetoric. The resulting EU sanctions on Russian oil and gas, which came into effect in December 2022, have re-oriented Russian exports towards Asia. The Arctic route to Asia (the Northern Sea Route) is longer and more costly than exporting to Europe, but higher costs have not diminished the volume of exports. Economically, it is unclear whether Russia’s Arctic hand is stronger or weaker in the aftermath of its invasion of Ukraine. In terms of diplomacy, the war has had a debilitating impact. The invasion triggered the breakdown of Arctic diplomacy, with the Arctic Council member states (bar Russia) announcing the immediate suspension of the Council until further notice. Bilateral diplomacy between member states and Russia have also ceased.

This stalemate, and continued Russian shows of aggression in the region, have reignited the longstanding debate about NATO expansion in the Arctic. Would expansion of NATO’s role in the region — either operationally or through the incorporation of new allies —contribute to regional security? Or would NATO expansion, given Russia’s previous attempts to disrupt NATO military drills in the region, serve to aggravate Russia and “widen the gap” between Russia and the rest of the ‘Arctic Seven’?

Due to concerns about NATO expansion’s potential to exacerbate conflict and quicken the militarisation of Arctic affairs, it is likely that NATO membership for Finland and Sweden will be pursued alongside new operational agreements outside of NATO. This might include bilateral and regional agreements, such as the intensification of the NORDEFCO alliance announced in November 2022. The Arctic Council’s work will likely remain on hold while the war in Ukraine continues. If it resumes, however, we may see its role expand to encompass the creation of a new forum for security discussions. The future of Arctic diplomacy depends on how Russia’s war in Ukraine ends and, in the longer term, in what ways and how quickly climate change will affect the region. However, one certainty is that the Arctic’s importance in the foreign policy strategies of Arctic states — and other Northern European states like the UK — will continue to expand.


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