Climate change, the melting icecaps and new opportunities for access to valuable resources have reawakened interest of states in the Arctic and worldwide. Throughout the Cold War, the Arctic was a critical arena for nuclear operations for the two major nuclear weapons states (Russia and the United States) and three other NATO countries. Interest in the Arctic diminished at the end of the Cold War and since then, the primary security concerns have been environmental, nuclear waste and other pollution issues, and protecting the livelihoods of the Arctic's inhabitants and species.
The melting icecap and shrinking sea ice provide access to seabed resources through newly available waterways, making it possible to exploit oil, gas and minerals. This is leading to territorial disputes and disputed sovereignty of waterways and shipping lanes.
There is now a heightened urgency: the Arctic, warming more rapidly than expected, adds these sovereignty, territorial and security issues to an already existing host of environmental problems such as radiation from nuclear fallout and other dangerous pollutants. This affects sea life, birds, marine mammals and their habitats, and the food chain – destroying livelihoods and endangering the health of the indigenous populations so that, for example, breast milk has become a harmful substance and fetuses are at risk.
The current major challenge is to prevent an arms race in the Arctic. Despite the fact that the countries within the Arctic Circle espouse co-operative policies and practices, most of the countries have stated that they will protect their interests and are proceeding to build up their military capability. Arctic littoral countries have met twice, first in Denmark and then in Canada, excluding the non-littoral Arctic states, which is also creating tension between the Arctic Circle states.
As well, states outside the Arctic Circle such as the United Kingdom and China are expressing interest in Arctic resources, and China has begun the development of its first icebreaker.
There is a growing movement to establish the Arctic Circle as a nuclear-weapon-free zone. Though both the U.S. and Russia have reduced their operations in the Arctic, they have not eliminated them. The Kola Peninsula remains the headquarters of Russia’s nuclear forces with submarines, aircraft, nuclear-capable missiles and nuclear-capable submarines, plus research and development facilities for the modernization of its Northern Fleet. Alaska provides a home to U.S. nuclear weapons bases and the ground-based radar sites for its missile defense system. The U.S. also deploys nuclear-capable submarines in Arctic waters.
Though it is unlikely that the U.S. and Russia will engage in war, there is the distinct possibility of accidental launch of nuclear weapons.
There is a new need for co-operative security measures to augment the existing co-operative stewardship in the Arctic. The Arctic Council, an initiative of the Canadian Government, was established in 1996 with a mandate to address all the issues in the circumpolar zone including security issues. However, in order to bring in all countries in the Arctic Circle to the Arctic Council, the mandate for security issues was excluded and the essential focus became environmental issues. However, with all states determined to protect their interests and arming in order to do so, it is essential that the Arctic Council expand its mandate to encompass the issue of Arctic security and adopt co-operative measures, a co-operative stewardship approach and measures for diplomacy and peaceful conflict resolution. This will ensure that the Arctic remains a zone of peace, protecting the livelihoods of inhabitants and species as well as equitable economic development.
Arctic Security Briefing Papers: occasional briefings focussing on military policies and practices in the Arctic region by Ernie Regehr, O.C., Senior Fellow in Arctic Security and Defence, The Simons Foundation.
Circumpolar Military Facilities of the Arctic Five prepared by Ernie Regehr, O.C., Senior Fellow in Arctic Security and Defence, The Simons Foundation and Michelle Jackett, M.A.
Updated: September 2017