Arctic Geopolitics

Image: Parhelia (also known as sundogs) over Svalbard, the northernmost inhabited point on Earth, and a source of dispute between Russia and Norway. ⓒAWeith, 2015.

Global warming is already estimated at 1.2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels; in the Arctic, temperatures are rising three times faster. Due to this, the sea ice in the Arctic Ocean has been rapidly receding, and some predict that there will be no permanent sea ice remaining by the end of the century if current rates of emissions and warming continue. As the ice disappears, new economic opportunities are arising, and so the northernmost area of the globe will – and to an extent already has – become the latest foreign policy battleground.

There are a number of reasons that countries are fighting for control of the Arctic. The first of these is the right to exploit the vast pool of natural resources which are only now becoming accessible due to the reduction in sea ice coverage. Reserves of iron, nickel, zinc and gold have already been found in some parts of the Arctic and there are expectations that more precious metal will be discovered. Currently, 10% of world oil and 25% of natural gas is provided from the Arctic, but these sources are mainly onshore. The US Geological Survey estimated that 412 billion barrels of undiscovered oil equivalent (meaning oil plus natural gas in terms of oil), representing 22% of world oil and gas reserves, are still in the Arctic – these sources are mostly (84%) offshore.

While technically accessible, such reserves remain incredibly difficult and expensive to exploit due to extreme temperatures, seasonal ice cover (meaning drilling is more difficult, or impossible, much of the year) and the complications always involved with offshore drilling in constructing and maintaining rigs at sea. Nevertheless, the profits available are so vast that companies are eager to acquire licences and establish operations.

At the forefront of exploration has been Rosneft, a Russian state-owned oil company that discovered the enormous Pobeda (Russian for ‘victory’) oil field. The initial discovery was made in partnership with ExxonMobil in 2014, a US firm. Co-operation on these projects could have led to a warming of relations between the US and Russia, but the drilling was completed just one week before Russia annexed Crimea and the imposition of sanctions that followed, such that continued co-operation was no longer viable.

The second significant evolution of the situation in the far north is the opening of shipping lanes, at least seasonally. Two major shipping lanes exist through the Arctic that accelerate transport speeds greatly: the Northwest Passage, passing Alaska, through the Canadian archipelago and out to the western North Atlantic, best used for shipping to North America’s east coast; and the Northeast Passage, hugging Russia’s coastline, past Norway and through the GIUK (Greenland, Iceland, UK) gap for shipping to Europe.

As can be seen in Figure 1 (below) the sea ice has retreated to such an extent that, in late summer, these routes are just about possible to use. The first cargo transport through the Northwest Passage without an icebreaker was made only in 2014 – the Nunavik, transporting nickel ore from Canada to China – and the Northeast Passage was only similarly traversed for the first time in 2017 by the Christophe de Margerie.  

Figure 1. Extent of Arctic sea ice on 22 Aug 2022. This is late northern hemisphere summer, and so near the minimum extent that can be expected for the year. Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center.

These sea routes are far quicker than the alternatives. The transit time of the Nunavik was cut by 40% compared to the route that would usually have to be used, via the Panama Canal, and the Christophe de Margerie shipment from Norway to South Korea, rerouted from the Suez Canal, was 30% faster by the Northeast Passage.

This is particularly significant because the cargoes that take advantage of these routes makes up a very large percentage of world trade. As shown by the Nunavik and Christophe de Margerie, the Arctic passages primarily benefit trade from Europe and eastern North America to East Asia, most particularly China, South Korea and Japan. These three nations combine for 39% of world manufacturing and 22% of world exports, while the US, Canada and Europe also form integral parts of the world import and export market.

Therefore, it is clear that there is enormous economic potential within the Arctic, and so every country that can wants to claim control and ownership of the resources and shipping lanes. There are eight members of the Arctic Council to whom these disagreements are most pertinent: Canada, USA, Russia, Norway and Denmark (on behalf of Greenland), which have coastlines on the Arctic Ocean; and Sweden, Finland and Iceland.

The primary dispute in the Arctic is over the right to exploit its natural resources. Since the majority are offshore, these rights are governed by the UN Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS). This asserts that countries have an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) that extends 200 nautical miles from their coast, with sole right to exploit natural resources in this area – the relevant EEZs for these countries in the Arctic are shown in Figure 2 below.

Figure 2. Map of the EEZs of Arctic nations. Increased Transnational Sea Ice Transport Between Neighboring Arctic States in the 21st Century – Scientific Figure on ResearchGate. Available from: [accessed 19 Aug, 2022]

However, the figure is too simple, and does not show all the complications and claims existing in the Arctic. The first of these is that a country can claim an EEZ as far as 350 miles from their coast if their continental shelf extends to that distance. Russia claims that the Lomonosov Ridge, off the north coast of Siberia, is an extension of their continental shelf, and it runs all the way to the North Pole – other countries have, so far, not recognised this claim. Norway has a similarly unaccepted claim on the Gakkel Ridge.

