Great Powers Prepare For Battle In The Arctic

Russian arctic claim

Over the past year, the Arctic, northern Europe and the Far East of Russia has become a theater for unprecedented military exercises involving thousands of ships and aircraft.

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NATO’s Trident Juncture 18 ended on November 7, and included several non-NATO members such as Finland and Sweden.

Russia’s Vostok 18 took place in August place, involving units from China and Mongolia.

These were the biggest exercises since Cold War, shining a spotlight on deepening division between autocratic and democratic governments and on a once frozen wasteland that is becoming an arena of contest across new frontiers.

Melting Arctic ice is opening shipping routes and releasing energy resources, prompting a scramble for control and access. Competing businesses race to secure opportunity while rival military commanders prepare for scenarios they fear could become triggers for war.

From the changing Arctic, we will feel similar repercussions as in the early 20th Century when the discovery of oil in the Middle East transformed that region into what it is today.

The Arctic will be about trade, energy, minerals and geopolitical balance.

Russia and the United States are Arctic countries. In the Bering Sea, their territories come face to face across a border known as the Ice Curtain. Other countries, too, are eyeing the Arctic. The most powerful and determined, among them, is China. The Arctic is the new, untested arena of great power strategy.

Russia is modernizing and, slowly, the US is unfolding a new strategy for Arctic defense, with defense secretary Mattis saying: “America has got to up its game in the Arctic. There’s no doubt about that. It’s cited as an area of concern with our National Security Strategy.”

This unforgiving region of the High North has captured imaginations for centuries. Its name comes from the Greek ‘arktikos’, meaning ‘near the bear’, as in the constellations of stars seen from around the North Pole. Unlike colder Antarctica in the South which is land covered with a massive ice sheet, the warmer Arctic is frozen seawater. It comprises the world’s smallest ocean, covering 5.5 million square miles that circle the roof of the world and spreads through eight countries, Canada, Finland, Greenland (controlled by Denmark), Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States.

Less than five million people live there, most native to the Arctic. The Inuit or Eskimo come from Alaska, northern Canada, Greenland and Russia. Northern Scandinavia is home to the Sami.

The Arctic is estimated to hold thirty per cent of the world’s natural gas and thirteen per cent of its oil. While Russia is the big beast of the region, there are numerous disputes about between governments and no agreement as to whether new trade routes are international waters or sovereign territory.

Meanwhile, shipping companies are designing ice-breaking carriers. Urban planners look to transform remote coastal villages into ports and cities. Energy giants are mapping areas of exploration.

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Russia’s massive natural gas project on Siberia’s Yamal peninsula aims to create a flow of natural gas to Asia and Europe. It also represents a testing of boundaries, both in technology and international politics. Ships must break through ice two meters thick to access the port. Stakeholders include France and China while the project is now under sanctions from the United States.

The Arctic links the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans. Climatologists estimate that by 2050 enough ice will have melted to forge regular trading passages between Asia to Europe, thousands of miles shorter than current routes, cutting costs and journey time. Even now, with China and Russia leading the way, the route is used by pioneering freight companies deploying a new style of ice-breaking convoy.

China, Europe, Russia and the United States rub up against each other as they race to achieve their goals. Russia has declared the Arctic as key to its future. Europe is bolstering its defenses. China, which does not even hold Arctic territory, plans to build a ‘Polar Silk Road’ there. The US has pledged to keep the Arctic free.

The lead regional institution is the Arctic Council, set up just over twenty years ago in 1996 when it became clear more coordination was needed. Its members are the eight Arctic states with thirteen observer members including Britain, China, India and Japan. Based in Norway, the Arctic Council works on issues such as search and rescue, pollution and scientific research. But it has no ability to implement policies or recommendations and, specifically, it cannot involve itself in military security. Therefore, it may lack teeth for what lies ahead.

This year’s military exercises underline how much this High North area of the world is moving to the top of US and European defense agendas. Russia has built and modernized military bases there creating a specter that, with China alongside, these two authoritarian states could exploit the Arctic as their own.

There have been earlier signs of big power boundary-testing.

In 2016, Russian special forces illegally flew into the Arctic island group of Svalbard where an international treaty forbids military activity. In 2017, China tried to buy a disused military base in strategically-located Greenland which would have given it a foothold in the north Atlantic. Britain has spearheaded the creation of a nine-nation Joint Expeditionary Force for northern Europe to handle rapid response against any Russian threat. NATO is now constantly reinforcing its Arctic presence.

Humphrey Hawksley is an award-winning correspondent and author of Man on Ice the only international thriller set on the US-Russian border.

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