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Arctic Security is Heating Up

Updated: Jun 11, 2021

By Victoria Tinker

The Arctic region is becoming a hot spot for global security and trade issues, and countries are rushing to stake their claims. Traditionally, security issues in the Arctic stemmed from climate change and the environmental concerns that have irreversible effects on the Arctic ecosystem. However, the Arctic is emerging as a strategic military security location. On April 5, 2021, satellite images of a Russian military base in the Far North camp revealed a significant military build-up. Over the past few years, Russia has been thawing-out former Cold War military bases and expanding their operations in the region. Russia insists that their presence in the region is motivated by economic interests but the testing of unmanned stealth torpedoes and the discovery of a Russian ‘spy whale’ suggest otherwise. The United States is closely monitoring developments and the Pentagon has identified the Arctic as an area that is vital to homeland defense. So, what makes this cold, vast region suitable for this uptick in military operations?

Climate change may answer this question. Rising average temperatures are melting the hard permafrost in the Arctic, which makes the area more hospitable to land-based operations. Additionally, the Arctic has experienced a reduction of sea ice which is opening up previously inaccessible travel routes and fisheries. Russia controls the Northern Sea Route (NSR) which extends from the Kara Sea to the Bering Strait. With the melting Arctic ice, the NSR is becoming a more commercially viable trade route for traffic traveling from North American to Europe and Asia. Russia is aware of the increased value of this route and has developed facilities along the NSR for maritime security that have potential offensive capabilities. As the quantity of Arctic sea ice diminishes, the value of Arctic real estate rises.

Military operations are not new to the Arctic. During World War II, Arctic convoys were one of the primary ways that Allied forces could deliver aid to the Soviet Union. The convoys traveled a dangerous route through Arctic ice packs and past German military bases in Norway. During the Cold War, Arctic glaciers served as disguises for American and Soviet submarines, and the United States even raided a Soviet Arctic base. More recently, the United States intercepted a Russian military aircraft that was flying over Alaska. Russia is also testing an anti-ship hypersonic cruise missile which has been dubbed a “super-weapon.” These developments are alarming considering Russian control over the increasingly passable NSR.

The Law of the Arctic

There is no multilateral security agreement that governs the Arctic. The three main sources of geopolitical control of the Arctic are the Arctic Council, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and NATO. Eight countries make up the “Arctic States”: Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States. These states make up the Arctic Council, which is an international governmental body that promotes coordination among Arctic States and the indigenous population of the Arctic to solve issues facing the region. The Arctic Council was created in 1996 by the Ottawa Declaration, which cited sustainable development as its primary goal. Interestingly, the Ottawa Declaration specifically states that the Arctic Council “should not deal with matters related to military security.” However, the rapid militarization of the Arctic may require the Council to play a role in managing the environmental impact of the Arctic.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea is an international agreement that provides a comprehensive legal regime governing the world’s oceans. The Convention provides a framework to establish and enforce rules governing the oceans and their resources. Although the Convention does not provide guidance on military or security operations, it is relevant for determining sovereignty over newly navigable waters left by melted Arctic sea ice.

NATO is the only security organization with some presence in the Arctic. However, only five out of eight Arctic states are members of the alliance. NATO’s role in the Arctic has been limited despite the threats to member states posed by Russian militarization of the NSR. With the Arctic’s rising geostrategic significance, now may be the time for a more active role for NATO in the region.

The situation developing in the Arctic presents a complex puzzle of climate security and military security. As climate change raises the temperatures in the region, the more viable the Arctic will become for military operations. The United States and others will likely seek to compete with Russia for regional military dominance, which would cause further environmental complications. The lack of any multilateral security agreement or infrastructure will produce confusion during a delicate time. It is time that the Arctic States come together to reach a sustainable security agreement that will help shape the future of the Arctic.


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