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The Face-off in a Fragmented Arctic: Who Will Blink First?

As uncertainty grows over the future of cooperation in the Arctic, the risk is that creeping alternatives will harden the dividing lines between Russia and the West.

Cold front: US Marines in Setermoen, Norway as part of Exercise Nordic Response 24

With Russia’s war against Ukraine well into its third year, fears of a potential ‘spillover’ into the Arctic remain high. With Sweden and Finland having recently joined NATO, three things become clear. First, there is now de facto ‘more NATO’ in the Arctic. Second, Russia’s fears of strategic encirclement are not going away any time soon. Third, the dividing line between Russia and the West in the Arctic has never been starker – there is now what can be argued to be a ‘NATO 7 vs Russia’ in the region.

The implications for Arctic cooperation are significant. ‘Arctic exceptionalism’ – the idea that the challenges facing the region encouraged cooperation and not geostrategic competition – which for so long was regarded as the guiding light for relations between the eight Arctic states (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the US), has all but dissipated. The principle of ‘circumpolarity’ (the idea that the Arctic 8 should collectively determine the region’s future) has also been eroded. The impact on the Permanent Participants (representing Arctic indigenous peoples) has been largely overlooked.

The challenges faced by the Arctic Council (the premier forum for regional cooperation) over the past two years are emblematic of the current state of circumpolar affairs. Within weeks of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, seven of the eight member states (Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Finland, Norway, Sweden and the US) jointly ‘paused’ their involvement in the Council and its affiliated bodies. Around a third of the Council’s 130 projects were reportedly put on hold, with new projects blocked and existing projects unable to be renewed.

Gradually, the ‘Arctic 7’ have found ways to resume activities with minimal participation from Russia. The handover of the chairship from Russia to Norway in 2023 proceeded smoothly. In February 2024, Norway announced that the Council’s Working Groups, where the organisation’s main work takes place, would be resumed with the participation of all states, including Russia – but only in a virtual format.

Yet despite these steps to restore critical functions, there is still good reason to be concerned by the Arctic Council’s future prospects. Even as plans for the Working Groups to meet virtually were being drawn up, Moscow announced that it would suspend its annual payments to the Arctic Council until the organisation resumes its work in full. Since 2022, Russia has restricted access to scientific data that is crucial to monitoring climate change, and especially to assessing the potential impact of carbon dioxide and methane ‘bombs’ being released by Russia’s melting permafrost as part of a feedback loop. Such a situation will negatively impact climate change prediction models at large.

Signs of increasing collaboration in the Arctic between Russia and other members of the so-called BRICS+ (Brazil, India, China, South Africa, Iran, Saudia Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Ethiopia) have prompted further concern that Moscow may be preparing to pursue the commercial exploitation of the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation (AZRF) independently of the Arctic 7. With Chinese interests in mind, such a situation could be to Moscow’s long-term detriment, as Beijing might be tempted to impose its own views on Arctic governance.

The fragmentation of circumpolar cooperation is closing doors on diplomatic activity that could help to diffuse tensions and promote confidence-building measure

Meanwhile, Russia has shown little appetite for addressing circumpolar challenges relating to climate change, the rights of indigenous communities, the management of biodiversity and living resources, environmental pollution, and the threat of radioactive contamination from Soviet-era and current nuclear activities.

Amid all this uncertainty over the future of Arctic cooperation and whether the Arctic Council can survive (without betraying the West’s commitment to Ukraine), military activity in the region has continued to increase. The accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO necessarily requires a re-evaluation of the Alliance’s defence planning across the Wider North (comprising the North Atlantic, Arctic and Baltic). This is likely to become a significant point of contention with Moscow, particularly as it begins to drive the restructuring of commands in the European and Northern theatres, the reconfiguration of forces and deployments, and new patterns of training and exercising.

Viewed from Moscow, the ‘enlargement’ of NATO closer to Russian borders is feeding a sense of not only vindication but also increased conventional vulnerability. Furthermore, melting ice in the AZRF is no longer a reliable source of protection along Russia’s northern border, which is further strengthening the Kremlin’s Arctic insecurities. Russia’s own Arctic ground forces in the European High North have been largely decimated by war operations in Ukraine, which will continue to divert attention and resources away from the Arctic theatre.

