Chapter 3 Geopolitical Shifts: Issues and Challenges for the Arctic Region

In: Does the UN Model Still Work? Challenges and Prospects for the Future of Multilateralism
Lutz Feldt
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The Arctic Ocean has become a geopolitical core area and the interests of many nations are driven by the consequences and opportunities of climate change. These fast-developing consequences have changed all perspectives. Despite accelerated warming, the Arctic will remain a very dangerous, challenging and unpleasant place for maritime, air and land activities. There will be a perfect storm every year.

The strategic importance of the Arctic has increased. Five countries are littoral states to the Arctic Ocean: Canada, Denmark/Greenland, Norway, Russia and the United States. A total of eight countries, including Finland, Iceland and Sweden, form the Arctic Council, the forum dealing with all Arctic issues with the exception of security and defense. The Council is based on multilateralism. Impressive achievements include four agreements for good governance in the Arctic.

The important perspectives are climate change, resource exploitation, military build-up and exercises, and the Arctic as a habitat. Military power projection is already a serious issue and needs more awareness. The Arctic can no longer be considered in isolation from what is emerging in other regions, and the tensions between Russia and China on the one hand, and the West on the other, have already had an impact on what is happening in the Arctic region: Resource exploitation and transiting the Northern Sea Route are the highest priority for Russia and China; the issue of nuclear waste in the Arctic Ocean and ashore is threatening and a global concern; sovereign rights of Canada and Russia inside territorial waters are disputed; and Greenland and Svalbard deserve greater attention. The process of major changes will continue in the Arctic region, and a key aspect is the understanding of, on the one hand, how to protect the Arctic Region and, on the other hand, how to use the resources that are accessible due to climate change and new technology.


One question that has frequently been asked in relation to the Arctic, irrespective of climate change, has been whether conflict or cooperation (Del Pozo et al. 2013) will develop there. Many analysts and reporters have attempted to give an answer, often stating that cooperation is definitely an option and helps resolve conflicts, if it is applied correctly. Thus far, this attitude has also been reflected in the substance of the Arctic strategies (Schulze 2017) of the eight states that belong to the Arctic Council (Arctic Council Secretariat 2017). The Council traditionally sees itself as the authoritative body for resolving Arctic matters. In context of the overall subject of this chapter, the Council operates within a multilateral framework. Canada, with its long coastline with numerous islands, occupies a special position as the state responsible for the Northwest Passage. Russia, which also has a long coastline, is in a similar, but not comparable, situation (The Arctic Institute 2020; 2021).

Under the 1996 Declaration on the Establishment of the Arctic Council in Ottawa, all security and defense policy matters are excluded from its jurisdiction: at that point in time, following the demise of the Soviet Union, this was a reasonable decision (Arctic Council 1996). In addition to the Council, there are numerous special organizations that deal with partial aspects of the Arctic Ocean on behalf of the Council or outside that body. Those states that have long demonstrated a sustained interest in this region through their scientific research activities and the construction of research stations in the Arctic are playing an increasingly important role in their status as observers. As of 2021, there were thirteen such states and six Permanent Members, which represent various interest groups, mainly indigenous peoples. Due to Russia’s veto, the European Union is not a full member of the observer group (Arctic Council n.d.a; Paul 2021). The involvement of the observers in the subordinate bodies of the Council is important, but one may question the extent to which states such as China and India will be satisfied with this observer role in the near future. The Council, as such, and the role of the observers in relation to the Council, will be an important factor. This chapter will deal with some future tasks.

The Arctic as an Ocean: Geography and Weather

During a briefing at the Greenland Arctic Command in Nuuk (Trump, Kadenic and Linkov 2018), Danish and Greenlandic experts highlighted the following key concepts as crucial for commercial, scientific and military activities in the Arctic.

