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New Cold War In The Arctic - Visualising Risk

As global warming causes the ice to melt and Russia's influence in the Arctic mounts, Arctic nations compete in a new Cold War to gain control over this valuable resource.

In 2007, Russia planted a flag at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean at the North Pole in a provocative act aimed to stake a claim to the resources that lie beneath the melting ice. This didn't go unnoticed by the west and the Canadian foreign minister at the time said on CTV, "You can’t go around the world and just plant flags and say, ‘We’re claiming this territory'.". While their stunt held no legal weight, it sent a clear message of their intentions in the Arctic.

Arctic Capabilities and Territorial Aspirations

Since 2007, Russia has been by far the most active Arctic nation, followed by Norway, with a great deal of spending on natural gas and oil infrastructure. As of 2018, Russia has the world's largest ice-capable fleet with 61 icebreakers and ice-hardened ships and another 10 under construction. Russia also has 27 operational military bases above the Arctic Circle, far more than any other Arctic territory and it relies heavily on this territory as it has little domestic production of its own. Succeeding Russia, Norway's fleet has grown from 5 to 11 ships and South Korea is also building ice-hardened cargo ships. In contrast, the US, despite its global power and influence, is often considered a 'reluctant Arctic power' as it is much less interested in its northern territory as it has an abundance of resources and domestic production of its own. The US and Canada also have considerably less military power in the Arctic circle (the US has one military base and Canada has three) but they do, however, have forces in Alaska and the Northwest Territories capable of rapidly dispatching aircraft, troops and submarines maintaining their military presence in the Arctic.

China has also shown its interest in the Arctic and has invested billions in Russia's liquid natural gas network and in January 2018 published a white paper outlining its plans for the Arctic and its intention to build relationships with Arctic nations and play a greater role in the area.

Military Activity in the Arctic Circle

In late 2018, NATO forces took part in an exercise called 'Trident Juncture', the biggest training exercise since the end of the Cold War. 50,000 troops from 31 nations were involved with scenarios in which northern Norway is invaded. While the enemy they are training for is not named, the exercise comes amid growing tensions between NATO and Russia while disputes over fishing and mineral rights in the Arctic could lead to future conflict. Russia made their dismay over the NATO exercise clear as they carried out missile drills right next to where Trident Juncture was taking place.

While many consider a full-blown new Cold War to be highly unlikely given the extremely harsh conditions of the Arctic and negative consequences for both sides, it is clear that the Arctic is a very important and complex region where control of resources and territory will remain an issue for many years to come.