“Everything we do is to keep good order at sea,” Rear Admiral Rune Andersen, the head of the Norwegian Navy and Coast Guard told me, weeks later. He said he has seen an increase in both international commercial and specifically Russian naval maritime activity in the Barents Sea and Norwegian Sea over the last five years. Andersen says the Norwegian fleet has devoted new resources to underwater monitoring, aerial shipping lane surveillance and intelligence sharing with other Arctic nations like Sweden. “We’ve been improving to make sure we’ve control over the North Atlantic. What happens now in the North is important. It has a direct effect on security elsewhere.”
Since the end of the Cold War, the Arctic has largely been free of visible geopolitical conflict. In 1996, the eight countries with Arctic territory formed the Arctic Council, where they agreed to environmental protection standards and pooled technology and money for joint natural resources extraction in the region. Svalbard, Europe’s northernmost inhabited settlement, just 700 miles south of the North Pole, perfectly represents this spirit of cooperation. While a territory of Norway, it is also a kind of international Arctic station. It hosts the KSAT Satellite Station, relied on by everyone from the US to China; a constellation of some dozen nations’ research laboratories; and the world’s doomsday Seed Vault (where seeds from around the world are stored in case of a global loss in crop diversity, whether due to climate change or nuclear fallout). Svalbard, where polar bears outnumber people, is considered a demilitarized, visa-free zone by 42 nations.
But today, this Arctic desert is rapidly becoming the center of a new conflict. The vast sea ice that covers the Arctic Ocean is melting rapidly due to climate change, losing 13 percent per decade — a rate that experts say could make the Arctic ice-free in the summer as soon as 2035. Already, the thaw has created new shipping lanes, opened existing seasonal lanes for more of the year and provided more opportunities for natural resource extraction. Nations are now vying for military and commercial control over this newly accessible territory — competition that has only gotten more intense since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
For the past two decades, Russia has been dominating this fight for the Arctic, building up its fleet of nuclear-capable icebreakers, ships and submarines, developing more mining and oil well operations along its 15,000 miles of Arctic coastline, racing to capture control of the new “Northern Sea Route” or “Transpolar Sea Route” which could begin to open up by 2035, and courting non-Arctic nations to help fund those endeavors.
At the same time, America is playing catch-up in a climate where it has little experience and capabilities. The US government and military seems to be awakening to the threats of climate change and Russian dominance of the Arctic — recently issuing a National Strategy for the Arctic Region and a report on how climate change impacts American military bases, opening a consulate in Nuuk, Greenland , and appointing this year an ambassador-at-large for the Arctic region within the State Department and a deputy assistant secretary of defense for Arctic and Global Resilience. America’s European allies, too, have been rethinking homeland security, increasing national defense budgets and security around critical energy infrastructure in the Arctic as they aim to boost their defense capabilities and rely less on American assistance.
But 17 Arctic watchers — including Norwegian diplomats, State Department analysts and national security experts focusing on the Arctic — said they fear that the US and Europe won’t be able to maintain a grip on the region’s energy resources and diplomacy as Russia places more civilian and military infrastructure across the Arctic, threatening the economic development and national security of the seven other nations whose sovereign land sits within the Arctic Circle.
Even as the US says it has developed stronger Arctic policies, five prominent Arctic watchers I spoke with say that the US government and military are taking too narrow a view, seeing the Arctic as primarily Alaska and an area for natural resource extraction, but not as a key geopolitical and national security battleground beyond US borders. They say the US is both poorly resourced in the Arctic and unprepared to deal with the rising climate threat, which will require new kinds of technology, training and infrastructure the US has little experience with. Several US government officials involved in Arctic planning told me in private they also fear a nuclear escalation in the Arctic, which would threaten to engulf Europe and its allies in a larger conflict.
“We’re committed to expanding our engagement across the region,” one of those officials, granted anonymity to speak candidly about a tense geopolitical region, told me, “but we’re not there yet.”
“The [Defense] Department views the Arctic as a potential avenue of approach to the homeland, and as a potential venue for great power competition,” America’s new deputy assistant secretary of defense for Arctic and Global Resilience, Iris A. Ferguson, wrote me in an email. Ferguson described Russia as an “acute threat” and also outlined fears that China, a “pacing threat” was seeking “to normalize its presence and pursue a larger role in shaping Arctic regional governance and security affairs.” (China has contributed to liquid natural gas projects and funded a biodiesel plant in Finland as part of its Belt and Road Initiative now reaching the Arctic.)
There have been moments of tension in the Arctic over the past few decades, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February has sent the competition to new heights. Right after the invasion, the seven other Arctic Council members said they would boycott upcoming talks in Russia. Norway, considered NATO’s northern listening post, curbed access to its ports for Russian fishing trawlers, but still allowed for Russian fishing in the Barents Sea. In May, Russia declared a militarization of its fishing fleet and maritime vessels. Norway moved to heighten alertness at military installations and critical liquid gas and energy infrastructure across the country, much of which sits in the Arctic and sub-Arctic. Europe, which severed ties with Russian gas exports, has come to rely on that Arctic energy.
In mid-November, US Special Forces demonstrated the use of an experimental guided weapons system deployed by parachute over Norwegian territory. “We’re trying to deter Russian aggression, expansionist behavior, by showing enhanced capabilities of the allies,” Lieutenant Colonel Lawrence Melnicoff told the military newspaper Stars and Stripes.
In Norway’s High North, a term used to describe the Norwegian Arctic territories, no fewer than seven Russian citizens have been detained over the last few months for flying drones, prohibited under the same bans for Russian airlines in European airspace. The drones were discovered flying near areas of critical infrastructure. One of those arrested in October was Andrey Yakunin, 47, the son of Vladimir Yakunin, the former president of Russian Railways and an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin who was sanctioned by the State Department after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Since Russia’s invasion “we were reminded of a local historical realization, which comes a few times in every generation, that things can get much worse than you thought,” Espen Barth Eide, the former Norwegian defense minister told me. “It’s much easier [for Russia] to meddle if you have an area of uncertainty between the West and Russia,” Barth Eide said of the waters around Norway, whose fisheries are often contested by Russia.
“The Arctic, at least as an area of security issues, hasn’t been on the agenda since the collapse of the Soviet Union,” Commander Göran Swistek, international security visiting fellow at the German Institute for International Security Affairs, who authored a study about Russia’s growing interest in the north, told me in a phone interview. “But the northern area has again become a new frontline where Russia feels it’s vulnerable.”