Massive icebergs from Jakobshavn Glacier melting in Disko Bay on sunny summer evening, Ilulissat, Greenland.

Geopolitical Tension: The US-Russia Standoff in the Arctic

by Reese Kemen


What you can do:

  • Become more engaged in US foreign policy, and pressure local politicians to adopt a more comprehensive and dedicated approach to the Russian military buildup in the Arctic
  • Stay informed on matters relating to US-Russian relations

As polar sea ice rapidly melts to record levels, there has been a massive shift in the geopolitical framework of the Arctic region. Russian strategic interests in the region emerged over a decade ago, when the revitalized Russian military began using its Northern fleet to regularly patrol Arctic waters, harkening back to the Soviet era, when combat patrols in the Arctic were common. Since then, Russia has envisioned itself as a “leading Arctic power” and has shown that uncontested control over the region remains one of its primary policy objectives. It has demonstrated its desire to regain its status as a great power through its Northern fleet combat patrols, the proliferation of military installations and weapons platforms across its northern coastline, and the acquisition of an expanded fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers. In response to this policy of regional dominance, the United States should begin to counter Russia’s militarization by increasing its footprint in the region, in order to protect the interests of itself and its regional allies.

In the post-Cold War era, most scholars and policymakers celebrated the geopolitical stability and multilateral cooperation in the Arctic region, as the Arctic generally came to be understood as an exceptional “territory of dialogue” and a “zone of peace.” In this sense, the Arctic region has been seen as a sanctuary entirely removed from global political dynamics and great power competition. This is no longer the case.

Within the last decade, the Arctic has re-emerged as an important regional consideration in global politics, and it now threatens to become the next geopolitical flashpoint. The key driver behind this renewed interest has been the rapid warming in the region that has resulted in a continuous reduction and thinning of the Arctic sea ice cover, especially during the summer months [1]. As a result, the once secluded geopolitical frontier has become far more accessible, opening the floodgates for new maritime shipping routes and natural resource exploration and exploitation.

Russia’s ambitions in the Arctic region have garnered increasing attention by Western nations as it takes advantage of the significant changes the region is experiencing. As relations with the West have gradually deteriorated, especially after the 2014 invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent annexation of Crimea, Russia has adopted a far more confrontational and antagonistic stance towards its adversaries, particularly in the Arctic. Instead of embracing international cooperation, Moscow has espoused their perspective on the Arctic as the latest arena for economic and military expansion. For Russia, the Arctic region is essential to its continuing military and economic vitality. Almost 20% of Russian GDP is generated in the Arctic portions of its territory, with the vast majority of its oil and natural gas deposits located in the north [2]. As a result, Russia has dedicated trillions of roubles towards Arctic exploration and development, and President Vladimir Putin has recently declared his intentions to prepare an Arctic Development Strategy, which will essentially serve as a strategic roadmap for 2035, and includes expanding Russia’s extensive fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers, for which it is already unrivaled, as well as funneling investments into ports and infrastructure along its coveted Northern Sea Route [3].

In accordance with its policy of regional dominance, Russia has begun bolstering its military presence, renovating abandoned airfields from the Soviet era, establishing radar stations to improve detection capabilities, and significantly increasing the number of S-400 missile defense units stationed along its northern border. These new capabilities strengthen Russia’s power projection in the Barents Sea and have expanded its ability to deny land, maritime, or air access to the US or any of its NATO allies [4].

Even more distressing, however, is the increasing frequency of its joint military exercises, which is likely intended to signal a resurgence in Russian military might. For example, in the Vostok 2018 exercise, Russia conducted what was most likely its largest exercise since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and involved more than 300,000 troops, all of its naval fleets, over 1,000 fighter jets, and the launch of ballistic missiles, as well as several nuclear warheads. Notably, it was also the first time that the Russian military practiced alongside Chinese military personnel [5]. This underscores the fact that Russia is not entirely alone in its pursuits, as it considers China to be a partner in its Arctic conquest. Unsurprisingly, China considers itself to be a “near-Arctic state [6],” despite the fact that its northernmost border sits over 900 kilometers away from the Arctic Circle. Indeed, this claim has been rejected by the United States and viewed with contempt by other Arctic nations with rightful claims to the territory.

