Frozen Assets

Understanding Arctic geopolitics

A Russian Gazprom Oil Rig in the Arctic

As our planet grows warmer and the true effects of climate change begin to melt the ice in the Arctic, we rapidly approach the inevitable reality of Arctic expansionism. Just as other lands have been colonized by world powers, the Arctic Ocean is no exception. It holds a treasure trove of vast resources and rare earth minerals. Moreover, the Arctic is home to two crucial passageways that connect East Asia, North America, and Europe. These passages are the famed Northwest passage, which runs westward from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean and through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, and the Northeast passage, running through the Arctic and along the coasts of Scandinavia and Russia. The Arctic is filled with promise, yet the perils are just as much if not greater. In the coming years we will see a mixture of conflict and cooperation among regional powers and just how valuable the Arctic is.

What is the Arctic?

The Arctic is a confusing and complex beast and can be defined in several ways, each state tweaking the meaning to suit their own political agenda. This creates many disputes, most of them are being debated today and in the simplest form consist of what belongs to whom. This can range from claiming different islands, to continental shelves, and everything in between. Usually, these disputes fall under the diplomatic battleground of the United Nations (UN) or the Arctic Council. Yet, it’s quite common to see nuclear submarines or naval destroyers sailing in and around the freezing waters. Creating an atmosphere that reminds us of a war that was a bit on the “colder” side. The Russian Federation is moving to place half of its northern fleet (60 percent of navy) in the Arctic. An example of how the diplomatic atmosphere is being disrupted would be the potential fall outs of relations with Scandinavian states and the fragile relationship with Washington.

Arctic Coast Guard Forum

One way to define Arctic is to mark the border by 66° 33' North latitude, which is also the boundary of the “land of the midnight sun. North of those coordinates, the sun stays up all day for a period during summer and then sets and stays down for the duration of the day for a period during winter. Climate wise, the Arctic region is classified by its freezing temperatures, the average for July remains below 10 degrees Celsius.

The Arctic land area covers about 14 million square kilometers but in total encompasses a region of 30 million kilometers. It includes the territories of eight Arctic states: The United States (Alaska), Canada, Norway, Russia, Greenland (under rule of Denmark), Iceland, Sweden, and Finland. The Russian Federation and Canada are responsible for about 80 percent of the land; Nordic countries, 16 percent; and the United States about 4 percent. The Arctic Ocean envelops the North Pole and is mostly frozen for a majority of the year, accounting for about one-third of the region. Areas like Greenland are covered with ice sheets; while others, like Alaska contain a bit more life. These areas have large mammals, such as caribou, bears, foxes and an assortment of vegetation.

As important as the arctic land area is, the maritime aspect is equally as important. This focuses on, Territorial Seas, internal waters, Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ), Continental Shelf, Archipelagic Waters, High Seas etc. The Arctic ocean is the smallest out of the 5 ocean basins. It is about 5.4 million square miles (14,090,000 square km) and the temperatures vary from winter to summer. The current climate change situation has meant that temperatures can and have reached above freezing at times which is extremely abnormal. The Arctic ocean comes with its own set of complications, for example, Canada is seeking to take advantage of the melting ice and claim ownership of the Northwest Passage. This is constantly being debated by the Arctic states and the others claim that the passage is international waters. Another conflict is over the continental shelfs. The Alpha, Lomonosov and Mendeleev ridges are claimed to be Russian. These ridges stretch all the way to the north pole, if these claims are scientifically validated then Russia would assume ownership over most, if not all of the Arctic. The Barents Sea also plays a strategic role, as it is located off the northern Russian and Norwegian coasts, separating the territorial waters between the two states. The Chukchi Sea on the other hand has Siberia to the east and Alaska to the west, it sits at the top of the Bering Strait. The strait plays a strategic route for the transportation of goods and is currently contested. The geography of the Arctic is difficult because like any other place, its constantly changing and with that the interests of states shift accordingly.

Why is the Arctic Important?

