The Creeping Militarization of the Arctic

Recent Features

Features | Diplomacy | Security

The Creeping Militarization of the Arctic

As stakeholders take increasingly assertive territorial postures, the regional focus turns to security.

Russia’s announcement last month that it was considering reopening a major northern naval base and resuming regular naval patrols has revived a debate over the militarization of the Arctic. In early September, a convoy of 10 Russian warships – led by missile cruiser Peter the Great and accompanied by four nuclear-powered icebreakers – completed a voyage across the Arctic Ocean. Starting from Severomorsk near Finland, the ships travelled nearly 2000 miles, reaching Kotelny Island in the Novosibirsk Archipelago, reportedly bringing construction material and personnel needed to reconstruct the old Soviet-era naval base shut down in 1993.

The Russian decision to rebuild a naval facility in the Arctic is a not-so-tacit reminder that as the northern ice-cap melts and critical sea-routes become navigable, Arctic nations will not be able to resist the impulse of militarizing the region. In the past few years, as vast spaces in the Arctic have opened up, a scramble has ensued for the region’s undiscovered natural resources (estimated to be 30% of the world’s undiscovered natural gas and 13% of its undiscovered oil). This has, in turn, resulted in increasingly assertive territorial postures being adopted by regional stakeholders, and the gradual dominance of a security-driven discourse.

Unsurprisingly, the rising military presence in the Arctic is being increasingly justified by the need to project national influence and sustain claims over the region’s sea-lanes and natural resources. When Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the reopening of the new naval base, he noted how important is was for Russia to assert control over the operation of the Northern Sea Route (NSR). Even though he did not mention it, Putin’s interest in securing the vital sea-lane seems driven by its potential to cut the regular travel time of cargo ships from Europe to Asia by almost a third.

Military Initiatives

More importantly, the latest development has drawn critical attention to the absence of a security framework in the Arctic. Russia has, arguably, been the most militarily active Arctic state. Since 2007, when a mini-sub planted a Russian titanium flag at the base of the North Pole, the Russian Navy has maintained a strategic presence in the Arctic. Its under-sea patrol program will soon be augmented by the new Borey class submarines based on the Barents Sea coast. Equally notable are Russia’s power-projection initiatives. In 2012, a large-scale Russian naval exercise was held in the High North that included more than 7000 personnel and about 20 naval units. During the exercise, the Northern Fleet conducted Russia’s first-ever amphibious landing on the Arctic archipelago of the New Siberian Islands.

This year in July, Moscow’s held a massive exercise in the Russian Far East region – reportedly the biggest “snap-drill” since the era of the Soviet Union. The exercises involved more than 160,000 servicemen, 1000 tanks, 130 planes and 70 ships, and came only a month after Russia submitted a claim to the United Nations to extend its 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone by another 150 miles or 1.2 million square kilometers. Moscow’s “scientific evidence,” to buttress its contention of the claimed seabed being a continuation of the continental shelf, is bitterly contested by other Arctic nations.

Russia is, however, not the only country with plans to securitize the region. After assuming the presidency of the Arctic Council in May this year, Canada made clear that it will push for a change in the Council’s focus so as to seize the economic opportunities arising from the melting of the northern polar ice cap. Its follow-up plan includes initiatives to strengthen its Arctic sovereignty claims and bolster its northern military presence. Interestingly, a study by the Canadian military’s operational support command last year had recommended military outposts in the form of basic transportation hubs, after which Ottawa began seriously considering setting up small-but-permanent military presence in remote locations in the Arctic North.

Canada’s assertive strategy, however, is not limited to military bases. Since 2007, the Canadian military has held Operation Nanook in the country’s north every year. It is an exercise aimed exclusively at exercising Canadian sovereignty. In August this year more than 1,000 personnel from the Canadian Armed Forces took part in Operation Nanook 2013, held at four different locations in the Arctic, purportedly as a counter to Moscow’s renewed territorial claims in the Arctic Ocean.

Apart from Nanook, Canada has also been holding two other military drills in the region: Operation Nunalivut in the High Arctic and Operation Nunakput in the western Arctic. Norway, meanwhile, has played its own part in the securitization of the region. In July 2013, it conducted one of the largest Arctic maneuvers ever — Exercise Cold Response – in which more than 16,000 troops from 14 countries are believed to have participated. Despite its landmark pact with Russia over the Barents Sea in 2010, Norway apparently still fears a Russian takeover of the Arctic.

Moscow, meanwhile, appears concerned with the bilateral endeavors of other Arctic countries to press joint claims in the disputed regions. In 2012, Canada and the U.S. reportedly conducted a 42-day joint Arctic expedition to survey the continental shelf – only two weeks after a Russian research vessel was dispatched on a similar mission. Russia also seems anxious about the May 2010 military agreement between Canada and Denmark pledging closer collaboration in the Arctic, spanning the gamut of “consultations, information exchanges, visits, and military exercises.” In a sign of solidarity with Canada, Denmark even deployed a unit to participate in the Operation Nunalivut exercise in the High Arctic earlier this year.

While most military developments in the region have concerned the Northern Sea Route, the gradual opening up of the North West passage too might create further tensions. In January 2009, a U.S. Presidential National Security Directive contested – albeit indirectly – Canada’s sovereignty claims over part of the Beaufort Sea, also holding the Northwest Passage to have the legal status of “international waters.” This month, as a Danish-owned ship, the Nordic Orion, became the first cargo vessel to use the Northwest Passage as an international shipping route, the argument between the U.S. and Canada has been joined again.

Arctic Council Politics

A key reason why security issues are not easily discussed by Arctic Council nations is that five of the eight nations in the group are also NATO members, whose charter commits member states to mutual military assistance. This appears to preclude the possibility of fair and balanced deliberations on the territorial disagreements in the region. For instance, despite Canada’s sovereignty disputes with the United States (over the Beaufort Sea) and with Denmark (over the Hans Island), the three NATO partners have been coordinating their military strategies in the Arctic. Their collective participation in this year’s Nanook exercises, gives Moscow a sense that NATO countries are ganging up against Russia.

To complicate matters, the Arctic Council is formally prohibited from discussing military security in the Arctic. Members consequently discuss security issues in informal meetings, like the one that took place on a Canadian military base in early 2012. Needless to say, the existing mistrust has prevented any substantive discussion on addressing security concerns in the region.

Securing Asian Interests

Since they were granted “observer” status in May 2013, India, Japan, Singapore and South Korea have become more conscious of the politics of the Arctic. Even while recognizing the resource potential of the region and the importance of the North West Passage and the Northern Sea Route in future trade and energy transits, observer states realize that in all matters strictly strategic, it is Arctic Council states that call the shots. Needless to say, the slow militarization of the region is turning out to be the single biggest cause of worry among external stakeholders – especially against the backdrop of an increasingly conspicuous Chinese presence. The developments on the security front are being perceived as an indication that the future militarization of the Arctic will be marked by a growing desperation among Arctic states to stake control over the region’s resources and sea lanes.

Abhijit Singh is a research scholar at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses and looks at Maritime Security in the Indian Ocean. He is co-author of the book Indian Ocean Challenges – A Quest for Cooperative Solutions.