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Why the Arctic is becoming the most strategic area in the world

Why the Arctic is becoming the most strategic area in the world

The uniqueness of the Arctic: between climate change and geopolitical dynamics, a unique area of peace and cooperation in the world. It is the only international context faithful to international law and a multilateralism in crisis elsewhere. None of the actors of reference have any intention or interest in altering the balances which, however, do not reflect the planetary power relations but appear in the North in an inverted form.

Laura Borzi*

A short version of this article appeared in the 12/2020 issue of Confronti. We propose here the extended version provided by the author.


The Arctic region has once again become an area of significant strategic importance.

After the end of the Cold War, during which it had played its part in the confrontation between the two blocs, for three decades, it registered a constant and intense level of international cooperation, so much so as to consolidate the widespread perception of the exceptional nature of the North sheltered from the geopolitical tensions of the rest of the planet.


A model of multilateralism that at the moment is in significant contrast with the trajectory of a global system that is witnessing the disintegration of dialogue and negotiation and sees a return to the logic of power.

The recurring fear among observers of Arctic events in recent years is the fact that systemic tensions - between Russia and the Arctic states -, as well as greater attention from external actors - China - could have a spill effect. over in the region, compromising its governance and altering its security dynamics which up to now have been oriented more towards environmental protection and that of communities (the approximately 4 million inhabitants) than towards military hard security issues.


Climate change

The factor that has had the greatest impact on the characteristics of the regional context, favoring its significant opening towards the outside, was the phenomenon of climate change, a catalyst for alterations in the physical environment, in the livelihoods of populations and finally in regional geopolitics.

The warming in the north of the planet has such characteristics that make the region a global climate barometer: the rate of temperature increase is faster and two degrees higher than the planet's average.

The most visible sign of the changes is the Arctic ice pack which has lost 75% of its volume since 1980 with the significant reduction of the summer surface.


The greater accessibility of the region and the scenario of an ice-free Arctic in summer, if they constitute a dangerous signal for the future of the planet, nevertheless mean new economic opportunities, i.e. the opening of transoceanic shipping routes and the possibility of exploiting natural resources such as hydrocarbons, minerals, rare earths that were first technically or economically less interesting.

Since the phenomenon has accelerated in the mid-2000s, scholars, politicians and the media have begun to design possible scenarios for the future of the Arctic.


Source: Library of US Congress


The region fulfills the criteria of geopolitics:

  • It is rich in resources
  • It is important for air, sea and land transport routes with the potential to unite or divide powers and continents.

Over the previous decade, two events had increased interest in the Arctic.


  1. In 2008 a probabilistic study, Circum Arctic Resource Apprisal attributed 13% of the oil, 30% of the conventional gas and 20% of the undiscovered liquid gas to the north of the planet.
    This, at a time of high oil prices, had built the idea of the region as an El Dorado to be conquered.

    The symbolism of the conquest had been nurtured, the previous year, by the Russian expedition during which the scientist and parliamentarian Artur Chiligarnov had planted a Russian flag on the seabed of the North Pole.
  2. In this framework of Scrumble for the Artic in 2008 the five riparian states, known as the Artic five - Canada, Denmark (Greenland) Norway, United States, Russia - signed the Ilulissat Declaration according to which it was stated that the coastal states they committed themselves to the protection of the fragile environment, to collaboration and respect for international law or the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Montego Bay 1982) under which all disputes would be resolved.


Evidently, the opening of territories, previously covered with ice, to the possibility of economic activities has triggered sovereignty disputes with a symbolic and economic value such as the delimitation of maritime borders, the definition of the continental shelf, the legal status of the long Northwest passage the Canadian coasts and the Northern Sea Route (NSR), the Eurasian route.


Many of the disputes have been resolved. Among the most significant in 2010 was the Russian-Norwegian agreement for the delimitation of the maritime border of the Barents Sea. The remaining disputes are of a symbolic nature (Hans islet between Canada and Denmark) or have been frozen, such as the agreement between Canada and the United States on the Northwest passage (agreement on cooperation in the Arctic 1988).


