The Arctic: The New Cold War?

As ice melts and militaries move in, the Arctic faces a heated problem on all fronts.

A Russian icebreaker ship powers through the Arctic water.

Used by permission of NOAA

A Russian icebreaker ship powers through the Arctic water.

Russia is increasing its presence in the Arctic in order to expand its economic and militaristic assets, setting off an international race to colonize the frozen ocean — and possibly start a new cold war. 

Melting ice caps — as a result of global warming — have allowed for more intensive fishing, easier shipping routes, and more mineral and oil mining to take place. As these potential economic profits increase, so do countries’ ambitions to expand and protect their resources.

As recently as April 2021, Moscow asked the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf to further extend their claim to the Arctic Ocean seabed; this is the third time they have filed such a submission. Should the plan be approved, Russia’s land will be right up against Canada’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and cover nearly 70 percent of the central Arctic.

This is only one example of Russia displaying their ambitions to expand into the region – some others are not as peaceful. 

The region has seen a spike in Russian Arctic-grade weapon innovation, the amount of stationed troops and vehicles, and military base development – even a reactivation of soviet-era bases. In August of 2021, Russia hosted the “biggest [military] drill [near Alaska] since Soviet times,” displaying their militaristic intent and belligerence.

In response, the United States and its allies have increased their militaristic presence, stationing a nuclear submarine and naval fleets, building foreign military bases, and even hosting their own arctic drills.

Some warn that this “back and forth” show of strength could lead to further tensions and conflict. 

“What might … seem like a routine training exercise … is actually part of an emerging US strategy to overpower Russia,” said Michael T. Klare in his article “A World War Could Break Out in the Arctic”. “[This] approach … could easily result in nuclear war.”

While it might seem confusing why countries would risk nuclear war over floating ice, the reasons are quite simple: money and power. 

The economic value of the Arctic cannot be understated, averaging roughly 290 billion dollars a year. The majority of its profits come from oil, mineral mining, fishing, and shipping routes. Especially as the ice melts, more of those resources will become available, thus increasing the monetary value of the Arctic. 

In addition to financial gain, the Arctic poses great militaristic advantages. 

“People are interested in the Arctic as an asset [because] … the quickest way to North America is ‘over the top’, [particularly] when … talking about ballistic and nuclear missiles,” said Lillian Hussong, the Arctic Institute’s interim president and an expert in defense and security. 

General Billy Mitchell went as far as to state, “whoever controls Alaska controls the world [as it is] the most strategic place in the world” in his testimony before Congress in 1935.

While it is undeniable that militaristic presence in the Arctic has increased, researchers are split on whether or not this could lead to further tensions.

“Since [Russia’s] 2014 invasion of Ukraine, Russia has adopted a much more competitive, even confrontational, perspective on the Arctic. Instead of emphasizing the benefits of cooperative engagement, its leaders have articulated their view of the Arctic as a sphere of military and economic expansion, and an arena for their great-power ambitions. As a result of this changing attitude, Moscow has prioritized military superiority to counter what it claims is a ‘growing U.S./NATO challenges its interests there,” said Eugene Rumer, Richard Sokolsky, and Paul Stronski in their article ‘Russia in the Arctic—A Critical Examination.’

This militarization — or “military modernization” — to “beat the other side” leads to a situation called a security dilemma, where states increase their security because the other states have greater advantages. This causes the other states to increase their own security, leading to escalation and tensions. Some experts, like Pavel Devyatkin, a research associate specialized in defense and security for the Arctic Institute, say it could be the path the Unted States and Russia are headed down right now.

“2020 was an unprecedented year [for] U.S.-Russia tensions in the Arctic. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, NATO warships entered the Barents Sea just off Russia’s Arctic coast … A few months later, the Russian Navy conducted military exercises in the Bering Sea near Alaska,” said Mr. Devyatkin. “Military activity … is increasing and alarming … the region which has not seen interstate conflict since World War II.”

Mr. Devyatkin clarifies, “It is unlikely that [armed] conflict would break out in the Arctic,” but that increased “military modernization” could lead to heightened pressure. 

However, Professor Hossain Kamrul, a research professor from the University of Lapland and Director of Northern Institute for Environmental and Minority Law, questions if there really is a conflict brewing. 

“The Law of the Sea Convention determines [who owns what land] and… is very clear on that. [Expanding land in the Arctic] is an orderly development,” he said in an interview with me. 

The Law of the Sea Convention explicitly states territorial rights, which is why Professor Kamrul doesn’t “see any kind of room for competition or conflict…, as long as all the states are … complying.” Yereth Rosen, an author and researcher for Arctic Today agrees.

“There’s a lot of mutual interests [between Alaska and Eastern Russia] that even goes back to the Soviet days,” she said in an interview with me. In an e-mail message, she elaborated, “the U.S. and Russia have mutual interests in keeping Bering Sea/Bering Strait shipping safe… In fact, I would say— and others would say— that in this part of the Arctic, the U.S. and Russia have much more in common than they have differences… There’s a long history of cooperation and alliance.”

While the U.S. and Russia might have shaky relations elsewhere, some argue that the Arctic is actually a rare binding factor between the “polar opposite” countries.

“You have this history of the U.S. condemning Russian activities basically anywhere else in the world … but you don’t see that in the Arctic,” said Lillian Hussong. “It’s important to … put everything in … a larger context … The Arctic is a low conflict region and it should remain that way.”

However, some dislike that the focus around the Arctic is centered around militarization and financial gain and believe the “real” problem is being avoided altogether: climate change. 

The region’s ice is melting at a rate of almost 13 percent per decade and warming two times faster than any other place on the planet, which will have a drastic effect on the planet. Not taking action now could be detrimental to the planet and its inhabitants.

“[The melting of the Arctic is] going to speed up warming of the rest of the planet because … the ice is no longer there in the summer,” said Bob Berwyn, a topic researcher and freelance reporter. “[There will be] coastal erosion, effects on fisheries and ecosystems… [Without action taken], after [20-30] years… the effects of climate change will be too far to fix.”

Climate change — especially in the Arctic — is arguably one of the most pressing issues the world will face. However, industries and governments tend to focus on what they can gain from the melting ice – an idea that Xavier Fettweis, a Research Associate at the University of Liège, calls “short minded.”

“[In the] short term, climate change is beneficial for the polar countries,” Mr. Fettweis said in an interview with me. “But very quickly, these countries will have problems with forest fires, melting of permafrost, destabilising buildings…Climate change will bring more economic losses than gains.”

While countries squabble over the region, the “true” problem becomes lost. Some call it almost ironic that governments can only focus on what they can gain from a world-threatening issue instead of what they can do to fix it.

“The Arctic is not a prize to be taken from somebody else,” sais Yereth Rosen. “It’s a place of collaboration.”

Further melting of ice in the Arctic will make resources and global destinations easier to access — and countries will exploit it for their own gain. As tensions and temperatures rise, a new question surfaces: will countries continue their race for economic and militaristic advantages or will they come together to solve this global problem?

“The Arctic is not a prize to be taken from somebody else…It’s a place of collaboration,” said Yereth Rosen, an author and researcher for Arctic Today.