Arctic Politics: From Cooperation to Competition – and Back Again?
For a long time, the Arctic had a kind of exceptional character as an international peace zone. But that now seems to be a thing of the past, as the region has become the new frontier for the geopolitical power play of major global and small regional powers.
By Kristina Spohr, Professor of International History, London School of Economics and Political Sciences
If we lose the Arctic, we lose the whole world, ”Finnish president Sauli Niinistö observed in 2017. What he meant was obvious: Global warming – more severe in the northern reaches of the globe than anywhere else – will affect all of humanity. Humanity, however, remains subdivided into states with competing interests. Relations among the eight Arctic powers – countries with territory north of the Arctic circle (that is Russia, USA, Canada, Denmark/Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finland) – are today less harmonious than at any time in the post-Cold War era; in particular, the currently heightened tensions between Russia and the seven Western countries have direct implications for the Arctic region itself. The fact that external actors, notably China, have been pushing into the North, through unilateral actions but also through Beijing’s close partnership with the Kremlin, in order both to underscore its status as a power with global reach and to challenge the US-led world order, has further deepened uncertainty in the region.
Arctic diplomacy: Key to the post-war order?
Despite the massive power differentials, politico-ideological divergence, and competing interests, the years since the end of the Cold War have seen multilateral engagement among the Arctic Eight at all levels – local, regional, and national – mediated through both inter-governmental and transnational non-governmental cooperation. The region became known for a shared commitment to keeping the peace and continuing to talk, even when there were crises and clashes farther afield. But today, thanks to Russia’s War in Ukraine, these multilateral fora and initiatives – hallmarks of the Arctic’s “exceptionalism” – are effectively suspended. There is just one hopeful sign: the eight-country “Arctic Council” whose rotating chairmanship just passed from Russia to Norway in an orderly manner, remains in operation. And this may prove to be important. Because the Arctic now lies in the eye of a global climatic storm. This region, once a neglected margin, shrouded in mystery, could be the place where common ground is found and constructive engagement renewed. If a new post-war global order is coming, it may well be born here.
Fostering Arctic Cooperation during the Cold War
Cooperative engagement in the High North had its roots in the years of the Cold War’s denouement. It was hoped, even expected, that despite conflicts elsewhere in the world, the Arctic region could become a model space for international governance and an exemplary “territory of dialogue” between the regional stakeholder states. The notions of “high north low tensions” and of “Arctic exceptionalism” that emerged were grounded precisely in these assumptions. It all began with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s Murmansk speech in 1987. As he sought to defuse the East-West conflict, he vowed to transform the Arctic into a nuclear-free area and international “zone of peace.” Keen on disarmament, he called for an end to nuclear testing and restrictions on naval activities while urging joint development of resources and co-operation to safeguard the Arctic ecosystem. Gorbachev’s personal initiative complemented other international systemic shifts during the 1980s. His words resonated with the concerns of the growing green movements in the West (and East) and spoke to a mounting awareness of the effects of pollution and climate change. They also fitted with the long-term aspirations for peace, security, and environmental protection in the Arctic as articulated by the small NATO and neutral Nordic countries, and demanded by increasingly politically assertive Northern indigenous peoples, from the North American and Greenland Inuit to the Sami in Northern Europe and the Nenets and Chukchi in Siberia.
The Arctic Council and its genesis
Gorbachev did not outlast the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. But his “new thinking” opened up a new era in the Arctic. In June that year, the eight circumpolar countries (USA, USSR, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finland) under Finnish leadership announced the so-called Rovaniemi process, a joint Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy. Two years later, in 1993, Norway launched the intergovernmental Barents Euro-Arctic Council and cross-border county level Barents Regional Council, before the most significant and thematically broadest forum of all, the Arctic Council, was founded in 1996 under Canadian initiative. In the Arctic Council, unusually, the governments of the “Arctic Eight” set out to work together with six so-called permanent participants –organisations representing Arctic Indigenous Peoples – as equal partners in all the areas of “soft power”, from culture to ecology, from tourism to trade. Yet, the contested subject of military affairs was expressly left out. Crucially, until 2022, the Council managed to largely shield its fruitful regional cooperation from any encroachment by negative global dynamics or external crises.
