During the past decade, military security has been reclaiming its relevance in the Arctic. The region is becoming more accessible due to rapidly melting ice, giving rise to intensified maritime traffic and resource exploitation.
As a result, the circumpolar states are gaining more national assets that they need to protect in the Arctic, including by the deployment of armed forces in the region.
This article first overviews the transformation of the Arctic from a militarized region during the Cold War to a “zone of peace” in the Post-Cold War era. It then assesses how the Arctic has been regaining its geopolitical significance since the second half of the 2000s.
In particular, Russia’s new strategic interests in the region and consequent militarization of the Arctic have triggered an intensifying competition with the US, which the latter explicitly acknowledged in the 2019 Arctic Strategy.
However, this competition also includes non-Arctic states, notably China. While China poses no military threat in the Arctic so far, in its recent policy it too expressed interest in maintaining security in the region.
In light of this shifting regional security environment, the article analyzes the ensuing security dilemma that prompts states to increase their military presence and thus heightens the risk of a conflict.
It furthermore explores a potential avenue that could minimize the possibility of political crises and military conflicts.
Specifically, the article argues that the resumption of a military-security dialogue and the creation of a military code of conduct for the Arctic could promote transparency in relations between the circumpolar states and other actors involved, thereby mitigating the risk of miscalculation.
Post-Cold War Neglect of Arctic
During the Cold War, the European Arctic was heavily militarized. Beyond the Arctic Circle, the opposing Eastern and Western military blocs maintained the so-called “negative peace”: no violent conflict took place, but tensions persisted and hindered cooperation.
This began to change in October 1987, when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev launched a set of policies, commonly known as the “Murmansk Initiative”, aiming to transform the Arctic from a military theatre to an international “zone of peace”.
In other words, the goal was to scale down military activity in the region by establishing a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone (NWFZ), imposing restrictions on naval activities and promoting trans-border cooperation in non-military matters, such as resource development, indigenous peoples’ affairs, environmental protection, and marine transportation.
The Murmansk Initiative marked a radical shift in Soviet Arctic policy and spurred the eventual de-securitization of interstate relations in the circumpolar North.
Post-Soviet Russia decommissioned many of the Northern Fleet’s submarines and abandoned military facilities in the Arctic. The US government also withdrew most of its military from the region, emphasizing that in this new state of affairs the eight Arctic states had “unprecedented opportunities for collaboration”.
In 1996, the new state of affairs in the Arctic manifested itself in the establishment of the Arctic Council as a high-level forum for the discussion of regional issues. Its founding document, the Ottawa Declaration, excluded military-security matters from the council’s mandate and confined the focus to environmental protection and sustainable development issues.
Over the following two decades, the Arctic regional order was often described as “exceptional”: the circumpolar states strove to maintain the region free of conflict and geopolitical tensions by negotiating a balance of power through norms of cooperation and multilateralism.
Non-state actors, such as indigenous peoples and sub-national governments, also strengthened cross-border cooperation in addressing non-military issues, including climate change and human security.
Admittedly, there was some interstate cooperation in the military domain, such as the Arctic Military Environmental Cooperation (AMEC) programme established between Norway, Russia and the US in 1996, but overall military-security concerns faded from the Arctic policy of the circumpolar states until around the second half of the 2000s.
Russia & China’s Increased Northern Presence
In Russia’s policy, the Arctic region’s geopolitical significance re-emerged around 2007, when the Russian military resumed the Soviet practice of long-range combat patrols over the Arctic and, less than a year later, recommenced the Northern Fleet’s surface patrols of the Arctic waters.
That same year, the Russian government also adopted its first comprehensive document on the Arctic policy, entitled “Foundations of the State Policy of the Russian Federation in the Arctic to 2020 and Beyond”, which envisioned Russia’s role as a “leading Arctic power” and referred to the maintenance of military formations in the region as one of the main policy objectives.
