Opinion & Analysis

Back to the Future of the Arctic

Russia’s war against Ukraine seems to have no immediate end in sight, the strategic competition between China and the US continues, and the expanding military cooperation between China and Russia increases the challenges facing the international com­munity. In this context, the Arctic seems to be a relic of the past, no longer the “zone of peace” that Mikhail Gorbachev described in 1987. Indeed, this Arctic exceptionalism ended long before Russia’s war of aggression began. In order to restore at least a minimum level of cooperation, informal talks are needed that could help to provide perspective after the end of the war. Two former relatively uncontroversial projects could serve as starting points: the recovery of radioactive remnants of the Cold War and an agreement to prevent unintentional escalation, namely, another Incidents at Sea Agreement (INCSEA). A return to old approaches to arms control could pave the way to renewed cooperation in the Arctic in the future.

Generalised mistrust has supplanted the trust that once anchored the Arctic Council, and it is difficult to see at what level and by what means the forum can be brought back to constructive engagement. Under Presi­dent Vladimir Putin, Russia has now either violated or terminated all remaining arms control agreements and fora. Trusting co­operation with Putin is no longer possible, and his aggressive, neo-imperialist policy will have a lasting impact. Yet, Russia still laments the loss of trust – as cynical as this may sound in view of the ongoing brutality of Russian warfare and violations of inter­national law.

Reinstatement of the Arctic as an area of cooperation and stability is the long-term goal of all member states of the Arctic Coun­cil. Indigenous peoples and observer states, including Germany, are also likely to agree on this. Even Moscow seems to be interested in some kind of stability, par­ticularly to enable the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation (AZRF) to function as its national resource base funded by foreign investments and thus to reduce its growing dependence on China. However, Russia cur­rently remains on a collision course with the West. The hostilities in Ukraine will not end in 2024, which will be a decisive year in many respects; a historic NATO summit will take place in Washington and several elections will occur, including the US presi­dential elections in November.

In order to make future cooperation pos­sible, it is advisable to reflect critically on certain measures that appear suitable to restore trust in the intentions and goals of Arctic actors. To this end, the original objec­tives and instruments of arms control should be reconsidered, and thought should be given to how they can be applied within the new Arctic security environment. This applies across the entire spectrum, from con­fidence-building measures to arms con­trol of weapons systems.

The Arctic: a hotspot of climate change and an area of political opportunity

The Arctic is a good starting point for un­official talks and an eventual resumption of positive diplomatic exchange, not least because of its geographic location far from current geopolitical hotspots in the Sino-American rivalry and its increasing impor­tance for both China and the United States. According to Canadian political scientist Rob Huebert, the US, China, and Russia form “a new Arctic strategic triangle” which essentially determines the potential for con­flict in the Arctic.

The effects of climate change in combination with strategic competition form a toxic mix when it comes to cooperation among the Arctic players. Due to continued warming, an ice-free Arctic Ocean will likely become a reality in the near future. In this case, the Arctic Ocean is expected to be covered by less than 15 percent sea ice in the summer months. Such a scenario is now foreseen to occur by the mid-2030s, whereas some time ago this was not ex­pected until the middle or end of the cen­tury. Due to this development, sea routes and resources in the Arctic will be more accessible soon. Civilian and military activ­ities are already growing and competition for access and influence in the Arctic is intensifying. This has created a need for rules governing states’ behaviour, while also taking into account transnational and indigenous relationships.

The increase of military activity requires arms control in the original and comprehensive sense. This means that potential adversaries should engage in all forms of military cooperation in the interest of re­ducing the probability, scale, and violence of a potential military conflict, as well as the political and economic costs of pre­paring for one. In this context, it is now a question of what can be used in the medium term to overcome the ongoing tensions and to shape mutually beneficial cooperation in the Arctic in the future. A certain degree of cooperation with Russia is necessary in order to avoid misunderstand­ings, miscalculations, and mutually unde­sirable events which could occur in the con­text of military activities. In the long term, stability is a prerequisite to the sustainable use of Arctic sea routes and resources. The Arctic states will need to involve new play­ers such as China if a “peaceful, stable, prosperous and cooperative Arctic” is to be possible in line with the US Arctic strategy.

Such a constructive approach currently has little chance of success within Russia, as with many NATO states. The Kremlin sees the collective West as an opponent and perceives willingness to negotiate as a weak­ness. Within NATO, the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine has strength­ened internal cohesion, but the alliance is not united on the question of how security should be guaranteed against Russia in the future. The opinion in many NATO states is that Russia can only be countered from a position of strength, which thus requires comprehensive rearmament. Others, on the other hand, also consider risk reduction measures to be reasonable, which would require a minimum level of cooperation. A clear decision on NATO’s political direction is not expected before this year’s summit in Washington and the US presidential election.

First and foremost, it is necessary to reach a common understanding of how future relations with Russia should be shaped after the end of the war against Ukraine. The Arctic is of central importance to Russia not only as a national resource base and sea route, but also as a zone of security that guarantees Russia’s maritime nuclear second-strike capability. For their part, the north­ern European states, as well as the US and Canada, are facing new types of military threats that require novel concepts and costly investment in capacities. Former con­cepts such as crisis stability are being chal­lenged by the emergence of hypersonic weapons systems, and this puts political decision-making processes under even more pressure.

The security dilemma in the Arctic should be defused, the build-up of military capabilities contained, and crisis and con­flict prevention measures should be intro­duced. Ideally, these goals can serve as building blocks for a future security archi­tecture. Otherwise, the increasing activities in the Arctic – from civilian shipping to large-scale military exercises – exacerbate the risk of unintentional escalation as a result of misunderstanding or misperception. Thus, a dialogue on military security issues in the Arctic must be established.

About the author:

Dr Michael Paul is a Senior Fellow in the International Security Research Division at SWP

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