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JUNE 2023

Big Power Game In The Arctic

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Big Power Game In The Arctic

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Written by Colonel A. Vitalin; Originally appeared at Foreign Military Review 2020 #4, translated by J.Hawk exclusively for SouthFront

Pursuant to the global clime change, the polar region has noted constant reduction in the thickness and area of ice cover, increasing economic viability of raw material exploitation. Moreover, it renders new transport routes more attractive. The most attractive in the economic sense is the Northern Sea Route (NSR), which is the shortest maritime route between Asia and Europe. The melting of ice and year-round usage of NSR might make it the world’s most important trade route.

Foreign powers view arctic as a source of future economic and military benefits. In addition to countries with direct access to Arctic (Denmark, Iceland, Canada, Norway, Russia, and USA), Sweden and Finland also have made various claims to the region’s resources and trade routes, and so have powers that are outside the region, including Great Britain, Germany, Italy, China, Republic of Korea, France, and several others. NATO and EU have shown considerable interest in the region.

The Northern Sea Route

The main destabilizing factors in the polar region include:

  • Disagreement among Arctic powers on demarcation and establishing national jurisdiction over continental shelf in the Northern Arctic Ocean basin;
  • growing competition over the control of trade routes and energy in the region;

NATO is persistently striving to solidify its influence in the arctic. It is focusing on improving NATO’s reconnaissance capabilities, expanding the scale of military exercises, preparing its forces for Arctic deployments.

Surface and underwater surveillance is performed using land-based maritime patrol aviation of NATO states.

NATO’s unified air defense system is steadily increasing its capabilities, emphasizing detection and interception of strategic aviation. Iceland Air Policing has been organized in order to establish patrols by NATO airpower over areas adjacent to the island.

NATO’s leadership continues to improve the intensity and scale of operational and combat preparation in the Arctic by developing methods of deploying forces in difficult climates. The Trident Juncture exercise held between October 25 and November 24, 2018 with the participation of about 50 thousand personnel, rehearsed the deployment a large joint force in the northern Scandinavian peninsula, and was the first complex exercise of the NATO’s immediate reaction forces in Arctic conditions.

There are plans to facilitate additional troop deployments through improvements to the transport infrastructure in northern Europe. Priority projects include the construction of a railroad between Finnish port of Rovaniemi and Norwegian port of Kirkenes, and the modernization of the railroad linking Norwegian port of Narvik with Swedish port of Kurina.

EU leaders are arguing for “equitable” access of member states to the natural resources and trade routes, in accordance with their Arctic strategy. EU sees itself as a future leader in the region’s development. Europe’s well-being, defined in ecological, food, trade, and economic terms, is closely dependent on the Arctic. EU is the largest importer of goods and resources from that region which contains up to 15% of the world’s still undiscovered oil reserves and about 30% of natural gas. One third of all fish harvested in the Arctic basin goes to Europe. The merchant fleet bearing flags of EU member states is one of the largest in the world. More than 90% of EU’s foreign trade is done by sea, making it a major economic interest of the Union.

In order to advance own interests, EU is deliberately expanding its influence in the region, and its leadership wants to be recognized as a permanent observe in the Arctic Council and to launch the development of new international agreements concerning the Arctic, including the freedom of navigation in the NSR.

The European Commission and EU foreign policy service actively seek to clarify EU member states’ approaches to Arctic strategy, in particular concerning future joint activities in developing the Polar regions.

In the near future, EU intends to focus its efforts on the following:

  • Expanding scientific research on ecological and climate issues in the Arctic;
  • facilitating economic development through rational use of resources and ecological expertise;
  • reinvigoration of active collaboration and dialogue with Arctic states, native peoples, and other partners.

In order to satisfy EU’s icebreaker needs, 2018 saw the launch of the ARICE program to establish a consortium of six specialized ice-capable vessels. Moreover, a “European” new-generation icebreaker will be developed through joint R&D with leading ship-building firms.

