The “Arctic Ocean” or the “Arctic Sea” has turned into one of the major hegemonic conflict areas of the 21st century. The potentiality to connect approximately 75% of the world’s population due to the melting ice, and its rich seabed and living marine resources turns the region into a major arena of great power competition. China’s last year self-definition as a Near-Arctic state and its partnership in many high value energy investments with Russia further complicate the geopolitical arm-wrestling. The events of the recent past in the region provide concrete facts for this assessment.
Norway, the new center of crisis
The hot front lines of the new cold war between the USA and Russia seemed to reach from the Baltic Republics to the Black Sea region through Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova and Belarus. The Crimea, Donbass (Eastern Ukraine) and Transnistria (Moldova) are the flashpoints to be reckoned with.
Today, we can say that over Norway, the Arctic Region has been factually added to this line of conflict. The epicenter of this new front is Norway. It goes without saying that Norway is the forward post of NATO in the Arctic, and the country is a loyal servant of United States of America. The US on the other hand has started an attempt of recovery with Biden’s pro-war cabinet and has increased its tendency of aggression. As the only NATO member with a permanent military headquarters north of the Arctic Circle (66°33’N latitude), Norway attaches top priority in defense and security to the protection of its interests in this region because of the newly developing Arctic geopolitics. NATO also exploits this emerging geopolitics landscape of Norway as a battering ram against Russia and pushes the country forward to serve interests of the United States in this critical region. Once among the calmest, wealthiest and the most prosperous countries in the world, Norway now belongs to the group of risky countries, condemned to keep military vigilance and preparedness high at all times. Last week, American B1B strategic bombers together with 300 American military personnel were deployed to the Orland Main Air Base in Norway. In response to these actions, Russia has conducted a live firing exercise in the Barents Sea between 22°E and 25° E longitudes with the NOTAM/NAVTEX it has issued and conducted air exercises involving Russian Tupolev 160 Bombers near the Norwegian airspace. In contrast, this maritime area used to be serene and calm in Norwegian-Russian relations even during the hottest days of the cold war.
Also, last week, on February 22, 2021, NATO’s Dynamic Guard Exercise started in the region involving Norwegian, American, German and Canadian warships. B1B bombers also participated in this exercise. In short, a permanent crisis has started on the Arctic front. However, in this crisis, Russia has strategic superiority due to its geography.
Russia has a strong hand
While 88% of the Arctic ocean belongs to the Continental Shelves and Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) of the coastal states, 12% is the high seas. Since 65% (24,000 km) of its coastline belongs to the Russian Federation, the majority of the energy reserves at the seabed also belongs to the Russian Federation. The fact that the Northern Fleet constitutes 67% of the Russian Navy and its main base is located in this region offers Russia a great strategic upper hand and advantage. Russia is the only country in the world with nuclear icebreakers. Ownership of 11 large displacement icebreakers, of which 8 are nuclear, offers an unparallel advantage to the Russia over the United States, which has only two conventional icebreakers in the region.
On the other hand, in accordance with the new military doctrine announced by Putin in December 2014, they took many new precautions in this region. The doctrine defined the Arctic Region as a Russian sphere of influence for the first time. Over the last seven years, the Arctic Command was established in a region that could be considered as Russia’s front yard. It consisted of a chain of modern bases from the northern section of Kola Peninsula to Franz Joseph Land and to Wrangel Island in the east. Russia has built a large airport in the Arctic having roughly 4-km long runway, with the declared purpose of search and rescue. Air bases were upgraded, and early-warning radars and monitoring systems were modernized, while the numbers of deployed aircraft were increased. In addition, a 6000-strong rapid deployment force was established in the Murmansk and Yamal regions. In September 2018, Russia started Arctic maritime patrolling, launched from the Severomorsk Base. They now deployed warships in these waters constantly. These developments are reinvigorating the United States. In line with these developments, US Navy Secretary Spencer stated in the briefing at the Senate Armed Services Committee on April 19, 2018, that the next conflict area would be the Arctic.
