The Arctic: Climate Change Has Awoken a Geopolitical Giant

Jack Simpson is a Master’s student in International Conflict Studies. He has developed an interest in emerging geopolitical threats and new theatres for conflict e.g. the Arctic and Space, as well as analysing how climate change affects geopolitical scenarios and energy security.

The Arctic is emerging from its position as a frozen political vacuum into a region that is simmering with potential. As global warming liberates the Arctic’s reserves of vital energy resources, the globe concurrently enters a period of increasing concern over the finite future of oil and gas. The Arctic boasts 20% of the world’s unused oil and gas and known reserves amount to 10% of the global remainder, making it a worthy area of future industry and competition. Wars over resources are not a new phenomenon and the impact of climate change will act as a threat multiplier to an already antagonistic backdrop of scarcity. This short article seeks to highlight an often-overlooked symptom of the globes warming: the opening of new geographic battlegrounds for economic and energy security and highlights Putin’s vision for the Arctic in Russia’s great power revival.

Globally, the demand for oil is expected to rise from 85 million barrels per day to 106 from 2007-2030, with the increase in demand expected to hit non-OECD countries the hardest. As Russia does not belong to OECD this would suggest it is in a more fragile position than its Arctic neighbour states who are party to the cooperation treaty. The global population is expected to grow by 32% from 2011, reaching 9.1 billion by 2050. This population rise increases demand for these resources, especially as greater numbers begin to enter the middle classes. Therefore, it is evident that these resources will rise in value worldwide. Moreover, due to the finite nature of fossil fuels, as this demand increases so will its producers stock decrease – destabilising global power dynamics and making domestic production of resources crucial to security. Thereby, Russia could inflate its power status which is already hugely influenced by its possession of fuel resources by monopolising the Arctic’s wealth of oil and gas.

Resource scarcity is often cited as a catalyst for domestic struggles, though an appreciation for its international scope for conflict is yet to be fully realised. There are three key determinants of environmental security, of which Arctic fossil fuels correlate with each: supply-induced, demand-induced, and structural scarcity. The Arctic is set to become a solution to resource scarcity whilst also being party to the environmental stress that catalyses it. The region’s opening will elevate its international visibility and those to which the Arctic is already home will become more familiar with it. States are already competing over how far they can extend the delineations of their continental shelves, which give them the rights to the resources and shipping lanes within. This pre-emptive competition in the region demonstrates that the marriage of global resource scarcity and a new area of abundance is detrimental to the potential for peace. The necessity to treat the Arctic as a region for resource-related conflict with the same stringency as other geopolitical resource concerns is essential. 

Often idealised as a constructive space for international cooperation and governance, the Arctic has been a relatively peaceful geopolitical theatre. Many have lauded the Arctic’s international organisations and bilateral agreements that testify to the impact frequent dialogue can have for stability in a region, even when lacking codified military security parameters. However, all this success should be considered within its historical and contemporary context. The Arctic is changing rapidly and states’ awareness of their own energy and economic security increases by the day. The regions success in embodying ’the idealist spirit of the immediate post-Cold War era in its international common goal-sharing, especially in the context of warfare ravaging almost every other continent between the 1990s to late 2000s, is to be appreciated but not relied upon. Indeed, as the transnational ‘arcticness’ of the region’s geographical imaginaries melt along with its sea ice, this internationalised perception of the Arctic may be replaced by a nationalised view of wealth below the ice. Simply put, as the Arctic shifts toward a more prosperous future its anomalistic transnationalism may well be replaced by nationalistic land-grabbing and neo-mercantilism. Previous reliance on institutions like the Arctic Council will be mocked as their lack of de jure authority in security issues is tested for the first time against states reluctant to toe the line.

