The Arctic becomes a hot spot

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Appeared in the American Magazine Online

In releasing its first-ever Arctic strategy recently, the Pentagon has shined a spotlight on the resource-rich Arctic region’s increasing importance—and its growing security challenges. It may sound improbable, but the main source of global energy reserves and geopolitical tensions could shift in the not-too-distant future from the deserts and densely populated urban areas of the Middle East to the icy waters and desolate tundra of the Arctic.

Energy from the Arctic

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimates the Arctic may hold 1,670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 90 billion barrels of oil. “The Arctic accounts for about 13 percent of the undiscovered oil, 30 percent of the undiscovered natural gas, and 20 percent of the undiscovered natural gas liquids in the world,” according to USGS.

About a third of the oil is in Alaskan territory, and the cost of extraction is increasingly justifiable due to market realities. Growing demand, along with decreasing and undependable supplies in the Middle East, are conspiring to push energy prices upwards, which is encouraging exploration in the Arctic and elsewhere.

Another important factor in the Arctic energy rush relates to shipping. The fabled Northwest Passage, once frozen most of the year, is thawing. “Opening up the Northwest Passage cuts 4,000 nautical miles off the trip from Europe to Asia,” NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh-Rasmussen observes. “You can bet a lot of companies have done that math.”

Indeed, according to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, “Traffic in the Northern Sea Route is reportedly expected to increase tenfold this year.”

Russia’s Reach

Russia is eyeing the resources of the Arctic and signaling its seriousness about claiming those resources:

  • In May, Russia announced plans to construct four new warships expressly for the Arctic by 2020, along with a constellation of 11 border outposts to protect its Arctic frontier.
  • In 2012, the Kremlin announced that key air units would redeploy to Arctic airfields in Novaya Zemlya (a finger-shaped island off the Russian mainland). That same year, Moscow unveiled plans to stand up “infrastructure hubs” in the Arctic to be used as way stations for Russian warships.
  • A 2009 Kremlin strategy paper placed a priority on securing energy resources in “the Barents Sea shelf and other Arctic regions.”
  • In 2008, a Russian general revealed plans to train “troops that could be engaged in Arctic combat missions,” ominously adding, “Wars these days are won and lost well before they are launched.”
  • During a 2007 expedition, after he planted the Russian flag under the Arctic ice, the lead explorer declared, “The Arctic is ours.”

As my colleague Alex Moens and I have noted, “Russia’s outsized Arctic claims rest on a dubious interpretation of an underwater ridge linking to the Russian landmass. Russia argues that this ridge is an extension of its own continental shelf.” Not surprisingly, Russia’s Arctic neighbors don’t share this view. In 2010, as the U.S. and Canada began a joint expedition to collect data on the extended continental shelf, the U.S. government emphasized that “The United States has an inherent national interest in knowing, and declaring to others with specificity, the extent of our sovereign rights with regard to the U.S. extended continental shelf. Certainty and international recognition are important in establishing the necessary stability for development, conservation and protection of these areas, likely rich in resources.”

“We are open to dialogue,” Russian President Vladimir Putin declared in 2011, “but naturally, the defense of our geopolitical interests will be hard and consistent.” As if to underscore this, Russia is deploying two army brigades—10,000 troops—to defend its Arctic claims.

U.S. Defense and Arctic Allies

Russia’s words and deeds help explain why former NATO Commander Admiral James Stavridis has warned that the Arctic could become a “zone of competition, or worse, a zone of conflict.”

The Pentagon’s Arctic strategy concedes that the Arctic could be “an avenue of approach to North America for those with hostile intent toward the U.S. homeland,” citing a range of national security interests related to Arctic security and stability, including missile defense, missile early warning, strategic sealift, strategic deterrence, maritime security and maritime freedom of maneuver.

With some 27,000 troops in Alaska and a key air base above the Arctic Circle (Thule Air Base in Greenland), the United States “is an Arctic nation with broad and fundamental interests in the Arctic,” as the president’s 2013 Arctic policy states.

However, the United States has only two operational polar icebreakers — one of which is a medium-duty vessel tasked largely to scientific missions and the other of which has exceeded its 30-year lifespan. Russia, by contrast, deploys some 25 polar icebreakers.