However, Moscow’s military posture in the Arctic has not changed in the context of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and it remains bent on obsessive control over the AZRF and countering NATO activity. Russia’s vast multi-layered network of Arctic-capable air and coastal defence systems has stayed in place along the AZRF and has not been tremendously impacted by the war against Ukraine.

In this context – and judging by the sense of conventional vulnerability fuelling Russia’s Arctic insecurities – there is a risk that Moscow could engage in more overt nuclear sabre-rattling and escalatory behaviour. There remains an outside chance that Russia could resume nuclear weapons testing on the islands of Novaya Zemlya. This situation is compounded by the inherent risk of miscalculation provoked by accidents, incidents and tactical errors, left unchecked by the current absence of lines of communication.

Meanwhile, the fragmentation of circumpolar cooperation is closing doors on diplomatic activity that could help to diffuse tensions and promote confidence-building measures. Prior to 2022, there was some discussion of re-establishing joint military forums or some form of ‘code of conduct’, but this dissipated quickly as Moscow’s designs on Ukraine became clear. The chances of a predictable Arctic in military security terms are growing slimmer.

The risk of an armed conflict in the Arctic is clearly higher than it was. However, this does not mean that either NATO or Moscow is any more likely to seek a conflict in the Arctic than they were prior to Russia’s assault on Ukraine. Considering the complexity of the operating environment, there is little incentive for Moscow – or NATO – to escalate in the Arctic per se, let alone conduct high-intensity warfare operations there.

For now, the most likely scenario is that we will continue to see a balancing and counterbalancing of NATO and Russian forces in the High North as both sides adjust to the realities of Swedish and Finnish membership of NATO

There is no sign yet (publicly at least) that either side is seeking to change the ‘facts on the ground’ regarding critical international agreements, or even press claims in areas of disagreement – for instance, over how to interpret the Svalbard Treaty on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) as it applies to the Northeast Passage (including the Northern Sea Route, or NSR) and the delimitation of extended continental shelves.

Nevertheless, Russia remains determined to control ‘its’ Arctic and the NSR. Over the past few years, successive waves of regulations have increasingly restricted passage through the NSR, placing it under Moscow’s tight control. If, even as the effects of climate change are felt, Russia maintains its dubious interpretation of the status of the NSR, or if the Kremlin seeks to further restrict passage along the route (especially for foreign military vessels), there could be more serious consideration of a US- or NATO-led Freedom of Navigation operation, even if it increases the risk of an armed clash.

These issues are all the more critical in the context of the renewed US interest in Arctic affairs as part of the 2022 National Strategy for the Arctic Region (NSAR) and its 2023 Implementation Plan. Indeed, the NSAR is quite clear regarding protecting freedom of navigation across the Arctic region in accordance with UNCLOS.

For now, the most likely scenario is that we will continue to see a balancing and counterbalancing of NATO and Russian forces in the High North as both sides adjust to the realities of Swedish and Finnish membership of NATO. The danger is that this could increase the risk of a miscalculation provoked by an accident escalating into something worse. More presence and platforms in a changing Arctic will undoubtedly bring about more incidents, including environmental catastrophes and human-made disasters, with indigenous peoples and other local communities bearing the brunt of the impact.

Beyond that, we anticipate that the Arctic will remain in limbo until one side or the other makes a move to either restore or abandon the Arctic Council, or attempts to press a claim that undermines the commitment that all the Arctic states made in Ilulissat in 2008 (and again in 2018) to resolve their disputes in accordance with international law. The wider risk is that in the absence of a circumpolar approach, creeping alternatives will harden the dividing lines between Russia and the West.

Neither side currently looks ready to blink first. China, meanwhile, may seek to exploit the fragmentation of Arctic governance to push for its own ‘free for all’ approach. All the while, human insecurity and climate breakdown in the Arctic look set to worsen.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors’, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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