A Very Cold War?

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Appeared in Military Officer

It's a region rich in resources, especially oil and natural gas. Not coincidentally, old enemies and even old friends are ramping up their efforts throughout the region to explore, stake their respective claims and flex their military muscle. And not surprisingly, all of these factors have gotten Washington's attention.

What is surprising is that we're not talking about the Middle East. In fact, aside from the region's vast natural resources, nothing could be more different than the Middle East, with its sweltering temperatures and overlapping population groups, than the frozen, sparsely inhabited Arctic.

Oil Rush

The newfound interest in the Arctic is arguably a function of two factors. The first is the skyrocketing global demand for energy. The prospect of rising oil prices in the long term provides new opportunities and incentives for exploring this resource-rich frontier.

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimates that the Arctic may hold 1,670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 90 billion barrels of oil, equaling 30 percent of technically recoverable reserves of world oil and 13 percent of world gas (USGS, "90 billion barrels of oil and 1,670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the Arctic," July 23, 2008.). As Bloomberg News reports, that's "more than all the known [oil] reserves of Nigeria, Kazakhstan and Mexico combined, and enough to supply U.S. demand for 12 years." About a third of the oil is in Alaskan territory (Joe Carroll, "Arctic may hold 90 billion barrels of oil, US says," Bloomberg News, July 23, 2008).

These resources will be increasingly recoverable and transportable because the fabled Northwest Passage, once frozen throughout most of the year and navigable only by heavy-duty icebreakers, is thawing. That brings us to the other factor fueling Arctic activity: the opening up of new transit routes. The Congressional Research Service (CRS) notes that an ice-free Northwest Passage could "cut shipping routes between Europe and Asia by 3,000 to 4,000 miles" (Carl Ek, et al., 'Canada-U.S. relations,' CRS Report for Congress, May 12, 2008).

Donald Gautier of the USGS cautions that the region "will not ratchet up global production like a new Saudi Arabia" (Guy Chazan, 'Cold comfort: Arctic is oil hot spot, hard-to-reach energy reserves limit potential,' The Wall Street Journal, July 24, 2008). However, one of the region's two nuclear powers is certainly ratcheting up the tension.

During a 2007 expedition, Russia planted its flag under the ice, far beyond the internationally recognized 200-mile limit. The lead explorer provocatively declared, "The Arctic is ours" (See Michael Idov, 'Cooling down the new cold war,' The New Republic, December 9, 2008; Charles Clover, 'Diplomatic battle begins over Arctic,' The London Telegraph, May 27, 2008).  

In fact, Russia claims more than 50 percent of the area as its own exclusive economic zone. In late 2008, Russian president Dmitry Medvedev encouraged his government to "finalize and adopt a federal law on the southern border of Russia's Arctic zone" (Miriam Elder, 'Russia threatens to seize swath of Arctic,' The London Telegraph, September 22, 2008).

Worse, Moscow has made these claims in a brazen military context, signaling a fait accompli. Gen. Vladimir Shamanov, head of the Russia's combat training directorate, announced in 2008 that Russia has begun training "troops that could be engaged in Arctic combat missions" and increased the 'operational radius' of its northern submarine fleet (Randy Boswell, 'Russian general stirs Arctic waters,' Canwest News, June 25, 2008). Plus, Russian long-range bombers have started flying sorties again in the region, after more than a decade of post-Cold War peace.  

Divided Allies?

Russia seems determined to slice off a sizeable piece of the Arctic pie in violation of international agreements limiting claims more than 200 miles offshore. Canada, Denmark, Norway and the U.S. have all protested Russia's actions. But more than protests will be needed to thwart Moscow's Arctic ambitions. It is essential for the U.S. and its Arctic allies to consider their shared interests and to seek a common front. However, that may be easier said than done. After all, even these old friends have disagreements in the Arctic:

