Militarisations of the Arctic .. Motivations & Implications

Climate change has made access to the Arctic and utilisation of its resources viable‭, ‬thus this region has attained great geostrategic importance in recent years‭.  ‬What is the geostrategic significance of the Arctic region‭? ‬Are there updates in the military strategies of states towards the region given climate developments‭? ‬How do these powers interact in the region‭, ‬amid current geopolitical developments‭? ‬How will global competition in the region affect the change in the international strategic and military map‭?‬

This study aims to provide initial answers to these questions and to achieve this‭, ‬it is divided into two parts‭: ‬The first clarifies the geostrategic importance of the Arctic while‭. ‬the second analyses aspects of the growing militarisation of the Arctic and the geopolitical developments that led to this‭. ‬Finally‭, ‬we explore its implications‭.‬

First‭: ‬The Arctic’s Geostrategic Importance‭ ‬

In 2008‭, ‬a study by the United States Geological Survey indicated that the Arctic polar region may contain around 13%‭ ‬of the world’s undiscovered oil resources and 30%‭ ‬of undiscovered global gas resources‭. ‬Furthermore‭, ‬global warming is melting Arctic ice‭ ‬every year‭, ‬allowing for the gradual opening of new shipping routes‭. ‬This could shorten the distance between Rotterdam and Yokohama by 40%‭ ‬compared to passing through the Suez Canal‭. ‬

On the other hand‭, ‬the Northwest Passage‭, ‬off the coast of Canada‭, ‬could also significantly reduce the distance between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans‭. ‬

To enable cooperation between regional states‭, ‬the Arctic Council was established by the Ottawa Declaration signed in 1996‭ ‬by Canada‭, ‬Denmark‭, ‬the United States‭, ‬Finland‭, ‬Iceland‭, ‬Norway‭, ‬Russia and Sweden‭. ‬

The Council is the leading intergovernmental forum for regional cooperation on Arctic issues‭. ‬However‭, ‬it is not a governing body but rather a forum for cooperation between Arctic states‭.‬

Moreover‭, ‬it does not address military and sovereign issues outside its mandate‭, ‬focusing instead on topics likely to achieve consensus easily‭, ‬such as scientific cooperation‭, ‬environmental protection‭, ‬indigenous welfare and economic development‭, ‬maritime‭ ‬safety‭, ‬etc‭. ‬In addition to the eight Arctic states‭, ‬six Indigenous Peoples Organizations representing Arctic indigenous peoples‭ ‬have permanent participant status‭.‬

There are also non-Arctic observer states like Germany‭, ‬the United Kingdom‭, ‬the Netherlands‭, ‬Poland‭, ‬France‭, ‬Spain‭, ‬Italy‭, ‬Japan‭, ‬China‭, ‬India‭, ‬South Korea‭, ‬Singapore‭, ‬and Switzerland‭, ‬as well as numerous other international organizations such as the United Nations through some of its environmental and development programs‭.‬

Moreover‭, ‬a recent study projected that the Arctic could become nearly sea ice-free by the early 2030s‭, ‬even under a low emissions scenario‭, ‬which is roughly a decade sooner than previously expected‭. ‬According to the latest projections‭, ‬Russia will possess‭ ‬around 41%‭ ‬of undiscovered oil and gas reserves‭, ‬while the United States‭ (‬via Alaska‭) ‬will possess 28%‭.‬

Second‭: ‬the increase in the pace of militarization of the Arctic in light of the current geopolitical development

In 2022‭, ‬during a press conference in Canada‭, ‬NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg emphasized the importance of the Arctic region for NATO’s security‭. ‬

He stated that Russia is using the region to test its hypersonic missiles and military capabilities‭, ‬as well as systematically flying its aircraft over the area‭. ‬

Stoltenberg noted that melting ice makes the region more important than ever‭, ‬stressing the need to harness it militarily and economically‭.‬

He also affirmed the importance of enhancing Canada’s military presence in the region and its positive impact on the security of‭ ‬Europe and its allies‭. ‬

Regarding the impact of the Russia-Ukraine war on military balances in the Arctic‭, ‬Dr‭. ‬Lawson Brigham‭, ‬a researcher at the University of Alaska Fairbanks‭, ‬stated that the Arctic‭, ‬which has seen countries join NATO following the war‭, ‬has become a stage for‭ ‬militarization more than ever‭, ‬for the following reasons‭:‬

1‭- Finland and Sweden joining NATO means 7‭ ‬of the 8‭ ‬Arctic nations are now part of NATO‭.‬‭ ‬This will make military and security cooperation between Moscow and other Arctic states difficult‭, ‬if not impossible‭. ‬

On the other hand‭, ‬Finland and Sweden joining NATO will certainly change the alliance’s plans and push for more deterrence capabilities and military development in the region‭.‬

