Five U.S. B-52 bombers were conducting a training mission on March 28 high over the Norwegian Sea in the Arctic Ocean. F-16 fighter jets from Norway were also aloft, part of joint NATO exercises involving 10,000 troops in northern Sweden. Unexpectedly, two Russian Tu-160 bombers crossed into the same airspace. Surprised, Norway scrambled the F-16s to follow the interlopers.
The Tu-160s continued toward the U.K., then circled back home, but their appearance was worrisome. The U.S. and Russian bombers can carry nuclear weapons, and less than two months earlier both countries announced they would withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty because they were no longer interested in abiding by its rules. Although the U.S. and Norwegian planes did not enter Russian airspace, Russia could have interpreted the exercises as a signal from NATO that it can deliver nuclear weapons close to the Russian border. Perhaps the Russian military felt it needed to remind the allies that it has ample airpower, too.
It is reasonable to look at what is happening in the Arctic and worry that tensions are rising. Easier physical access because of global warming has placed the region high on the political agendas of the eight states with land or marine territory above the Arctic Circle: Russia, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Denmark (via Greenland), Canada and the U.S. Other influential players such as the U.K., Japan and China are paying closer attention to the new benefits a thawing Arctic Ocean offers. The Arctic could hold as much as 13 percent of the world’s as yet undiscovered oil and 30 percent of its natural gas, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Nations are also eyeing increasingly ice-free shipping routes through the Northeast Passage along Russia’s coast and the Northwest Passage along Canada’s coast, as well as potentially large fisheries.
Bigger than these factors is Russia’s apparent desire to dominate the region. At President Vladimir Putin’s direction, the country has invested heavily in reopening Arctic military bases and ports. It is establishing an early-warning missile system there. And Russia is expanding its icebreaker fleet to ensure Arctic maneuverability year-round. The first of its new, brawny nuclear-powered LK-60 icebreakers, the Ural, launched in May.
Other countries are responding. The U.K. recently announced a new Defense Arctic Strategy. In February the U.S. Congress designated $675 million for a heavy polar icebreaker, and in March the U.S. Navy announced it would send multiple surface vessels through the Arctic Ocean this summer. In April the U.S. Coast Guard published a new Arctic strategy calling for greater investment. At the Arctic Council’s 2019 ministerial meeting the following month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sharply criticized Russia (and China) for aggressive behavior in the Arctic. These actions could reflect a potential change in policy toward more assertively balancing Russia’s influence there. Pompeo even emphasized unilateral action rather than cooperation.
Strategically, the Arctic is tremendously important for Russia and its rivals. Russia’s nuclear deterrent is heavily tied to its nuclear submarines, and its most important submarine bases are along its Arctic coast. The flurry of recent activity has raised fears that a more accessible Arctic will lead to a proverbial “cold war” in the region. Since Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, the relationship between NATO and Russia has been especially strained; the concern is that either side could use the Arctic as a bargaining chip in negotiations over other fraught regions such as Syria or the Ukraine. In March, Russia announced it would tighten the requirements for foreign ships traveling through the Northern Sea Route.
Compounding matters, four of the five coastal Arctic nations have submitted claims to the United Nations, under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), for rights to exploit their extended continental shelves—seafloor far out into the Arctic Ocean. There are large areas of overlap, particularly among Russia, Denmark and Canada. Russia has been following the UNCLOS procedures because it has a lot to gain, given its very long Arctic coastline and shallow shelf. But if Arctic countries cannot resolve their overlapping claims politically, Russia might not play nice and will have its Arctic military force ready to go.
Conflict is not necessarily inevitable, however. Arctic nations have good reasons to cooperate. And some of the moves they are making may not be as aggressive as they appear. For example, conditions in the Arctic are so harsh that many civilian tasks—such as exploring for oil or monitoring shipping traffic—can be performed only with military equipment and personnel.
Russia’s leaders are also well aware that any open conflict could doom development of Arctic oil and gas because that work depends heavily on international partners, including Western nations and companies. Extracting resources, even without ice on the seas, is expensive and technically difficult. Building Russia’s Yamal LNG (liquefied natural gas) project, which is only partly offshore and close to the coast, cost $27 billion. Russia was loath to fund this alone, so it took on partners from France and China.
The country’s dependence on outside financing, as well as technical expertise, provides an incentive for restraint, especially in areas of overlapping seabed claims. Russia and Norway—the Arctic states with large stakes in offshore resources—must build a stable investment climate for outsiders. The two nations intended exactly that when they resolved their boundary dispute in the Barents Sea in 2010 in a matter of weeks, after a standoff that had lasted many years.
Oil and gas may not even provide much ground for argument. Only Russia and Norway are significantly interested in exploiting the resource because it makes up a substantial part of their export revenues. The U.S. and Canada have much larger and much more easily accessible fossil deposits in non-Arctic areas, such as oil in the Gulf of Mexico, shale gas in various U.S. states and tar sands in Alberta.
