A battle for the Arctic is underway. And the United States is already behind.
“All we do is maintain good order at sea,” Rear Admiral Rune Andersen, the head of the Norwegian Navy and Coastguard, told me weeks later. He said he has seen an increase in international commercial and specifically Russian naval maritime activity in the Barents Sea and the Norwegian Sea over the past five years. Andersen says the Norwegian fleet has devoted new resources to underwater surveillance, aerial surveillance of shipping lanes and intelligence sharing with other Arctic nations like Sweden. “We’ve improved to make sure we control the North Atlantic. What is happening now in the North is important. This has a direct effect on security elsewhere.
Since the end of the Cold War, the Arctic has been largely free of visible geopolitical conflict. In 1996, the eight countries with Arctic territory formed the Arctic Council, where they agreed on environmental protection standards and pooled technology and money for the joint extraction of natural resources In the region. Svalbard, the northernmost inhabited settlement in Europe, just 700 miles south of the North Pole, epitomizes this spirit of cooperation. While it is a territory of Norway, it is also a kind of international arctic station. It hosts the KSAT satellite station, which everyone relies on, from the United States to China; a constellation of around ten national research laboratories; and the global apocalypse Seed Vault (where seeds from around the world are stored in the event of a global loss of crop diversity, whether due to climate change or nuclear fallout). Svalbard, where polar bears outnumber people, is considered a demilitarized, visa-free zone by 42 countries.
But today, this arctic desert is rapidly becoming the center of a new conflict. The vast sea ice that covers the Arctic Ocean is rapidly melting due to climate change, losing 13% per decade – a rate that experts say could make the Arctic ice-free in summer as soon as 2035. Already, the thaw has created new shipping lanes, opened up existing seasonal lanes for more of the year, and provided more opportunities for natural resource extraction. Nations now compete for military and trade arms control of this newly accessible territory – a competition that has only intensified since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Over the past two decades, Russia has dominated this fight for the Arctic, bolstering its fleet of nuclear-capable icebreakers, ships and submarines, developing more mining and oil wells along its 15,000-mile Arctic. coast, in the race to take control of the new « Northern Sea Route » or « Transpolar Sea Route » which could begin to open by 2035, and wooing non-Arctic nations to help fund these efforts.
At the same time, America is catching up in a climate where it has little experience and capacity. The US government and military appear to be waking up to the threats of climate change and Russian dominance of the Arctic – recently releasing a national strategy for the Arctic region and a report on the impact of climate change on US military bases , opening a consulate in Nuuk, Greenland, and this year appointing a Goodwill Ambassador for the Arctic Region within the State Department and a Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Arctic and Global Resilience. America’s European allies have also redesigned homeland security, increasing national defense budgets and security around critical energy infrastructure in the Arctic as they aim to build up defense capabilities and rely less on the American aid.
But 17 Arctic observers – including Norwegian diplomats, State Department analysts and national security experts focusing on the Arctic – have said they fear that the United States and Europe will not be able to maintain a grip on the region’s energy resources and diplomacy as Russia places more civilian and military infrastructure in the Arctic, threatening economic development and national security of the other seven nations whose sovereign lands lie within the Arctic Circle.
Even as the United States claims to have developed tougher Arctic policies, five prominent Arctic watchers I spoke with say that the US government and military take too narrow a view, see the Arctic as primarily Alaska and an area of natural resource extraction, but not as a key geopolitical and national security battleground beyond US borders. They say the United States is under-resourced in the Arctic and unprepared to deal with the growing climate threat, which will require new types of technology, training and infrastructure with which the United States has little. of experience. Several US government officials involved in Arctic planning told me privately that they also fear a nuclear escalation in the Arctic, which would threaten to engulf Europe and its allies in a larger conflict.
“We are committed to expanding our engagement across the region,” one of those officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to speak candidly about a tense geopolitical region, told me, “but we are not there yet. the ».
« The [Defense] The Department views the Arctic as a potential route of approach to the homeland and as a potential venue for great power competition,” the new U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Arctic and Resilience wrote to me. World, Iris A. Ferguson, in an email. Ferguson described Russia as an « acute threat » and also expressed concern that China, an « increasing threat », was seeking « to normalize its presence and play a bigger role in shaping Arctic regional governance and security affairs ». (China has contributed to liquid natural gas projects and funded a biodiesel plant in Finland as part of its Belt and Road Initiative that now reaches the Arctic.)
There have been tense moments in the Arctic over the past few decades, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February took the competition to new heights. Immediately after the invasion, the other seven members of the Arctic Council declared that they would boycott the upcoming talks in Russia. Norway, considered NATO’s northern listening post, has limited access to its ports to Russian fishing trawlers, but has always allowed Russian fishing in the Barents Sea. In May, Russia has declared a militarization of its fishing fleet and maritime vessels. Norway has decided to increase vigilance at military installations and critical liquid gas and energy infrastructure across the country, much of which is in the Arctic and sub-Arctic. Europe, which has severed its ties with Russian gas exports, has come to depend on this Arctic energy.
In mid-November, US Special Forces demonstrated the use of an experimental parachute-deployed guided weapons system over Norwegian territory. “We are trying to deter Russian aggression, expansionist behavior, by showing the improved capabilities of the allies,” Lt. Col. Lawrence Melnicoff told the military newspaper Stars and Stripes.
In the Norwegian Far North, a term used to describe Norway’s Arctic territories, no less than seven Russian citizens have been detained in recent months for flying drones, banned by the same prohibitions for Russian airlines in European airspace. The drones were discovered flying near areas of critical infrastructure. One of those arrested in October was Andrey Yakunin, 47, the son of Vladimir Yakunin, the former chairman of Russian Railways and an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin who was sanctioned by the State Department after the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014.
Since the invasion of Russia « we’ve been reminded of a local historical realization, which happens many times in every generation, that things can get much worse than you think, » Espen Barth Eide told me, the former Norwegian Minister of Defence. « It’s much easier [for Russia] interfere if you have an area of uncertainty between the West and Russia”, Barth Eide spoke of the waters around Norway, whose fisheries are often contested by Russia.
“The Arctic, at least as an area of security concerns, has not been on the agenda since the collapse of the Soviet Union,” said Commander Göran Swistek, Visiting Fellow in International Security. at the German Institute for International Security Affairs, author of a study. of Russia’s growing interest in the north, I said in a telephone interview. « But the northern area has again become a new frontline where Russia feels vulnerable. »