Merchant ships, state-operated ships, coastguard and navy ships must have special technical designs for the Arctic Ocean. The existing Polar Code (International Maritime Organization 2017) sets forth the requirements for ships and airplanes, and it establishes minimum requirements for training: endurance and sustainability are important aspects. Most routine traffic in the Arctic Ocean is concentrated on Russian shipping near its coast, supported by numerous ports. Experienced and well-trained crews are a prerequisite for all activities on both sea routes, namely the Northeast and Northwest Passages. Multitasking is obligatory for all crews, and logistics must be provided by persons with experience in the Arctic. Decisions based on purely administrative or theoretical analyses are subject to doubt: what is decisive are practical factors and the resulting experience.

These findings of the Royal Danish Coast Guard are based on many years of experience in the Arctic Ocean, mainly – but not exclusively – in the area between Denmark and Greenland, and also correspond to the experiences of the other Arctic states.

What seems to be a common base for all activities in the Arctic is a constant uncertainty about the weather, the thickness of the ice and the safety of navigation. There will be a “perfect storm” every year, regardless of whether climate change is speeding up or slowing down. This applies to all Arctic regions and is the only criterion that basically unites them. In this respect, weather reporting and safe navigation are matters that should be jointly improved.

The Arctic: A Description of Its Dimensions

The Arctic can be briefly introduced as an ocean bordered by five states: Russia, Canada, the United States, Norway and Denmark (via Greenland), with three states having portions of their territories within the Arctic Circle: Sweden, Finland and Iceland (German Arctic Office 2019). The aforementioned role of the thirteen states that exert specific influence as observers will be evaluated separately. Through their observer status, they are part of the multinational resolution of outstanding questions regarding the Arctic. Their interest, which was originally scientific, must increasingly be viewed as strategic, touching all aspects: habitat, raw materials, traffic and power positions. China’s unilateral declaration that it is a “near-Arctic state” is related to its claim to global power and does not change the legal situation.

At this point, this chapter will describe how the Arctic Ocean and the states surrounding it are defined. There are three recognized and common definitions. However, it should be noted that “[t]here is no precise, internationally coordinated and legally accepted definition of the Arctic” (German Arctic Office, 2020).

The most frequently used geographic definition of the Arctic is the area north of the Arctic Circle (66° 32´N), which corresponds to about 8 percent of the surface of the Earth. However, this definition is frequently changed to take geopolitical boundaries and other characteristics (Dunbar et al. 2019) into account. Another current approach is to designate the tree line as the boundary of the Arctic. This method of defining the Arctic is a dynamic one, which follows climate change over the medium term. Tree growth provides a new basis for a pragmatic, environment-based understanding of the Arctic. The melting of the sea ice changes the geography of the region and thereby all activities on sea and land. Climate change is altering the geography of the Arctic Ocean.

All these lines encircle an essentially common maritime region as the surrounding Arctic and subarctic land is directly influenced by the Arctic Ocean in terms of its climate and development. Another distinguishing feature is that the Arctic Ocean is the shallowest of the five large oceans with an average depth of about 1,000 meters, which makes almost the entire seabed accessible for exploration. It reaches its greatest depth of 5,600 meters west of Svalbard. The Arctic Ocean connects with the Atlantic Ocean in the west. In the east, it connects with the Pacific Ocean (Paul 2020) via the Bering Strait.

The continental shelves here are the widest in the world. Both factors, water depth and continental shelf, are important background knowledge, especially to better understand the Russian position. The Arctic coast of Russia offers the greatest number of ports – both for domestic supply and for international maritime transit traffic. However, some of these ports are river ports and need extensive new infrastructure if they wish to develop. It is a disadvantage that there are few deep-water ports on the North American continent. The provision of ports or logistical bases for safe use of the Northwest Passage is the responsibility of Canada. Both sea routes go through straits or sections that are difficult to navigate. Securing them is another future task that must be resolved, both nationally and multilaterally. Natural or artificial passages that are difficult to navigate require special safety precautions.