  • As CRS details, Canada contends that an ice-free Northwest Passage "would be an inland waterway and would therefore be sovereign Canadian territory," while the United States argues "the passage would constitute an international strait between two high seas" (Ek, at al.). Washington reiterated this position in its 2009 Arctic Region Policy (ARP). This prickly sovereignty issue has kept the two allies sparring at the highest level.
  • Unlike its Arctic neighbors, the U.S. has not ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Yet the treaty has bipartisan backing. According to Vice President Joseph Biden, "The Convention allows us to secure and extend our sovereign rights.' Adds John Negroponte, deputy secretary of state during the Bush administration: "Russian expeditions to the Arctic have focused attention on the resource-related benefits of being a party to the Convention" (Jim Abrams, 'Senate considers acting on sea treaty,' USAToday, October 3, 2007). Plus, the Bush administration's ARP called on the Senate to pass the treaty 'promptly' (White House, Arctic Region Policy, January 9, 2009).
  • The U.S. and Canada dispute boundary marks in the Beaufort Sea (Alaska's northern border).
  • U.S. subs occasionally traverse Arctic waters without notifying the Canadian government, angering Ottawa.
  • Finally, Denmark and Canada dispute tiny Hans Island and sometimes even send military detachments to raise their respective colors.
    Canada has grown increasingly serious about the Arctic since the election of Prime Minister Stephen Harper. As The Toronto Star recently noted, Canadian Forces patrol the country's Arctic territories as part of  "a now-yearly exercise" known as Operation Nunalivut, "this land is ours" aimed at asserting Canadian sovereignty (Alec Crawford, 'The security dimensions of environmental policy,' Toronto Star, July 8, 2008).

"To protect the north, we must control the north," Harper bluntly declared in 2008 (Randy Boswell, 'Harper looks to reap Arctic bounty,' Canwest News, August 26, 2008). Toward that end, Harper has pledged $3 billion to build eight military patrol vessels with the capacity to break through three feet of ice, vowed to add aerial surveillance assets and increase the size of Canada's Army Ranger units to 5,000 (Ken S. Coates et al., Arctic Front, 2008, p. 174), and outlined plans for a new army training center and a deep-water port in the northern reaches of Canada (Ewen MacAskill, 'Canada uses military might in Arctic scramble,' The Guardian, August 11, 2007).

This marks a dramatic departure for Canada. Unlike the U.S., Canada has never seriously invested in its security in the Arctic frontier, owing to the fact that the region has been covered by ice year-round until recently. Moreover, most Canadians live along the U.S. border.

In addition, since they relied on NORAD for early warning and on American help in air defenses during the Cold War, Canadians did not pursue military capabilities in the Arctic beyond a tiny number of troops and limited aerial surveillance. Political declarations in the 1980s to build a “super icebreaker” and nuclear-powered submarines that would travel under the ice cap never came to fruition.

Cold Front

Canada isn't the only nation bracing for a cold front in the Arctic.

Norway, Sweden and Finland are developing what The Economist magazine calls a "Nordic security partnership" as a hedge against Russian adventurism in the energy-rich 'high north' (Edward Lucas, 'North stars,' The Economist, November 19, 2008). NATO is even contemplating involvement in the Arctic.

Similarly, the ARP, the first reappraisal of U.S. Arctic policy since 1994, calls for "a more active" U.S. presence and declares, "The United States has broad and fundamental national security interests in the Arctic region and is prepared to operate either independently or in conjunction with other states to safeguard these interests." Among those interests, according to the policy: missile defense, early warning, strategic sealift, strategic deterrence, maritime security, freedom of navigation and over-flight (White House, Arctic Region Policy).

It's no surprise that Gen. Gene Renuart, commander of NORAD and Northern Command, describes the Arctic as "a region that offers great opportunities and great challenges to us in the future" (Remarks by Gen. Gene Renuart, Canadian Association of Defense & Security Industries, April 9, 2008).

In other words, the Pentagon hasn't been ignoring the Arctic. The U.S. military holds routine exercises in the region. Polar Lightning, for instance, rotates B-2 bombers into Alaska for regular exercises. Northern Edge 2008 featured some 5,000 troops and 120 aircraft operating from three different facilities in Alaska. Northern Edge 2009 involved 9,000 personnel, only a fraction of the 20,000 active-duty forces based in Alaska (US Air Force, 'Northern Edge 2008 exercise begins Monday, 5 May,' April 21, 2008; US Air Force, 'Northern Edge 2009,' January 21, 2009).

In the past decade, Northern Edge drills have included mass-airborne drops, port-security operations, harbor-defense operations, ground-defense maneuvers, supply-route protection and critical infrastructure protection (Elmendorf AFB, 'Northern Edge History, accessed on October 29, 2008)' just the sort of operations that might be necessary to keep the Arctic and its waterways open, or to dissuade Moscow from crossing the line.

