Arctic skies and waters are increasingly filled with military activity—the cooperative era which brought the adage “High North, Low Tension” is waning. In early February, news sources reported Russian Tu-160 strategic bombers patrolling the Arctic skies, escorted at times by MiG-31 fighters from Novaya Zemlya. The flight was met by two F-16s scrambled from Bodo Air Base in Norway. At the same time, the U.S. Air Force announced the deployment of B-1 bombers to Norway. Russia’s General Lieutenant Aleksandr Otroshchenko, Commander of the Northern Fleet’s 45th Air Defense Division, flew a MiG-31BM to Novaya Zemlya to visit the Rogachevo air field, marking the first swap out of crews and aircraft after their initial month of operations from the remote Russian base. As activity and competition for access and influence grows in the Arctic, so does the need for mechanisms to manage tension, maintain dialogue, and enhance cooperation. Without such frameworks, the chance of a misunderstanding or misperception escalating into unintended conflict threatens the peace and stability of the region.
Current Arctic mechanisms are inadequate to prevent tension and misunderstanding among the growing number of states operating across the Arctic region. The prospects for strengthening Arctic security cooperation seem ripe given that five of the Arctic states are North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Allies and two are NATO partners. Mutually beneficial cooperation in the Arctic may even be possible with Russia, with the Secretary of Defense Austin’s recently noting that “The United States has a long history of cooperation with Russia in the Arctic region, and it is my hope that can continue.” Austin rightly acknowledged the geopolitical competition and Russian military build-up as concerns for the Arctic. In order to confront these challenges before they erupt in conflict, Arctic states are confronted with a strategic choice: leverage or modify current Arctic-oriented international organizations or create new ones.
Trends, Triggers, and Threats
Competition in the Arctic isn’t new—mercantile competition in the region dates to at least the sixteenth-century. Hotspots of conflict have broken out in the past, particularly in the Barents Sea and the Svalbard archipelago. The cooperative era marked by the 1996 foundation of the Arctic Council is slowly eroding with heightened geopolitical tensions, gradual opening of shorter sea routes through the Arctic Ocean, and discoveries of vast quantities of natural resources. Most recently, tensions flared over snow crab harvests off Svalbard in 2017 when a Latvian vessel—captained by a Russian—was arrested by the Norwegian Coast Guard.
First it is important to understand the critical drivers increasing the potential for competition, friction, and conflict in the Arctic. For starters, the Arctic has recently experienced a notable rise in military exercises, operations, capability advancements, and infrastructure. While still far less than at the height of the Cold War, military activity by Arctic and non-Arctic States is increasing, and the lack of dialogue on national security interests related to Arctic military activity—driven primarily by Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014—has increased the potential for accidents, miscalculations, and confrontation.
Looking over the horizon to the years ahead, it is clear that five critical boundary and border issues stand at the forefront of bilateral or multilateral negotiations. These include: Hans Island, Beaufort Sea, Northwest Passage (NWP), North Pole, and Northern Sea Route (NSR). Though the first three are unlikely to cause conflict as they involve disagreements between Western Arctic states, the last two are more controversial.
The North Pole offers both a symbolic claim as well as potential for vast strategic and economic significance. Though resources are as of yet unproven, Canada, the Kingdom of Denmark, and Russia have all claimed the North Pole as part of their extended continental shelves, under procedures outlined by UNCLOS. Though the scientific claims are still being evaluated, the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) will not address sovereignty if overlapping scientific claims are substantiated, requiring states to negotiate a workable solution. The 1988 Canada-U.S. Northwest Passage Agreement and the 2010 Norway-Russian Barents Agreement that settled the overlapping border claims offer potential models for dispute resolution that aligns with the commitment of the Arctic coastal states to the 2008 Ilulissat Declaration.
The Northern Sea Route (NSR) is a shipping lane that was restricted to Soviet/Russian usage for decades before being opened to international traffic in 1991. Yet the international community disagrees over the characterization of the route, with competing views on whether it falls under innocent passage in territorial waters or transit passage through international straits under UNCLOS. Russia’s stringent rules for transiting the route have sparked concern.
