Militarisation in the Arctic: Views from the United Kingdom

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[Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
The question of whether the Arctic region, often referred to as ‘High North, low tension’ in both government and research circles, is beginning to lose its long-held status as a military-free zone, has resurfaced over the past few weeks in the wake of a new report by the Government of the United Kingdom on British defence readiness in the Arctic. The document, prepared by the British House of Commons Defence Committee and entitled ‘On Thin Ice: UK Defence in the Arctic,’ [pdf] agrees with the commonly held view that the region is not in danger from a short-term military threat. However, it also posits that a combination of environmental change and growing strategic interest in the Arctic Ocean, especially from the Russian Federation, suggests a lasting peace in the region cannot be taken for granted. The inference was that more was required of Britain to better protect its security interests in the Arctic and also to assist northern friends and allies.

The United Kingdom has had a longstanding policy of Arctic engagement, and was an observer at the inaugural Ottawa meeting of the Arctic Council in 1996, becoming a formal observer in that organisation two years later. As one 2013 British policy statement declared, ‘The United Kingdom is not an Arctic State, but we are the Arctic’s nearest neighbour’ [pdf]. (The Shetland Islands, off of northern Scotland, is situated slightly northward of 60ºN.)

It was not surprising that Russia was specifically singled out for scrutiny in the document, given the deteriorated diplomatic relations between Britain and Russia, especially since the beginning of this year and which may also be factoring into concerns in the UK about longer-term Russian military goals in Northern Europe. However, of greater import to the report’s authors were Moscow’s intensifying strategic interests in the Arctic, including new military installations in the Russian Arctic and the construction of additional icebreakers, including nuclear-powered models.

Although there remains a debate over whether these developments constitute a defensive stance, meaning concerns about protecting Russian assets in the wake of growing international activity in the far north, the report suggests that such as policy is not a given. One of the paper’s conclusions was that although the Arctic is currently peaceful and stable, ‘it cannot be taken for granted that it will remain this way, and the renewed presence of a revisionist state in the region gives rise to the risk that the situation could change swiftly.’

There has been much interest expressed by the government of Vladimir Putin in building an ‘Ice Silk Road’ composed of shipping, transportation and communication infrastructure which would more closely link Asian and European markets, likely with extensive assistance from China. With the potential for the Northern Sea Route (NSR) becoming a secondary shipping route in the coming decades, Moscow is both intrigued by the economic opportunities appearing and dedicated to better monitoring ships using the passage. Any vessel using the NSR, which exists primarily within Siberian waters, must obtain permission from Moscow before entry, and be escorted by a Russian icebreaker. This week, another NSR milestone was reached when the Venta Maersk, a modified cargo vessel, became the first ship of its type to commence the crossing, The container ship was launched from Vladivostok and will take on cargo from Busan before using the NSR to travel to St Petersburg. This trip was viewed as yet another sign of rising confidence of the new financial opportunities presented by the sea route.

The primary conclusion of the report was that the growing strategic importance of the Arctic provides several opportunities for the British government to augment the country’s political and military interests in far north, including to better match NATO’s own strategic reorientation towards Arctic challenges, due primarily to the questions surrounding Russia’s longer-term security policies in the region. Taking a broader view, the document stated that with the growing ‘globalisation’ of the Arctic, as well as the broader era of ‘great power competition’, the UK should be linking with its allies to promote international law in the Arctic and prevent the exacerbation of disputes in the region.

Noting the previous cold war history of British engagement in the Arctic, including concerns about Soviet military encroachments in the ‘GIUK Gap’, (the area of the North Atlantic surrounding Greenland, Iceland, and the United Kingdom), the report expressed concerns that despite changing military technology, the possibility exists of the present-day Russian military making use of this zone for military power projection in ways which could be a direct challenge to British and NATO interests.

