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The EU’s geopolitical awakening in the Arctic

Security & defence / COMMENTARY
Ionela Ciolan

Date: 11/04/2022
The northern neighbourhood is one of the main testing grounds for the EU’s geopolitical awakening. Only through skilful use of diplomacy, deterrence, dialogue and defence will the EU successfully preserve the peace, sustainability and security of the Arctic.

Decades of exceptionalism, characterised by cooperation and peaceful dialogue, branded the Arctic a “pole of peace”. Today, it is fast transforming into a ‘pole of instability’ as geopolitics return to the High North and great power politics start to dominate this region. As the Arctic becomes a space for geopolitical competition, sharpened by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the battles will be carried out in five areas: the chase for natural resources, the rivalry for supremacy, the contest for trading routes, the race for tourism opportunities, and the run for salvaging the environment of the Circumpolar North.

The EU’s voice in the Arctic

The EU’s engagement in the Arctic has been more ambitious in words than practice. Comprised of eight states – Canada, the US, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Finland, Sweden, the Russian Federation –, the Arctic Council is the main framework of cooperation between the Arctic states and the North indigenous peoples on issues of environmental protection and sustainable development. For 21 years, the EU has been waiting for a seat in the room as an observer in the Council. As such, its work in the northern neighbourhood is dependent on the goodwill of the Arctic eight.

But things are changing. The 2021 Arctic Strategy gives Brussels a legitimate voice on Arctic issues and brakes its tiptoeing approach. By focusing the strategy on climate action and acknowledging the region as a strategic domain for European security in a growing geopolitical contest, the EU claims a rightful place within the Arctic discussions. In addition, the strategic relevance of the northern neighbourhood for the EU, along with the east and the south, was confirmed by the recently published Strategic Compass for European security and defence.

Beyond having a voice, the EU should now devise a better and more comprehensive strategy toward the Arctic. The “new normal” in the northern neighbourhood is characterised by multicrises that will require Brussels’ strategic engagement, especially after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

More permafrost melting, less climate security

After the Amazon, the Arctic is the world’s second-biggest carbon sink, and the global “refrigerator” as it regulates global temperatures. In the High North, the effects of climate change are developing three times faster than anywhere on the globe, with implications for oceanic, atmospheric and geophysical developments.

As the Arctic heats up and more ice melts, cascading effects will further climate insecurity: extreme weather events, biodiversity loss, permafrost thawing with unimaginable consequences everywhere. Indeed, the melting of the permafrost could act as a climate bomb, releasing a billion tons of carbon gases into the atmosphere, awakening long-dormant bacteria and microbes, and changing polar landscapes that will disrupt local human activities and infrastructure.

The warming of the Circumpolar North also means competition for its vast untapped resources. The Arctic land and ocean hold 13% and 30% of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas reserves, respectively. The region is also rich in fish, natural minerals (e.g. nickel, platinum, palladium) and rare-earth elements vital to modern technology and cutting-edge innovations. Finally, it offers the possibility of shorter commercial routes, which implies profits of billions of dollars.

And with this comes geo-economic and geopolitical rivalry, too.

Rising geopolitics in the High North

Climate change acts as a conflict and risk multiplier. And nowhere on the globe are the geopolitical consequences of climate insecurity as visible as in the European Arctic. For example, Scandinavia is at the forefront of great power politics and growing competition between the West and Russia.

In the past decades, the Kremlin revitalised its Northern Fleet by constructing new Arctic military bases, complete with naval facilities, radar and testing sites, airfields and missile storage facilities, to phase “NATO out of Arctic”. Russia has returned to a version of its Cold War posture focused on securing its ballistic missile submarine fleet and operations in the North Atlantic Ocean.

To make the Arctic picture more challenging for Brussels, China declared itself a “near-Arctic state” in 2018 and is pursuing the creation of, in cooperation with Russia, a global transport corridor within the Northern Sea Route. It would be 40% faster than traditional cargo routes via the Suez Canal.