The Arctic contains an ample abundance of natural gas, petroleum, and mineral resources. Current production is estimated at about one tenth of the world’s oil and a quarter of its natural gas. Russia’s Arctic accounts for about 80 percent of this oil and a large portion of the natural gas. Arctic Canada, Alaska, and Norway are the other leading producers, but with the costs to produce outweighing the benefits, long term maintenance of Arctic oil may have to wait until the energy prices are favorable. As of now the energy prices are fairly low and that means the cost to operate and extract the resources would put the companies at a loss. 15 percent of the worlds undiscovered oil which totals to about 100 billion barrels are projected to be in the Arctic. Furthermore, the Arctic also holds a large amount of natural gas, 30 percent of the worlds natural gas lays untouched. 1700 trillion cubic feet and 44 billion barrels of liquefied natural gas respectively (U.S. Geological survey 2008). This has the energy giants like Shell, Exxon Mobil, and Gazprom competing for drilling licenses. Moreover, rare earth minerals in the arctic are estimated to be about a trillion dollars’ worth, including Nickle, Gold, Zinc, Palladium, Cobalt, Lead and Diamond. The United States Arctic is estimated to contain at least 8 trillion dollars in resources, while the Russian Arctic is estimated to exceed 22 trillion dollars.

Exploitation of the oil began in the 1920s in the northwestern territories of Canada. In the 1960s, a plethora of hydrocarbon fields were discovered, in the North Slope of the Brooks Range in Alaska, Canada’s Mackenzie Delta, and in Russia’s Yamalo-Nenets. Within recent time, the Arctic territories of Norway, Alaska, Canada and Russia have been responsible for producing billions of cubic meters of oil and gas. The states who are signatories to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) are granted legitimacy of an EEZ which starts beyond the territorial waters and extends 370km from the shore. However, the claim can be extended up to 650km if it can prove the continental shelf extends beyond the standard deviation. This allows the state to claim and exploit any living or nonliving resources.

The Arctic is extremely valuable for its natural and nonrenewable resources but it’s equally as valuable to indigenous peoples for its biological resource. It contains about one-fifth of freshwater and several species of plants and animals can be found there as well. Furthermore, the fishing industry is supported greatly by the Arctic and sub-Arctic waters. Fifty percent of the U.S. fish stocks come from the 200 nautical mile exclusive zone off the coast of Alaska, making it crucial to the U.S. fishing industry. The resources mentioned above play a crucial part in the race for the Arctic, the quicker states are able to legitimize their claims the more resources they can exploit. What is gained in the Arctic today will play a massive role in future conflict.

Countries and Conflicts

Each state that has a stake in the Arctic has several claims over territories and continental shelves, all of course overlapping and contested. Some states have decided to use militaristic approaches, others by using diplomatic initiatives and use of science and research to gain Arctic leverage. Nevertheless, in the following section, we will see the situation for each Arctic state and individual strategies.

Canadian Soldiers landing in the Arctic


The Canadian state has a strong Arctic identity and is committed to protecting its claims and maintaining its Arctic sovereignty. Canada has more than 1.2 million square miles of Arctic territory and has the second largest area in the High North. The Canadian coastline is the longest in the world and 65 percent of the 25,760 kilometers (16,000 miles) is in the Arctic Ocean. This puts the Canadians in a premium position for Arctic initiatives. Canada is a formidable and faithful ally of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), but must be weary of its allies when it comes to the competition of the Arctic. In fact, the Canadians are not in favor of any NATO presence in the Arctic at all, instead turning to the Arctic Council and its military committee. They see NATO in the Arctic as undermining their political agenda. Furthermore, the significant bias against military action and support of the indigenous population among the Canadian people voice caution to its government.