The impact of climate change
The climate emergency is changing all that. As global awareness of climate change has grown, so has the visibility of the Arctic. This was first epitomised at the UN Rio Earth Summit in 1992, then followed with the signing of the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 and the Paris Climate Accord in 2015, before in late 2020 the UN SG declared a “triple planetary emergency” – a climate crisis, a nature crisis, and a pollution crisis. Nowhere is the planet’s warming more palpable than in the Arctic. Alarming new climatological patterns reflect the realities of a region warming much faster than the rest of the earth – four times more quickly, according to the latest scientific data, than the global average around the North Pole; seven times faster in the North-European Barents Sea region.
The historical shift in Arctic dynamics
But while some warn of an impending climate catastrophe others focus on the immense opportunities opening up as icescape turns to seascape: newly navigable sea lanes are fuelling a rush for resources. That Arctic affairs have appeared near the top of the international agenda over the last 5–10 years is precisely because climate change has raised the economic and political stakes. Local leaders and international decision-makers now face the task of balancing long-term ecological challenges with the new economic opportunities exposed by the big melt. Reconciling these imperatives is not likely to be easy. At the same time, potentially cooperative regional approaches have come under pressure from conflict between states erupting elsewhere. And, to make matters even worse, the buzz around those new opportunities for development have drawn geographically remote actors into the regional game, most importantly China. This threatens to unsettle the already shaky regional equilibrium and to disrupt the collaborative Arctic regime of the 1990s. Tensions over territorial claims, regional control, and governance of the Arctic region are rising.
Russia’s reach for Arctic dominance
“Arctic exceptionalism” ended abruptly last year, when Putin went to war with Ukraine. Faced with Putin’s challenge to the post-Wall European peace-order, the West placed the belligerent Russians under a regime of sanctions. From March 2022, the Western Seven of the Arctic Eight also suspended their participation on the Arctic Council. As it happened, Russia held the rotating chairmanship when the Council stopped functioning in its consensus-based format. From then onward, any hope that it might serve to pursue a regional common cause was gone. The transition was less sudden than it seemed. For some years, under Putin’s “second reign”, Russia had been intensifying its military build-up from the Barents Sea to the Bering Strait. And beyond the reopening of hundreds of new and former Soviet-era Arctic military sites, the Kremlin had also started to use the high north “as a testbed for the most advanced weapons including hypersonic missiles” – some of which Putin fired on Ukraine.
Was the “zone of peace” an illusion?
Looking back, it seems that Russia was systematically using the paradigm of “Arctic exceptionalism” as a smokescreen to conceal its efforts to outmanoeuvre the West in the circumpolar North. The key long-term strategic goal was to gain a relative military advantage in the area, while simultaneously limiting NATO’s and Western military development in the area. It was this growing Russian “security challenge”, Jens Stoltenberg warned of in 2022, that required a fundamental rethink of NATO’s Arctic posture. NATO, he argued, ought to respond through an increased allied military presence and serious investment in new capabilities. For too long, Western countries had worked towards Arctic cooperation while Russia focused instead on military competition. Especially the small Nordic neighbours had sought to minimize tensions, sticking to military non-alignment while conducting important collaborative work on environmental issues. At the very latest, Russia ceased to be a cooperative stakeholder in Arctic and European security in 2022, when President Putin openly declared the collective West a “strategic enemy”.
The Arctic without Russia is not an option
As we look to the future, some form of communicative engagement with Russia is obviously necessary. This is required in order to handle technical-level connections, as well as to avoid misunderstandings or miscalculations especially regarding military exercises or border control. Yet, genuine cooperation or even staking out measures designed to ease tensions over the medium term is largely out of the question, because all trust is gone. The challenge of Putin’s Russia has turned out to be systemic in nature. For Putin, the driving factor in world politics is the constant struggle between sovereign great powers, and Russia’s own ontological and deep-rooted antipathy towards the “liberal West”, underpinned by a strategic culture marked by militarism and violent imperialism.
How Western cooperation bolstered Russia’s Arctic ambitions
Arctic economic and military resources continue to play an essential role in Russia’s ability to conduct aggression and its quest to achieve its grand strategic goal, the restoration of its quality as a great power (державность). Since the end of the Cold War, the West has facilitated this capability through its post-Cold War regional cooperative practices, helping Russia gain access to international research projects and Western money to improve infrastructure and living conditions in the Far North. Collaboration also catalysed the energy sector, which in turn helped create the impression of a stable investment area. Foreign capital flows followed for state-run Arctic mega-projects, such as Novatek’s Sabetta port and Gazprom’s gas extraction on the Yamal Peninsula; and these helped Russia to maintain its position as an energy superpower, allowing it ultimately to use oil and gas as a political weapon against the West.
