A New Cold War?: Will competition for resources in the Arctic lead to international conflict?
Updated: Jan 17
This Voices piece explores the geostrategic implications of global warming and the
consequent race for resources in the Arctic. Our student contributors have given their
views on how likely it is that the growing tensions in the region will result in a new Cold War.
The icy realm of the Arctic had long been a fortress impenetrable to human exploitation — this is no longer the case. The thick layer of ice that once kept explorers in check is beginning to thin at an alarming pace due to the unprecedented effects of global warming. Areas once enshrined in ice caps along with their abundant natural resources are becoming accessible to both commercial and military shipping activities. As a result, polar nations such as the US, Norway and Russia are engaging in a competition for resources in the region now seen as an emerging frontier (1). While this has led to increasing trade and new sea routes, it is also a source of conflict between the nations who claim competing areas of sovereignty. This article examines whether pundits are right to predict an aptly named new “Cold War” over the Arctic’s resources.
Our first author Rachael explains the effects of global warming on the conflicting claims to new Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) and the consequent rise of Russian activity in the region. Amy then explores the way in which current tensions are affecting NATO-Russian relations in the longer term by comparing them to previous Cold War patterns. Enyi offers insights into how the international community should respond to these overlapping claims of sovereignty and the role of the Arctic Council in mediating conflict. He points out that giving a voice to indigenous communities may be one way to balance great power interests.
1. How is global warming affecting the race for resources in the Arctic?
By: Rachael Mak, LLB Law, 1st Year
The Arctic is a resourceful place due to its abundance of energy reserves, minerals, and fisheries. Unlike in Antarctica, there exists no treaty to protect the region from international conflict. This article explores how countries have reacted to disputes in the area, as well as the likelihood of a new Cold War breaking out from this race for resources, i.e. a state of hostility between countries that stops just short of a full war. One major dispute between the 8 countries surrounding the Arctic is their claim over the undersea mountains of the Lomonsov Ridge in the Arctic Ocean. The receding sea level and the melting of ice caps have allowed more ships to gain access to the area, resulting in increasing competition in the EEZs for exploitation of resources such as oil, as well as activities such as building infrastructure (1). If countries find scientific evidence to demonstrate seafloor features that are extension to their continental shelves, countries may even extend their borders, which further incentivises countries to compete for control of the area.
An example of the rise in race for resources in the Arctic is demonstrated by Russia’s active involvement in Barentsburg, a town far from its border in which the government has invested in a coal mining industry despite the lack of profits (3). The aim of such activity is to exemplify Russia’s active involvement in this area, so that when dispute arises over which state should have the rights to the resources off the shores of Svalbard, Russia will have evidence to claim the area’s resources.
Looking at the bigger picture, the melting of ice caps has facilitated commercial shipping activities, which saves travel time and cost (2). The rise in accessibility also minimises the world’s sole reliance on Russia, the Middle East and Africa for oil supply, and reduces oil’s price fluctuation (3). We may consider whether governments’ consciousness of their environmental impact affects the likelihood of a Cold War. Most developed countries prioritise economic development over environmental protection, as demonstrated by countries’ unwillingness to cooperate in COP 26 (5), and countries bordering the Arctic are likely to continue exploiting the area, especially due to the lack of clarity in the regulations. Although it is unlikely the current tensions might result in a Cold War, or even full-scale war, the situation is still premature to come to a definitive conclusion. Global warming is accelerating at an exponential rate, and despite foreseeable environmental consequences, countries’ economic approaches in reacting to these changes are still unpredictable.
2. How will growing tensions over the Arctic affect NATO-Russian relations?
By: Amy Lin, BSc International Relations and History, 2nd Year
It is certainly plausible that a conflict over resources in the Arctic will lead to a new Cold
War, in the sense that we see an arms race, power competition and action-reaction cycles. This resource competition is not simply about gas and oil — it is one situated within deepseated geo-political tensions between Russia and the US in the Arctic. During the Cold War, the Arctic acted as a partition between NATO countries and the USSR. Both sides militarised the region heavily, placing intercontinental ballistic missiles, long-range bombers and nuclear weapons, in a race for arms supremacy (1). After decades of relative peace, today, the geopolitical theatre of the Arctic has now reopened for US- Russia tensions to play out again.