The Geography of the Arctic: Boundaries and Beyond

The Arctic Ocean can be viewed from four different perspectives to understand its nature: (i) the Arctic Ocean as a resource, (ii) the Arctic Ocean as a habitat, (iii) the Arctic Ocean as a transportation medium and (iv) the Arctic Ocean as a domain for displaying power, primarily maritime power (Goldrick and Hattendorf 1993). The nature of maritime power is complex, but the following proposition can facilitate understanding: maritime power is associated with merchant ships and ports as well as maritime commercial and industrial potential. If warships, support bases and naval support are added, this means that a state possesses maritime power. Geography helps to better understand strategy and its effects. Can geography change? In this chapter, as we look back ten years, the answer is: “yes, it can.” The Arctic Ocean is covered with ice, and this ice was regarded as a land-like feature for centuries. The current situation of climate change is altering the view that the Arctic Ocean is land-like, and thus our understanding and assessment of it. It is now evident that the Arctic is an ocean, in contrast to Antarctica. The ice, together with the long period of limited technology, were obstacles to shipping, exploration and exploitation of resources. Rapidly changing weather conditions, poor navigation aids and more than half a year of darkness managed to give the Arctic a special status that was beyond common perception. Irrespective of climate change and the increase in navigability associated with it, the weather is still an important risk factor and will remain so.

Arctic Priorities

Science has been involved in the Arctic the longest in comparison to economic and political issues. It has helped built research stations and conduct expeditions with great success. All Arctic expeditions executed by seafarers like Willem Barents (1550–1597), or academics like Michael Lomonossow (1711–1765) in the 16th and 18th century laid the ground for the beginning of a well organised science on the Arctic. As research offers the option of “scientific diplomacy“, data exchange based on mutual trust has been a success. Whenever this is the case, a fair exchange of data and knowledge is possible. An increasingly important aspect of research is the influence of the Arctic climate on global climate evolution. However, there are uncertainties regarding the exchange of data and information with China, which joins in the fair exchange on a selective basis. However, whether other, more controversial Arctic matters can be positively influenced by good scientific cooperation is a question that remains open (Korte 2018).

The economic aspects and availability of resources such as gas, oil and minerals play an important role, often the most important. Conveyance and transport by land, but primarily by sea, is Russia’s highest priority. The extraction of gas and oil, in ever greater cooperation with China, has developed dynamically, and this will not change. Despite all its commitments to protecting the climate in the Arctic, this concern clearly takes a back seat to resource extraction and military security considerations in Russia. The main task is to find a balance between ecological and economic interests and to limit the political and military aspects (Klimenko 2019).

The Military and Political Aspects

From a military standpoint, the Arctic Ocean was a strategic area during the Cold War, with a focus on nuclear deterrence. The basis for this was surveillance and the exchange of reliable information between the two sides. The method of deterrence was nuclear-powered submarines equipped with ballistic missiles. Both antagonists, the USA and the Soviet Union, had nuclear-powered submarines, which operated under the ice sheet. This military interest decreased until 2014, and with it the number of submarines. Now, it is once more on the rise (Breitenbauch, Kristensen and Groesmeyer 2019). Due to the effects of climate change, the Arctic Ocean is becoming a maritime area, although in a different form, which no longer only serves the purposes of strategic deterrence and scientific research.