President Putin has reiterated that the Defense Ministry and the Federal Security Service work to protect the state’s national interests by guaranteeing defence capability in the Arctic and by ensuring a steady operation of the Northern Sea Route.
The 2014 Military Doctrine explicitly stated that safeguarding Russia’s national interests in the Arctic was one of the main tasks of the armed forces.
Indeed, over the last decade, Russia, while continuing to advocate cooperation, has been rapidly reestablishing its military presence in the Arctic, including the modernization of defense capabilities, development of military infrastructure and reopening of Cold War military bases.
As an important part of its deterrence capability, the Northern Fleet on the Kola Peninsula, which hosts submarines equipped with ballistic missiles, comprises two-thirds of Russia’s maritime nuclear strike capacity.
The latest Arctic strategy document, “Foundations of the State Policy of the Russian Federation in the Arctic in the Period up to 2035”, which was released in March 2020, stipulates that in the next fifteen years Russia’s Arctic policy would be primarily aimed at fostering the state’s socio-economic development by using Arctic resources. Nonetheless, it also presents the strengthening of combat capabilities as well as the creation and modernization of military infrastructure as the main policy tasks.
The growing geopolitical significance of the Arctic has also prompted China, which was granted a permanent observer status in the Arctic Council in 2013 alongside five other non-Arctic States, to establish itself as one of the key non-Arctic stakeholders in the region.
In its latest policy, positioning itself as a “near-Arctic state”, China has demonstrated a greater focus on building capacity to defend state interests in the circumpolar North. Such interests include protection of maritime, navigation, and trade security, as well as, more generally, the preservation of peace and stability in the region.
The 2015 National Security Law referred to Beijing’s right to safeguard the security of Chinese activities in the polar regions. Three years later, the State Council’s Arctic Policy White Paper presented China’s involvement in Arctic issues, including those concerning security and global governance, as necessary, not least because the utilization of sea routes and exploration of resources would have “a huge impact on the energy strategy and economic development of China.”
As part of the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI), the Arctic Ocean after the land corridor through Central Asia and the Maritime Silk Road through the European Mediterranean is the third most important passage for China to ensure the security of supply.
Beijing is seeking to diversify transport lanes and secure an alternative route to the one through the Egyptian Suez Canal. If raw materials and goods are shipped to and from China via the Middle East, they have to cross the Malacca Strait between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, which could be blocked in the event of a conflict.
The Arctic Ocean is not exposed to such a risk and thus offers an attractive alternative as well as the potential for more time- and cost-efficient transportation routes to Europe.
The 2018 Arctic Policy White Paper made no direct references to military security. However, China’s broader policy of “energy nationalism”, which entails seeking to obtain and protect energy supplies, has spurred the modernization of the navy in an effort to ensure the security of maritime supply routes and to deter rivals from accessing resource-rich regions.
Available evidence allows for the conclusion that the Chinese Navy will incorporate Arctic ambitions into its naval strategy and will by 2030 promote the construction and development of equipment according to the strategic requirements of a new concept for “near seas defence, far seas protection, presence in the two oceans, [and] expansion into the two poles.”
Arctic Security Dilemma
Russia and China’s growing interest in the circumpolar North, particularly in the context of China’s rising global influence and Russia’s deteriorated relations with the West following the 2014 annexation of Crimea, has triggered a security dilemma for the US and NATO allies.
Such a dilemma occurs when a state’s means to increase its security by acquiring more and more military power render other states insecure. The latter are then often compelled to strengthen their own military capabilities, which ultimately reduces rather than enhances the security of all actors involved.
Thus, the US and NATO allies face a dilemma as to how they should react to Russia’s military activities in the circumpolar North: should they react in kind by expanding their own military presence in the region or signal reassurance by maintaining the current state of affairs?
The solution to this security dilemma is contingent upon the assessment of whether the purpose of the observed military developments in the Russian Arctic is defensive (to enhance national security) or offensive (to change the status quo to the state’s own advantage).