Russia vs. NATO – but what about China?
With the cessation of Arctic cooperation, Russia has forfeited access to the multilateral leverage that enabled it to pursue its objectives in the region. Moreover, with Finland a new NATO member since April 2023 and Sweden hoping to gain Alliance membership soon, Russia – though it spans roughly half of the Arctic coastline – will soon be the only circumpolar nation outside the Alliance. The drift into isolation and the renewal of East-West antagonism in the region, unimaginable even 18 months ago, is a direct consequence of Russia’s own actions, which drove Finns and Swedes to seek NATO membership. Russia has sought to compensate for this loss of regional clout by looking to China.
China’s future plans
Bizarre as it may seem, Xi’s China with its self-declared goal of becoming the world’s leading power by 2049, considers itself a “near-Arctic state”. Beijing has used its status as an observer-state on the Arctic Council (since 2013) to shape Arctic governance to its own advantage by pressing for the region’s “internationalization”. China has also made significant efforts under Xi Jinping’s “one belt one road” initiative – specifically the Polar Silk Road (PSR) project as presented in 2018 – to expand its influence within this strategically valuable region. In late August 2022 NATO SG Stoltenberg warned of the threat posed to regional security by Beijing’s designs on the Arctic, highlighting the PRC’s spending of tens of billions of dollars on energy, infrastructure, and scientific research projects, and its plans to build the world’s largest icebreaker fleet. Worse from NATO’s perspective, just before Putin began its Ukraine campaign, Beijing and Moscow “pledged” to “intensify practical cooperation in the Arctic”.
China’s challenge in the Arctic
While it remains unclear whether the Polar Silk Road will really be the harbinger of a closer Sino-Russian Arctic security pact (as part of their challenge to American “hegemony” in the international system), it is notable that the Ukraine war appears, momentarily at least, to have resulted in a general slowdown of joint Sino-Russian activities in the North. This may be because Beijing still aspires to balance its Russian and Western interests while presenting itself as new international peace broker. On the one hand, Xi has refused to condemn the Ukraine invasion or to join in the sanctions against the Putin regime; on the other, he has sought to avoid irreparably damaging Sino-European relations by drawing too close to Moscow. Crucially, China has not been able to use the dormant platform of the Arctic Council. Nor has it managed to push through some of its prestige PSR (Polar Silk Road) projects in North European and North American Arctic territories – from a railway connection between northern Finland and Norway, to land acquisition in Iceland and a uranium and rare earths mining site in Greenland to stakes in Alaskan LNG. The deepening regional awareness of financial and security risks has turned the tide against Chinese money.
America’s renewed interest
After three decades on the outer margins, Arctic policy has begun to move up Washington’s priority list. Last September, the US Pentagon established a novel Arctic Strategy and Global Resilience Office; one month later, in the first update since 2013, the White House released its new US Arctic strategy. Combatting climate change, protecting the environment, and new investments in sustainable development, were listed as core objectives over the next 10 years. But it was Russia and China that were singled out as the two main competitors in the region. Foreseeing increased rivalry in this area of “growing strategic importance”, America vowed to “refine and advance military presence in the Arctic in support of our homeland defense, global military and power projection, and deterrence goals”. The Arctic hence has become the new frontier for geopolitical power play among the Big Three. It is a frontier like no other, because climatic and geopolitical threats converge here in a unique way.
How to move on? Future scenarios
In the light of this deepening geo- and climate-political deadlock, how might we move on? There is the danger that the Arctic Council’s exemplary cooperative
regime, due to Russia’s War and under China’s pressure, be swept away as the area becomes a globally strategic testing ground for the Big Three – to the detriment of European state actors, indigenous peoples and the environment? How might we preserve the togetherness of the Arctic Eight and rebuild the capacity and the political will required to deal with the region’s burning issues? To avoid zero sum games, stalemates and escalations, we might once again explore the possibilities of the Arctic Council, the premier forum of international cooperation on “soft” issues (i. e. not on security and defence) in the Arctic and see what can be rescued by operational engagement.