This is of great importance to all eight members of the Arctic Council and the observers. For China, however, scientific commitment seems to be a type of door opener to the Arctic as a whole. The role of China will be discussed later. In 2021, the speed of the melting of polar ice caps was unexpectedly rapid, and the answer to the question of access to and within the Arctic Ocean varies according to the scientific model used. But the melting is a fact, and it involves not only the Arctic Ocean but also the permafrost in Siberia, which is already altering the geography on land. Russia – with the longest usable Arctic coast – dominates Arctic geography, together with Canada. However, Russia, with its ports, its long existing and newly created maritime infrastructure (such drilling rigs and military bases) as well as its river estuaries in the Arctic Ocean, has great advantages over Canada (Ellyat 2019). As an Arctic state, Russia has legitimate sovereign interests in the region, including safe navigation, search and rescue and environmental protection. Its build-up of military capabilities to protect its sovereignty is justified and understandable. In the US Coastguard’s assessment of these increased military capabilities, there is a very clear “however“ that embodies the concerns of the USA. These concerns are explained in detail in studies and sub-strategies on the extent of the risks and threats posed by Russian armament. The US Coastguard is the institution that represents the interests of the USA in practice, that is, on the seas and in ports. In Canada, this representation is also guaranteed by the coastguard, an organization divided into three regions: the Western Region, the Atlantic Region and the Central and Arctic Region responsible for the Arctic (United States Coast Guard 2019; Government of Canada 2014). After a long period of low interest in Arctic matters, the USA has changed its ambitions and is paying increasing attention to the Arctic Ocean. The extent to which this includes the US Navy is still unclear.

The Geopolitics of the Arctic

It would seem appropriate at this point to investigate the geopolitical aspects of the Arctic. Five theses on the evolving situation in the Arctic will be discussed.

  1. The development of the Arctic, the ocean and the territory of its bordering states will continue to be determined by climate change, and all other aspects will be subordinated to this change. There is agreement on this, as far as official statements are concerned. However, there are differences, with an advantage for the military aspect, when it comes to the implementation of these findings. While this discrepancy applies primarily to Russia, the strategies involving all branches of the US armed forces show a clear prioritization of the military component of Arctic policy (Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy 2019).

  2. The eight states of the Arctic Council have achieved a high level of agreement in the field of scientific research. This is an important benefit. Previous agreements, which go beyond that negotiated in the Arctic Council, are proof of multinational cooperation in fields of common interest. Since 2011, there has been a committee for security and defense policy matters (Tingstad 2020). However, meetings no longer include Russia in light of the attack on Georgia, the occupation of Crimea and parts of Ukraine, and Russia’s war in Syria (Laruelle 2020).

  3. During the Cold War, the Arctic was of special importance due to strategic matters of nuclear deterrence. Today, issues of energy security are also included in this aspect, which is again important to the states of the Council. Gas and oil are the best-known raw materials, but they are not the only ones being extracted. Energy security and transport definitely play an important role in the Arctic Council.

  4. Due to the intensified melting of the ice in the Arctic Ocean, sea routes are of increasing importance for transit and especially for shipping bound for certain ports. The Northeast Passage from Norway to the Pacific Ocean is currently navigable for longer periods of time in the summer. This northern sea route runs through Russian territorial waters (Northern Sea Route Information Office 2020). The Northwest Passage, which runs through the territorial waters of the USA but mainly through Canadian territorial waters, currently does not play a comparable role for climate as well as logistic reasons – ports and maritime infrastructure are lacking. The direct polar route will not become an option as a shipping route for a long time. Shipping will be of increasing importance for trade, energy extraction and transport as well as for state-operated ships, particularly warships.

  5. The question of the extent to which conflicts in other regions of the globe will affect the situation in the Arctic cannot be answered. China’s declaration that it is a “near-Arctic state” (State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China 2018) and its close cooperation with Russia in energy production and transport as well as in security policy matters opens up a field of action that must be assessed, including in connection with other observers in the Arctic Council. All factors play an important role here, especially security policy. The positions of India, Japan, South Korea and Singapore will play as important a role, as will those of the other observers. Whether the EU will play a role here is an open question.

Based on these five theses, a fundamentally different view emerges from the one at the time of the Cold War. Russia and China are impelled by internal pressure and the desire to be recognized as global actors. Both states have complementary interests in the Arctic. For Russia, it is to economically exploit the northern part of the country. For China, it is to take advantage of the exploitation and transport of resources and develop new channels of communication and military cooperation. China’s Maritime Silk Road includes the Northeast Passage.