2‭- The future of the Arctic Council‭,‬‭ ‬established in 1996‭, ‬is more uncertain than ever‭. ‬With the exception of Russia‭, ‬the Council’s members decided to suspend its work following the Russian war on Ukraine‭. ‬The other seven states affirmed their support for the Council but stated their intention to resume work within its framework‭, ‬excluding the projects that involve Russia’s participation‭. ‬

3‭- One Arctic state‭,‬‭ ‬the United States‭, ‬remains outside the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea‭, ‬and the implementation of many articles relevant to‭ ‬the Arctic Ocean remains contentious among member states‭, ‬raising concerns about regional stability‭. ‬

4‭- Some border disputes between Arctic nations remain unresolved‭, ‬most importantly between the United States and Russia‭, ‬the United States and Canada‭, ‬and Norway and Russia‭. 

The above has led to increased focus on the accelerated pace of militarization and the demand for security‭, ‬as well as strengthening states‭’ ‬military capabilities in the region‭.‬

On the Russian side‭, ‬Russian forces in the Arctic are centred around the 200th Motor Rifle Brigade‭, ‬the 80th Brigade‭, ‬and the 61st Naval Infantry Brigade‭. ‬

The 200th‭ ‬and 80th Brigades will likely be consolidated into one division‭, ‬with the creation of separate powerful formations such as a Missile Brigade‭, ‬an Air Defence Brigade‭, ‬and others‭.‬

Moreover‭, ‬Russia’s Ministry of Defence has decided to form a new army comprised of all military divisions that will be part of the Northern Fleet covering Russia’s northern borders‭, ‬including Finland and Norway‭. ‬

This army’s objectives include protecting the strategically critical Kola Peninsula‭, ‬where Russia’s nuclear ballistic missile submarines are based‭. ‬

The Russian Armed Forces also regularly conduct drills in the polar latitudes‭, ‬especially the annual Umka manoeuvres involving individual training and polar research‭.‬

For example‭, ‬in 2021‭ ‬a detachment of ships from the Northern Fleet trained in amphibious landings in various parts of the Arctic‭, ‬with marine infantry units storming polar coasts‭. ‬

Furthermore‭, ‬Russia continues to reinforce its Northern Fleet‭, ‬equipping it in recent years with its newest vessels‭. ‬It now includes the newest Project Borei strategic missile submarine and the multi-purpose Project 885‭ (‬Yasen-M‭) ‬nuclear submarine armed with Kalibr cruise missiles‭. ‬The latter will soon be equipped with the hyper-sonic Tsirkon missile‭. ‬

More coastal defence systems like the Bal and Bastion are now deployed on Arctic islands‭, ‬more polar airfields have been rebuilt‭, ‬and more Russian forces are expected to be steadily transferred to the Arctic from other land and naval areas‭. ‬

The Arctic region also hosts more than a third of Russia’s nuclear warheads‭. ‬

Moreover‭, ‬Finland and Sweden’s move to join NATO is expected to compel Russia to establish a new army to address the new situation and increase the pace of combat training in Arctic conditions‭.‬

On the American side‭, ‬the Biden administration last year presented an updated version of the national strategy for the Arctic until 2032‭, ‬to first‭, ‬enhance the U.S‭. ‬military presence in the Arctic‭; ‬second‭, ‬intensify training with partner countries‭; ‬and third update air defence to deter aggression in the Arctic‭, ‬mainly from Russia‭. ‬

The United States also concluded a new bilateral defence agreement with Norway and is negotiating similar agreements with Finland‭, ‬Denmark and Sweden‭. ‬

Additionally‭, ‬the American military presence in Iceland is evolving‭. ‬Joint military exercises between American forces and those‭ ‬of Norway‭, ‬Finland and Sweden are also increasing‭. ‬

In early 2024‭, ‬the U.S‭. ‬Defense Department will announce a new Arctic strategy that appears to be a tougher response to growing‭ ‬Russian and Chinese military activity in the region and indications of an intensifying alliance between them‭, ‬especially off Alaska’s coast‭.‬

On the other hand‭, ‬recent years have seen increasing interest from NATO in the Arctic region‭. ‬NATO Military Committee Chairman Admiral Rob Bauer has stated that NATO must prepare for emerging military conflicts in the Arctic‭.‬

He expressed his concern about the increasing competition and militarization in the Arctic region‭, ‬especially by Russia and China‭.‬

‭(‬NATO and Russia’s lack of an effective high-level military hotline to de-escalate any sudden‭, ‬unforeseen rise in tensions‭, ‬exacerbates matters‭),‬‭ ‬he added‭.‬

