Temperatures rising: The Arctic in a new age of power politics

Posted On: 
15th February 2018

Power politics and the rush for resources will feature heavily in the race for the Arctic, says Dods Monitoring Content Specialist Connor Smart.

PA Images

Rewind back to August 2007 and two Russian mini-submarines were planting a rust-proof, titanium Russian flag into the sea bed thousands of metres below the North Pole. The intention was clear, to signal to the world the territorial ambitions and aims of the Russian Federation as the temperatures increased and the ice receded. The situation is almost a metaphor for the currently receding relationships between Russia and the West after the cyber-attack on Estonia, the Russo-Georgian war, gas disputes with Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea and the virtual bisection of Ukraine with the West and East of the country supported by the ‘West’ and Russia respectively.

Russia, amongst a number of other countries such as Canada, Norway, Sweden, Finland and the USA is seeking to strategically place itself within a new and evolving environment. It is worth remembering that 30% of geographical Russia sits within the Arctic Circle and that at around the same time as the titanium flag was planted, Russia was also arguing before a UN commission that the Lomonosov ridge, an underwater feature, was an extension of its continental shelf and territory. Maritime law, bombastic proclamations and claiming strategic land features could all very well describe the current situation in the South and East China Seas where China is pushing the limits on international maritime law and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Power politics and the rush for resources will feature heavily in the race for the Arctic. Estimates made by the US Geological Survey (USGS) put energy reserves in the region of around 90 billion barrels of oil which is about 110% of Russia’s known reserves and 1,6669 trillion cubic feet of gas which is around 99% of proven gas reserves. But remember, the Arctic is split between eight competing powers and the hydrocarbon based economy of Russia has more to lose for every square km of territory that escapes its purview in the energy rich region.

With so much at stake in a region of the world that still seems somewhat alien to many people today it is certainly apt that a House of Commons Defence Sub-Committee has an ongoing inquiry into defence in the Arctic. In its own words, the scope of the inquiry is to look ‘into the rapidly changing defence landscape in the Arctic and the potential implications for the UK’. The work of this Committee was interrupted last year by the general election but oral evidence has recently been made available by the Committee which makes for interesting reading.

Written evidence by the Oxford Research Group mentions the key changes in the region as being the ‘increasing military effectiveness of Russia, combined with a degradation of both NATO and UK commitment to anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and collective territorial defence between the 1990’s and 2014’. Indeed, one only has to look at Russian military capabilities to see how seriously Russia is taking its future role in the region. Russian capabilities amount to:

  • A new Arctic Command
  • Four new Arctic Brigade Combat teams
  • 14 new operational airfields
  • 16 deepwater ports
  • 40 icebreakers with 11 more in development (for context the US has 2 icebreakers for the Arctic and one is broken)

UK defence capabilities are found wanting when it comes to the Arctic theatre. While the UK is not an Arctic power per se it does have key relationships with countries such as Norway, Canada and the US whose NATO memberships would require us to be involved. And this is not something out of the realm of possibility. The Norwegian-administered territory of Svalbard is of particular concern with a Russian maritime threat assessment reportedly citing Norway’s policy in Svalbard as a potential trigger for war.

Needless to say, the Arctic will be one of many regions to watch in the coming years.  Energy resources, maritime law, shipping routes, territorial ambitions and national pride will all factor into making this part of the world a fascinating if not disconcerting place to study. The UK Defence Sub-Committee inquiry is a step in the right direction and it will be interesting to see what conclusions it will draw.  

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