The Arctic Region: A source of conflict or potential for international cooperation?

by Lasha Gamjashvili


As a result of climate change, the Arctic region is becoming more and more “accessible” to major powers. Long considered a region with limited interest in world politics, the Arctic region has garnered the attention of global powers. It is critical to emphasize that the region has grown in significance in terms of environmental, economic, geopolitical, and military aspects, owing to its strategic geopolitical location, increased accessibility, and abundance of natural resources. Whilst the West has had varying degrees of interest in the region, Russia has historically had a strong presence in the Arctic which remains to this day. The Arctic is a crucial area for Canada because of its sovereignty concerns and resources, whilst Greenland, which is part of Denmark, is interested in oil and gas and hopes to use these natural resources to increase its autonomy. Norway is another actor with interest in using resources in the region. This article will discuss the myriad of complicated challenges that the Arctic region faces.

It is important to note that in 2012, the arctic region had its lowest ice sea since 1979, and that the sea ice is assumed to be melting a rate of 13%. If the current trend continues, without a doubt, the Arctic will become ice-free in the coming decades. The Arctic Sea ice is melting at an alarming, exposing ocean and land and decreasing their ability to reflect sunlight. As a result, the Earth is warming up more. This contributes to sea level rise and may have a devastating impact on the world population by altering global ocean currents and atmospheric conditions.

As the Arctic region becomes more accessible, discussions about whether it will lead to new conflicts or new forms of cooperation have never been more relevant. The region’s natural resources  such as gas and oil are without a doubt the most conflict-prone issue. The Arctic could hold 90 billion barrels of undiscovered oil, 1,669 trillion cubic feet of undiscovered natural gas, and 44 billion barrels of undiscovered natural gas liquids. This represents approximately 22% of the world’s undiscovered, technically recoverable oil and gas resources. It should come as no surprise that gas and oil are the primary concerns of countries attempting to achieve energy security. The technological capacities of these states and the increased demand for oil and gas in a market with high prices and restrictions has incentivized them to seek using the resources of the Arctic region. The tensions in the region may rise as a result of this. The phenomenon of the resource “curse” which states that resource-rich countries and regions are less stable in terms of economy and security suggest that the Arctic is also prone to increased instability.

Furthermore, it is vital to underscore that the states already have disputes in the region over  exclusive economic zones and accordingly its  boundaries. Despite the existence of the Svalbard Treaty, the cooperation is fragile, and the problem remains unsolved. Another challenging issue regards fishing rights. The Arctic nations are unable to agree on fishing rights and argue about “overregulated” areas. Generally speaking, regulations of areas can result in disputes and conflicts, as history has shown. The illegal fishing practices of non-arctic countries has further aggravated the issue. Misunderstandings or maritime accidents are more likely as a consequence of such activities, which can result in conflict. It is also worth noting that no proper scientific research has been conducted to determine whether commercial fisheries would harm the Arctic environment and how changing conditions will affect fishes.

Aside from the aforementioned challenges, Russia has been a confrontational actor with its demands and objectives in the region. Traditionally, its main goal is to turn the Arctic into“its own resource base”. In the past decades, Russia demanded more land and even fabricated research in order to further its own national objectives. Moscow started militarizing the region, claiming that “military forces will be used to protect its own interests.” Subsequently, the country has increased its military presence and reopened old Soviet military bases in recent years. This obviously prompted NATO to respond with military exercises, and the region’s security environment has deteriorated.

As we see in Ukraine, Russia’s imperialist demands are increasing and it should be considered that Moscow can become more interested in the Arctic region than ever before for a myriad of reasons. For the isolated Russia, the Arctic can be useful in increasing political leverage in world affairs and enhancing its great power status, which will obviously raise tensions. Additionally, Moscow perceives the loss of ice as a loss of security, which, when combined with Russia’s current political isolation, can enhance Russia’s traditional “siege mentality” and encourage the country to pursue more aggressive policies.

The risk of conflict should not be overstated, but there is no doubt that the region faces numerous problems. For this reason, the countries should work together more closely to address the challenges successfully. The prospects for cooperation still should not be viewed through rose-colored glasses. The situation in the Arctic has exacerbated after Russia’s barbaric aggression against Ukraine. The cooperation appears to be frail, and the Arctic Council appears powerless to change the situation. Western sanctions on Russia will further isolate it in the region and create the conditions for a bipolar confrontation. If the West’s deterrence of Russia becomes a top priority, this type of situation could create “a new cold war” competition, encouraging every Arctic state “not to give anything to Russia,” potentially turning one of the world’s coldest regions into the hottest.Despite the tensions and worst-case scenarios, Russia and other players are aware that international cooperation is required to address the multifaceted challenges  in this region.



Image credits: Official U.S. Navy Page on flickr