In response to the developments, the US has been uncharacteristically unresponsive. By any objective metric, US and NATO military deployments have been woefully lacking and do not, in any sense of the term, represent a threat to Russia’s Northern Fleet or any of its other assets. The US operates a minuscule fleet of two icebreakers, while Russia owns 41. For years, the US has published many studies underscoring the dynamic changes in the Arctic and Russia’s activity [7]. These studies, however, have yielded very little with regards to updating defense capabilities, which seems contrary to common sense, considering that the ability to operate in the Arctic is a strategic imperative for the Department of Defense. The US continues to rely on an intermittent presence in the summer months, outdated security capabilities, and chronic underinvestment. This has left the US ill-prepared compared to other nations, including Russia, which has recognized the geostrategic value of the Arctic to a far greater extent.

Unless the US wishes to lose access to the Arctic and have diminished capabilities to defend itself and its North Atlantic neighbors, it is paramount that the US returns to the Arctic. The optimal way to enhance US Arctic superiority will require a multitude of factors: creating an Arctic security initiative to bolster US defense capabilities and fund infrastructure projects, increasing US Arctic diplomatic presence and cooperation with Arctic nations, and promoting international norms and agreements throughout the region. Each of these actions can help ensure that military escalation is mitigated and that the Arctic does not fall into the hands of US adversaries.

First and foremost, the US must shore up its defense posture in both the North American and European Arctic regions. Just as USEUCOM, or the US European Combatant Command, has responded to Russian military posture in Eastern Europe through its European Deterrence Initiative [8], USNORTHCOM, or the US Northern Combatant Command, which oversees the Arctic region, must similarly establish an Arctic Security Initiative. Fortunately, the Department of Defense has demonstrated a renewed interest in the Arctic, recently stating that its “desired end-state for the Arctic is a secure and stable region where U.S. national interests are safeguarded, the U.S. homeland is defended, and nations work cooperatively to address shared challenges” [9]. Enhancing Arctic capabilities will require exposing US forces to Arctic conditions. US military forces can achieve this through frequent joint deployments and exercises, permanent garrisons stationed in the Arctic, and supporting infrastructure projects.

Joint military exercises are critical to preparing US forces for the great power competition between the US and Russia that grows ever more likely, and an Arctic Security Initiative could help realize this. Field training exercises, like the Arctic Edge, which was facilitated by USNORTHCOM and Canadian Joint Operations Command, tested thousands of soldiers’ ability to operate tactically in the extreme cold-weather Arctic conditions [10]. More of these extended operations must take place if the US military is to adequately prepare itself for military engagement.

It is important to note that deploying forces in the Arctic is no easy feat, as the unpredictable weather makes operating in the environment extremely difficult and access to the region is limited. The US can mitigate these issues and build Arctic situational awareness by installing meteorological and telecommunications instruments and improving intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities. Additionally, funds should be directed towards enhancements towards multi-domain headquarters, forward-operating bases, deep-water ports, and a new fleet of icebreaker vessels to counter Russia’s. Such developments would begin to reverse the US’s currently lacking defense posture in the region. 

The next pillar that will promote US Arctic superiority is increasing diplomatic activity and cooperation with other nations that have a stake in the Arctic. The US’s ability to achieve Arctic security objectives is made far more attainable by its close collaboration with partner nations in the region. The US should ideally increase its diplomatic outreach with its fellow Arctic States, which include Canada, Finland, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, and Sweden [11]. Each of these nations, which form the Arctic Council, are custodians of the region, and it is their collective responsibility to maintain the international rules-based order in the Arctic, which Russia has continually defied. Multilateral cooperation with regards to military exercises and training, domain awareness, intelligence sharing, will play an important role in increasing the U.S. regional footprint and deterring Russia.

Fortunately for the US, the majority of nations on the Arctic Council are affiliated with NATO, either as treaty allies or as special partner allies. A comprehensive NATO strategy that underscores military cooperation can further each of Arctic nations’ respective objectives, and to establish such a strategy, the US should facilitate meetings between the foreign and defense ministers of these Arctic nations.