In addition to these disputes, Greenland and Svalbard present unique cases that could cause regional tensions to flare, given their abundant natural resources, multiple stakeholders, and strategic locations. Greenland catapulted to the forefront of Arctic hotspots when U.S. President Trump pondered purchasing the semi-autonomous island from Denmark. Though not the first time the U.S. demonstrated interest in buying Greenland, this announcement came on the heels of increased Chinese interest in the island, particularly the abundant rare earth minerals and potential transportation hubs. As a gateway between the North Atlantic and the Arctic Ocean—and potential trade routes to Asia—Greenland is a strategic location. Established in 1943, the U.S. has long valued Greenland’s Thule Air Base for its critical early warning systems and recently reopened a U.S. Consulate in Nuuk to strengthen relations.
The Svalbard archipelago presents a unique case. More than one hundred years ago, the Spitsbergen Treaty was signed by fourteen nations, giving Norway sovereignty over Svalbard, while providing equal access and non-discriminatory rights of other State signatories. Today, forty-six nations have ratified the Treaty, demonstrating global interest in the region. Yet, the Svalbard question involves contested legal issues, such as the nature of sovereign state rights conferred by international treaties, shared economic rights of states, the scope and limits of governance regimes, the definition and extent of territorial borders, and the applicability and evolution of UNCLOS.
Though most of the issues are unlikely to cause tension, they highlight a greater concern for the region—underlying tensions without adequate mechanisms to resolve or mitigate challenges. As the region becomes increasingly accessible—and more stakeholders seek to be present—it will be vital to enhance dialogue to address concerns before they become a crisis.
Strengthening Today’s Forums
Regional dialogue and cooperation are achieved through organizations like the Arctic Council, yet the Council faces some criticism for its limited mandate—security matters are excluded—and structure as well as the inability to enforce agreements or apply sanctions against its members. Despite these challenges, the current mandate has served the organization well and changing it risks its achievements as a venue for dialogue and cooperation. Growing competition in the region poses challenges for the Council’s current approach to multilateral governance and dialogue. Chief among them is China’s growing influence, with regional investments and involvement casting further concerns for the Council’s relevance, particularly as the Sino-Russian strategic partnership deepens. Yet there is an opportunity to work within the Council’s mandate to further empower it to help shape regional policy by increasing funding and exploring a joint enforcement capability in the Arctic waters to ensure international rules and norms are adhered to.
The NATO-Russia Council was established as a mechanism for cooperation, consultation, and consensus-building. Yet Russian distrust of the organization may diminish this option as a means of dialogue on important Arctic matters. Indeed, it may even encourage closer Sino-Russian relations as Russia looks to counterbalance the Alliance in the Arctic, despite its justifiable wariness of China’s intent. The presence of China introduces added complexity into regional security discussions. With NATO’s sights set on the North, the Alliance is not the best venue to lead dialogue and cooperation on Arctic security, though it remains a valuable, legitimate Arctic mechanism that can contribute to de-confliction, even if not cooperation.
Organizations like the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable (ASFR) and Arctic Coast Guard Forum (ACGF) offer opportunities for dialogue among its members, yet both have concerns with their mandate and membership. The ASFR originally included twelve nations as members, though Russia does not currently participate and has expressed concerns over the membership of non-Arctic states. Russia’s renewed participation could enable greater discussion and interaction amongst key Arctic security stakeholders. While ACGF has been a productive forum for disaster response discussions amongst the Arctic eight nations, broadening its mandate and inclusion of other partner nations brings new knowledge and capacity to address potential environmental crises across the region.
The Arctic Chiefs of Defense (ACHOD) Forum offers an appropriate venue for top Arctic military leaders to discuss security-related topics relevant to the Arctic. Though the ACHOD was suspended following the Russian annexation of Crimea, the forum offers an opportunity for dialogue to help prevent misunderstandings and unintended security escalation. As recently reported by High North News, the Russian Ambassador-at-Large for the Arctic Nikolay Korchunov wants to resume meetings between Chiefs of Defense in the Arctic in order “to build trust and security in the region.“
Realistically, however, improving the state of dialogue, coordination, and cooperation on security and defense issues in the Arctic requires an incremental approach. This starts with inviting Russian scholars and military professionals to take part in academic research groups focused on Arctic security issues, like the Newport Arctic Scholars Initiative. Doing so can increase transparency by sharing information and relevant Arctic research while building mutual understanding of Arctic security challenges. If successful at lower levels, approved dialogue should be resumed at specific higher-level events, such as inviting Russia to the International Seapower Symposium—a biannual event hosted by the U.S. Navy that brings together heads of navy from around the world.