Beijing’s interests in the Arctic exceed pure economic, environmental and energy interests towards military implications. In the last few years, China has developed dual-use technology within its Arctic research facilities to gain influence and a strategic position in the High North. Increased military presence in the region reveals China’s ambition to become a “polar great power” by 2030.

Enter NATO

For years, NATO was adamant about creating an Arctic Strategy and let its five northern members – the US, Canada, Norway, Iceland, Denmark – take the lead. Russia’s aggressive actions since 2014 boosted NATO’s deterrence of its Northern Flank.

NATO’s 2022 Cold Response exercise was the largest military drill in the Arctic since the Cold War. Roughly 30,000 soldiers from 27 Allied countries trained for a simulated attack on land, air and sea in the Circumpolar North.

There is a growing security dilemma in the Arctic region, as both Russia and NATO have intensified their military exercises and presence in the area, heightening threat perceptions and lowering trust on both sides. This situation is worsened by the lack of a framework for dialogue between NATO and Russia on security and defence topics. The only two existing security cooperation mechanisms, the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable and the Arctic Chiefs of Defence Staff meetings, were called off or held without Russia since the latter’s annexation of Crimea.

To make matters worse, Russia’s war on Ukraine and challenge to the European security architecture brings “a new normal [...] for Arctic security”, characterised by even more competition and enhanced defence and security risks for the Alliance. Now, even Sweden and Finland, non-NATO Arctic states, are facing the Russian threat and moving closer to NATO – which the latter would gladly welcome.

Russia’s war changes the Arctic

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a “watershed moment” that will define the future of European security, with cascading effects on the Arctic. Russia is threatening the international rules-based order, undermining Europe’s security architecture, and making the European Arctic the ‘hottest’ area in the High North.

In response to Russia’s aggression, the seven other Arctic states provisionally suspended their participation in the Arctic Council, isolating Russia. The pausing of its intergovernmental working groups was unprecedented, breaking with the tradition of keeping the Arctic out of conflicting politics.

Indeed, halting the Arctic Council affects Arctic security, governance and climate research directly. These effects will be felt across regional projects on climate change, biodiversity, oil spills, resource exploitations, search and rescue missions, and fishing. But, most importantly, the downward effect of the Kremlin’s breach of the international norms marks the return of geopolitics in the Arctic.

How can the EU respond to the multicrises?

In this volatile and fragile environment, the EU’s goal of becoming a geopolitical player should be based on a 360°-security approach, and readiness and resilience to respond to permacrisis.

The EU will have to respond to all crises – climate insecurity, rising geopolitics, instability, territorial issues, human security – simultaneously and with equal strength and resolve. As such, it will need to skilfully use four D’s.

  1. Defence: Build an EU Arctic Security Strategy. The time for tiptoeing and appeasing is over. Brussels must become a security provider for the Nordics in the realms of climate and hybrid security to face the expanding Russian militarisation.
  2. Deterrence: Cooperate more strongly with NATO on Arctic security. In an era of permacrisis with a multitude of ‘burning areas’, only a deepened EU–NATO cooperation can preserve the security of the Euro-Atlantic space and deter the aggressive actions of other players.
  3. Dialogue: Start an Arctic ‘seven + EU’ framework dialogue on climate change. The Arctic Council must resume, even without Russia, as the unfolding negative effects of climate change do not wait or stop for political consensus.
  4. Diplomacy: Support the creation of a UN mechanism for the Arctic. As many non-Arctic countries direct their attention towards the region, a governance body for the High North will be needed to manage the ramifications of these newly found interests.

The new Arctic

After decades of peaceful cooperation, geopolitics is back in the Circumpolar North – and it is the European Arctic that feels the burn of rising instability and competition. From climate insecurity to increased militarisation and great power politics, this region will grow in importance, especially after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The unfolding multicrises of the European Arctic will test the EU’s responsiveness, ambition and preparedness. It is time for the EU to go one step further and act on its newly founded geopolitical voice by employing the four D’s – defence, deterrence, dialogue and diplomacy – in its Arctic outlook.

Ionela Maria Ciolan is a Research Fellow in the Europe in the World programme at the European Policy Centre.

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