Norway and Russia also dispute ownership of the Svalbard Islands, the northernmost inhabited land on earth. They can be seen on Figure 2 surrounded by cyan colouring, indicating Norwegian control. However, Russia has a competing claim based on the large Russian population on the largest island, Spitsbergen, due to the coal mining community there. Most countries recognise Norway’s claim to sovereignty.

The final complication in the right to exploit these resources is that both Canada and the USA have not ratified the UNCLOS agreement. This means they cannot legally enforce their EEZ as set out in the agreement since they themselves do not recognise it, but it also allows them to violate this treaty in making further claims.

Sovereignty over shipping routes is another issue. The majority of the Northwest Passage passes through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago – Canada asserts that these are Canadian territorial waters, and therefore they need to approve shipping passing through. Norway, Denmark and Russia also assert that various parts of the Arctic Ocean are under their jurisdiction. Others, such as the US and European Union, consider the Northwest Passage and Northeast Passage international waterways that any country is free to navigate. Even as far back as 1985, the US caused a dispute with Canada when it sent an icebreaker through the archipelago without prior authorisation. However, in all practical situations Arctic countries govern their EEZs as set out in UNCLOS as territorial waters.

The disputes over rights to the Arctic are right now predominantly legal ones. However, many of the Arctic nations are building up their military capabilities in the region to protect their strategic and economic interests, none more so than Russia. Putin described the oil fields in the Arctic as “our strategic reserve for the 21st Century.” Russia’s economy, and political power, relies heavily on its oil exports: in 2021, they were valued at $244bn, around one-seventh of their total GDP. The increase in the value of exports this year, to $337.5bn, in spite of international sanctions, shows how reliable an income source oil can be. Therefore, Russia is desperate to secure as much of the Arctic supply as possible.

They are currently the predominant power in the region. One reason for this is simple geography: almost half the land on the coast of the Arctic Ocean is Russian land, and they effectively control the Northeast Passage, which requires thousands of miles of travel through Russian territorial waters – regardless of the assertions of the US or EU.

The other reason for Russia’s Arctic eminence is military commitment to the region that far exceeds that of any other nation. They have opened a number of Arctic bases in recent years – and the re-opening of Cold War-era installations accelerates this too. The permanent force in the region is based in Murmansk, near the Finnish border, and numbers around 6,000 soldiers, but, as they demonstrated in Arctic ‘war games’ in 2014, their capability exceeds this greatly, with 150,000 men and thousands of tanks, jets and ships.

By contrast, NATO organised their largest ever military exercise in the Arctic in April 2022, of 30,000 troops, 200 aircraft and 50 ships from 27 nations. While the gap in capabilities is not as large as these figures would suggest – especially since militaristic regimes such as Russia’s use such exercises to flex their strategic muscle far more than the West usually does – it exposes a difference in commitment, and also means that, should force be used in the Arctic, Russian troops and commanders will have more experience with the unique conditions.

Russian superiority in this area is not simply due to the dedication of conventional forces but their specialist equipment. Despite rising temperatures, icebreakers are, and will continue to be, vital to any country hoping to operate in the Far North. Russia’s fleet numbers over 40, with six nuclear-powered ships that are far more powerful and require less frequent refuelling.

Canada has been building their icebreakers at a rapid rate and now have the second-largest fleet in the world, at 18, while Finland has eight, Sweden seven and Denmark four. The United States has only one icebreaker, dating to the 1980s, and has rarely shown serious interest in building up a significant force. Given their close relations with other powers that have icebreakers, this would not likely be an obstacle to any strategic objectives, but it belies an unusual apathy on this issue for the US.

Other countries without land in the High North have also shown interest in the development of the situation. A number of these countries have been granted observer status at the Arctic Council – among them France, the UK, Germany, Japan, India, and the most active of these, China.

China will likely be a significant participant in trade that uses the two passages through the Arctic, and they are a self-described ‘near-Arctic state’. They have constructed two icebreakers (one more than the US!), presumably mostly as a statement of intent but also possibly to be used in conjunction with any Chinese cargo ships that may take Arctic routes, and plan to construct a third, nuclear-powered, vessel, making them only the second country to possess one.

In just the last decade, the Arctic has transformed from an area of future importance to one of increasing relevance to global politics. At times, there have seemed to be opportunities for co-operation: see the Christophe de Margerie, a Russian tanker which carried oil from Norway to South Korea via the Northeast Passage, or the ExxonMobil-Rosneft deal in 2014. However, the escalation of tensions between Arctic powers due to events elsewhere, and the allure of sole control of profitable resources, leads me to think the most likely outcome is that the High North becomes another geopolitical battleground, albeit fought over in a new and unique way.

Works Consulted

Marshall, T., 2015. Prisoners of Geography. Elliot and Thompson Limited.