Shift in the High North: Rebalancing the Arctic


The Arctic had been a calm region on the periphery of international interest for centuries. Nevertheless, the 2010s have changed this perception. Due to its natural resources and possible maritime routes, the Artic is now considered a strategically important region. The ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine only highlights this significance, as the world powers focus on the militarization of the formerly peaceful region of the world.

The Arctic has become increasingly prominent in recent decades due to climate change. Gradual warming of the region (which is even faster than expected) [1] is uncovering approximately 90 billion barrels of oil, 1,669 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids. These have been found in the Arctic according to a geological report conducted by the United States Geological Survey (USGS). [2] This accounts for 13 per cent of the world’s untapped oil reserves and 30 per cent of the untapped gas reserves. Infrastructure in the Arctic, however, is insufficient to support large-scale operations. Moreover, the current infrastructure originally built for polar conditions is not prepared for rising temperatures [3], making it difficult to tap into these natural resources, and therefore creating a need for a new, more eligible one.

Despite these challenges, the passages through the Arctic Ocean might be of the most significant importance for the region. For example, the journey from Shanghai, China to the port of Rotterdam, Netherlands might be shortened by 24 per cent when using the Arctic route rather than the Suez Canal. [4] However, the passage through the Arctic is unreliable due to climate conditions and weather. The sea route was open for 88 days in 2020, but it has been closed for the entire duration of 2021. [7] The only currently used route in the north is the Northern Sea Route, which carried about 11 million tonnes of goods in 2017, [5] and in 2020, more than 32 million tonnes of freight travelled through this route. [6]

Map of the Arctic region showing the Northeast Passage, the Northern Sea Route and Northwest Passage, and bathymetry. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

When analysing the Arctic region geographically and geopolitically, one needs to address the so-called Arctic circle. It consists of eight countries: the United States, Canada, Iceland, Denmark (Greenland), Norway, Sweden (even though it has no direct access to the Arctic Ocean), Finland, and Russia. They are all included in the Arctic Council, which is an international organization where the countries of the Arctic circle reach agreements on search and rescue operations, oil pollution, and scientific cooperation. [8] Interestingly, the Arctic Council excludes itself from military security in the region. [9] In fact, throughout the past, there was no need for security and military agreements between the countries, since the Arctic circle has been mostly inaccessible and therefore unable to cause any significant territory disputes. [10] Up until the 2010s, the only security concerns have been connected to environmental security and climate change, as the Arctic was warming up three times faster than the rest of the world. [11] However, since the beginning of the organization in 1999, the Arctic region as well as the whole world has changed. All Arctic Council member states have begun to enhance their presence. This applies also to other international players, even to those with no land belonging to the Arctic circle, such as the United Kingdom, South Korea, Japan and most importantly, China. Thus, the perception of security issues moved from environmentalism to more traditional hard-security issues.

The situation prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022

As the great power competition manifests itself more and more in regional disputes, the geopolitical importance of the Arctic grows as well. The region is now crucial to strategic objectives, mainly to the United States and Russia. [10] Interestingly, joint Arctic initiatives including the Arctic Council persisted even when Russian-West relations significantly worsened in 2014 after the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. [8] The continuation of these platforms signified a certain regional exceptionalism of the Arctic, at least in the past.

However, since 2014 Russia has been gradually enhancing its capabilities in the region. Moscow has focused on developing its Arctic infrastructure with the aim to counter Western sanctions impacting, among other areas, export from Russia. [12] Moscow is convinced that Siberia and the Russian Far East could significantly boost the nation’s economy. This should happen through energy projects, the gradual opening of the Northern Sea Route for faster maritime shipping between Asia and Europe, and the related construction of ports and other infrastructure, which would enable Russia to export Arctic oil as well. [12]

Furthermore, Russia has upgraded and expanded its existing military sites alongside more than 6,000 kilometres of the Arctic coastline. [13] It has also raised several territorial claims in the Arctic region that go beyond the legitimate claims described in UNCLOS (the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea), which governs territorial claims not only in the Arctic. [14]

The Chinese Element

As indicated above, the competition between the countries “traditionally” present in the Arctic is nowadays accompanied by a growing interest of other world powers, as the Arctic opens up to the economic activity. Most notably, China has been trying to enhance its polar presence. In fact, it is already heavily invested in Arctic affairs, both politically and economically. In 2018, China proclaimed itself to be a “near-Arctic state” in its Arctic Strategy document which describes the goals of the Chinese Communist Party in this area. [15]

Another element of the Chinese strategy regarding this region was expanding New Silk Road (often referred to as Belt and Road Initiative) into the Arctic under the project “Polar Silk Road” which is based mainly on investing in Russian Arctic projects. It also includes investing in other Polar countries such as Iceland, Greenland, and Finland. [14] [15]