Echoes of the Cold War
To be sure, as a prisoner of geopolitics, it is currently stuck and unable to evolve, even as successive climatic tipping points slip by. And Russia’s small European neighbours worry about sliding back into the times when the “high north equalled high tensions” – most notably the Cold War, when the antagonistic politics built around the nuclear standoff that came with the extreme militarisation of the Arctic seas and lands, with atomic weapons testing and storage sites shrouded secrecy, represented a serious danger to flora, fauna, and mankind alike. The sheer size of the Russian presence in the North, militarily of course, but also geographically, is a factor whose importance can scarcely be overstated. The neighbours may hope to check Russian ambitions, but they also have to live with the
Northern giant. For all its shortcomings, allowing the Arctic Council to collapse or enter into a permanent state of suspended animation would bring new dangers. Bereft of the only effective regional body, the Arctic area might become a zone of unmediated competition involving not just the circumpolar states but possibly also a major Asian non-Arctic power. And this might well bring serious consequences, not just for the ecology and the environment, but also crucially for the indigenous populations dispersed along the arctic littoral who first found representation on the Council only 30 years ago.
Climate cooperation as a spark of hope
So, it is surely a positive signal that Russia’s handover of the Arctic Council chairmanship to Norway this May followed ordinary diplomatic procedures. A step welcomed by all members, it indicated that the despite the suspension of high-level meetings of the Arctic Eight and the impasse in unanimous decision-making since 2022, there was a common desire for the Council to continue to formally exist, indeed to resume its work. Because for all – especially the circumpolar member-states and participant groups but also the Council observers, from the EU to the PRC – this tool of Arctic governance carries enduring value. After all, the Council’s firm strategic aspiration is to advance sustainable development and environmental protection of the Arctic through cooperation in scientific monitoring and assessment as well as by supporting concrete measures. The latter include the reduction of greenhouse gases and black carbon emissions, slowing down the development of hydrocarbon in the region, and boosting renewable energy supplies e. g. through offshore off grid initiatives, to mitigate, if not combat, global warming and climate change.
Navigating Arctic governance amidst Russian aggression
The imminent political problem for the West is that the steadfast defence of international law that drives its opposition to the Russian invasion of Ukraine also saddles Western actors with an obligation to preserve the rule of law and the post-Cold War normative regime in the Arctic without which true cross-border cooperation at all levels will remain a chimera. The situation thus imposes conflicting demands: oppose Russian aggression in Ukraine and its unilateral destruction of the Helsinki principles of 1975 while building (or at least preserving) a multilateral architecture in the North with the Arctic Council as central tool of governance. In both spheres, the pursuit of a peace order must be underpinned by credible deterrence. But we must keep open the possibility of returning to a more complete approach to Arctic governance when Russia is ready to abide by the international legal standards to which it is itself a signatory.
Who takes the first step? Reviving bilateral relations
Then trust will have to be rebuilt between Russia and Western stakeholders at all levels in a policy of small steps. As in the 1980s, bilateral relations will have to be repaired, communication channels reopened, before any multilateral collaborative work can restart in earnest. This will be as essential to regional security as it will be to mastering the challenges posed by the climate crisis. In the early 1990s, it was the small Nordic neighbours who did much of the leg work, pressing for new cooperative fora and transnational regional initiatives – in the political, economic and cultural domains – but also, with a specifically post-Chernobyl environmental awareness, keen to protect highly sensitive and fragile Arctic ecosystems and biodiversity, as well as to help Russia with its clean-up of radioactive contamination of Arctic soil and waters. When all-power collaboration in the Arctic revives, they will surely once again be at the forefront in the quest for creative solutions. As the Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere put it in February 2023: “We must deal with Russia, now and in the future, as we have in the past”.
About Kristina Spohr
Kristina Spohr is Professor of International History at the London School of Economics and Political Sciences and Senior Fellow at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins University in Washington DC. She has written extensively on German international affairs since 1945 and Baltic/ Nordic contemporary security and is interested in questions of World Order and the practice of Applied History. Spohr is author most recently of “Post Wall, Post Square: Rebuilding the World after 1989” (2019) whose German edition “Wendezeit” (2019) won the award “Das politikwissenschaftliche Buch” 2020. She is currently writing a global history of the Arctic, while based at the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Polar Institute in 2023–24.