Russia, the region’s major power and wildcard in the Arctic equation’, has a particular vested interest in the area. Firstly, there is a historical reliance on this vast ice sheet for protecting Russia’s northern border, a long standing natural barrier disappearing unsurprisingly feeds anxiety. Furthermore, the region already accounts for 20% of Russian GDP and 22% of their exports and this share of the Russian economy will only increase as the Northern Sea Route and resource rich sea bed open. This combination of anxiety and pride in the Arctic has manifested in the expansion and modernisation of their military capacity to toying with wargames. Wargames range from planting a Russian flag on the sea bed beneath the international North pole, taunting foreign borders with the Russian air force and stationing battleships off the coast of Bergen, Norway. Moreover, Russia have insisted on owning non-profit making coal mines on Norway’s island of Svalbard to exert soft-power in the local politics of rivals Arctic lands.

Russian wargames in the Arctic show a disregard for their cooperative intent and display the tense geopolitics at play. In May 2009, the Kremlin declared the Arctic an area of potential conflict, in which military force could be used in a competition over resources and that borders can be violated. Since then, Putin announced his resumption of Cold War-style strategic aviation flights intended to fly as close to foreign airspace as possible without quite violating it – clear signs of provocation. Russia even trialled a mock bombing run past the Norwegian command centre at Bodo in 2008. These breaches of etiquette led to NATO fighters scrambling to intercept 87 Russian bombers outside Norwegian territory in 2008 alone. Wargames occur not only due to the Arctic’s importance for Russia, but Russia’s posturing against NATO. The imminent resource shortage insists upon pre-emptive showing of might to ensure geopolitical moves proactively seek energy security rather than reacting to crises as they occur. Once again, we witness that current strategic thinking is about readying and posturing military might.

Despite much of Russia’s policy documentation and language on the Arctic mirroring international aspirations of cooperation, there are numerous examples of abrasion in Russia’s language as well as its actions to date. Dmitry Rogozin (Deputy Prime Minister and Director of Putin’s Government Commission for Arctic Development Issues) said the sale of Alaska in 1867 was ‘a betrayal of Russian power status…and the Kremlin has a right to reclaim lost territories. Whilst foreign powers may downplay such words to be symptomatic of populist domestic rhetoric, support for this imperialist approach would only help to fuel more aggressive geopolitical maneuverers.

The melting Arctic and the subsequent need to militarise it is as much a domestic defence for Russia as it an international threat. Whilst addressing the Security Council, Putin made it clear economic output is directly linked to military expansion and if the domestically popular foreign policy goals are to be materialised economic parity with rivals is necessary. Thus, the scramble for resources becomes not only a matter of energy and economic security but domestic support. The fact that Russian aggression is therefore a dyadic technique of domestic and international intent is unwelcome news for the likelihood of peace. If Russia have domestic incentives to act belligerently and appropriate Arctic resources it becomes less likely they will hold back in bolder geo-strategies.


What is the probability that the risk will materialize? – 2/3

Energy security is set to become one of the leading causes of international conflict and debate and the Arctic is the globes newest area of risk. Unlike the rest of the globe, the delineation of the Arctic remains comparatively cloudy, making contest more likely. Although, the relative peace and cooperation in the region thus far means we cannot give a score of three.

What is the predicted size of impact? – 2/3

Despite an increase in Arctic military operations and capability we are still far away from a full-scale military conflict in the region. Although, with the number of actors at play and the value of

What is the expected speed of onset? – 1/3

As noted above, it is not yet strategically viable to act aggressively in the Arctic until technology becomes cheaper and/or more sea ice melts. 

Will regional or non-regional actors be involved? – 3/3

As well as Russia, the USA and the other Arctic littoral states, the EU, NATO, UK and China are all making moves toward the Arctic. The impact of this race for resources could have worldwide ramifications from sanctions to direct conflict.

What is the probability of spill-over? – 3/3

The economic and energy related value of the regions assets and the costs of building in a hostile environment means conflict over these resources will dramatically affect the states involved.

Risk-O-Meter Score: 11/15 (Elevated Risk)

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