Moreover, Canada’s Arctic policy envisions a “stable, rules-based region with clearly defined boundaries.” This will certainly be a challenge as Ottawa deals with the several disputes surrounding its Arctic claims. There are disputes involving its southern neighbors, the United States. This encompasses a significant portion of the Beaufort Sea; this body of water sits to the north of the eastern Alaskan or western Canadian border. Although this dispute has not raised rifles, it certainly has raised eyebrows among the parties involved and looks to play a role in determining the way territorial disputes are settled in the future. Another dispute the Canadians have is with Denmark. This involves the boundaries of the Lincoln Sea. The key dispute however, is over the famed Northwest Passage. Canada believes it has exclusive rights to the passage as it lies within their “internal waters,” the rest of the international community disagrees and has labeled the passage as an “international strait.” Although the Canadian disputes don’t threaten peace in the Arctic, they are all important and set an example of the complex High North.

NATO troops preparing for an exercise

Arctic States of Europe

The Arctic States of Europe all have their own disputes and political agendas that are just as complicated as the Canadians. In terms of Iceland, the Arctic was a place of peril and a constant state of stress during the cold war. The island was dubbed the “unsinkable aircraft carrier” in the gap between Greenland and the United Kingdom. As we look at the state of Iceland’s Arctic future and present we see a state that favors cooperation and diplomacy over conflict. Reykjavik looks to become a beneficiary of the enhanced shipping routes and a main port for ships to stop at. They also host an annual conference called “The Arctic Circle,” this gives them a chance at playing an active role in advocating for peaceful relations and diplomatic dialogue between Arctic states.

Moving on to the Danish state, Denmark is the proud owner of Greenland and the Faroe Islands. Greenland is filled with unrest over the Danish rule and is wanting to become an independent state. Greenland is a crucial point in the Arctic as it has many military bases and installations along its coastline. This is used by NATO and the United States and both have established strategic air bases. In addition, the growing discoveries of oil and gas that dwell below its waters and the economic finances will encourage the dreams of indigenous Greenlandic people to become an autonomous state. This could seek to destabilize things as Denmark aims to maintain an iron grip on Greenland and will grant more freedoms to appease the citizens there while maintaining its sovereignty.

Norwegian tanks in a winter exercise

Perhaps the most concerned state when it comes to losing peace in the Arctic is Norway. It holds an extensive area of land, coupled with a significant amount of resources. Yet a small population of 5 million makes it difficult to have a major impact in the Arctic. Nevertheless, Oslo must continue to keep a keen eye on the Russian state. They have had a number of territorial disputes with Russia, some of which have been done and dusted, while others remain at an impasse with little chance of resolution. For example, the Norwegian island of Svalbard is key when it comes to securing the Barents Sea. With a NATO member in the High North and so close to the Federations territories, it is certainly a challenge for Moscow to reach its full potential with that in place. Oslo also must worry about resources, as the oil and natural gas that is along its southern coasts is slowly used up. Finally, the States of Finland and Sweden are possibly the most important when it comes to NATO mobilization against the Russian Federation. Especially with the recent Russian aggression involving Ukraine and Crimea. Both are non-NATO members, but they have closely worked together in the recent times. Although Both states have a small segment of their territory within the Arctic boundary they will play an important role in keeping Moscow in check by continuing to assert themselves in the Arctic Council and continuing close partnership with NATO, they will undoubtedly come to value in the future.

The United States of America

While the Russians are moving rapidly to claim the Arctic and its riches, American lawmakers are still debating whether climate change is a hoax. This says a lot about U.S. Arctic policy and explains why Russia is virtually impossible to compete with in the Arctic. If it wasn’t for Seward’s Folly, the Russians would still control Alaska and the U.S. Arctic strategy would be nonexistent. This deal was one of the most important in all American history, allowing access to not only a strategic Arctic location but a plethora of natural resources and minerals while keeping Russia out of its backyard.

Until recently, “Uncle Sam” was busy securing the Pacific, and immediate continental lands while the Arctic was left out of the equation. It had sat on the backburner as an afterthought, this will come to bite the Americans in the rear when it comes to Arctic exploitation. In fact, there was absolutely no Arctic policy for Washington until 2009. The report was a very basic and minimal effort to address the current Arctic state. In 2013 the U.S. Coast Guard had also released an Arctic strategy with updated data including budget limits for strategic planning and operations along with environmental and communication assessments. In total, there is an alarming lack of national effort concerning the Arctic and a realization of the role it plays in the geopolitical chessboard.

