There is a broad scientific consensus that the global climate is changing at an unprecedented rate, and that temperatures are increasing more rapidly in the Arctic than in the rest of the world. According to recent assessments made by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme, the Arctic Ocean may be largely ice-free during summers by the late 2030s, if not sooner. The dramatic changes currently taking place in the northern part of the globe may affect interstate relationships and regional security dynamics in a number of ways.

Security challenges in the Arctic – “hard” and “soft”

In order to get a better understanding of the security dynamics currently at play in the Arctic, it is necessary to distinguish between “hard” and “soft” security challenges. The term “hard security” refers to the military security of states, whereas the term “soft security” refers to the non-military dimensions of security – environmental security, economic security, societal security, human security and so on. Both dimensions of security are included and represented in contemporary threat perceptions and security policy strategies for the Arctic – Western as well as Russian.

Russia’s defence modernization and growing military activity in the northern waters and airspace does not in itself represent a threat to the country’s Arctic neighbours. What makes it challenging, seen from a security perspective, is the non-transparent and increasingly provocative nature of the activity. Unannounced “snap drills”, often large in size, are being held on a regular basis. There have also been recent (in 2017 and 2018) examples of simulated offensive air operations directed at Norwegian installations, bases and naval exercise areas. Such behaviour does not contribute to the building of trust between neighbours. Russia’s violation of state borders and international law in other regions, most notably in Ukraine, has raised legitimate security concerns among the country’s neighbours in Northern Europe and rendered military-to-military cooperation with Russia politically impossible.

At the same time, it is recognized, on the Western as well as on the Russian side, that the states that surround the Arctic Ocean face a number of common and long-term “soft” security challenges, which will require an increased degree of interstate cooperation and coordination in the period up to 2030. The growing human activity in the Arctic is to be understood in the context of global climate change and the region’s growing economic significance. Within the sphere of “soft security”, Russian-Western regional and bilateral cooperation is not only possible, but also highly necessary.

Interstate disputes – coming to the surface?

When it comes to the issue of maritime border and delimitation disputes in the Arctic, it should be noted that many of them, such as the Norwegian-Russian delimitation dispute in the Barents Sea and the Arctic Ocean, have been settled in recent years. There are relatively few unresolved Law of the Sea issues in the Arctic Ocean and the near-Arctic seas, at least compared to maritime areas of similar size elsewhere in the world, and few of the remaining unresolved issues are particularly pressing. Thus, the military escalation potential related to these issues should not be overstated.

Generally, resource extraction in the Arctic is, and will continue to be, expensive and technologically challenging, particularly offshore. The low yield of Arctic offshore petroleum activity implies that development in this sector will remain limited, even with diminishing sea ice. Furthermore, drilling in the central part of the Arctic Ocean is not likely to take place anytime soon, given the amount of sea ice still present and the depth at which potential oil and gas fields reside. Furthermore, there are sizeable and more readily available petroleum resources closer to the shore, within the undisputed exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of the coastal states.

One potential source of disagreement is the division of the Arctic continental shelf, beyond the 200 nautical mile boundary. Central in this regard is the Lomonosov Ridge, an 1800 km long underwater ridge which Russia, Canada and Denmark see as a natural extension of their current continental shelves in the Arctic. Diplomatic efforts towards the resolution of these and other territorial disagreements are important for ensuring stability in the region. So far, all of the Arctic coastal states have abided by the principles of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The major current point of contention is the existence of partially overlapping shelf claims in the central part of the Arctic Ocean, particularly related to the Lomonosov Ridge. If the revised Russian claim to the Lomonosov and Mendeleev Ridges, put forth in 2015, is rejected by the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, can we expect Russia to adhere to the decision? This remains to be seen.

Interstate disputes may also arise over the access to living marine resources. There are large fishing fleets currently operating in the Arctic, particularly in the Barents, Bering and Greenland Seas. With climate change causing fish stocks to move northwards, increased commercial fishing activity in parts of the Arctic is to be expected. However, the activity is unlikely to expand into the High Seas portion of the Arctic Ocean, due to water depths and the (seasonal) presence of sea ice. Additionally, there is good dialogue and general agreement among the stakeholders in Arctic commercial fishing.