Moreover, the vast majority of anticipated oil and gas resources lie within each of the five coastal Arctic nations’ exclusive economic zones (EEZs), which extend 200 nautical miles (370.4 kilometers) from the coastlines. As UNCLOS lays out, each country has control over its resources within its EEZ. Certainly some oil and gas deposits are expected farther out on the extended continental shelf, where the overlapping claims occur, but because UNCLOS rules would support large regions of Russia’s claims, there is little reason to think its leaders would torpedo peaceful resolution of those overlaps.
Above all, Arctic resources need to be profitable to be developed. Oil at $80 a barrel—a price not seen since October 2014—might justify digging at some offshore fields, but certainly not those far away, in the extended shelf area. The fate of the Shtokman gas field, inside Russia’s EEZ in the Barents Sea, is a case in point. Discovered in 1988, it is one of the largest fields in the world, with an estimated 3.8 trillion cubic meters of gas. In the early 2000s Putin asserted repeatedly that Russia would develop the field. But with the shale gas revolution in the U.S. and the glut of gas on the world market by 2010, the project was eventually shelved. Any Arctic claims beyond the EEZs are mostly symbolic. They are about securing access to distant resources in case they become valuable someday, not about a “race” to exploit resources before other nations do.
Aggression over Arctic shipping routes also does not seem likely. Despite the intrepid allure, most shippers do not consider the passageways to be competitive with global trade routes through the Suez and Panama Canals, even though those established routes are longer. The seasonal nature of the Arctic corridors (winter ice will persist for years), plus harsh weather and insufficient infrastructure for meeting schedules on time, considerably reduce the relevance of the Arctic routes for international maritime trade.
In September 2018 the first ever transit through the Northern Sea Route by a container ship, operated by Danish shipping company Maersk, was considered a one-time trial. It did not stand for the beginning of regular trade transits. The chief technical officer at Maersk concluded: “Currently, we do not see the Northern Sea Route as a viable commercial alternative to existing east-west routes.” Naval traffic in the high north could help bring in material for Russia’s new port in Sabetta and for shipping liquefied natural gas out of the Yamal region, especially during the summer months, but these tasks involve predominantly Russian ships and have nothing to do with international maritime trade.
Many countries and companies had hoped to venture into the Arctic to catch more fish because important species such as Atlantic cod and Pacific salmon are migrating north. But profits are highly uncertain. In 2009 the U.S. closed large areas of its EEZ in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas off the coast of Alaska to commercial fishing because data on the sustainability of fisheries there were lacking. In 2015 the five countries with coastlines along the Arctic Ocean adopted a de facto moratorium on commercial fishing in the high seas (beyond their EEZs). Then, in 2018, the countries signed a ban on commercial fishing there for 16 years; Iceland, the European Union, China, Japan and South Korea also signed on. The main purpose is to create time to gather deep scientific data on fisheries and to design a sustainable and orderly commercial utilization of them.
In assessing the likelihood of future conflict, it is important to remember that the Arctic region has historically been a place of international cooperation: Arctic countries, some non-Arctic states and representatives of Arctic indigenous nations have been working together peacefully for many years. In 1991 the eight states with Arctic territory and their native peoples adopted the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy, which fostered cooperation in monitoring and conserving the territory. The agreement led the parties to establish the Arctic Council in 1996. It has become the central Arctic forum and consistently generates successful, cooperative initiatives and decisions. Today the council also includes nongovernmental organizations, scientific bodies and U.N. associations. In 2018 the council was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
The council has been criticized for not addressing military and security issues, yet these are excluded from its mandate. Diplomatic channels are certainly needed to tackle security, but the council is not the place for that. States have already created some of these channels, such as the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable and the Arctic Coast Guard Forum, which are part of so-called confidence and security measures set up among nations precisely to defuse potential tensions. To resolve overlapping seabed claims, states should negotiate directly, just as they do already over other frictions.
Conflict is often a matter of perception. Russia’s tighter rules for traversing the Northern Sea Route could actually be beneficial if they lead to safer navigation and greater environmental protection. Rules for sea lanes close to coastlines are not unique to Russia or the Arctic; the Suez and Panama Canals have plenty of rules that shipowners must comply with. A new U.S. heavy polar icebreaker, the only one the country would have, could best be used to improve access to its own Arctic waters year-round. Furthermore, icebreakers are not military boats, and even if they were, one ship is not a credible threat to Russia’s large icebreaker fleet.
Actions that appear to be provocative may have other explanations. For many Russian citizens and indigenous peoples, the Arctic is central to their identity, building on centuries of exploring and mastering the north. When a Russian submarine expedition planted a flag on the North Pole seafloor in August 2007, the stunt was not a land grab; it was a show, intended for a domestic audience, symbolizing Russia’s ability to reach even the farthest points in the Arctic.
As it can anywhere in the world, confrontation could still arise, perhaps from an unexpected source. Since 2013 Chinese ships have made at least 22 commercial voyages through the Northeast Passage, among the largest non-Russian uses of the route. China is also attempting to reframe the Arctic as a global theater. In January 2018 the government released a white paper called “China’s Arctic Policy” that declares that “the Arctic situation now goes beyond its original inter-Arctic States or regional nature.” But China’s arrival does not mean the stakes are higher. Russia and Greenland are welcoming its investments. Economic cooperation could encourage political cooperation and carry the day.