United States of America are taking measures to safeguard and advance interests in the Arctic against the backdrop of other states’ increasing their levels of activity, with the aim of developing natural resources and exploiting energy and transportation opportunities inherent in the region. US interests may be subdivided as follows:

  • Political and economic, namely expansion of US presence, access to gas and oil, while demonstrating naval power. Washington intends to not only secure own rights within the exclusive 200 mile economic zone, but also conduct “appropriate monitoring” of adjacent areas. Freedom of Arctic flights and navigation in the entire Arctic, including the NSR, is seen as a top national priority.
  • Military, including air defense and ABM systems, strategic deterrence, naval operations, and freedom of flight and navigation. US is prepared to act unilaterally to protect these interests.
  • Internal security, through averting terrorist or criminal activities increasing US vulnerability in the Northern zone.

US DoD’s “Arctic Strategy” lists major disagreements with Russia concerning the use of NSR which, according to Pentagon, should become an international transport route outside of Russia’s jurisdiction. US Coast Guard icebreaker fleet includes the Polar Star heavy icebreaker and Healey medium one. The heavy Polar Sea icebreaker has been retired.

USN plans to build six icebreakers, modernize ports and airbases, in order to expand the ability to conduct Arctic operstions.

Canada’s main priorities include sustained socio-economic and ecological development of its northern regions. The current Arctic strategy has more of an internal than external focus, with the following priorities:

  • Ensuring sovereignty through expanding military presence to monitor land areas, as well as airspace and the sea in the Arctic;
  • Facilitating development of northern territories through annual $2.5 billion subsidies for health care, education, social services, with the main sources of prosperity being diamond extraction and development of oil and gas deposits;
  • Protection of the environment and adaptation to climate change. Here, economic planning will take into consideration habitat protection, establishment of national parks, carbon-neutral energy sources, and development of international standards on economic activity in the Arctic;
  • Developing self-government and economic activity of northern territories as part of the strategy to develop the North, through subsidies and the transfer of partial ownership of economic infrastructure engaged in mineral extraction to native tribes (gas pipelines and others).

Ottawa wants to resolve disagreements with other countries on legitimizing Polar borders. The Canada-Denmark working group is supposed to address bilateral territorial disputes. Its main task is developing recommendations on disagreements concerning the ownership of the Hans island (Kennedy strait), contested bodies of water in the Sea of Lincoln, and the Labrador Sea continental shelf.

Canada published a framework document in September 2019 describing its policies in the Arctic and the country’s northern regions up to 2030. Ottawa’s main priorities include the development of transport and energy infrastructure, development of mineral deposits, environment, and improved social services for native peoples.

Canada’s CG fleet includes 7 ships. Only the Louis Saint-Laurent and Captain Mollie Kool are operational, the remainder are in reserve. While plans to build a heavy icebreaker named John Diefenbaker were announced in 2008, nothing has been done since.

Denmark is seeking to strengthen its positions in the Arctic using a range of political, economic, and military measures. Danish interests consist mainly of acquiring new sources of income for national budget. In spite of disagreements with other countries on territorial delimitation, Denmark is ready to start a dialogue without entering into open confrontations over the use of contested resources. Copenhagen spends considerable resources on expeditions in the Northern Arctic Ocean and on scientific research. Active research in northern latitudes is intended to strengthen the country’s claims.

Denmark agreed to allow the US to open a diplomatic mission in Greenland in order to improve cooperation with the US. In March 2019, it approved a plan to expand the network of airfields on the island, including modernization of terminals, lengthening runways to 2200m and construction of a new airport with a 1500m runway.

Iceland leads the Arctic Council since May of this year. Reykjavik will focus on ecological issues, advancing renewable energy, studying climate change, and expanding search and rescue capabilities during its 2019-2021 term. It is also interested in expanding port infrastructure to service the growing volume of trade between Asia, Europe, and US. Iceland and Germany will build a new deep-water port with a container terminal in Finanfjord Bay.