In 2022‭, ‬there were three major NATO exercises in the Arctic‭:‬

‭(‬Operation Nanook‭) ‬naval exercises in northern Canada in August-September‭, ‬led by Canada with participation from the U.S‭., ‬France and Denmark‭. ‬

The‭ (‬Adamant Serpent‭) ‬Special Forces exercises in September‭, ‬led by U.S‭. ‬Special Forces in Europe‭, ‬with participation from Canada‭, ‬Finland‭, ‬Norway‭, ‬Sweden and the UK‭. ‬As part of the exercises‭, ‬Norwegian and American special forces trained together in the inland areas of Tromsø‭, ‬northern Norway‭.‬

The‭ (‬Joint Viking‭) ‬land exercise in March led by Norway‭, ‬and its maritime extension‭ (‬Joint Warrior‭) ‬led by the UK‭, ‬in northern Norway‭, ‬which saw the participation of 11‭ ‬allied nations‭.‬

Norway holds wide-ranging exercises every two years involving over 30,000‭ ‬military personnel and more than 200‭ ‬aircraft and 50‭ ‬ships‭. ‬

In 2009‭, ‬Norway moved its military joint operational headquarters from the south of the country to Bodo in the north and invested in new frigates and joint strike fighters‭. ‬

Denmark established an Arctic joint northern command centre in Nuuk‭, ‬Greenland‭, ‬at the heart of the Arctic‭. 

Sweden recently hosted‭ (‬Arctic Challenge 21‭), ‬one of Europe’s largest air force exercises‭, ‬with participation from the U.S‭., ‬Sweden‭, ‬Finland‭, ‬Denmark‭, ‬Germany‭, ‬the Netherlands and the UK‭. ‬

These exercises aimed to conduct a full range of air defence‭, ‬close air support‭, ‬air defence penetration and air-to-ground bombing exercises in the Arctic sky‭. ‬

In March 2015‭, ‬Norway and Sweden signed an agreement to increase their defence cooperation in the Arctic‭.‬

For its part‭, ‬Canada announced in 2022‭ ‬through Defence Minister Anita Anand that it will be upgrading its air and missile defence systems in the Arctic in cooperation with the United States‭.‬

A budget of 4.9‭ ‬billion Canadian dollars‭ (‬3.6‭ ‬billion euros‭) ‬has been allocated over 6‭ ‬years for this purpose‭. ‬

The minister attributed these new measures to the‭ (‬growing military threats‭) ‬from Russia and the emergence of new enemy technologies like hypersonic missiles‭. ‬

She noted that this new budget represents the most significant upgrade in almost 4‭ ‬decades‭. ‬The money will be spent on building‭ ‬ground radars and satellites capable of detecting bombers or missiles‭, ‬plus sensor networks with‭ (‬classified capabilities‭) ‬to monitor approaching air and sea objects from the Arctic to shore‭. ‬

The new systems will replace the old North Warning System dating back to the Cold War era‭, ‬whose 50‭ ‬stations can no longer detect modern missiles‭. ‬

In March of the same year‭, ‬the Canadian government announced its intention to purchase 88‭ ‬F-35‭ ‬fighter jets from the U.S‭. ‬to replace its ageing fleet and conduct patrols in the Arctic‭.‬

The Arctic represents not only an area for cooperation or conflict amongst its coastal states but has also become a region targeted by distant nations like France and China‭, ‬which consider themselves‭ (‬near-Arctic states‭). ‬

In recent decades‭, ‬China has established itself as a major power in the Arctic and strengthened its ability to change geopolitical and geoeconomic balances in the region‭. ‬

China defines itself as a‭ (‬near-Arctic state‭) ‬suffering from the melting of the frozen ocean‭. ‬In January 2018‭, ‬Beijing published‭ ‬its White Paper on the Arctic Polar Silk Road and China’s Arctic Policy‭, ‬defending its right to navigate in the region‭.‬

However‭, ‬China also clarified that it has no territorial claims in the Arctic and does not intend to impose its power over it‭. ‬After five years of negotiations and two failed attempts‭, ‬Beijing managed to obtain permanent observer status on the Arctic Council in 2013‭.‬

Despite this‭, ‬former U.S‭. ‬Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did not hide his concern about the Chinese presence in the Arctic at a‭ ‬2019‭ ‬meeting with Arctic Council members‭.‬

He emphatically stated‭, (‬There is no such thing as a near-Arctic state‭. ‬You are either an Arctic state or you are not‭), ‬in reference to American discomfort with China’s presence on the Council as an observer member‭. ‬

Notably‭, ‬China has invested around‭ $‬12‭ ‬billion in Russia’s Yamal Arctic gas field located in the Kara Sea‭, ‬one of the world’s largest liquefied natural gas projects‭.‬

