The Power Struggle In The Arctic Is Melting...

The Arctic is a traditional area of geopolitical interest for Russia. Since Stalin, all Kremlin leaders, except Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, have considered it an exceptional territory to reassert their great power status. Hence, they have challenged their Arctic neighbors - from Norway and Finland in the west to the US and Canada in the east - and have dragged other smaller, neutral states and the Atlantic Alliance (NATO) into this strategic rivalry.

What is at stake today, as the Arctic seascape melts and new economic opportunities emerge, is not only the potential impact of the intensification of international rivalry in the context of the global climate emergency, but also the legal order that has helped to maintain peace on the last great frontier of the planet. This peace looks increasingly fragile now that China has entered the Great Polar Game and the US, with Biden, has begun to pick up the gauntlet.

At the end of March 2021, three Russian nuclear submarines that had broken through several meters of ice in the Russian Franz Josef archipelago, 900 kilometers from the North Pole, surfaced simultaneously. Meanwhile, soldiers of the Arctic Motorized Rifle Brigade were seen training on those same islands and several MiG-31 fighter jets were seen flying over the Pole.

The Polar Bear 2021 exercises were but the latest display of Kremlin dominance in the Arctic. The U.S. command in Alaska reported in April that 2020 was the year it intercepted the most Russian military aircraft near its air defense identification zone since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. The Russians have concentrated unprecedented military forces in the circumpolar region. They have been engaged in retrofitting old Cold War bases and modernizing Soviet-era infrastructure including ports and railroad lines. In addition, Russia has invested billions of rubles in stealth aircraft, strategic bombers and a huge fleet of 50 icebreakers, and is using the area to test new technological weapons, from hypersonic cruise missiles to strategic nuclear torpedoes.

These activities are not necessarily the prelude to an inevitable war. But they are causing concern in the Euro-Atlantic community because they are taking place in the midst of a weakening of the arms control regime that was put in place when the Cold War was beginning to ease.

After several years of beating around the bush, NATO has begun to react to Russia's military buildup. On May 31, 2021, the Alliance sent a deterrent message to Moscow when, as part of its Allied Sky exercises, approximately 100 aircraft from 22 member states flew over the entire NATO territory in just 12 hours.

The Kremlin has strongly rejected this "escalation of military activity by NATO members." But Russia's Arctic strategy is more complex than it appears. On the one hand, Moscow seeks to unilaterally project its power. On the other, it remains committed to cooperation in the region, as its neighbors Norway and Finland can testify. The question is whether the hitherto exemplary Arctic cooperative governance regime can survive the general problems posed by global warming and the political power struggle between the big three (China, Russia and the US) that have begun to affect the region.

Since the end of the Cold War, the Arctic has generally been a model of international governance, a territory of peace and collaboration among states with interests in the region. In the Arctic Council, Russia, the US, Canada and the Nordic countries have worked together as equal partners in all areas of "soft" power, from culture to ecology. And they have managed to prevent external dynamics and crises such as those in Georgia, Ukraine and Crimea from interfering in the region's affairs. But the situation is changing because of the climate emergency.

As sea ice melts and continental permafrost thaws at unprecedented speed within the Arctic Circle, new sea corridors are opening up that are spurring the lust for natural resources. Russia has moved ahead: it has sovereignty over more than half of all Arctic land and is eager to develop the increasingly accessible Northern Sea Route. It is driving development in the region through mineral and fossil fuel extraction and new infrastructure projects on its northern coasts. The resulting hype about development opportunities has attracted countries further afield and, above all, the world's second largest economy, China.

Beijing has for the first time included the Polar Silk Road and the Arctic in its national Five-Year Plan for 2021-2025 and in its long-term goals up to 2035. At the heart of this Arctic bid is China's aspiration to displace the US from its supposed "unipolar" pedestal since the end of the Cold War and gain recognition that it is one of the world's great powers, on an equal footing with the US.

Relations with Washington are clearly heading for a collision, as was evident during the tense China-US summit in March 2021. But more importantly, the US and China (and to a lesser extent Russia) are locked in a dispute over what the global system and the rules that underpin it should look like, a competition between different norms, narratives and legitimacy derived from the practices that have governed international politics since 1945.

What Biden must do now, therefore, as he tries, together with his NATO allies and Nordic friends, to address the dissolution of the international order (in the Arctic), is two things: pragmatically manage the relationship with Russia as a crucial state in the region and decisively pursue a strategy of containment in the face of an increasingly aggressive China on a global scale. Biden believes, as he told Putin in June in Geneva, that "it is clear that it is in no one's interest... for us to return to a Cold War situation." And Secretary of State Blinken coined a very apt aphorism about Washington's relationship with Beijing: "Competitive when it must be, collaborative when it can be, and antagonistic when it has no choice." It remains to be seen to what extent fruitful relations between the big three can be fostered. For the sake of the Arctic and the world, such cooperation is necessary. But it will all depend on enormous skill on the part of the rulers and a large dose of luck.

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