Moreover, the United States is lacking in equipment for the Arctic in terms of icebreakers. Six are currently operational and one is under construction, compared to the massive Russian fleet of 42 icebreakers with 8 under construction. The U.S. is lagging far behind as it takes approximately ten years to manufacture one icebreaker and over a billion dollars. These icebreakers extend the time that ships are able to navigate through the frozen waters, this proves to be a valuable asset for states wanting to take advantage of the shipping routes. Going through the Arctic is 40 percent shorter than traversing the Panama Canal, emits less greenhouse gasses and can accommodate larger cargo holds due to its depth. This makes operations more efficient on all aspects. Unfortunately for the United States its already too little, too late. If Washington were to order a fleet of icebreakers now, it wouldn’t be completed until 2028 at best. The main hope for the United States is to work with the Arctic Council and the UN to balance against Moscow’s militarization and domination of the Arctic. Another initiative the United States must bolster is the NATO presence in the Arctic, working especially close with the Scandinavian counterparts. Taking leadership in the Arctic Council will also prove to be important in order to be actively involved in the issues surrounding the council. Washington must also look to improve relations with Moscow, this ensures that the Arctic becomes a zone of cooperation not conflict.

The Russian Federation

The Russian Federation has always been a prominent state in the Arctic, with most of its coastline above the Arctic Circle. This region of the world is seen as the focal point of the Russian geopolitical strategy and is home to over half of the total Arctic population. The Russians have essentially made a move over the Arctic similar to the Chinese in the South China Sea. This meaning that there is absolutely nothing other states can do to further spread their Arctic ambition short of war. While other states have small Arctic task forces, Moscow has a fully operation Arctic army and continues to bolster its forces every day. As stated in The National Security Strategy of the Russian Federation in the Arctic Through 2020 and Beyond, Moscow wants to “widen the use of military infrastructure, particularly in the Arctic.” This should be of no surprise, as the Russian strategy looks to maintain their grip on their territories in the North. Particularly, developing The Northern Sea Route.

Russian soldier gazing into the vast frozen wasteland

The route is currently quite dangerous and has very few refueling and repair stations. The Russians also look to settle their disputes to which they have quite a few. The United States, Norway, and Canada all have conflicting claims with Moscow. For example, Washington disagrees on the maritime boundary in the Bering Sea. Oslo continues to disagree with Moscow over the fishing rights in the Barents Sea. Finally, there are claims and counter claims surrounding the continental shelves involving Denmark, Norway, Russia and Canada. The Russian state wants to avoid military conflict at all costs like any other state, but when push comes to shove is willing to flex its Arctic muscles. The Russians are using a strategy that former American president Theodore Roosevelt had once used, “speak softly and carry a big stick.” In total the Russians are the most complete Arctic state and have left a massive gap, making it impossible for others to catch up, ensuring Arctic dominance.

The Arctic’s future

With all of these conflicts it is quite difficult to find satisfying solutions for all parties involved. Of course, the chief concern is to avoid any sort of armed conflict when addressing such fragile topics. Therefore, diplomatic and scientific initiatives are the best course to set for deciding the fate of the Arctic. Investing in research groups and encouraging bilateral cooperation between states and enhanced dialogue in the Arctic Council and UN. Also involving non-governmental organizations that are concerned with environmental issues will further deescalate the situation and promote a comprehensive understanding of the Arctic’s issues. That way we can learn to not only utilize but protect the Arctic and the life found within it. This will require all states to find equal ground at the table and think about what could benefit everyone without harming individual economic interests or infringing on state sovereignty. In total, the eight Arctic states need to think of the region as a zone of cooperation and peace rather than a zone of conflict and isolationism. Otherwise the Arctic might be gone whilst the states continue to argue over it and then it will be too late for anyone.