In addition, China and Russia even had several joint military exercises in the Arctic region over the past few years. [18] Thus, the US in its strategy documents for the Arctic treats Russia and China as one singular disruptive object in the region. [19] For example, the document Blue Navy produced by the US Navy in early 2021 includes the following: “Without sustained American naval presence and partnerships in the Arctic Region, peace and prosperity will be increasingly challenged by Russia and China, whose interests and values differ dramatically from ours.” [20] For years, the US has been trying to balance the Sino-Russian alliance due to its relative underrepresentation in the region. Despite this, it seems that China is becoming a more and more significant player in this northern chessboard.

First Chinese Icebreaker Snow Dragon. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Chinese presence in the Arctic leads to an increased presence of other countries as well. These include states such as Japan, Singapore, South Korea, and several European nations, most importantly France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, and the United Kingdom, as well as the European Union as a whole. [12] Last but not least, India released its white paper on Arctic policy in March 2022 [21], which can be considered an effort to counterbalance Chinese influence, as it is India’s regional competitor.

Russian Invasion of Ukraine in 2022 and the Arctic

Although the tension in the region has been culminating for years even before February 2022, the Russian invasion of Ukraine was a significant event that led to unprecedented changes in the High North. Most notably, seven Arctic Council members (all except Russia) suspended their activity at the Council. In their joint statement, these countries, often called the Arctic Seven, or A-7, condemn the “unprovoked invasion” and “note the grave impediments to international cooperation, including in the Arctic, that Russia’s actions have caused”. [22] Since then, the A-7 has restored some level of cooperation among itself, leaving Russia excluded and more isolated. [23] The dream of peaceful Arctic has started to shatter, and some Arctic analysts have been calling for recovering of the Arctic Council to save the peaceful nature of the Arctic. [8] [23]

With the invasion, the overall power balance and perception of security in the region have shifted. Sweden and Finland have begun negotiations to join NATO. [24] Although Russian President Vladimir Putin openly indicated that their membership in the Alliance poses no immediate threat to Russia, their membership will certainly impact Moscow’s relations with its Arctic neighbours, therefore changing the security dynamics of the area even more. [25] Even though these two Nordic countries already had a close relationship with NATO member states, being fully-fledged members of the Alliance will contribute to NATO’s encirclement of the Arctic and expansion of the area which could be defended under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty.  In addition, all Nordic countries are increasing their military budget and deepening their security cooperation in NORDEFCO (Nordic Defence Cooperation) as well. [26] [27] [28] [29] [30]

Among all the active geopolitical players a relatively passive one can be found – Canada. Historically, Canada played a key role in expanding the mandate of the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy, which ultimately led to the creation of the Arctic Council, and has been its active supporter ever since. Any harm to the Council or its cooperation-based work would be seen as a major setback for Canadian Arctic foreign policy. Therefore, as a supporter of the traditional order of cooperation in the Arctic, Canada is most likely pursuing the preservation of the status quo in the region and in the Arctic Council as well. Nonetheless, this may be difficult to achieve in the current political climate. [31] In addition to that, the Canadian physical presence is affected by years of under-investment, which does not strengthen its negotiating position. [32] „We don’t really have an Arctic policy; we have a framework, which to me is a prelude to a strategy,“ said Andrea Charron, a professor of international relations at the University of Manitoba. [33] Furthermore, Canada wants to focus on nation-building in the region more than on solely security issues [32], which is also quite a rare approach.

Norwegian Leopard tanks. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The future development of the current situation and possible re-engagement of individual “diplomatic blocs” was a central question to a number of researchers. The following part presents three possible scenarios.

Isolation of Russia

In the first scenario, Russia becomes completely isolated in the Arctic, as a result of effective and long-lasting Western sanctions that severely harm Russia’s economy. This scenario would then lead to Moscow’s reaction in the form of cutting the rest of the ties with the West and its allies, and the Russian nuclear arsenal would become a crucial tool in safeguarding its security and strategic goals. Thus, Russia would safeguard and possibly improve its second-strike nuclear capacity in the Northern Fleet as its conventional military forces deteriorate. President Putin might even try to demonstrate that Russia is still a relevant force to be feared by conducting military shows in the area and exercising its nuclear capacity.

This scenario carries a higher risk of escalation, either accidentally or deliberately. [25] Even though some Arctic experts call for renewing the cooperation within the region, the newly released Biden’s administration Arctic strategy is rather clearly stating that the possibility for government-to-government cooperation is almost nonexistent. [35]

Sino-Russian bloc

In the second scenario, China strengthens its ties with Russia by providing support in combating the impacts of Western sanctions and requesting a military presence in the Russian Arctic in exchange. This improves military and commercial ties between these two countries and subsequently enables the construction of military sites in the Arctic, as well as cooperation on air patrols and satellite technology. This scenario would make it difficult for the US Navy to compete with China in the Indo-Pacific and could, as well, lead to a possible conflict in the Arctic.