As the Arctic sea ice continues to retreat, ship traffic is projected to increase, particularly along the Northern Sea Route and in the Northwest Passage, and this may potentially bring the “straits issue” to the fore. Russia and Canada consider the straits of these waterways to be a part of their internal waters, whereas others, such as the U.S. and the EU, see them as international straits where the right of transit passage applies. In January 2019, Russia implemented limitations on the passage of foreign vessels in the Northern Sea Route, in order to bolster the country’s domestic shipping industry. Additional limitations have been placed on the passage of foreign warships. In the coming decades, new shipping routes, north of the Russian Arctic islands, may become available. It is uncertain to what extent Russia will be able to regulate the ship traffic in its entire Arctic “sector” as this development unfolds.

The danger of “spillover” from other regions

In the period up to 2030, the security situation in the Arctic will continue to be shaped by developments in the region as well as by developments in other parts of the world. As noted above, region-specific disputes, for instance over the access to living marine resources, offshore petroleum resources or the use of trans-Arctic shipping routes, may lead to an increased level of tension between the Arctic coastal states, or between the Arctic coastal states and outside actors. Tensions and conflicts elsewhere, for instance between NATO and Russia, may also potentially spill over into the Arctic and have a distinctly negative effect on the security situation in the region. It is also possible to envision a combination of the two forms of escalation, that is, “vertical escalation” (growing intensity) and “horizontal escalation” (geographical expansion) of tensions or conflicts.

The fact that four of the five Arctic coastal states (the U.S., Canada, Denmark, and Norway) are members of NATO seems to be a source of particular concern for the fifth one (Russia). Russia is concerned about its military security interests in the region, including potential threats to its strategic naval forces on the Kola Peninsula. Conflicts in the Arctic may also arise as a result of accidents, misunderstandings and misinterpretations of other nations’ military behaviour, particularly in a situation where Russian-Western relations are marked by mutual fears and suspicions, and by a fundamental lack of trust. Increased military transparency and confidence-building measures may reduce the risk of an unintended escalation driven by “action-reaction” dynamics.

Maintaining safety at sea – new agreements and fora

The “Agreement on Cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic”, which was signed in 2011 and entered into force in 2013, was the first legally binding agreement negotiated under the auspices of the Arctic Council. In 2013, the member states of the Arctic Council signed an agreement enhancing marine oil pollution preparedness and response capabilities in the Arctic, which entered into force in 2017. Both of these agreements are the result of joint endeavours to enhance safety at sea and protect the vulnerable Arctic marine environment.

In the fall of 2014, the Arctic Coast Guard Forum was created. Based on agreed-upon procedural guidelines, the eight Arctic Coast Guards will be able to use this forum to enhance their operational capabilities through extensive information sharing, the development of “best practices”, the identification of future training needs and the organization and conduct of combined exercises and operations. In the current and, presumably, long-lasting absence of military-to-military cooperation between Russia and its Arctic neighbours, the Arctic Coast Guard Forum may turn out to be an important arena for East-West dialogue and cooperation in the Arctic.

Needless to say, there are many uncertainties when it comes to how, how much and how soon the process of climate change will alter security dynamics and security politics in the Arctic. What is clear, however, is that the ongoing changes in the region’s physical characteristics are likely to present policy planners and political decision-makers with a wide array of new challenges. These challenges will require extraordinary measures at the national as well as at the regional and international levels. The states that surround the Arctic Ocean have a common interest in maintaining safety at sea, preserving regional stability and preventing conflict scenarios such as those outlined above.

Photo: U.S. Pacific Fleet – CC BY-NC 2.0

Dr. Kristian Åtland is a Senior Research Fellow at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment and a prolific writer on European and Arctic security issues. He holds a PhD in political science from the University of Tromsø. In the coming academic year (2019–2020), he will be a Visiting Scholar at the Institute of Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies (ISEEES), University of California, Berkeley.

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