The Buzz

Why the Next NATO-Russia Crisis Could Go Down in the Arctic

The Arctic is a region where great power competition will play out in coming years. Russia has significant strategic and economic interests in the region, and for China the Arctic may prove to have important security and economic benefits bearing on East Asia and on energy and food security. The US and its allies  also have sovereignty, security and resource interests in the Arctic. And global warming is rapidly changing the playing field in the Arctic region.

The main contenders for a piece of the Arctic Ocean are NATO and Russia. The international Arctic governance mechanism—the Arctic Council—is dominated by NATO members. While NATO members bordering the Arctic Ocean—the US, Canada, Denmark, and Norway—are also pursuing their own national claims, Russia and NATO still see each other as their greatest security threat. Russia’s military build-up in the Arctic and a call from the Atlantic Council  for NATO to be ‘prepared to defend its boundaries and interests in the region in the face of growing Russian capabilities’ reflect this tension. Blunt references in NATO’s Warsaw communique to Russia’s aggression and the undefined nature of the commitment ‘to protect and defend our territory and our populations against attack’ sits behind Arctic relations.

This northern summer’s seen an historically low minimum coverage of sea ice in the Arctic. Temperatures in early September were up to 9 degrees Celsius above average along the coast of Siberia. Global warming in the Arctic is heating the ‘ocean, soil, and air temperatures’ and ‘melting permafrost; shifting vegetation and animal abundances’ and altering the ‘characteristics of Arctic cyclones’.  The potential for access to abundant energy and food resources in the Arctic and the possibility of newer shorter shipping routes between East Asia and Europe will feed the competition for dominance in the Arctic in coming decades.

In August, the Russians presented scientific evidence to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) to support their extensive claims to in the Arctic. Russia is claiming the Lomonosov Ridge, the Mendeleev-Alfa High, the Chukotka Plateau, as well as the continuous extension of these elements from the shallow Eurasian shelf—an undersea area of 1.2 million square kilometres where it would have sovereign rights over the exploration, exploitation (including oil and gas and fish stocks), management and conservation of resources in the water, on the seabed and under the seafloor.

Russia’s been at pains to stress its commitment to UNCLOS and to adopt a pragmatic and cooperative attitude in the Arctic. However, a negative response from CLCS on its Arctic shelf claims might see Russia’s attitude harden. A Russian refusal to accept as legitimate a denial of its claims by the CLCS could seriously undermine the already weakened UNCLOS regime.