Despite Russia’s military advancements, coupled with the US’s slow response, it remains to be seen whether or not Russia is successful in realizing its Arctic ambitions. Its nuclear forces as well as its conventional naval forces along its northern coastline are increasingly vulnerable to NATO’s long-range precision missiles. Additionally, its ambitions to transform its Northern Sea Route into a major shipping route between Asia and Europe have been described by scholars as unlikely, given the facts that the reduction in transit time and transportation fees are very limited, and that the route is currently only navigable during the warmer months of the year [12]. Meanwhile, it is unclear whether its commercial projects are sustainable or even realistic in the face of extremely high costs, the logistical challenges of operating in such difficult conditions with limited infrastructure, uncertain demand for the region’s hydrocarbons as the global economy transitions to renewable energy, and the prospect of commercial competition with other nations. However, regardless of any complications Russia faces in the future, its military posture in the Arctic is likely to continue and perhaps even escalate in the coming years, and the US must be prepared to respond.

In a potential response to Russia’s militarization in the Arctic, it is crucial for the Biden administration to mobilize its NATO allies in a prudent, realistic, and controlled manner. It would be tempting to view the burgeoning Arctic conflict through the lens of a renewed great-power rivalry, but this would be counter-productive in achieving US and NATO objectives and increase the likelihood of the region devolving into open warfare. Rather, the US’s and NATO’s overall approach should be one of deterrence, while at the same time opening avenues for diplomacy and cooperation.


Works Cited:

[1] Arctic Council. “Arctic Climate Impact Assessment: Impacts of A Warming Climate”. Accessed June 2019. https://www.amap.no/arctic-climate-impact-assessment-acia

[2] Klimenko, Ekaterina. “Russia’s Evolving Arctic Strategy: Drivers, Challenges, and New Opportunities”. Stockholm International Peace Institute, 2014. Accessed June 2019. https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/files/PP/SIPRIPP42.pdf

[3] Vladimir Isachenkov and Irina Titova, “Putin outlines ambitious Arctic expansion program,” Associated Press, April 9, 2019, https://www.apnews.com/d0c2eb39a3b44b40ac8ddb1749ebe143.

[4] Gramer R. Here’s What Russia’s Military Build-Up in the Arctic Looks Like, Foreign Policy, January 2019. https://foreignpolicy.com/2017/01/25/heres-what-russias-military-build-up-in-the-arctic-looks-like-trump-oil-military-high-north-infographic-map/.

[5] Kofman, Michael. “Breaking Down Russia’s Vostok Exercise.” War on the Rocks, 25 Sept. 2018, warontherocks.com/2018/09/breaking-down-russias-vostok-exercise/. 

[6] Descamps, Maud, and Julian Stünkel. “The Ice Silk Road: Is China a ‘Near-Arctic-State’?” Institute for Security and Development Policy, Feb. 2019, isdp.eu/publication/the-ice-silk-road-is-china-a-near-artic-state/#:~:text=Factually%20speaking%2C%20China%20is%20not,its%20attention%20toward%20the%20region. 

[7] Kimmons, Sean. “Army Analyzing Needs For Arctic Operations.” Www.army.mil, 19 Mar. 2021, www.army.mil/article/244456/army_analyzing_needs_for_arctic_operations. 

[8] FY 1 2020 European Deterrence Initiative (EDI) Fact Sheet. U.S. European Command Public Affairs Office, 2020, www.eucom.mil/document/39921/fy-2020-european-deterrence-initiative-fact-s. 

[9] U.S. Department of Defense, “Department of Defense Arctic Strategy,” June 6, 2019, https://media.defense.gov/2019/jun/06/2002141657/-1/-1/1/2019-dod-arctic-strategy.pdf.

[10] Wilsbach, Kenneth. “Arctic Conditions Provide Valuable Lessons in Alaska Exercise.” U.S. DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE, 20 Mar. 2018, www.defense.gov/Explore/News/Article/Article/1470645/arctic-conditions-provide-valuable-lessons-in-alaska-exercise/.

[11] Coffey, Luke. “Arctic Security Is Not About Preparing for War, But About Preparing for the Future.” The Heritage Foundation, 22 Jan. 2020, www.heritage.org/defense/report/arctic-security-not-about-preparing-war-about-preparing-the-future.

[12] Jeroen, Pruyn. “Will the Northern Sea Route ever be a viable alternative?”, Maritime Policy & Management, March 2019. 10.1080/03088839.2015.1131864.

Image: https://www.livescience.com/arctic-ice-arches-melting-fast.html