Russia will utilize its chairmanship of the Arctic Council, which begins in May 2021, to enhance its influence. It will utilize scientific programs as door openers and promote cooperation with foreign scientific institutions. This scientific diplomacy has been successful so far for both Russia and China (Binder 2016). With cooperation between Russia and China on the one hand, and competition for global influence between the USA and China on the other, the Arctic Ocean can become a second testing ground – after the South China Sea – for dealing with risks and threats. It can be assumed that both Russia and China will continue to be two-faced with respect to international law and other binding multinational agreements. From a geopolitical perspective, a growing number of questions need to be answered – or at least need to be dealt with. The actions of the Arctic Council, which is the most influential authority for the development of Arctic matters, are based on multinationalism and consensus. It will be necessary for the Council to regulate the role and the influence of states with observer status. The weighting of the eight Arctic states has shifted. The Arctic presents fundamental differences: Greenland, strategically represented by the Kingdom of Denmark (CIA 2021a), is positioned differently from Svalbard, part of the Kingdom of Norway (CIA 2021b). And the Yamal Peninsula, as an Arctic economic center of the Russian Federation, is again subject to different conditions (Gosnell et al. 2020). There remains another question that requires an answer: What are the Arctic interests of the USA and of Canada? Both countries have an Arctic coast, and both have shown a rather reserved interest in the Arctic in the past few years – in comparison with other neighboring states (Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau 2016). The question asked in the introduction regarding the maintenance and value of multilateral solutions – that is, the importance of resolving potential conflicts through cooperation – remains a central question.

Closely related to this are aspects that are evaluated differently by members of the Arctic Council. Which issues will determine the future? How will the increase in attention be evaluated: geopolitically, geo-economically or geo-ecologically? The Arctic will remain geopolitically relevant, but whether geopolitical disputes from other parts of the world will have a stronger impact than the Arctic itself remains an open question. This provides space and time for multilateral solutions.

Noteworthy examples and proof that multilateral solutions can be successful are the following agreements. It should be noted that the Arctic Council is not part of a larger organization and that everything discussed in its forums is non-binding until the signatory countries make it binding through national decisions. This has happened four times in the past. The Council has negotiated important agreements that were accepted by the signatories and are today legally binding (Arctic Council n.d.b):

  • The Agreement on Cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic, signed in 2011

  • The Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic, signed in 2013

  • The Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation, signed in 2017

  • The Agreement to Prevent Unregulated Fishing in the High Seas of the Central Arctic Ocean, signed in 2019.

At the same time, the importance of the military aspect of all matters affecting the Arctic has grown. Geo-economically, the interests are not so far apart, but their national importance and influence on national action differ widely. It is obvious that the Arctic Ocean – or even the Arctic – can no longer be regarded as marginal from a global perspective. It is also not an area that can be considered separately by ignoring the global political situation. The question of whether the Arctic Ocean is suitable for a naval showdown can be answered with “yes” from a strategic perspective, but with “no” from an operational and tactical perspective.

The Arctic as a Disposal Site for Nuclear Waste

“From 1946 to 1993, 13 countries used the oceans for disposing of nuclear/radioactive waste. The materials disposed of included liquids and solids enclosed in various containers” (International Maritime Organization, n.d.b). They also included reactors from decommissioned submarines, to cite only a few examples. Since 1993, the disposal of nuclear waste in oceans has been prohibited by international treaties (International Maritime Organization n.d.; Wikipedia 2020).

