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The Melting Arctic Has a Russia Problem

Ice melt is creating many geopolitical dangers, thanks largely to a familiar foe.

Vladimir Putin.
Heatmap Illustration

The Arctic is becoming dangerously destabilized.

This is true in a literal sense. The north’s precipitous loss in glacial ice sheets, permafrost, and sea ice will have global ripple effects. Should the “Earth’s air conditioner” become perennially iceless, as scientists fear could happen as early as 2050, the fallout has the power to trigger worst-case scenarios around the world: Sea levels could rise in New York City, monsoon rains could swamp Lagos, Nigeria, and precious forest cover in Puerto Maldonado, Peru, could dwindle to nubs. Each glacier that collapses is another tick of the time-bomb.

But it’s also true in a more metaphorical sense: Arctic ice melt is creating many geopolitical dangers, thanks largely to a familiar foe: Russia.

The Kremlin controls 50 percent of the Arctic coastline. But isolated from the other countries encircling the North Pole due to its war of aggression in Ukraine, Russia has retreated from any sort of Arctic cooperation. That has left experts fearful not only of scientists’ ability to stay on top of the impacts of climate change, but also that the warming region might give Russian President Vladimir Putin a pretext to break more international rules.

For the last 15 years, Russia has jockeyed for Arctic control — from aggressively building its military capabilities, to scaling up its shipping capacity, to even unlawfully planting a flag along the North Pole seabed and claiming the land as its own. But it was still hemmed in by the Arctic’s web of laws and accords.

These laws, unfortunately, are quite vulnerable to ice melt.

Maritime claims, upheld by entities like the International Maritime Organization, for example, are one way for states to protest rule-breaking in the region. But melting sea ice has opened up previously frozen zones, threatening to undermine laws like Article 234 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which gives coastal states special rights to ice covered areas. “If the ice melts, do you still have that legal basis?” said Rebecca Pincus, the director of the Polar Institute at the Wilson Center.

Valuable shipping lanes are also emerging in the north, encouraging Russia to further engage in a two-fold strategy: mass resource extraction to underpin its national wealth and taking “the most extreme position possible on its right to control all foreign navigation through the internal waters of the [Northern Sea Route],” as Cornell Overfield wrote recently in Foreign Policy. However, this state of affairs might not last long. “As sea ice continues to retreat in the Arctic, it will become possible for ships to navigate outside of the Russian zone through the central Arctic Ocean and bypass the Russian coastline entirely,” Pincus said. “That will shift the balance of the, I guess you could say, ‘power’ to a certain extent.”

These central Arctic Ocean shipping routes will not be open for decades and pose a number of operational challenges along the way, she explained. But when they do, it would allow ships to navigate outside Russian waters, reducing the potency of Russia’s de facto control along the Northern Sea Route, further isolating a country that sees the icy region as a part of its power projection.

Meanwhile, Russia is essentially alone among its neighbors.

Mathieu Boulègue, a consulting fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House, told me a bifurcation is emerging in the north, where a singled-out Russia has recused itself from the Nordic-North American camp — a once-staid Arctic 8 now made into an awkward, asterisked Arctic 7. With Finland having joined NATO this month, and Sweden close behind, Russia might see itself as not just alone, but surrounded. Experts fear that spells trouble.

“More human activity and more military activity will lead to more accidents, more incidents, more miscalculation, and therefore more tension,” said Boulègue. “Now that the signs are on the wall, we can't really ignore them anymore.”

The United States and other countries rimming the Arctic are carefully initiating exploratory military exercises in the region to see how they can navigate safely and effectively in newly-melted territories. Because of how remote the Arctic is, accidents and emergencies are exponentially harder and more expensive to triage. The latest U.S. Arctic strategy promises to increase its military presence there, too, in order to keep pace with the Russian military presence. But experts warn that neither technology nor policy in a territorially hostile area could keep up with the speed of these melting passages. Indeed, they say it would take the West at least 10 years to catch up with Russia’s military in the region. This opens up dangers for Russia to do just about anything it’d like to, including seizing new territory and setting up military bases in contested areas.

“We're seeing some pretty aggressive, unprofessional, and unsafe behavior by the Russian military in regards to American military assets [in the Arctic],” said the Wilson Center’s Pincus. “Think about that level of risk-taking and aggression on the part of the Russian military and now extrapolate that to, for example, a naval exercise that is contesting Russian claims to waters in the Arctic. That gives me pause and argues for great care.”

Beyond the threat of Russia’s mounting military capabilities in the region, Arctic cooperation has also suffered more generally from Russia’s absence. The Arctic Council is a Nobel Prize-nominated diplomatic forum that convenes the Arctic 8, six non-Arctic states, and a cadre of non-governmental observers which include Arctic Indigenous communities. This preeminent intergovernmental venue had to suspend all of its programming after the start of the war in Ukraine. It has only picked up projects since June of last year that do not require cooperation with Russia. Norway is set to assume the chair of this forum come May, but will have to tread delicately if it means to keep Russia within the Council’s orbit.

“The accession by Finland and Sweden to NATO will strengthen security and stability in Northern Europe, including in the Arctic. While security related aspects will understandably become more important, we must ensure that we do not lose sight of the broader issues in Arctic cooperation,” said Finnish Ambassadors Petteri Vuorimäki and Anne Mutanen in a statement to Heatmap.

These so-called broader issues not only impact high-level powers in the Arctic, but also those who are native to the region. Today, six Arctic Indigenous NGOs hold a non-voting status in the Arctic Council, making it one of the world’s only multilateral forums where national government officials sit at the same table as Native leaders.

Many of the six Arctic Indigenous communities who participate in the Arctic Council have ancestral lands that extend into Russia. Leaders among the Indigenous Saami people, for instance, fear that while Arctic states are busy ironing out tension spurred by Russia and its war, their priorities — from phasing out ecologically harmful heavy fuel oil, to prioritizing climate-resilient infrastructure, to recognizing land rights agreements which enable important climate science research, to triaging the potential displacement of Indigenous communities amid coastal erosion and sea ice melt — may take a back seat. “It's not said straight; it's a feeling underlying there that they have more important things to deal with,” said Gunn Britt-Retter, head of the Arctic Environment Unit of the Saami Council, which represents the Saami people spread across Norway, Sweden, Finland, and parts of Russia.

And then there’s another way Russian isolation is punishing the world: science. The world’s leading scientists desperately need access to this corner of the world to establish what they call a “ground truthing,” — basically an up-close understanding of what they’re only seeing now via satellites.

As Tim Lydon warned in The Atlantic last April, “cooperation with Russian scientists has ground to a halt.” Things haven’t improved over the past year. In February, French scientist Jérôme Chappellaz told the Arctic Institute that Russia’s absence from the international scientific community has led to an “environmental emergency.” Field sites have been cut off, data can’t be shared among climate experts based elsewhere, and scientific endeavors have been significantly scaled down.

Russian isolation is being felt everywhere in the Arctic. With global shipping, climate science, international cooperation, and adversarial militaries involved, the rest of the world might also feel the repercussions if something doesn’t change soon.


Kelly Kimball

Kelly Kimball is a bilingual journalist and photographer based in New York City by way of Washington, D.C., the San Francisco Bay Area, and Santiago, Chile. Her writing has appeared in Foreign Policy, the San Francisco Chronicle, and DCist. Read More

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