The US is behind in the race
Those and similar developments alarmed the US side in the great power competition. However, it is possible to state that the USA is quite late in this strategic race. Besides the Russian Federation, the US, Canada, Norway and Denmark also have coasts in this area. In addition to these five coastal states, Sweden, Finland and Iceland are represented in the Arctic Council. Four of these eight countries are NATO members. Sweden is hostile towards Russia even more than the NATO member states. On the other hand, this region provides very flexible and effective intervention and response opportunities for Russia against any provocations in the Baltic, Eastern Europe and Black Sea regions. This is due to the fact that Russia is far ahead of the Atlantic forces herein both in geographical conditions and as well as its force and command structures. The US and its allies continue to pay the price of the rapid drawdown in the navy after the cold war. They are behind both in the number of icebreaker vessels and in the number of combat ready units to fight in winter conditions. Also, Russia is way ahead in the field of submarine warfare and hypersonic anti-ship missiles. Therefore, the US is making hasty decisions and acts like an elephant in a china shop without considering the consequences for its allies. For example, the Biden government expects that Russia will back down after it deployed B1B bombers to Norway. This move on the contrary will undoubtedly force Russia to take even more drastic measures. Undoubtedly, Norway will be the most affected country from this process. In 2008, a directive “for protection of the freedom of navigation of the United States military and commercial vessels in the Arctic Ocean” was included in the United States national security policy for the first time. In 2016, it made the Arctic energy basins a national security priority. The scope and extent of the Trident Juncture series exercises conducted by NATO during the cold war period in Norway since the 1980’s have been expanded after 2015.
The US then conducted a large-scale five-week exercise called ICEX 2018 in the region in 2018. After this exercise, on July 21, 2018, the Second Fleet (Atlantic Navy), which had been abolished after the Cold War, was put back into operation again. The Arctic Region has been added to the responsibility area of the fleet. In October 2018, the British Government announced that 800 British commandos would be permanently deployed to Norway against Russia, additionally to American and Dutch soldiers.
The new arctic policy of the US
On January 5, 2021, the United States Navy Department under the Trump administration has published a strategy document for the region under the title of Blue Arctic. This document urges the Navy, Marine Corps and the Coast Guard Command to develop an integrated range of capabilities to protect American interests in this region. It also recommends strengthening collaborative partnerships to ensure coordination with key allies and partners in the Arctic. The document is called the Blue Arctic due to the melting of the white ice and the emergence of the blue sea; it emphasizes the role of the American naval force in the control of important choke points, with northwest and northeast passages that will connect resources and markets, with the emphasis on developing maritime trade routes. In summary, the US challenges Russia’s geographical superiority in these critical waterways, despite having limited power. In this context, some American strategists say that the Bering Strait emerged as a new rival to the critical juncture between Britain, Greenland and Iceland, called the GIUK Gap. Concerning this region, the revival of the American chain of bases in Alaska and the Aleutian Islands is demanded. In May 2019, an American carrier strike group (CSG) participated in the Northern Edge exercise in the Gulf of Alaska for the first time in ten years; the base on Adak Islands, part of Alaska’s Aleutian Archipelago, was activated after 24 years. The US Senate recently approved plans to expand the port of Nome on the banks of the Bering Strait.
The Arctic and its economic wealth
In this region, which is supposed to have 30% of the global natural gas reserves, 13% of global crude oil reserves and rare earth metals worth of 1 trillion dollars, Russia has started in 2008 gas extraction in the Shkotman Basin, the world’s largest gas reserve with 3.8 trillion m³. Norway followed Russia a year later in the Barents Sea. As an expression of Russia’s geopolitical orientation and its claimed ownership of the region, a plaque with a Russian flag on it was placed on the seabed, in thousands of meters depth within the their Continental Shelf which was named after the famous Russian scientist “Lomonosov” in 2007. This geopolitical reflex caused a major shock at the rival front. The Arctic is also home to many fish species that have fled to cold waters due to global warming. This region, where fish stocks have increased compared to previous years, also witness tensions in the fishing field.
Revolution in maritime transport
Another feature of this critical field of competition is the new maritime transport routes that will revolutionize maritime trade due to melting glaciers. It is estimated that after 2040, this region will be fully and operationally available for maritime transportation. Thus, the sea routes between the oceans will be shortened enough to create major consequences. Melting of the glaciers also increases the importance of the Bering Strait.
