Three different scenarios for the future development of the Arctic hint at the potential for both competition and cooperation between the U.S. and Russia. What remains to be seen is whether this will happen without the militarization of the region.

It remains to be seen if the Arctic rush brings about escalations in tensions among the coastal states and non-Artic players . Photo: Photoshot / Vostock Photo

After a period of substantial demilitarization in the Arctic after the Cold War, we are now witnessing a growing recognition of the new strategic significance of a region where security, economics, politics and ecology interact. 

First of all, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, the Arctic is a potential key petroleum-bearing region holding one-quarter of the world’s remaining undiscovered oil and gas deposits, in particular, as much as 90 billion barrels of oil and 1.670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Secondly, new sea lanes will be created by the great melt of Arctic ice, meaning the Arctic Ocean will soon be free of ice for most of the year. Thirdly, the region is militarily significant, as the Arctic Ocean and its shores remain a highly militarized zone of confrontation.

Ivan YuferovHowever, the legal status of much of the Arctic is unclear, and all five Arctic powers (Russia, the USA, Canada, Norway and Denmark) have different territorial claims. It seems important to focus on the Arctic policy of the USA and Russia, as relations between these two countries will have a profound impact on the future of the Arctic.

According to Russia’s strategy in the Arctic, “in a competition for resources, it cannot be ruled out that military force could be used for resolving emerging problems,” with the Arctic shelf being regarded as a potential battleground. By undertaking flag-planting expeditions and building up its military forces, Russia is making the point that large parts of the Arctic lie within Russia’s natural sphere of influence.

Moscow sends signals to other powers, most obviously the U.S., to respect Russian natural interests there. Washington, as well as Moscow, has vital assets in the region, including Prudhoe Bay and other oil and gas fields of the Alaskan coast. However, the U.S. Senate has not ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, UNCLOS, the basic international treaty on maritime rights, and some American experts call for internationalization of the region.

In order to analyze future of the Arctic we should answer two questions  Will the Arctic be a zone of cooperation or competition (x-axis)? Will the USA and Russia conduct militarization or demilitarization policies (y-axis)? This can be represented graphically, as shown here:

 Infographic by Natalia Mikhaylenko  

With Future 4 being a unrealistic scenario, as no state is likely to conduct a policy of demilitarization during confrontation in the region, it is possible to elaborate on three possible scenarios for the Arctic.

1) Militarization-competition (Future 1)

Military conflict can be provoked because of significant economic and strategic stakes in an area where boundaries of maritime jurisdiction remain to be settled. Diplomatic gridlock may lead the region to erupt in an armed mad dash for its resources. There are a number of driving factors of this scenario: growing military activity, inflammatory rhetoric, and closer security coordination among the Western powers. Moreover, the Arctic countries are likely to grab territory unilaterally and exert sovereign control over sea lanes by arming icebreakers and military troops to guard their claims. This scenario of a real cold war is substantiated by some recent facts. The Russians recently ordered strategic bomber flights over the Arctic Ocean for the first time since the Cold War. Moreover, Russian armed forces have regularly tested air and sea defenses of NATO in the region. Finally, the NATO alliance often organizes military exercises with warships and strategic bombers, supported by tankers, reconnaissance aircraft and escort fighters.

2) Militarization-cooperation (Future 2)

Complete demilitarization seems unrealistic because the Arctic has such strategic importance. However, by cooperation in the military sphere, the Arctic countries can improve search-and-rescue capabilities, vessel tracking, traffic management operations, and life guard services. The status of existing military installations may be clarified or changed in order to avoid the potential for misunderstanding. For instance, it would be better to set aside the American airbase in Greenland for defensive purposes only as a radar station to detect ballistic missiles, while Moscow could elaborates on its plans to deploy more military bases and train forces specializing in Arctic warfare.

Both the White House and the Kremlin could agree to confidence-building steps, such as providing their counterparts with detailed and advanced notice of planned military movements or even inviting foreign observers into restricted sites. However, according to this scenario, the risk of military conflict remains.

3) Demilitarization-cooperation (Future 3)

Both the U.S. and Russia may keep their military presence to a minimum by striving to direct resources into civilian rather than military channels, for example, building a new refueling base north of the Arctic Circle and patrol ships designed for operating in ice conditions. Washington and Moscow could develop traffic-separation schemes through the Bering Strait and contribute to responsible development of safe shipping along the Northern Sea Route. The best way to manage the Arctic region would be to develop an overarching comprehensive treaty that guarantees a collective approach towards regional problems and incorporates provisions of UNCLOS.

There exist substantial grounds for such a scenario to take place. Above all, extensive collaboration has been developed between Russia and the other Arctic stakeholders on natural resources and environmental issues through the Arctic Council. Moreover, in the Illulissat Declaration (2008), the five Arctic Ocean littoral states reaffirmed their wish to pursue “the orderly settlement of any possible overlapping claims.” No doubt, it seems imperative to settle maritime boundaries peacefully through conciliation, negotiations and judicial procedures in the face of rising tensions.

In the years to come, decisions made by the Arctic powers, in particular, by Russia and the United States, will profoundly shape the future of the region for decades. The time has come for the USA to ratify the Convention of the Law of the Sea, to cooperate with Moscow and elaborate a new comprehensive multilateral Arctic treaty in partnership with Russia and other Arctic powers. In addition, Russia should cooperate with Arctic countries with due regard for their common interests in the Arctic so that there will be no grounds for NATO’s more active involvement in Arctic affairs, ensuring that a conflict in the region will never take place.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.