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The Arctic: Between new opportunities and potential tensions

Written by Annette Bross


As the Arctic ice increasingly melts, the region is emerging as a new frontier for fishing, natural resource exploration, and trade routes. The Arctic contains many rare minerals and is regarded to be a favorable site for oil and gas mines, making it of strategic and economic importance to the countries claiming its territories. Up until recently, its remote location has always been the main issue of Arctic exploration, due to its high costs and impracticality. However, due to climate change-related ice melting, it is becoming more accessible. As a result of this chain of events, some of the world’s powers brought their attention to this desolate region, laying the seeds for potential future tensions.

How Arctic sovereignty is regulated

On a map, the Arctic Region is claimed by eight countries: Canada, Denmark (through Greenland), Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, the United States of America, and Russia. These nations are all members of the Arctic Council, an international body founded in 1996 to address concerns in the Arctic. While the Council does not address military security directly, its working groups meet several times a year to examine development, exploration, shipping, search and rescue, Indigenous rights, resource extraction, and environmental impact assessments around the region; besides upholding peace.

Such concerns are addressed through the creation of rules and regulations, as the several delegations joining the Council have competing interests; especially as economic development becomes more vital given recent world developments. The designation and division of continental shelves, the continent parts that are submerged under shallow water, is one of the most crucial tasks of the Council. In fact, each country’s capacity to explore and utilize the Arctic’s natural riches and its dominance over trade routes depends on the legitimacy of its claims over the continental shelves. However, continental shelves have not yet been fully mapped.

Image 2 credits: Tolpa Studios/Arctic Institute.

Countries maintain the exclusive rights to conduct economically generating activities such as fishing or drilling in their Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which is 370 kilometers or 200 nautical miles off the coast. However, the space between two or more frontiers is considered “up for grabs” by whoever can establish ownership. Hence, countries are increasingly investing in research to prove the extent of their continental shelves. If a country can demonstrate that its claims to a continental shelf are legitimate, by international law it receives exclusive rights to the minerals found on the shelf’s seabed. Only Norway and Iceland have applied and received approval for their request for continental shelf space. Russia has an outstanding claim over the North Pole that however overlaps with Greenland’s. The North Pole is the heart of the Arctic Circle, and whoever controls it has a strategic advantage over the remainder due to its geographic location.

Why it matters

There are economic, military, and strategic reasons why the melting arctic represents an opportunity for states. In terms of trade, passing through the Arctic by sea reduces the time it takes to import and export goods between Asian and Western markets by several weeks. Journeys could be cut in half if the ice caps melt sufficiently for cargo ships to pass. Geopolitically, as a result of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Sweden and Finland are considering joining NATO and this threatens Russia’s dominance over the far north. Since the prospect of NATO membership expansion was a significant motive for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in the first place, this might become a long-lasting point of tension between Arctic states.

What is Russia’s role?

As the arctic ice melts further, one of the council members has shown a greater interest in defending the territory. For the past 15 years, Russia has been boosting its military and commercial operations in the region, which led the US and other NATO members to see Russia’s actions as a possible threat. Russia accounts for half of the Arctic landmass, as it owns 53% of the Arctic Circle’s coastline where about 2 million people reside (representing 50% of the region’s population). Russian presence in the region reinforces the country’s claim to the Arctic territories.

Adding to the tension, Russia was selected to preside over the council between 2021 and 2023. In the wake of the Russian attack on Ukraine, the seven other Council members condemned President Putin’s actions in a joint statement where they decided to suspend the cooperation. The Council may continue its work, but not until the summer of 2023, when the rotating chair passes from the Russian Federation to Norway. If sanctions continue, though, they may prevent Russian participation in the Council at all or impede meetings on Russian soil.

In the Arctic, Russia has also made efforts to boost its ‘soft power.’ An example of this is the town of Barentsburg. Although situated on the Norwegian island of Svalbard, the settlement is almost entirely made up of ethnic Russians and Ukrainians. There are no military bases allowed there, but Russia is investing heavily in tourism, from bars to a museum that tells the story of Russian presence in the Arctic. The investments aim at sharing Russian cultural heritage with the people living in the town and ultimately strengthen their identity. In the future, this can lead to Russia using the same ‘cultural legacy’ rhetoric used in Ukraine to justify military action, and in general, harvest political support.

Conflict and the environment

As a result of climate change, socio-economic activity in the region is increasing. These activities, particularly fossil fuel exploitation and mineral extraction, are accelerating the Arctic's transformation. All of this new activity in a once icy and barren area of the earth could create additional turmoil. A frozen ocean that melts more and more each year provides growth opportunities for states, and this implies that having a presence in the Arctic means having a presence in a new ocean.

In the high north, diplomacy is more important than ever if the world wants to avoid conflict. Despite a resurgence of significant military interest in the region, the international community still believes in “Arctic exceptionalism,” which recognizes it as a pacific area and a space for dialogue. The impending Arctic concerns will not only play a vital role in international relations, but they will also redefine states’ borders and sovereignty in the world. Although the world's attention is diverted from the Arctic by the escalating war in Ukraine, the need for regional cooperation is more than ever, as the consequences reach beyond those related to climate change and permafrost studies.

2022-04-29 Arctic geopolitics
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About the Author: Annette Bross

Annette holds a bachelor's degree in History from Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City. She has now moved to the Netherlands to pursue a master’s at Leiden University in International Relations and Diplomacy. She is passionate about development, climate action, public policy, and security challenges with a strong commitment to social justice. She has experience in researching topics like the influence of soft power in Latin America and the Middle East.

The article was edited by Alessia Cappelletti and Ruben Pfeijffer.

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