21. Oktober 2021

Nautical views of the Arctic’s value and vulnerability

Today’s geopolitical strategists accelerate a new reality, in which the Arctic will play a vital role in international relations amid concerns over new energy resources, climate change and alternative shipping routes. Who are the main actors in the Arctic? What implications have Russian-U.S. relations and what is the European Union’s overall Arctic strategy?

An analysis by AK Glück


Ever heard of the Arctic Council, the intergovernmental organisation of the Arctic Circle states? Founded in Ottawa in 1996, the Council brings together all countries whose national territory crosses the latitude of 66.5° – Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Russia, Canada, the U.S., and six Indigenous organisations – discussing the region’s fast-moving transformation. After Iceland’s 2-year chairmanship, the Arctic Circle Assembly, an international gathering on the Arctic, was held in Reykjavík last week. 

Russia, who owns most of the Arctic’s territorium, is currently the chairman of the Council. Greenland is the main island in the Arctic, who in that regard subtly wishes to seek independence from Denmark (colonised in 1721) to fully represent their own interests in a growing market attracting businesses from all over the world. Historically, the ‘colonisation of the Arctic’ was always desired by empires with land bordering the ice. 

Subject to many recent discussions about climate change, ahead of COP26 in Glasgow next month, are the melting ice and what lies beneath it, the global impact of its discoveries and the environmental impact (e.g. pollution) for its people, animals and Indigenous culture. A higher demand for alternative energy supply sources, the coal exit and the overexploitation of common natural resources shift global attention to a place with untapped potential of new natural resources and raw materials. A melting North also reveals shorter shipping routes between the Atlantic and the Pacific.


Reaching 90° North: explorers who survived the expedition to the farthest north

The Arctic has always been a mystery to mankind. Competing naval powers hurried ship advancements for wars and explorations. But only 100 years ago, the Arctic would be ‘fully’ explored. The question of who discovered the Arctic ‘successfully’ (meaning who survived the journey) was answered in the Polar Controversy. Frederick Cook, a modern scientific explorer, is perceived by many experts as the first person who arrived at the North Pole on 21 April 1909. Robert Peary, another U.S. explorer, considered one of the last imperial expeditioneers, claimed he was the first to have reached the northernmost part of the earth on 6 April 1909.  

The Northwest Passage was discovered by British Commander Robert McClure in 1851, and crosses Canadian waters and the North American Arctic (Alaska). The contrasting Northeast Passage was completed for the first time in the 1880s by Finnish explorer Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld: The Voyage of the Vega round Asia and Europe (1883). A shorter waterway from the Atlantic to the Pacific was always of interest for economic reasons sooner for Russians, and since the middle ages for European ships sailing off to Japan, China or India. 

However, too many trips failed as entire crews disappeared. The prospects of being stuck in the ice for months and suffering starvation inevitably made the alternative Northern transit no reasonable option for Europe’s booming empires, forcing them to stick to much longer routes along the African continent (Cape of Good Hope), through the Mediterranean Sea and the Suez Canal (1869) or the Americas Panama Canal (1914). The Suez crisis in 1956 or the crisis in March 2021, when the cargo ship Ever Given blocked the channel for six days, highlighted the risks of relying on only a few shipping routes (apart from air travel) for trade with Asia, in a region where armed conflict continues to disturb the geographical linkage of several continents. 


Modern technologies made ways for further Arctic exploration

Soviet icebreakers cleared the Northeast Sea Route along Siberia before World War II, and since then the entire Northeast Passage became strategically important for superpowers like the U.S.S.R., the U.S. and Europe. If melted, the ultimately shortest shipping route will be the Transpolar Sea Route straight across the Arctic Ocean, which could happen within the next 20 years. The German icebreaker Polarstern sailed off in September 2019 for one year, on board an international research crew exploring the Arctic’s unknown potential and documenting the effects of climate change, making it the largest expedition in history (MOSAiC). 

In light of the growing importance of the Arctic for geostrategic reasons, Cold War rhetoric could enter a new stage, considering that the two potentially viable shipping routes cross the Northern borders and waters of Russia (Northeast Sea Route) and the U.S. (Northwest Passage). The Russian path might therefore become the most important sea route in the North for trade with China and Europe. Both superpowers presented themselves as rather friendly and rational at the Arctic Council ministerial meeting last May. The foreign ministers Anthony Blinken and Sergey Lavrov used the platform to discuss primarily Arctic related issues, but also developments in Afghanistan. Russia’s latest move to eventually suspend its mission to NATO emphasises the threat of growing dissent among the East and the West, and is likely to have serious implications for further militarisation in or of the Arctic, a part of the earth that will sooner or later become sufficiently relevant for its geographical stakeholders along with trading partners.

The European Union’s new strategy for the Arctic (aligned with the European Green Deal) includes three key priorities: climate change, raw materials and geostrategic foresight. Since Denmark, Sweden and Finland are members of the EU as well as of the Arctic Council, Brussels’ strategy primarily stresses climate change and diplomatic efforts to bring the bloc’s common interests to the Arctic table. For instance, the EU announced plans for the opening of an office in Greenland’s capital Nuuk, to more engage in dialogue with relevant actors and seek opportunities to partner with thriving businesses in the region. The reason for Brussels’ broader approach is due to the fact that the interests of single member states define the Union’s foreign policy, which is based on intergovernmental relations. Nord Stream 1 & 2 and LNG 2 are two recent (controversial) projects that will be followed by even more agreements with actively drilling states in the North.


The Polis Blog serves as a platform at the disposal of Polis180’s & OpenTTN’s members. Published comments express solely the authors’ opinions and shall not be confounded with the opinions of the editors or of Polis180.

Image via pixabay


Anne-Kathrin studied history, journalism and political science in London. She is a founding member of Polis180. On the board, she is responsible for the editorial work for the Polis Blog, internal and external communications (e.g. Social Media) and diversity strategies. 


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