Yet in some ways the United States is not as capable in the high north as it should be. CRS reports that the U.S. has only three polar icebreakers, which could prove crucial to defending U.S. sovereignty and interests. Two of these $800-million ships have exceeded their projected 30-year lifespan. Russia, by contrast, deploys 20 icebreakers (Ronald O'Rourke, 'Coast Guard polar icebreaker modernization: Background, issues and options for Congress,' CRS Report for Congress, October 3, 2008).

United Front

Conflict in the Arctic with Russia is not inevitable, but nor is cooperation.

The Russia that shuts off gas supplies bound for Europe and uses energy and military assets to intimidate nations from the Arctic Circle all the way to the Black Sea is not interested in promoting the free flow and exploration of energy resources. But the U.S., Canada, Norway and Denmark 'all NATO allies' are.

Given the high stakes, perhaps it's time for these allies to take a page from what worked during the Cold War, close ranks and present Moscow with a united front. As the past reminds us, Moscow always takes advantage of divisions within the West. And as the present confirms, the prospect of cooperation with Moscow is growing increasingly remote.

To be sure, Russia should be given an opportunity to participate as a partner, perhaps by upgrading the Arctic Council. Similarly, the U.S., Canada, Norway and Denmark could explore a treaty with Russia to divide resource claims equitably. UNCLOS does not preclude such a treaty. Moreover, like most UN regimes, UNCLOS is inherently weak and allowing it to be the final arbiter could serve Russia's interests.

However, if Russia shows no signs of cooperating, the U.S. and its Arctic allies are left with few other options than standing firm and standing together. Sharing the Arctic's bounty in a transparent manner governed by the rule of law and sound trade practices makes more strategic sense than allowing Moscow literally to divide and conquer.

To prevent that unhappy outcome, the allies may need to agree among themselves on borders, transit routes and exploration rights and then pool their economic and military resources to protect their shared interests.


The United States and Canada should lead the way by resolving their dispute over boundaries in the Beaufort Sea splitting the difference down the middle in this so-called wedge area seems reasonable and by recognizing that cooperation on the Northwest Passage provides more benefits than costs.

Some have suggested that the two should 'suspend' their differences over the legal status of the passage (Brian Fleming, 'Canada-U.S. Relations in the Arctic: A Neighbourly Proposal,' Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, December 2008, p. 2).  Of course, the two allies could go even further. It seems counterintuitive, but it may be in America's strategic interests to support Canada's claim on the Northwest Passage as an inland waterway.

There are concerns that such an arrangement could constrain America's freedom of movement and set a problematic precedent for other waterways. Yet if the Northwest Passage is deemed to be international waters, any country could send its naval vessels through it or use it as a flight corridor (See Ek, et al., p.23). Wouldn't it be better for the passage to be under the purview of one of America's closest allies?

Paul Cellucci, who served as ambassador to Canada from 2001-2005, thinks so. "It's in our security interests that the Northwest Passage be considered part of Canada," he argues ('Canada's Arctic stake,' The Toronto Star, August 21, 2007).

Canada already exercises functional sovereignty in terms of environmental regulations in its Arctic waters (under UNCLOS), including the disputed strait. The United States closely cooperates with Canada on these issues, effectively deferring to Canada's Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act.

Deferring to Canada on the sovereignty issue would arguably make it easier for the U.S. to partner with Canada in providing security and keeping threats to Canadian territory and American interests at bay. With the legal dispute put to rest, Canada would welcome American military capability in helping to secure its remote Arctic north.  

NORAD could serve as a model. In fact, Renuart is already contemplating NORAD's role in Arctic security, openly asking, "How do we posture NORAD for the future to work with nations in that region to provide the right kind of search and rescue, military response, if need be, and certainly security for whatever activities occur in the Arctic?" (Renuart, April 9, 2008)

It's worth noting that 'maritime surveillance' was added to NORAD’s list of responsibilities in 2006. Just as NORAD defends Canadian and U.S. airspace, a joint or allied naval arrangement could provide for security in and around the Northwest Passage.

Such a united front could, paradoxically, keep the peace. 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."

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