Up In The Arctic, It’s All Starting To Heat Up – Analysis


By Luke Coffey*

There have been many unintended consequences resulting from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year. For example, the war has threatened Ukraine’s global grain exports leaving some countries in Africa and the Middle East with the threat of food insecurity.  Russia is now reliant on Iran for weapons imports—something unimaginable before the war. Global energy markets have been impacted because of the war too.

However, one area that has been affected by the war but doesn’t get much attention is the Arctic region.  Russia is the world’s largest Arctic country and controls about half of the world’s Arctic coastline. Russian President Vladimir Putin has invested greatly in the Arctic region’s infrastructure. In recent years, Russia has also opened new military bases in the region and invested in the cold weather fighting capabilities of the Russian military.  

Even so, the Arctic region has remained a relatively peaceful and stable area. For decades, cooperation between Russia and the West in the Arctic was able to weather even the biggest geopolitical storms. However, it appears that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has finally brought Arctic cooperation to an end—at least for now. There are four areas regarding the Arctic region there have been impacted by the war in Ukraine.

The first area is the functioning of the Arctic Council. The Arctic Council was founded in 1994 by the eight Arctic states (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the US) to cooperate in the region on non-military related issues. Over the years, cooperation has taken place on search and rescue operations, oil spill cleanup, and other environmental issues.

Even after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, cooperation continued inside the council. But since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year the Arctic Council has stopped functioning. No meetings take place and day-to-day operations have stopped. This week, Russia’s two year-long chairmanship of the Arctic Council transferred to Norway. Normally, there’s a big summit and a lot of diplomatic fanfare when a transfer takes place. Not this time. Instead, Russia handed over the chair of the Arctic Council to Norway during a lowkey virtual meeting.

The second Arctic related issue that has changed due to the war in Ukraine is with NATO. Although NATO’s conducts military training exercises in the region, it has never had an Arctic strategy. This is because not all of the NATO members agree on what role the Alliance should play in the region. In the past, the Arctic was not mentioned in any official NATO document. This is now beginning to change.

For the first time ever, NATO’s most recent Strategic Concept—the main policy document published by the alliance— published last year mentioned the region. Finland recently joined the Alliance and Sweden will likely become a member soon. This will mean that seven out of the eight Arctic powers will be part of the same security alliance. From a practical point of view, the Alliance now has no choice but to develop and implement a policy in the region.

Thirdly, there are new opportunities for China in the Arctic. In the simplest terms, China sees the Arctic region as another place in which to advance its economic interests and expand its diplomatic influence. As a non-Arctic country, China is mindful that its Arctic ambitions in international Arctic institutions are naturally limited—and this has not stopped Beijing from increasing its economic presence in the region.

Even though China’s closest point to the Arctic Circle is about 1500 kms away, Beijing refers to itself as a “near Arctic State”—a term made up by Beijing and not found in the lexicon of Arctic discourse.  In fact, extending Beijing’s logic to other countries would mean that Belarus, Estonia, Germany, Ireland, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, and the United Kingdom are also “near Arctic” states. These are hardly countries one thinks about when imagining the Arctic.

The impact of the war in Ukraine on China’s Arctic ambitions are twofold. On one hand, Western economic sanctions have created new opportunities for Chinese firms.  No doubt China will try stepping in to help Russia. This will mean more cooperation between Moscow and Beijing in the Arctic region. For example, last month Russia and China signed an agreement to increase coastguard cooperation in the Arctic. There is also a lot of ambition regarding energy cooperation between the two.

On the other hand, with the Arctic Council no longer functioning, Beijing has lost one of its most important tools for influence in the Arctic. Since 2013, China has been an observer member of the Arctic Council and it uses this position to fund research projects and exert influence in the Arctic region. Until the Arctic Council resumes normal operations, China will have to find other ways to play an active role in the region.

Finally, Russia’s ambitious plans for its Northern Sea Route are being curtailed. The Northern Sea Route runs from the Barents Sea to the Bering Strait connecting European with Asian markets. There are some who suggest that the route could become a viable alternative—even a rival—to the Suez Canal because it cuts transit time and distance from Europe to East Asia considerably.

The Northern Sea Route is far from competing with the Suez Canal. In 2021, the year before Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine, only 35 million tons of goods transited along that route. Of this, only 2.75 million tons made the full journey between Europe to Asia. This is .02% of the volume of goods that transited through the Suez Canal during the same year. During this period 86 ships transited the full Northern Sea Route between Europe and Asia—equal to the number of ships that pass through the Suez Canal every 36 hours.

International sanctions against Russia have discouraged the use of the route even more. Last year, not a single foreign ship used the route—not even from China. Only 34 million tons of goods were shipped using the route and there were no full transits linking Europe with Asia. Even with the Russian government continuing to invest in the Northern Sea Route, the possibility of it replacing Suez, or even drastically increasing the volume of trade transported along the route, seems remote.

The Arctic is a reminder that events in one part of the world can impact regions thousands of kilometers away. It remains to be seen how long cooperation in the Arctic will remain frozen and how this will impact the relative stability in the region. Only one thing is certain, global interest in the Arctic region will only increase in the years to come.  

• Luke Coffey is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. Twitter: @LukeDCoffey

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