This is a general overview of the global dimensions of the disposal of nuclear waste in the world’s oceans. The Arctic and the North Pacific are not solely a Russian problem. In the Arctic Ocean, however, there are areas of the passage in the North Atlantic and the North Pacific that were used for waste disposal. The concerns of Russia and its neighboring states regarding the risks and threats emanating from this nuclear waste are well known. The particularly endangered areas of the ocean and the surrounding land reach from the Barents Sea and the Kara Sea on the western side, into the Bering Sea and the Sea of Okhotsk up to Vladivostok on the eastern side. According to a catalogue published by the Russian government in 2012, there are 17,000 containers of radioactive waste, nineteen shipwrecks with radioactive waste on board, fourteen nuclear reactors (five of which are still filled with radioactive water) and 735 other containers with radioactive waste from heavy machine parts (Office of Technology Assessment 1995).

This is not the place to list further known details, but it can be concluded that few people are aware exept for experts and scientists. The danger to the people living and working in the areas, as well as to the fisheries and the environment, is either unknown or barely understood. The Russian government is generally aware of the danger and the need for urgent action, but the necessary financial resources are inadequate by far. This offers the Arctic Council the opportunity to take a multinational approach, both in the Council itself and in the observer states.

The Regulation of Shipping in the Arctic

Russia and Canada have national responsibility regarding the use of shipping lanes. This relates to their sovereign rights and obligations in their respective coastal waters, that is, twelve nautical miles off their coasts. As is the case in straits and channels everywhere in comparable situations, these matters are governed at the international level by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Thereunder, both states, Canada and Russia, have rights but also obligations, which take their sovereignty into account. Canada has taken this responsibility into consideration in a framework guideline and has stressed the protection of the maritime environment and indigenous peoples as a high priority. Russia has set different priorities in this regard and has given precedence to the economic perspective in all areas. According to the current status, both states include national rules on peaceful passage, which are not in conformity with UNCLOS (UN General Assembly 1982).

This dispute raises the danger of misunderstandings and risks for global shipping, such as for passing warships or other state-operated ships, such as coastguard ships or research ships. As mentioned earlier, the issue only relates to the use of the two sea routes for transit purposes. Article 45 of UNCLOS regarding so-called innocent passage is relevant here. This will remain a controversial topic. There is a risk that other passages, which have long been considered settled issues, will be re-examined. The agreed-upon provisions for comparable passages serve the common interest in peaceful navigation and the preservation or restoration of “good governance at sea “including in the Arctic Ocean. “Freedom of navigation” is a commonly used expression for what is to be ensured here (LawTeacher 2013).

Final Remarks

  1. Various reasons for the dynamic development of the Arctic have been recognized. Climate change is the most cogent reason, followed by technological development in all four areas: environment, raw materials, transport and show of power. Weighing and balancing out these aspects is the task of the Council and its members, including the observers.

  2. The USA and Canada will assume a leading position in close coordination with each other. This should not be limited to military matters, and all Council members should be included on an equal footing.

  3. The role of members of the Arctic Council that were not mentioned in more detail here should be multilateral rather than bilateral. The difficult task of developing a comprehensive perspective, including military risks and threats, should be handled by a body set up for this purpose. Ignoring these developments is dangerous.

  4. Russia has noticeably strengthened its cooperation with China (which is a non-Arctic state) both in the Arctic and in other oceans. This economic and military cooperation is a reason for concern if these countries continue to disregard international rules or interpret them in their national interest. It will then become a risk and a threat.


Interest in the Arctic Ocean and the Arctic Region as a whole has increased in recent years (Ellehus 2020). Indeed, the MOSAiC “expedition of the century” (MOSAiC 2021) has refocused public attention on scientific work in the Arctic from various perspectives. The goal of this multinational expedition is to perform scientific research on global climate change and thus evaluate the importance of the Arctic in this process. Within this project, twenty nations, all members of the Arctic Council except for Iceland, sent scientists to gather data and take climate research to a completely new level. They are taking a holistic scientific approach, the results of which will take years to evaluate. The scientists and the support teams on the German research ship Polarstern, dispatched by the Alfred Wegener Institute, deserve our thanks and recognition for their multinational research work.


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