There are three main routes in this region. The first is the North East Passage or The North Sea Route (NSR). It is a route that follows the Russian coasts and connects The Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The second route is the Canadian Archipelago Pass, also known as the Northwestern Passage. It connects the Atlantic with the North of Alaska. It was opened for navigation for the first time in 2007, albeit for a short time. The third route, also called the Arctic Bridge, is the route that connects Murmansk/Russia with the Atlantic coast of Canada and the USA. In general, until 2008, there were 262 commercial icebreaker vessels capable of navigating these waters, but nowadays this number has exceeded 800. Melting ice could transform these routes into the busiest routes in the world in the next 20 years, because they provide savings of up to 40% on costs. On August 16, 2016, the giant cruise ship Crystal Serenity, owned by the famous US cruise company Crystal Cruise, departed from Seward Port in Alaska to New York with 1070 passengers. The cheapest ticket for this one-month trip cost 22 thousand dollars. The ship made the passage between the two oceans through the Northwest Passage. She passed the Northwest Passage, which is the most dangerous part of the cruise, in 8 days. On September 28, 2018, the 45-thousand-ton container vessel called Venta Maersk, owned by the world-renowned container giant Maersk, brought the containers it loaded from Vladivostok a month ago to Saint Petersburg through the NSR (Northern Sea Route) in a month. If the northern route was not used and the Suez Canal or Cape of Good Hope routes were used, this navigation would have had a delay of two weeks. However, the major revolutionary development in this region occurred in the first week of February 2021. The Russian ARC7 class LNG tanker named Christophe du Margerie, departed from Jiangsu/China on January 27, 2021, completed its 2400-mile journey in eleven days and arrived at Russia’s Sabetta Port on February 8, using the NSR. The same vessel had used the North Sea Route in May of the previous year accompanied by an icebreaker vessel in the eastbound direction. This time, the passage, which was mostly under winter conditions and constant darkness in February mostly without an ice breaker since the ARC7 class has an ice breaking hull. The duration was 36 days shorter than if the journey had been made via the Suez Canal. This will create an unprecedented revolution in global maritime transport, because Russia has proved that the passage can be made in the region during nearly ten months out of twelve. This is why the US is starting to become more vigilant because Russia is controlling this route. By possessing the world’s largest and most powerful nuclear icebreaker vessels which are capable of breaking four-meter-high glaciers, Russia is establishing a monopoly within its own fields of jurisdiction in the region. These vessels are capable of breaking ice and opening a passage wide enough for the 200 thousand-ton super tankers to pass through.
China, the geopolitical actor in the Arctic
In 2015, China designated the Bering Strait, which is the gateway of the Arctic Ocean to the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans as one of China’s centers of interest in terms of security and declared that it could use force if necessary for its interests in this strait. In the middle of September 2015, for the first time in history, five Chinese warships exercised their innocent passage rights in Bering Sea. If China uses the Bering Strait and other Arctic routes, it can both relieve itself of its dependence on the Malacca Strait and save 60 to100 billion dollars a year in transportation costs. Within the context of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, China is also improving its energy cooperation with Russia in the Arctic Ocean. Russian Gazprom and Chinese CNPC companies continue their drilling activities in the Arctic Ocean. Unlike Russia, China does not wish to compete with the USA in the Arctic Ocean. That’s why it signed a 43 billion dollars’ worth cooperation agreement with Alaska. The main reason of this investment is the construction of a liquefied natural gas (LNG) pipeline in Alaska. It also imports 800 million dollars’ worth of fish from Alaska annually. On the other hand, China has published a policy paper for the Arctic Ocean for the first time on January 26, 2018. China’s main goal is to include the region in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) under the name of Polar Silk Road. China is also a major partner in mining, airport and infrastructure investments in Greenland, Denmark.
Increased tension and provocation policy in the Arctic
We can say that the Arctic Ocean is the most important field of competition after the South and East China Seas in the global geopolitical arena. The LNG tanker Christophe de Margerie’s successful completion of the liquid natural gas transport between China and Russia on February 8, 2021, is a strategic surprise on the USA front. The psychological impact it creates is very important. This achievement doubtlessly has a great role in the hasty deployment of B1B bomber planes in Norway. This newly formed route in the north of Eurasia will provide great flexibility and assurance for Russia and China to formulate policies against the US hegemony. The US knows that it cannot allocate warships or troops to this region without using NATO allies such as Canada, Denmark, Iceland and Norway and its loyal friends in the region such as Sweden. Therefore, the Arctic has become one of NATO’s most important agenda items in the recent years. Russia is also aware of the frailty of NATO and the US in this region. It would not be a prophecy to say that if it comes under pressure in other areas; it will heat this area like a fuse wire. We can say that the increasing tension in the Arctic region will decrease the pressure on Turkey indirectly. Countries like Norway, which dance to the US’ tune, are falling into all traps set by Washington and the NATO in order to increase the tension with Russia. Let us remind that during NATO’s brutal Libya intervention in 2011, the Norwegian Air Force took part in the actual bombing of Libya. Now they are busy provoking Russia. Norway is also joining the US embargo against Russia. Norway, which implemented a careful, balanced and calm policy in order not to provoke the Soviets during the peak days of the cold war, should not have fallen into these traps. Turkey should also take its lessons from Norway’s gloomy situation. That’s why Turkey should not be an instrument to the ventures and provocations of NATO and the US in the Black Sea. It would be very difficult for a provoked Russia to return to its vision of peaceful coexistence.