Such differentiation is, however, problematic, as there is no foolproof method for discerning true intentions. Misplaced suspicions via assumptions of offensive motives could prompt decision-makers to respond in a confrontational manner, potentially leading to an unintended mutual hostility. Conversely, misplaced trust via assumptions of defensive motives carries the risk of facing future coercion if there are, in fact, hostile intentions.
As the Arctic security dilemma intensifies due to Russia’s and, to an extent, China’s growing presence in the circumpolar North, the current US Administration has begun to adjust its Arctic security policy.
The previous administrations paid little attention to security in the Arctic: President George Bush’s two 2009 Presidential directives suggested minimal engagement in the circumpolar North, and President Barack Obama’s National Strategy for the Arctic Region, published a few years later, stipulated that the expansion of Arctic infrastructure and the strengthening of international cooperation in the region were the key policy goals.
In 2016, the Pentagon still assured that the Arctic remained an area of cooperation, despite “friction points” concerning sea routes with Canada and Russia.
Even though the 2017 US National Security Strategy mentioned the Arctic region only once in passing and the 2018 Defense Strategy disregarded the region altogether, in 2019 the US began to express concerns about Russia and China’s potential Arctic ambitions.
In May, at the Arctic Council’s Ministerial Meeting, US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo drew attention to “a pattern of aggressive Russian behaviour”, “illegitimate claims” and “destabilizing activities” in the Arctic.
He also noted that “China’s words and actions raise doubts about its intentions”, as they follow “a very familiar pattern” of an attempt to develop critical infrastructure and, ultimately, to establish permanent security and military presence.
Shortly after the Arctic Council’s Ministerial Meeting, the US Department of Defense (DoD) unveiled the Arctic Strategy, which implicitly acknowledged the security dilemma. The document focuses on “competition with Russia and China as the principal challenge to long-term US security and prosperity” and warns against their increasing military activity in the Arctic.
It also cautions against Russia’s refurbishing of airfields and infrastructure, the creation of new military bases and efforts to launch “a network of air defense and coastal missile systems, early warning radars, rescue centers, and a variety of sensors.”
The strategy notes that China’s presence in the Arctic is more limited than Russia’s, but it nonetheless draws attention to Chinese ice-breaking vessels and civilian research efforts, which could eventually support its military presence, including the deployment of submarines, in the Arctic Ocean.
Overall, the document recognizes that the “immediate prospect of conflict in the Arctic is low” but it also suggests that the region is no longer insusceptible to competition and tensions between great power states. The strategy’s implementation would require extensive measures and funding in order to maintain and expand the US Arctic bases, in particular, of the US Air Force.
The latter published its own Arctic Strategy in July 2020, aiming to contribute to the DoD Arctic Strategy’s objectives: defending the homeland, competing with other actors in order to maintain a balance of power and ensuring the freedom of common domains. So far, it is unclear whether the Pentagon is prepared to make the necessary investments, particularly given the foreseeable budget restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nonetheless, the recent US Arctic policy direction indicates that the government perceives the purpose of Russia’s military developments in the Arctic as offensive and could, therefore, be inclined to expand its own military presence in the region. US strategic responses to the security dilemma could aggravate the risk of miscalculation or unintended confrontation.
Resuming the Military-Security Dialogue
The security dilemma is, furthermore, exacerbated by the absence of a dialogue and an agreement between the circumpolar states on acceptable military practices in the Arctic. There is currently no forum for an Arctic-focused military-security dialogue that would include Russia.
Following the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, Russia has not been attending the annual meetings of the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable (ASFR) and the Northern Chiefs of Defense forum has not convened since 2013. There has been little disagreement about the necessity to re-engage Russia in the dialogue on military security in the Arctic, but opinions vary with regard to the most suitable venue for this dialogue.
