The Arctic is a region of enduring geopolitical importance that is receiving more and more attention. Climate change is literally changing the map in the Arctic as seasonal sea ice continues to recede. This has the potential to significantly change the region by opening up new sea routes through Northern Canada or along Russia’s Northern coast. It will also open up new areas to resource extraction from near virgin Arctic fisheries to some of the world’s largest untapped oil and natural reserves. Melting sea ice also emphasizes the region’s unique maritime character, the Arctic is an ocean – not a continental landmass, and decreasing ice will only increase it’s maritime character. The changing climate will also cause problems in the Arctic littoral as the changes in seasonal weather patterns stress wildlife populations and threaten local and indigenous communities through rapid erosion and permafrost melt.
Against the backdrop of climate change, geopolitical tensions in the Arctic are also rising. In their essay, Lauren Chin and Andro Mathewson detail the increasing tension and “securitization” of interests in the Arctic. Over the last decade Russia has been the chief driver or militarization in the Arctic. Russia’s years-long military modernization has reopened “50 previously closed, Soviet-era military posts,” established an Arctic Strategic Command, and conducted repeated exercises with modernized military equipment. In her essay, Alice Staikowski explains how resource competition in the Arctic may continue to drive competition, especially between Russia and the West.
At the same time, China has also expressed a strong desire to protect its perceived interests in the Arctic and declared itself as a “near Arctic state,” despite its geographic distance and nearly non-existent historical ties to the region. How China and Russia negotiate their relationship in the Arctic will play a key part in defining the future of the region. In her essay Henny Lie-Skarpholt talks about Chinese influence in the Arctic. One particular facet of competition in the Arctic is icebreaking fleets, which are critical enablers for trade, resource extraction and even military operations in the High North. In his essay Dylan Phillips-Levine argues that the US Navy needs to invest in its own fleet of ice breakers which will be even more important if sea routes through Russian and Canadian waters gain importance.
It’s also important to recognize that while tensions in the Arctic are rising, they are not new. The were important naval actions fought in the Arctic during the Second World War and it was a key front during the Cold War, partly because the shortest route between the US and the USSR for missiles and bombers was over the North Pole. In his essay, Timothy Choi discusses the history of the Royal Danish Navy in Arctic security, an overlooked but critical contribution.
The ongoing war in Ukraine, which started after these essays were written, will have important but still unknown impacts on the Arctic as well. Russia’s only border with the United States falls just South of the Arctic Circle in the Pacific, and one of NATO’s borders with Russia, between Norway and Russia, falls within the Arctic Circle so increased military tensions between Russia and the alliance are likely to play out in the Arctic. But it’s also possible that the war in Ukraine will draw in Russian forces from across the country and could actually diminish Russian military posture in the Arctic. Ships from Russia’s Northern Fleet were reportedly part of the buildup to war in Ukraine.
Taken together, this series of short essays provides a variety of perspectives on the maritime security in the High North. The authors, all from different backgrounds, provide valuable commentary and analysis that can be a jumping off point or introduction to a deeper investigation of maritime security in the Arctic.
Walker D. Mills is a US Marine officer and graduate of the War Studies program at King's College, London. He also holds degrees from Brown University and the Naval Postgraduate School. He is also an associate editor and podcast host for the Center for International Maritime Security, a non-resident fellow at Marine Corps University's Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Future War and a non-resident fellow with the Irregular Warfare Initiative.
He also edited the Caribbean Maritime Security series for Strife Blog in 2021.