Press Releases Friends of Europe: New Arctic Study urges “ice savers”, not icebreakers

Friends of Europe: New Arctic Study urges “ice savers”, not icebreakers

BRUSSELS – Accelerating climate change poses a greater threat to global security in the Arctic than geopolitical competition and requires closer international cooperation rather than an arms race, a report by the Brussels think-tank Friends of Europe says.


The study, “After the Ice – the Arctic and European security”, authored by senior fellow and veteran journalist Paul Taylor, argues that projections of a polar hydrocarbons, minerals and shipping bonanza that underpin the heightened great power contest in the region are unlikely to materialise, especially given the impact of COVID-19.


“In security terms, the Arctic ain’t broke and does not need fixing,” Taylor writes. “If anything needs urgent repair, it is the climate. Ice savers will be more important than icebreakers to the future of mankind, and of the Arctic.”


Expectations of new oil and gas riches, easier access to mineral resources and short-cut sea routes between East Asia and Europe are overblown, and talk of a looming High Noon in the High North is hyperbole.


For most of the three decades since the end of the Cold War, the Arctic has been a zone of low tension, a glacial oasis of multilateral cooperation and a geopolitical backwater. That has changed somewhat due to Russia’s 2014 military action in Ukraine, China’s increasingly assertive global reach, declaring itself a “near-Arctic state”, and the United States’ aggressive denunciation of perceived threats from both powers to security in the Arctic. But Arctic cooperation remains resilient despite these tensions.


For centuries the dominant Arctic power, Russia has reopened and modernised military bases along its northern coastline and asserted control over a Northern Sea Route from the Barents Sea to the Bering Strait, which it hopes will be a major international shipping artery as polar ice melts.


China has invested in Russian gas projects in the Arctic and is looking to connect what it calls a maritime Polar Silk Road to its global Belt and Road Initiative of trade routes. Its Arctic ambition has so far taken the form of investments and scientific research with no military presence.


Recent tension has focused on the European Arctic – from Greenland to Russia’s Kola peninsula and Yamal oil and gas fields. The United States and NATO feel threatened by the modernisation of Russia’s Northern Fleet, missile capabilities and deep-diving submarines and have responded by staging demonstrative war games in Norway and the Barents Sea, as well as by upgrading anti-submarine warfare aircraft and sea patrols, refurbishing airfields and pre-positioning equipment in or near the Arctic.


Yet the five Arctic coastal states have adhered scrupulously to a 2008 agreement to resolve all overlapping continental shelf claims by negotiation through the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Arctic nations have struck a range of practical agreements in the last decade on fisheries, maritime safety, search and rescue and environmental protection.


The report pinpoints conceivable triggers for Arctic incidents that might escalate – freedom of navigation on the NSR, Greenland’s quest for independence, Norway’s stewardship of the Svalbard archipelago, or a disaster involving commercial shipping, a cruise liner, a radiation leak or an oil spill. It also considers the more plausible risk that a conflict that began elsewhere, say in the Baltic or Black Sea, might spread north due to the location of key Russian military assets.


To avert such risks, it recommends that Arctic states and other major powers do more to restore dialogue, build confidence, transparency and communication and agree military rules of the road.


The Arctic Council, an intergovernmental body that operates by consensus, has maintained civilian cooperation despite the post-Crimea chill and should be used to intensify action to fight global warming and protect endangered indigenous populations. However, it is ill placed to deal with hard security.


Those issues should be addressed through military-to-military dialogue among Arctic states, preserving the remains of US-Russian nuclear arms control, prudent military insurance measures by NATO and track-two diplomacy to develop a military code of conduct in the High North. The European Union should use its research and regional funds to support climate mitigation and sustainable economic development in the Arctic, including in Greenland.


The report is based on interviews and background briefings with 55 policy officials, military commanders, diplomats, strategists, members of parliament, business executives and analysts in the eight Arctic countries and among international organisations and other stakeholders, including the Arctic Council, the Arctic Economic Council, the European Union and NATO. For excerpts from the interview with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, click here.


Editor’s note

To download the full embargoed report, click here.

To view our previous defence studies, click here.



Arnaud Bodet

Communications Executive at Friends of Europe

+32 2 300 89 59

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