Admiral Robert Papp, chief of the U.S. Coast Guard, notes that the United States deployed eight heavy icebreakers at the height of the Cold War and warns that this icebreaker gap could haunt the United States.

“While our Navy can go under the ice with submarines — and, when the Arctic weather permits, which is not all that often, we can fly over the ice — our nation has very limited Arctic surface capabilities. But surface capabilities are what we need to conduct missions like search and rescue, environmental response, and to provide a consistent and visible sovereign presence,” he explains.

A new heavy-duty icebreaker would cost $852 million. That’s a huge expenditure amid what Hagel calls “steep, deep, and abrupt defense budget reductions” — and yet another reason to reverse sequestration’s guillotine approach to budget-cutting.

If the United States and its Arctic allies can agree on a common approach to Arctic security, combine their capabilities, and play niche security roles in the Arctic, they can deal with Moscow from a posture of strength and clarity — thus limiting the sorts of misunderstandings that can lead to what Churchill called “temptations to a trial of strength” and ultimately to confrontation.

The good news is that some of America’s closest allies are Arctic neighbors: Canada, Iceland, Denmark, and Norway are all members of NATO. Although Sweden is officially non-aligned, it’s a de facto member of NATO, cooperating extensively with the alliance in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Libya—and working closely with Norway and Denmark on security in and around the Arctic. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to allied activity in the Arctic:

  • Norway has moved its military headquarters inside the Arctic Circle, transferred “a substantial part of its operational forces to the north,” moved its coastguard headquarters north of the Arctic Circle, and recently based its largest active army unit above the Arctic Circle, according to a report produced by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). Norway also has led Arctic maneuvers enfolding 13 nations. One scenario was based on an attack against oil rigs by the fictional country “Northland,” a thinly disguised euphemism for Russia.
  • Denmark is standing up an Arctic military command, beefing up its military presence in Greenland and deploying an Arctic Response Force, as SIPRI recently reported.
  • Canada is building new bases, including an Arctic Training Center halfway between the Arctic Circle and the North Pole; conducting annual maneuvers to defend its Arctic territories; preparing to deploy up to eight armed Arctic patrol ships; and procuring a squadron of drones — some of them armed — to be Ottawa’s “eyes in the sky in the Arctic,” according to Canada’s top air force general.
  • The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard have joined Denmark and Canada for Arctic maneuvers. In late 2012, the United States and Canada agreed to deepen their military cooperation in the Arctic, with a focus on cold-weather operations, training, capabilities, domain awareness, and communications.


Russia appears to be employing a strategy by which claims will justify possession, and possession will justify claims. To prevent a Russian fait accompli in the Arctic, the United States, Canada, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden may be best served by pooling their resources to protect their shared interests, as they do in other parts of the world.

The Arctic Council is not well suited for such a role given that it is forbidden from dealing with military-security issues. In 2009, NATO officials declared the Arctic a region “of strategic interest to the alliance.” Yet Fogh-Rasmussen announced this year that “NATO has no intention of raising its presence and activities in the High North.”

With or without NATO’s unifying role, it is only prudent for the United States and its allies to develop some sort of collaborative security component to the Arctic puzzle. “In order to ensure a peaceful opening of the Arctic,” as Admiral James Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, puts it, “DOD must anticipate today the Arctic operations that will be expected of it tomorrow.”

There is a framework already in place to help the allies address Arctic security: Jointly operated by the United States and Canada, NORAD could serve as the model for an Arctic security partnership. Just as NORAD provides airspace and maritime surveillance for North America, an allied arrangement under the NORAD rubric could provide the building blocks for Arctic security.

The challenge is to remain open to cooperation with Moscow while bracing for worst-case scenarios. After all, Russia is not the Soviet Union. Even as Putin makes mischief, Moscow is open to making deals. Russia and Norway, for instance, resolved a long-running boundary dispute in 2010, paving the way for development in 67,000 square-miles of the Arctic.

Still, dealing with Russia is about power. As Churchill once said of his Russian counterparts, “There is nothing they admire so much as strength, and there is nothing for which they have less respect than for weakness.” When the message is clear and backed by muscle — “hard and consistent,” to use Putin’s language — Russia will take a cooperative posture. When the message is muddled, Russia will take what it can get.

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