Norway views development of Polar regions as a top domestic and foreign policy priority. The national Arctic strategy identifies five main directions:

  • Developing international cooperation within the AC which should remain the most important intergovernmental organization in the region’s development. Oslo is determined to address disagreements using the 1982 Law of the Sea UN convetion.
  • Facilitating business activity employing novel approaches (maritime biotechnology, energy, mineral extraction from sea bottom, transportation and tourism).
  • Improving education and facilitating access to information to grow the business sector in the North of the country.
  • Improving infrastructure in the form of safe transportation network, reliable satellite navigations, communications, climate and ecology monitoring. In June 2019 Norway developed a plan to improve railroads in the North. It will build a new 370km railroad between Bodo and Tromso ($7.5 billion) by 2027, and to modernize the one linking Narvik with Swedish border ($500 million).
  • Protection of the environment, preserving the unique ecosystem.

Fincantieri-built icebreaker Kronprinz Haakon which entered service in 2017 was a major breakthrough in Norway’s scientific research. It is equipped with a helo pad and a range of instruments to study the ocean bottom.

Finland has no direct access to the Arctic Ocean. Helsinki nevertheless is interested in developing the huge economic potential of the region. Its Arctic strategy focuses on enhancing Finland’s international role as a competent participant in collaborative projects through investments in education, research, and testing of technologies. The document lists several environmental, economic, native peoples-related issues. It proposes to leverage Finland’s Arctic shipbuilding know-how and to expand Finnish firms participation in major projects in the region. It will promote export to the Arctic and internationalization of small and medium firms. Helsinki actively supports the plan to build the “Arctic Corridor”, a rail line from Kirkenes to Rowaniemi. If Scandinavian and Baltic countries are able to build the Helsinki-Tallinn undersea tunnel, they will be able to integrate the new railroad into the unified EU transport net. Moreover, there are plans to modernize the rail line from Narvik to Kiruna.

Finland views AC as the main political forum for regional cooperation, and actively promotes the idea of enhancing EU’s role by granting it the status of a permanent observer in the AC.

Sweden also lacks direct access, but is seeking ways to expand its participation in developing Polar resources, using membership in AC and other organizations. Sweden’s Arctic strategy identifies the following key priorities:

  • Preserving low level of political tensions in the Arctic;
  • Enhancing AC as a neutral multilateral forum on Arctic matters and cooperation facilitator in the Barents Sea and the European Arctic region;
  • Facilitating EU’s Arctic development strategy and involving EU as a partner;
  • Increasing cooperation between AC, Barents/European Arctic Council, and EU institutions and foundations;
  • Implementation of collaborative projects in accordance with international law, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and others.

Sweden’s Polar Research Secretariat and the US National Science Foundation regularly conduct polar expeditions aboard Sweden’s Odin icebreaker to collect and analyze atmospheric and hydrographic data, and assess the Arctic Ocean ecology.

Great Britain views Arctic as a region with great potential for economic development, scientific research on the ecology, and also a magnet for investment. Its interests include science, sea routes, and energy infrastructure. Britain’s interests may be categorized as follows:

  • Geopolitical interests
  • Protection of population and environment
  • Facilitation of economic development.

London is acting on behalf of its NATO allies as well. It supports the US position on the joint international use of Arctic mineral deposits and internationalization of NSR. It is building Sir David Attenborough, a medium ice-capable research vessel.

Germany is considerably expanding its Arctic activities, which are formally linked to various aspects of international security, mainly ecological and transport, the need to safeguard the rights of native populations, the importance of scientific research. Behind that, however, are Germany’s long-range interests to ensure secure supplies of raw materials and German firms’ access to Arctic resources.

In August 2019, Germany approved the new edition of the “Leading Principles of Germany’s Arctic Policy”, with the core idea being internationalization of Polar regions to ensure equal access by all interested countries to transportation, biological, and energy resources of Far North. Berlin’s priorities include raising the country’s profile in AC, ensuring international norms and rules, particularly ecological, are observed, and expanding participation in exploration and development. The A. Wegener Maritime and Polar Research Institute has launched an international expedition aboard Germany’s Polar Stern icebreaker, starting on September 18, 2019. It will act as a drifting research station, with the participation of 600 specialists, four support ships, and three aircraft. It will cover some 2500km. Polar Stern’s return to Bremerhaven is planned for October 2020. In addition, Germany plans to build and deploy Aurora Borealis heavy icebreaker by 2020. It will combine the functions of icebreaker, drilling platform, and multipurpose polar research vessel.