When fully operational‭, ‬it is expected to double Russia’s output‭. ‬China thus owns 30%‭ ‬of the Yamal field‭, ‬divided as follows‭: ‬20%‭ ‬by the China National Petroleum Corporation and 10%‭ ‬by‭ ‬the Silk Road Fund‭. ‬

China is also investing in various other places in the Arctic‭, ‬which usually precedes a direct or indirect military presence to‭ ‬protect such interests‭, ‬especially in a region like the Arctic‭.‬

France’s main defence and security interests in the Arctic appear to be fundamentally economic‭, ‬security and environmental‭. ‬

Thus‭, ‬any attack on the stability and security of the Arctic area‭, ‬which represents a pioneering frontier for mineral resource exploitation‭, ‬energy and a future transit area between Asia and Europe‭, ‬could affect France’s current and future interests‭.‬

This involves ensuring the security of its energy supplies and more specifically strategic metals essential to the high-tech defence industry‭ (‬niobium‭, ‬tantalum‭, ‬etc‭.)‬

France is aligned with Arctic region nations due to its membership in the European Union‭ (‬Denmark‭, ‬Finland and Sweden‭) ‬and NATO‭ ‬‭(‬Canada‭, ‬the United States‭, ‬Denmark‭, ‬Iceland‭, ‬Norway‭), ‬and is therefore concerned about stability and security in this region located 2,500‭ ‬to 5,000‭ ‬kilometres from the French coast‭. ‬

France sees the gradual opening of sea routes in the Arctic‭, ‬and the increase in commercial traffic in which vessels flying the‭ ‬French flag will participate‭, ‬as posing new challenges that will require‭: ‬protecting and rescuing ships‭, ‬combatting pollution‭, ‬fundamental legal issues relating to freedom of navigation‭, ‬etc‭. ‬

Finally‭, ‬the Arctic area provides manoeuvring space for the French navy‭. ‬At an operational level‭, ‬the French armed forces believe they must remain able to use the Arctic region for their air and naval forces‭. ‬

Finally‭, ‬a French nuclear submarine and support vessels‭, ‬which were recently docked in Tromsø‭, ‬northern Norway‭, ‬are carrying out long-term missions in the Arctic‭.‬

Moreover‭, ‬France has participated in numerous naval exercises in the Arctic region‭, ‬most importantly Formidable Shield‭, ‬Dynamic‭ ‬Mongoose and Joint Warrior‭.‬

In conclusion‭, ‬observing the following map showing military bases in the Arctic region demonstrates the extent of militarization‭ ‬this part of the world has undergone‭.‬


The pace of Arctic militarization appears set to accelerate in the coming days‭, ‬as evidenced by recent events‭: ‬

In August 2023‭, ‬Russia and China conducted a joint naval patrol near Alaska but did not specify the number or location of ships‭.‬‭ ‬In response‭, ‬American newspapers cited a Defence Department official saying 4‭ ‬U.S‭. ‬destroyers‭ – ‬USS John McCain‭, ‬USS Benfold‭, ‬USS John Finn and USS Chung-Hoon‭ – ‬and a P-8‭ ‬Poseidon aircraft tracked the movements of these ships‭.‬

On September 17‭, ‬2023‭, ‬Russian Foreign Ministry Special Envoy Nikolai Korchunov stated that Russia will respond to NATO bolstering its military presence in the Arctic with a set of measures‭. ‬

The next day‭, ‬the Russian Defence Ministry published footage of drills conducted by the Russian army north-east of the Bering and Chukchi Seas in the Arctic‭, ‬around 50‭ ‬km from Alaska‭. ‬

The ministry said around ten thousand troops and over 50‭ ‬military units participated in the drills‭, ‬which included nuclear-powered submarines launching cruise missiles‭. ‬

Moscow said the objective of these drills was to test its readiness for a potential conflict in its northern icy waters and protect the Northern Sea Route‭.‬

NATO Military Committee Chairman Rob Bauer announced what he called the‭ (‬Arctic threat‭) ‬from China and Russia during the Arctic‭ ‬Circle Forum‭, ‬considering that‭ (‬Russia and China have caused accelerated military competition in the Arctic‭).‬

Factors further accelerating Arctic militarization also include the growing conviction among international players in the region‭ ‬that‭:‬

‭(‬Whoever controls the Arctic controls the world‭), ‬as stated by Admiral Valery Aleksin in 1995‭. ‬

The coming years will determine the shape the Arctic will take for a long time to come‭.‬

The rapid melting of the Arctic ice not only makes access to the Arctic’s natural resources easier‭, ‬but also brings Europe‭, ‬Russia‭, ‬and North America face to face in a new space for confrontation after the ice separating them melts‭.‬

»‬‭ ‬By‭: ‬Professor Wael Saleh‭  ‭(‬Expert at Trends Research‭ & ‬Advisory Center‭)‬

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