Other existing regional platforms, in which Russia continues to participate, namely the Arctic Council, the Barents Euro-Arctic Council (BEAC) and the Arctic Coast Guard Forum (ACGF), do not deal with hard security issues.
The institutionalization of such a dialogue could ensure greater transparency of military intentions of the states concerned, thereby mitigating the security dilemma and potentially decelerating further military build-up in the circumpolar North.
One option could be extending the Arctic Council’s mandate to include military-security issues. As a high-level intergovernmental forum that has been active for more than two decades, the Arctic Council has a high level of institutionalization.
It thus offers a quicker and more cost-effective option than the creation of an entirely new forum. In addition, it brings together all the main stakeholders in the region, therefore providing a more reasonable option for the discussion of military security in the Arctic than the NATO-Russia Council or the OSCE.
Admittedly, hard security issues could politicize the work of the Arctic Council, thereby potentially jeopardizing cooperation between the Arctic states. Nevertheless, some policy leaders of the stakeholder states have expressed support for the idea of the Arctic Council mandate’s extension.
For instance, Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir stated during her opening speech at the Arctic conference in October 2019 that there was a “need to (…) discuss whether the Arctic Council should also address security issues.” Her Finnish counterpart, Antti Rinne, also spoke in favor of such an initiative.
The extension of the Arctic Council’s mandate would require a consensus among the member states. Until such a consensus is reached, there are other potential venues for resuming the military-security dialogue among the circumpolar states. Russia could be re-invited to attend the ASFR, and ACDS meetings could be reconvened.
Moscow could also be included in the dialogue through existing international conferences, such as those organized by the Arctic Circle Assembly.
All in all, the establishment of a military-security dialogue among the Arctic states would be a crucial step in building security architecture into the region.
Arctic Military Code of Conduct for Future?
The establishment of a forum for military-security dialogue would provide an opportunity for the circumpolar states (and potentially other states concerned) to discuss and determine acceptable military practices in the Arctic. Similar agreements exist in other areas, such as search and rescue (SAR) and environmental cooperation, but the field of military security has thus far been left out.
The creation of an Arctic Military Code of Conduct (AMCC), which would determine legitimate military practices, could contribute to promoting transparency and decreasing the risk of miscalculation.
In this way, it could facilitate building a certain degree of trust in the military intentions of the states involved, which could eventually mitigate the security dilemma.
As a trust-building instrument, an AMCC could rely on the 2011 OSCE Vienna Document on Confidence- and Security-Building Measures (CSBMs). Another exemplary model for an AMCC could be the 2018 International Agreement to Prevent Unregulated High Seas Fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean.
The agreement has provided a format for negotiations among the five Arctic littoral states together with four other states (China, Iceland, Japan and South Korea) as well as the EU. An AMCC could similarly include non-Arctic states with capabilities to conduct military operations in the Arctic, such as China, the United Kingdom and France, in addition to the Arctic states.
The primary purpose of an AMCC would be to foster cooperation and maintain the region free of conflict. Therefore, the Arctic Council, which operates in the same spirit, would be a suitable venue for starting the discussion on which military practices are acceptable and which ones are not.
Furthermore, as Russia will take over the Arctic Council’s chairmanship in 2021-2023, it would likely be more inclined to engage in a military-security dialogue with the Arctic states and potentially other states with military capabilities in the region. Transparency and limitations of military capabilities are important anchors of stability that could help prevent a possible crisis.
In conclusion, the Arctic region is in flux. As it is no longer immune to geopolitical tensions but increasingly a place of strategic competition between the great powers, a military-security dialogue forum and a military code of conduct are indispensable for bolstering transparency in interstate relations and to lower the risk of conflict.
Authors: Agne Cepinskyte, Post-Doctoral Fellow and Co-authored by Michael Paul, Senior Fellow at Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP) in Berlin, Germany.
Editor’s note: The article reflects the author’s opinion only, and not necessarily the views of editorial opinion of Belt & Road News.
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