Russia: A Strategic Challenge for NATO in the Arctic

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on Friday warned of the “strategic challenge” posed to the Atlantic Alliance by Russia’s increased presence in the Arctic. Stoltenberg concluded a three-day visit to Canada at Cold Lake Air Base in northwestern Canada where North American Aerospace Defense Command (Norad) fighter jets tasked with patrolling the Arctic are based.

Together with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the NATO Secretary General stressed that the shortest route for Russian missiles and bombers to reach Western Europe is through the Arctic region. Furthermore, Stoltenberg explained that Russia is using the Arctic to test new weapons such as hypersonic missiles, which is false.

Since 1940, the Arctic has become a strategic area because it represents the shortest distance between America, Europe and Asia. During World War II, this proximity was used by the Allies to coordinate collaborative military strategies against the Axis; however, the situation changed radically by 1950, when the Arctic became a region of tension and military escalation.

Another situation that acted as a catalyst to the conflict was the United States under the Truman presidency. The U.S. President proclaimed that his country could unilaterally extract marine natural resources, which the UN countered with the 1958 Convention on the Continental Shelf, a legal document approved by all countries except Iceland. If the possible legal disputes were contained for a few years by the UN action, the military escalation did not stop at all.

Between the early 1950s and the late 1970s, the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom built several anti-missile systems in Alaska, northern Canada and Greenland, while the Soviet Union did the same and placed nuclear submarines in the vicinity. During these years, diplomatic confrontations over the Arctic resurfaced. In 1972 Denmark and Canada sent their “legal agreement” on Arctic territories to the UN, a move that generated unease and discord in other countries, such as the Soviet Union.

In the 1980s the military escalation and diplomatic problems underwent major changes. In October 1987 the former leader of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev, declared the “Murmansk Initiative” where he called for the cessation of the hostile nature of the North Pole and scientific collaboration in that region with the United States and the rest of the world. On the diplomatic side, the claims acquired an institutionalized nature with Article 76 of UNCLOS, which allows a member state, if it provides geological evidence that a distant seabed belongs to its continental shelf, to acquire control over that territory.

This allows its participants to claim marine areas beyond its EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone), if it proves that these regions are on its continental shelf. As a result, countries such as Canada, Russia, Denmark and Norway have used the UNCLOS article to seek to impose their sovereignty over the Arctic in recent years.

Russian military escalation in the Arctic

In December 2001 Russia, after signing and ratifying UNCLOS in 1997, became the first country to request an extension of its EEZ into the Arctic, but its request was rejected at the UN. Despite the refusal, during the following years, Russia continued to take further actions with the aim of taking control over the Arctic. The Kremlin’s next move on the issue occurred in 2007, when Russian explorers visited the region to collect information on the oil located there, put up a Russian flag and declare their country’s “return”.

Fourteen years later, Russia sent a new request to the UN, again based on Article 76 of UNCLOS, with scientific evidence to extend its EEZ into the Arctic to such an extent that it encroaches into the Canadian zone, seeking an expansion of approximately 705,000 square kilometers. Since the request was submitted in 2021, there is still no response from the UN and uncertainty remains.

So far, all of Russia’s actions have been in the diplomatic arena. It remains to analyze the other strategy used by the Kremlin to take control of the North Pole: military escalation.

In contrast to his predecessor, Putin has sought to restore Russia’s military presence in the Arctic bit by bit; in 2008 military spending directed for operations in that area was $58 billion and seven years later the figure rose to $90 billion. The current Russian government has also spent large financial resources for the modernization of the technological system at the North Pole. In 2018 Nikolai Yeymenov, Russian military commander for the Arctic, explained that the modernization of the radio, cabling, communications, infrastructure and missile defense system seek to create an anti-missile “shield” for Russia, a goal that was impossible with the pre-renovation Soviet equipment.