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[Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
However, the report noted that the Arctic had not factored into more recent UK security policy documents, and the most recent governmental White Paper [pdf] on the Arctic, published earlier this year, also did not cover security issues extensively. This resulted in the recommendation for a greater focus on the far north, suggesting that the Polar Regions Department of the Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Office (FCO), was limited by its need to address both Arctic and Antarctic Affairs, including the British Antarctic Territory (BAT). One possible step in the right direction, it was added, was the appointment by the British government of a dedicated Arctic Ambassador. As well, specific recommended military policies, including improved protection of British waters, improved anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities, clarification of the potential use of British aircraft carriers and Albion-class amphibious assault ships in Arctic operations, and the resumption of cold-weather training exercises for the British military in Norway, were included in the main body of the document.

Among the challenges facing the Arctic, each of which could result in heightened military tensions, included disputed areas of the Arctic Ocean, such as the Northwest Passage and the Lomonosov Ridge, and the status of Svalbard. Under the terms of the 1920 Spitsbergen Treaty [pdf], signatories are not permitted to engage in any military activity on the islands, but Moscow had been seen in recent years as testing those restrictions, including in April 2015 when then-Russian Deputy Defence Minister Dmitry Rogozin skirted a travel ban in Norway drawing criticism from Oslo by stopping in Svalbard en route to a Russian military facility. The Russian government has also been critical [In Russian] in recent months of what it sees as excessive Norwegian regulation of Svalbard, accusing Oslo of seeking to establish absolute sovereignty there despite the treaty.

Also included in the list of growing regional challenges was increasing interest in the region from Asian governments, including China, as part of what was described as emerging Arctic ‘globalisation’. Beijing’s recent economic activities [pdf] in the Arctic, such as in Greenland and Siberia, were noted, and the paper also waded into the current ambiguity regarding the status of China’s second icebreaker, currently being prepared for a 2019 launch. The UK report made reference to a Chinese ‘larger, nuclear-powered icebreaker’ to be commissioned next year. However, the ship in question, the Xuelong 2 (雪龙2) or Snow Dragon 2, is currently classified, like its older sibling the original Snow Dragon, as a diesel-powered icebreaking vessel. A June 2018 article by the South China Morning Postsuggested the Xuelong 2 might actually be fitted with nuclear-powered engines, possibly with Russian assistance, which would represent a considerable technological jump.

The reporting by the SCMP has since been disputed [In Chinese] in the Chinese media, including by announcements [In Chinese] that the hull segments of the Xuelong 2 were completely sealed this month, and that the ship featured a electric propulsion system. However, it was announced by Chinese news services in June this year that Beijing was indeed interested [In Chinese] in making use of indigenous nuclear engine technology for use in icebreakers in the future, and was also entertaining bids for such an endeavour. It was also recently reported that China was interested in developing submarines for potential use in the Arctic.

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[Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
In the report, Russia, nonetheless, was singled out as the biggest emerging challenge to the Arctic security situation. Yet, it was stated that the research collected for the document suggested differences of option as to whether the Russian military build-up in the Arctic was defensive or offensive in nature. This is an interesting example of the ‘security dilemma’ [pdf] in international security thinking, whereby a given country’s move to improve its defensive capabilities may be, (and has been), interpreted by other states as an offensive policy. The UK policy document, citing Russian Arctic policy as ‘revisionist’, thus called for more NATO involvement to counter Moscow’s militarisation policies in the Arctic/North Atlantic.

Shortly after the public release of the UK Defence report, the Russian Embassy in London released a statement which accused the British government of using ‘imaginary pretexts’ to justify greater militarisation of the Arctic. The rebuttal also sought to affirm that Moscow ‘views the Arctic as an area for constructive dialogue and equal cooperation’.

Greater political and strategic interest in the Arctic by the British government can be seen as part of a larger re-evaluation of UK foreign policy in the wake of the ongoing ‘Brexit’ process. Recent negotiations between the government of Theresa May and the European Union over the terms of British withdrawal from the EU have run into numerous obstacles, raising the possibility of a ‘no deal’ Brexit which may create considerable short-term economic trauma for the United Kingdom and it is unclear whether relations with the European mainland will eclipse other foreign policy concerns, including those in the Arctic. Yet, for those who are studying whether the concept of ‘Arctic exceptionalism’, meaning the idea of an Arctic shielded from conventional military concerns, is in the process of eroding, the UK report provided much additional food for thought.

[The editor would like to thank Mingming Shi for her invaluable assistance in the researching of this post.]