Some of the current developments suggest that Beijing might in fact choose this approach, as China continues to enhance its capabilities in the region. [36] Moreover, the contemporary US foreign policy towards Chinese and Russian influence in the Arctic speaks in favour of this scenario, as the United States approach the Sino-Russian influence in the area as a single adversary. [19] [37] This scenario would also indicate that the world leans into division into two separate blocs, similar to the Cold War, [25] rather than the multipolarity implied by the first scenario.

After Putin

The last scenario counts with a potential change of political regime in Russia. It states that with the end of the “era of Vladimir Putin”, the country would thrive for a more democratic regime. As a result, the “post-Putin” government, opened to more liberalist approaches, would campaign for the return of the Western energy companies to Russia and for a reinstatement of the cooperation among the Arctic Council members.

At the same time, Russia would continue to develop its military capabilities in the Arctic. NATO would voice its concern about these activities, but its members would disagree on specific steps of political dialogue with the new Russian administration. This scenario raises the difficult, but certainly important question of the future approach to Moscow, and the transatlantic partners should be ready to answer it. The effects of Putin’s end may be ambiguous and inconsistent, and it may be difficult to maintain the Alliance’s unity. [25]

Need for new modus operandi

No matter what scenario will occur in the near future, two things are certain. Firstly, the importance of the Arctic will continue to grow in the coming years. All contemporary relevant world powers, as well as the regional ones, will be enhancing their presence in the High North. It will be up to the political and diplomatic representatives to come up with a renewed agreement and mode de vie.

Secondly, all three scenarios presume that the Arctic will occupy a crucial position within the Russian grand strategy, at least for the upcoming decades of the 21st century. This can be illustrated by its newly passed law which limits freedom of navigation through the Northern Sea Route. Foreign military vessels must notify Russian officials three months in advance before sailing through the route. [38] Russia would probably enhance its Arctic capabilities even without the ongoing war in Ukraine, and maybe more importantly – even without Vladimir Putin as the Russian head of state. However, with the invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the Arctic is more important than ever for the Russian geopolitical goal. Their enhanced presence caused yet another dispute in another area and it seems that under the current circumstances, peaceful and calm cooperation in the region is not possible at the moment. A new modus operandi will have to be adopted for the sake of the preservation of peace.

Article was reviewed by: Tomáš Zwiefelhofer, Veronika Čáslavová


[1] International Cryosphere Climate Initiative. (2022). STATE OF THE CRYOSPHERE REPORT 2022.

[2] Bird, K. J., Charpentier, R. R., Gautier, D. L., Houseknecht, D. W., Klett, T. R., Pitman, J. K., Moore, T. E., Schenk, C. J., Tennyson, M. E., & Wandrey, C. R. (2008). Circum-arctic resource appraisal: Estimates of undiscovered oil and gas north of the Arctic Circle. Fact Sheet. Published.

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[6] Kubny, H. (2021, January 11). Northern Sea Route – never as much cargo as in 2020. Polarjournal.

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[9] Declaration on the Establishment of the Arctic Council (Ottawa, Canada, 1996). (n.d.). GAC.

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[11] AMAP. (2021). Arctic Climate Change Update 2021: Key Trends and Impacts. Summary for Policy-makers. Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP), Tromsø, Norway. 16 pp

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[13] Humpert, M. (2019, May 3). New Satellite Images Reveal Extent of Russia’s Military and Economic Build-Up in the Arctic. High North News.

[14] Tranter, E. (2021, April 11). “You cannot claim any more:” Russia seeks bigger piece of Arctic. Cbc.Ca.

[15] People’s Republic of China. (2018, January 26). China’s Arctic Policy. Government of China.

[16] Reuters. (2018). China unveils vision for “Polar Silk Road” across Arctic. U.S.

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[24] Henley, J. (2022, May 16). Finland and Sweden confirm intention to join Nato. The Guardian.

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[26] Reuters. (2022, March 6). Denmark to boost defence spending and phase out Russian gas.

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[29] Pohjanpalo, K. (2022, April 5). Finland Makes 70% Defense Spending Increase in Shadow of War. Bloomberg.

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[36] Grady, J. (2022, October 12). China, Russia Quietly Expanding Arctic Partnership, Says Panel. USNI News.

[37] Lanteigne, M. (2022, October 19). China and the ‘Two Arctics.’ The Diplomat.

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