Russian military escalation in the Arctic is not going to stop in the near future for two reasons: defense and energy potential. According to several Russian strategists, control over the North Pole is a danger to their national security because certain states and military coalitions, such as NATO, seek to dominate that region with the intention of intimidating Russia. On the energy side, if Putin succeeds in taking over most of the Arctic, it would consolidate Russia as the undisputed energy leader, giving it the power to dominate the world’s oil and gas markets.

This last assertion we are already experiencing today.

Canadian claims

Although Canada has been making claims to the Arctic since the beginning of the 20th century, it was not until 1969 that it made an official declaration, when a U.S. company attempted to enter the frozen area belonging to the Canadian government. As a result, Ottawa has had quite a few run-ins with governments close to the North Pole. The closest is with the United States and is over a specific Beaufort Sea dispute, while Denmark, via Greenland, the conflict lands on the Hans Islands, tracts of land very close to the Arctic.

The Hans Islands measure 1.5 square kilometers and are divided between Canada and Denmark. But the importance is not the surface area, but the exclusive rights that derive from that point (200 miles).

Unlike Russia, Canada has not undertaken such large military actions in the vicinity of that territory. The only operation or militarization undertaken by the Canadian government occurred in 2005, when the Ottawa military went to the Hans Islands to remove the Danish flag and replace it with a Canadian one. Time passed and Canada, after gathering enough scientific evidence, undertook its next move years later. It is now the third country to claim that it should have sovereignty over much of the Arctic based on Article 76 of UNCLOS. Canada sent its request to the UN in 2019 and there is still no UN response to its request, which probably won’t change for quite some time if the Russian and Danish claims are considered.

Danish claims

Denmark has control over Greenland and the Faroe Islands. Given their proximity to the Arctic. Both territories facilitate the Danish government’s claims, although its actions had to wait until 2014 because it was not until 2004 that it ratified UNCLOS.

Based on Article 76 of the Convention, in 2014 Denmark, along with Greenland and the Faroe Islands, sent its application to the UN to have control over 350,000 square miles of the Arctic. Similarly to Canada, Denmark has also not taken large-scale military action. Just after sending the request to the UN, Denmark’s Foreign Minister stated that his country’s position could involve diplomatic conflicts with Norway, Canada, Russia and the United States. Like the Russian and Canadian requests, Denmark has also received no response from the UN.

United States and China in the Arctic

Unlike Russia, Canada and Denmark, the United States and China have made no claims in the Arctic based on UNCLOS Article 76. In the case of the United States, not being a member of the Convention, it cannot make any claims, so it has used other mechanisms, although in 2008 it declared that Alaska’s EEZ reached the Arctic. Since then, it has maintained a vigilant stance on the control of the North Pole and its energy resources. In 2013 the U.S. Secretary of Defense stated that the Arctic has become a matter of utmost importance for his country, which is willing to collaborate with its allies to achieve its strategic objectives in the area.

In the case of China, the situation is more complex. Even though Beijing is part of UNCLOS, the treaty does not allow it to make any claims such as those made by Canada because China is not geographically close to the North Pole.

As a result, the Chinese government’s position has been more discreet and closed. For example, its most concrete action has been its accession as an observer country to the Arctic Council in 2013. China does not have an “official” policy towards the Arctic like the other countries concerned with the issue. Its position can be interpreted as “wait and see” since the region has been very attractive for scientific research since the 1990s.

The Lomonosov Ridge

Who has the best chance in its sovereign claims? Running through the center of the entire Arctic continent is the Lomonosov Ridge, which runs from the Laptev Sea to northern Greenland via the geographic North Pole, a territory that is the continuation of a mountain range in Russia. The North Pole starts in Russia, it’s as simple as that. It is called the Lomonosov Ridge for a reason.

The Russians have discovered many deposits, they have zones of exclusivity, even with pending claims. They have also opened a sea route that is exclusively theirs because they have 9 icebreakers, all heavy, 3 of which are nuclear. It is the only country that has them.