Actually, disputes between states have so far been handled in accordance with international law.


Russia has submitted the question of the delimitation of the continental shelf that sees it in competition with Canada and Denmark to the UN Commission on the Law of the Sea set up with Montego Bay. Other issues, seeing allied states (NATO) as protagonists, could hardly generate an alteration of the cooperative management of the North which is now a thirty-year history.


A collaboration that did not undergo major shocks even in 2014 when, the annexation of Crimea by Moscow, ended up profoundly changing the meaning of the Western Russia relationship with a fatal damage to the security order of post-Cold War Europe.



Institutional density and regional international cooperation


The mantra of international cooperation constituted the humus that in the 90s of the last century led to the creation of the Arctic Council (CA), the intergovernmental forum that has become the gravitational center of regional multilateralism.



The CA, established in 1996 as a means of cooperation between eight states, the Artic Five plus Iceland, Finland and Sweden, symbolizes the most important form of institutional cooperation in the pan-Arctic area by providing a continuous forum for discussion on Arctic issues from which they are nevertheless military issue are excluded.


Over time, participation has been open to as many as 40 subjects including non-governmental organizations, research institutes and observer states, including Italy since 2013.


Environmental protection and issues of sustainable development and scientific cooperation, this is the amount of work carried out by 6 workings groups where experts and academic scientists address the issues of their specific field of expertise.


Under the auspices of the CA, 3 binding agreements were negotiated:

  1. the agreement on cooperation for search and rescue (2011)
  2. the agreement on the response to marine pollution (2013)
  3. the agreement on scientific cooperation (2017)


In addition to the CA, functional cooperation takes place in a multiplicity of bodies, some subregional such as the Barents Euro Arctic Council (intergovernmental cooperation), the Barents Regional Council (interregional cooperation), the Arctic Economic Council (with private economic actors), which enrich governance and contribute to the economic development of the area.


The Arctic institutional structure is supported by a dense regulatory network.


The fundamental instrument of the law of the sea and the treaties negotiated within the CA have recently been joined by:

  • The Polar Code under the auspices of the International Maritime Organization (2014)
  • the establishment of the Coast Guard Forum (2015)
  • the Declaration by the Arctic Five on the prevention of unregulated fishing in the Arctic Ocean in 2015, which turned into an international treaty to which China, Japan, South Korea, Iceland and the European Union joined in 2017.


Add to this a significant political fact: in the documents dedicated to the North of all Arctic States or with interests in the Arctic, the unchanged commitment to maintaining an area of peace and dialogue in the North is repeated.


Peaceful cooperation in the North is the expression used by Mikhail Gorbachev in Murmarsk who in 1987, on the eve of the collapse of the USSR, outlined the essential features of a truly regional international society which has remained relatively immune to the tensions of the world order today.


Systemic tension: the Russia - United States - China triangle

The transformations in the Arctic, with their corollary of economic and political interests, have had a significant impact on security, particularly for search and rescue activities that involve the presence of military and security forces in the area.


In particular, it is Russian military assets that have been steadily increasing since 2007.


In fact, with the return of Moscow to the international scene, the patrols of strategic bombers on the borders of NATO airspace have resumed, there has been the reopening of old military bases, the construction of new ones and the Joint Strategic Command of the Northern Fleet has become , since 2014, the fifth military district of the Federation.


Nevertheless, everything responds to a legitimate internal interest of the Kremlin.


Russia is actually the quintessential Arctic state. The North is part of the national identity with vital geopolitical interests in the region: 20% of GDP is generated in the Arctic and, from a military point of view, the Kola Peninsula hosts 2/3 of Russian nuclear power.


Moscow's strategic documents highlight that the increased military component has two reasons.

  1. On the one hand, traffic on the NSR implies the need for greater protection of the coast.
  2. Second, as noted in the Military, Maritime and National Security Doctrines, the activities of NATO and the United States on a global scale constitute significant concern for Moscow, hence the importance of the Northern Fleet in countering Western pressure.


