In 2011, a Chinese ship, instead of taking a normal circuitous route to reach its shores from the Norwegian coast, cruised past the Arctic Ocean via the North Pole, marking the beginning of a new "Great Game."
The passage is believed to be 30% shorter than the usual shipping lanes via the Suez Canal and the piracy-prone Malacca Straits and the Gulf of Aden.
Although over the past 10 years the focus remained mostly commercial that is finding new shipping pathways due to the melting of snow in the region, experts believe that the latest Russia-Ukraine war, which has resulted in evolving a new geopolitical order, has intensified competition over sovereignty and resources in the Arctic.
Russia shares the Arctic coastline with five NATO member states, plus Finland and Sweden – all of whom are sending military and financial support to help Ukraine. The Ukraine war has also triggered Sweden and Finland to end decades of neutrality and the two countries are now considering joining NATO.
Coinciding with the Russian attack on Ukraine, the US conducted war drills in frigid Alaska in late February to check Moscow’s aggressive moves to militarize the Arctic. Codenamed Arctic Edge 2022, the largest joint exercise held in Alaska, involved about 1,000 US troops from a combination of more than 35 units from both the US and Canada in the land, air, and sea maneuvers in ice-cold temperatures and harsh conditions.
The war games highlighted that Pentagon was intending to rebuild cold-weather skills neglected during two decades of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Last year long before the Russian war on Ukraine, the US Army released its first strategic plan for “Regaining Arctic Dominance.”
Not just the Arctic Ocean countries (Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the US), but many other countries, including China, India, and France, have set their sights on controlling new trade routes and the vast oil, gas, and mineral reserves in the Arctic region.
Admitting that the region has gained increased political and economic importance, Danish diplomat Klavs Holm, who also served as his country’s envoy for Arctic affairs in 2012, said while the region has great potential from oil and mineral extraction to maritime traffic, there is a great risk for people and the environment.
Renowned Arctic expert and author Martin Breum, who has traveled to the North Pole and also resided in Greenland, said the war on Arctic routes is taking a dangerous turn, although extraction of oil and minerals in the region is proven uneconomical.
“Yes, there are fossil fuel reserves, but extraction is uneconomical for any business venture,” he said. Breum added that the war was more to control Arctic routes and the countries were jostling to show their authority on the North Pole.
While China exhibited its fast-growing interest by exploring a route to Europe via the North Pole, its competitor in Asia, India, has also chipped in by hiring a remote northernmost Norwegian island Spitsbergen for scientific experiments. It is located at a distance of 1,200 kilometers (750 miles) from the North Pole.
The West’s anxiety further stems from the local government in Greenland increasingly asserting itself and looking to China for investment in extracting minerals. Though the region, the largest island in the Arctic, is a part of Denmark, it enjoys self-rule since 2009. It has its prime minister but its foreign affairs, currency, and defense are vested with Copenhagen.
According to Chuan Chen, a researcher at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, the Greenlanders who are of late vying for independence view China’s huge investments as their path towards breaking free of the financial support from Denmark.
“Investment bids from the Chinese in Greenland’s mining projects could intensify the bidding competition, leading to Greenland getting more economic benefits. Moreover, Greenland can use Chinese investment as a bargaining chip to obtain greater benefits from the US and Denmark if these countries oppose Chinese investment,” he said.
In its first white paper on Arctic policy in 2018, China had unveiled plans to develop a sea lane dubbed the “Ice Silk Road.” It is already planning a rare earth mining project in Greenland.
Breum said while it was easy to find a cooperative relationship in the South Pole as it was uninhabited, the rims of the Arctic Oceans, which are inhabited by indigenous tribes and are marked by national boundaries, complicate the situation. According to UN laws of seas, the extended economic zones of Russia, Canada, and Denmark overlap at the North Pole.
Another challenge is the idea of setting up a “mini-NATO” in the Arctic region. The name refers to a proposed military bloc of Scandinavian countries, ex-Soviet Baltic republics, and the UK, which many describe as the “response to Russian claims on the North Pole.” Sweden and Finland recently agreed to submit simultaneous membership applications to the US-led NATO alliance, according to media reports.
The prime ministers of both countries said last month that they were deliberating the question, arguing Russia’s war on Ukraine had changed Europe’s “whole security landscape” and “dramatically shaped mindsets” in the Nordic region.
Scientists believe that global warming has reduced ice coverage in the Arctic region by as much as 40% since the last century. This year, the extent of sea ice in the Antarctic fell to its lowest recorded level, according to a report published in the Advances in Atmospheric Science journal.
Russia, which has the largest territory within the Arctic, launched a liquefied natural gas project in the Yamal Peninsula in Siberia in 2017. To open up more sea lanes, it is building large-scale icebreakers as well. According to the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a British defense and security think tank, Russia has invested in fortifying offshore islands such as Alexandra Land and Kotelny in the region with sea denial systems such as the Bastion-P systems capable of launching the supersonic P-800 anti-ship cruise missile.
“In conjunction with the strike capabilities of the Northern Fleet’s more capable surface ships, such as the Admiral Gorshkov class frigate and the Kirov class cruiser, as well as Russia’s strategic bombers, which can launch missiles such as the KH-47M2 Kinzhal quasi ballistic missile, this represents a considerable strike capability,” said a research paper published by the RUSI.
American journal the Foreign Policy maintains that the widespread military buildup in the Arctic region amplifies the potential for a conflict between Russia and NATO-allied states to spill over into the region. Russian President Vladimir Putin is also leveraging Arctic resources to strengthen his hand elsewhere, including deepening connections with China by announcing renewed cooperation in the Arctic and signing a new 30-year agreement on energy exports in early February.
Christian Perez, a senior policy and quantitative analyst at the Foreign Policy, writes that a breakdown in communication between Russia and other Arctic nations would further heighten the risk of a miscommunication between Russian and NATO forces stationed across the region. So far, the Arctic Council had served as the most comprehensive governance forum, playing a critical role in improving relations between Russia and NATO-allied states in the past.
As Russia continues its war on Ukraine and challenges NATO, the Arctic is positioned to play a crucial and growing role in future geopolitical, economic, and military affairs. Combined with Russia’s strong military position, the region is becoming a critical factor in determining the US’ and EU’s strategic engagement with Russia.
Besides the Russia-Ukraine war, the Arctic will also test the diplomatic nerves of Turkiye whose investments in the polar regions are allowing it to pursue a bigger mosaic of interests that are scientific, commercial, and military.
“As such Turkey joins both China and India in pursuing more ambitious activities in frozen lands,” said Duncan Depledge, Caroline Kennedy-Pipe, and Ali Bilgic, researchers at the RUSI.
In a joint paper, the three researchers said that Turkiye, which is already benefiting from the growing commercial activity in the Arctic, has its construction companies with hundreds of engineers working on key infrastructure projects in the Russian Arctic, including Yamal LNG and Arctic LNG 2. These Turkish companies have been taking orders from Canada, Denmark/Greenland, Norway, Russia, and the US for state-of-the-art fishing vessels, offshore support vessels, and passenger vessels that are capable of operating in Arctic waters.
In case of any potential conflict, the task for Turkish diplomats will be cut to find an amicable settlement and evolve a code to manage the Arctic as in the case of Antarctica, the southernmost continent and site of the South Pole.