Why is the Arctic a cornerstone for geopolitics?

Contributor:  Andrew Elwell
Posted:  03/27/2014  12:00:00 AM EDT
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Tags:   arctic patrol

With maritime operations and surveillance in the Artic becoming an ever more significant issue in global geopolitics, Defence IQ invited Dr. Katarzyna Zysk to discuss the subject further.

Dr. Zysk is an associate professor at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies in Oslo, which is a part the Norwegian Defence University College. Dr Zysk is also a research scholar at the U.S. Naval War College – Center for Naval Warfare Studies. With a background in international history and international relations, Dr Zysk specializes in security studies. In several past years, her research interests have centred on transformations in the High North and the Arctic. Among the most recent works is a post-doctoral research project on security in the Arctic, with special focus on Russia’s policies (2009–2012). The project was a part of the international research programme Geopolitics in the High North, sponsored by the Norwegian Research Council and chaired by the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies (for the research results click here).

Apart from scholarly work related to the Arctic, Dr Zysk has also acted as a subject matter expert in various games and simulations conducted, among others, by the U.S. Naval War College and the U.S. National Intelligence Council. Such studies aimed at assessing and mitigatinggaps that limit maritime operations in the Arctic, negative implications of the Arctic transformations forsecurity, trade, economy, and therelationships of the Arctic states and other potential users, to name just a few.

Here’s the transcript from the interview…

Defence IQ: Can you briefly outline the reasons why the Artic is becoming an important region for world affairs and geopolitics?

Dr. Zysk: After the turn of the millennium, and especially over the past six to seven years, the Arctic has increasingly drawn international attention. A combination of several factors has contributed to that. Among the most influential are extraordinary climatic deviations that lead to shrinking and thinning of the ice cap on an unprecedented rate and scale.

Another driver was the representation of the region as a new and very promising energy frontier. The US Geological Survey’s World Petroleum Assessment of 2000, which attributed to the Arctic 25 percent of the world’s recoverable undiscovered energy resources (adjusted in 2008 to 22%), has largely contributed to that, as did the instability in the Middle East and high energy prices.

The thawing Arctic ice has also exposed longstanding border disputes and other unresolved legal issues. The focus on the region has been galvanized byalarmist assessments of intrastate relations in the region seen as having high potential for conflict over territories and resources. A more assertive Russian foreign policy and tensions in the relations with the US and NATO, especially before and after the war in Georgia, generated much controversy and further fanned the flames. 

The early enthusiastic predictions about an upcoming commercial bonanza in the region, as well as forecasts of a pending military conflict, turned out to be largely overstated. The situation looks quite different today, although the region still remains high on the agenda of key states and non-state actors. Even though the pace and scale of the commercial developments is slower than initially expected, the Arctic holds the promise of economic opportunities. This concerns in particular the energy sector and commercial maritime shipping between Asia and Europe, as well as tourism, wildlife exploitation, and fishing, among others.

Challenges and threats that emerge alongside and uncertainty about the future developments in the natural environment, contribute to maintaining the world’s attention for the Arctic. While a military conflict potential is low, the region remains vulnerable and, to a large extent, unprepared for security implications of these new developments. The concerns include environmental changes, technological accidents and disasters such as oil spills. Marine navigation, communication system, search and rescue, disaster relief and humanitarian assistance capabilities are poor and insufficient to satisfy the demand.  

The importance of the transformations in the region is also connected to the fact that a warmer Arctic will affect the entire planet with such potential consequences as changes in ocean currents, wind patterns, thawing of the permafrost, release of methane gas, and others.

What is Russia’s approach to security in the region and how is that playing into the wider picture?

The Arctic, and in particular the European part of the region, has maintained its central place in Russian defence policy. There are several factors that contribute to the region’s continued strategic value to Russia. The most important are the sea-based nuclear forces deployed in with the Northern Fleet on the Kola Peninsula. It is closely related to the continued reliance of Russia on the nuclear deterrent.The Arctic is thus likely to remain of high military strategic importance to Russia in the foreseeable future.

Russia still has a strong military presence in the region, with a variety of activities that have clearly increased especially since 2007. A fair share of the manoeuvres and exercises has been a part of the broader military strategy, not related to the Arctic region explicitly.

That being said, the growing international interest and increasing accessibility of the Arctic Ocean to Russian and foreign actors have had an impact on Russian security perceptions. The sense of vulnerability of the regions has increased. As a result, Russia has produced in the last few years large-scale plans aimed at improving border protection, surveillance, law enforcement, navigation and communication systems, as well as search and rescue capabilities. The Arctic transformations generate new tasks and new rationale for the Russian security services deployed in the region. The increased Russian military presence also has a political and symbolic value aimed reasserting the country’s key position in the Arctic.

Russia’s behaviour and relations with other state and non-state actors are key factors determining geopolitical developments in the region. One obvious reason for that is that the geography gives Russia a dominant and influential position in the region. Moreover, the region’s importance in defence policy and the national economy of Russia is unmatched by the role it plays in any other Arctic rim state. Russia considers itself a leading Arctic power also in the virtue of its extensive polar presence, experience and capacities and constitutes an important part of the national identity and narrative.

Russia’sposition in the region is to be strengthened by a large-scale Arctic development programme reaching across a spectrum of areas. It emphasises expansion of the offshore energy industry, maritime shipping and social infrastructure, in addition to security, environmental issues and research.

What role, if any, is climate change having in the evolution of the Arctic as a strategically important region?

Both opportunities and challenges deriving from the radical changes in the climate are among the main reasons behind the re-emergence of the Arctic in world affairs. Easier access to the Ocean is a precondition for the new activities to develop. It is, however, only one among many intervening variables that will decide about the pace and scope of the developments in the Arctic. They include: technological advances; commercial viability connected to e.g. production from other energy provinces and development of alternative energy sources; approaches to the environmental change; as well as political (in)stability in the region and dynamics in other parts of the world that may drive the attention and resources away from the Arctic, or on the contrary, make it more relevant.

Andrew Elwell Contributor:   Andrew Elwell

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