If the Russian regional posture can be considered defensive, the systemic tension configures the feeling of strategic vulnerability: by opening the Arctic space to an important international presence, climate change reinforces the sense of encirclement in Moscow.


The second actor whose economic interests in the Arctic have caused concern is China.

Observer state of the Arctic Council since 2013, it published an Arctic Strategy in 2018, where it asserts respect for international law and the sovereign rights of Arctic states but claims the right to scientific research, navigation, fishing and laying submarine cables on the high seas.


From economic investments in Greenland's mines and in the development of Russian gas projects (20% stake in Yamal LNG and 20% in LNG2), to navigation along the Arctic Silk Road: impossible not to read, in Beijing's Arctic footprint, President Xi Jingping's vision of making China a world superpower.


Finally, the United States, with important economic interests in Alaska, has reactivated attention to the north which had weakened in the post-Cold War.


If even the current US approach remains under the sign of cooperation and the need to keep the region under the banner of regulatory order to jointly manage common challenges, the alarm is triggered precisely on the actions and motivations of China and Russia indicated as the major challenge to American security and prosperity in the long run.


The Department of Defense Arctic Strategy (2019) recounts the need for a greater US naval presence in the region. In this regard, if the reconstitution of the second fleet (2018) is mainly aimed at opposing Russia in the North Atlantic, where the opposition is real and dangerous, it also constitutes a way to exert pressure in the Arctic.




Le diffuse considerazioni sulla trasformazione dell'Artico in una prossima arena di conflitto geopolitico non risultano del tutto convincenti. Widespread considerations of transforming the Arctic into a next arena of geopolitical conflict are not entirely convincing.


 2 are the interconnected factors that do not play in favor of this scenario.


  1. Meanwhile, the international Arctic society is the result of a deliberate negotiation aimed at maintaining the Northern area of peace and dialogue. The area is likely to remain virtually immune from tensions that are unleashed elsewhere, as long as specific paths are taken to consolidate the regulatory framework and practices that make the exceptionality of the article durable.

The dense institutional and regulatory structure, which has been stratified over the course of at least 3 decades, does not seem to show concrete signs of disintegration.


In other words, multilateralism, in crisis elsewhere, continues in the North to produce interaction, virtuous behavior and, more importantly, soft and hard law tools.


  1. This circumstance, and this is the second consideration, is attributable to the fact that the balance of power in the Arctic does not reflect the planetary power relations, on the contrary these occur in the North in an inverted form.
  • For Russia, the leading actor, the Arctic is a place of affirmation of prestige and power but, net of the defensive military posture, given its important economic interests, it is the State that would have the most to lose in a military confrontation.
  • China, which does not place the area at the top of the list of its dossiers, does not benefit from being pointed out as a disturbing element of the established order. Instead, Beijing has tried to expand economic relations with the states of the North, in particular relations with Russia which promote its stature as a world power, without being equally beneficial for Moscow.
  • The United States, as stated in the Arctic Strategy, has no interest in competing militarily in this area and rather must be careful, like NATO, not to divert resources from more important theaters, where they have no territories but primary strategic interests.


In other words, none of the actors of reference have any intention or interest in altering the way of cooperative interaction in the region.

Therefore, dialogue does not fade in the north of the planet but remains faithful to multilateralism which here, as elsewhere, has little to do with the good intentions of the states but is always a question of the administration of power. The balance of power is never completely stable, much less in an era characterized by the accelerated emergence of new global players.


That said, there is currently a balance in the Arctic and the region does not seem to want to actively participate in the recomposition of the international order.


This order can be maintained as long as specific paths are undertaken to consolidate the institutional framework that makes the exceptional nature of the Arctic durable.


*Analyst of Centro Studi Italia Canada

focused on Arctic and Canada's foreign policy

To deepen the topic, follow the conference sponsored by CSIC as part of "Festival Italia Chiama Artico" By Osservatorio Artico >>


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