Italy is paying considerable attention to increasing own participation in Arctic development, against the backdrop of intensifying rivalry over resources. Key priorities include access by Italian energy firms in the development of energy deposits. Being a permanent observer at AC, Rome wants to turn the region into an international cooperation zone by developing additional procedures and measures that would increase the role of countries without direct access to the Arctic and guarantee them equitable access to the resources and transport routes.

Italian Navy’s Alliance science vessel will be used for polar expeditions to collect meteorological and hydrographic data, studying ice conditions, and the possibility of year-round ship traffic at high latitudes.

France is taking active steps to expand Arctic role, through financing humanitarian and science programs, expanding state and private investment in survey and development projects for hydrocarbon and rare-earth metal extraction, as well as icebreaker construction. Paris simultaneously is evaluating the possibility of establishing an alternative to AC that would share France’s approach to resource development. It plans to expand consultations on this issue with leading EU powers, PRC, India, Japan, Australia, and Singapore.

China’s approach to Arctic policy is laid out in the “China’s Arctic Policy” White Book which describes PRC as an “important player” and a “near-Arctic power”, or one of the continental powers least removed from the Polar Circle. Arctic climate, ecosystem condition, and economic activity are all within the sphere of PRC’s interests. Its proximity, in comparison to other non-Arctic powers, is interpreted as justification for special rights and national rights in the region. Beijing’s priorities include the Ice Silk Road, an economic corridor linking PRC with EU through the Arctic Ocean. Chinese firms have been recommended to take active part in developing Arctic transport infrastructure, and conduct trial commercial sorties. Beijing has a negative attitude toward the idea of dividing continental shelf among Arctic powers. PRC seeks to internationalize Arctic issues, including through raising the role of the UN in managing the region. PRC actively participates in scientific projects, operating two polar research stations in vicinity of New Ollesund (Spitsbergen) and Karhall. It conducts annual expeditions into the Arctic Ocean aboard the Syuelun icebreaker. In June 2019, Syuelun-2 entered operation as well. An atomic icebreaker is under development.

Republic of Korea’s interests include research, access to resources and sea routes, and participation in regional policymaking. The main priorities include:

  • Strengthening collaboration with Arctic powers and relevant international organizations in science, technology, and economy;
  • Facilitating expansion of infrastructure and business activity;
  • Science research.

ROK intends to cooperate with Arctic powers on NSR use and resource development, collaborate with northern powers on Arctic port development and modernization of South Korean ones linked to Arctic sea routes, develop shipbuilding technologies for polar vessels, and equipment for deep-sea resource extraction.

ROK icebreaker fleet includes one diesel-powered Araon vessel, which is one of the most modern ships used in Polar research. Construction of a second vessel is being discussed. New Ollesun region is the site of a Korean research station, Dasan.

In conclusion, the expansion in the scale of foreign powers interest and activity in the Arctic depends to a large extent on climate changes in Pola regions, in particular the melting of icebergs and floating ice. However, both AC members and non-Arctic powers intend to establish conditions under which they would obtain “equitable” access to natural resources and sea routes of the Far North.


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Lone Ranger

There is no power game, Russia has an icebreaker fleet(the biggest in the planet), the U.S. does not. Russia has bases, radars, air defense systs in the arctic, the U.S. does not. End of story.

Frank G

actually us does have radar stations in canada the northern bases and stations are jointly operated. the us demands/wishes/hopes/states this and that, wtf do they think they are? Again it takes a combined coalition of multiple vassal states just to counter russia, how pathetic.the northern sea route will be tolled and run by the russian federation so F**k your freedom of nav along with your dictum’s up your arse, how many times do you need to call on russia to help one of your ships jammed up in ice?


No such thing as nato airspace,only lowballing fkwits assume constituates are irrelevant,null + void:

Dick Von Dast'Ard

I’d imagine a lot of ramming, naval gunnery warnings of U.S.- misled Nato vessels over the forthcoming decade if the CFR believes it can Western internationalize the NSR. Already seen evidence of that with the intrusion of the U.S. destroyer into the Gulf of Peter the Great. https://www.almasdarnews.com/article/video-footage-shows-russian-warship-following-us-destroyer-before-stopping-vessel/

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