In recent years, Russia has demonstrated its increasing ambitions in the region. Its 2035 Arctic Strategy outlines its goals of “boosting regional military capabilities”, “develop[ing] Arctic infrastructure” and “socio-economic advance” (2) This is accompanied by aggressive rhetoric — Putin has boasted of Russia’s leading icebreaker fleet in the Arctic and reminds that Russia “must reaffirm this superiority constantly, every day” (3). Consequently, a concerned US and its NATO allies are investing more resources and increasing military training in the Arctic (4). As both the American and Russian sides expand and update their icebreaker fleets in attempts to “exer[t] military influence in Arctic waters” (5), tense standoffs have occurred along NATO’s northern flank (6). Both sides have also launched
multiple military exercises to flex their military muscle. In March 2020, for the first time since the 1980s, NATO warships sailed into the Barents Sea just off Russia’s Arctic Coast.
Months later, Russia’s Navy organised military exercises in the Bering Sea in response (7).
Arguably, the current arms race and high tensions between the US and Russia points tellingly to a new Cold War. Both sides are steadily amassing more military power and vying for influence in the region, supported by allies in their respective spheres of influence, whilst the threat of war looms ever insidiously overhead.
3. How should the international community respond to overlapping claims of sovereignty in the Arctic zone?
By: Enyi Chen, MSc International Relations
A new Cold War will likely emerge in the Arctic as many great powers, including the US, Russia, and China, harbour interests in the Arctic including its shipping and resource potential (1). Moreover, the relations between these powers are tense, and the Arctic may emerge as a proxy battle arena. To alleviate tensions, the international community must play a crucial role in encouraging Arctic cooperation and open dialogue whilst avoiding marginalizing smaller Arctic states and inhabitants from multilateral negotiations on Arctic governance. The Arctic Council is currently the best institution for Arctic dialogues, as there are success stories of US-Russian cooperation on areas such as oil spills (2).
There’s a danger that Arctic great power negotiations will marginalize smaller Arctic powers and the Arctic inhabitants such as the Indigenous people. The UN Law of the Sea is the primary legal regime in the Arctic (3). However, the UN’s institutional structure is such that the great powers in the Security Council wield massive influence whilst non-state actors are marginalized. Conducting negotiations through a more representable institution like, the Arctic Council, is the way forward. The Council consists of the eight Arctic states (including US and Russia), observer states (China, NGOs) and importantly, indigenous permanent participants (4). Six indigenous groups were assigned this special status due to their relationship with the Arctic, granting them consultation rights in the Council’s negotiations and decisions, and delegates can attend Council meetings, thus giving them a voice (5). To facilitate resource negotiations, the international community helps create pressure for multilateral dialogue amongst the different stakeholders and balance against great power politics by supporting the non-great powers within the Arctic Council. This ensures more inclusive negotiations which consider the livelihoods of those within the Arctic zone.
Nevertheless, the Arctic Council has its limitations. Arctic Council activities are funded voluntarily by Arctic states and, recommendations are not legally binding., Furthermore, decisions are made by consensus and enforcement mechanisms are lacking (4). Yet, its central advantage remains in its Arctic expertise, its efforts to promote Arctic cooperation amongst its members, and the inclusion of the indigenous livelihoods (5). At least in the short term, the Arctic Council will prove instrumental in acting as a forum for cooperation and providing guidance and information to the international community. The international community may consider offering support to the running of the Arctic Council, whether through funding or technical assistance to ensure its effective running for equitable cooperation and alleviation of the possibility of an emerging Cold War. The primary takeaway is that Arctic locals must be allowed a say within Arctic governance to ensure that their interests are not subordinate to that of great powers, especially as they will be impacted the most if a new Cold war were to emerge.
1. Scenes from the new Cold War unfolding at the top of the world, Neil Shea, National Geographic, published May 2019, Link: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/new-cold-war-brews-as-arctic-ice-melts
1. Arctic Competition Part One, Foreign Policy, Link: https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/10/13/arctic-competition-resources-governance-critical-minerals-shipping-climate-change-power-map/#:~:text=Part%20One%3A%20Resource%20Competition%20in%20the%20Arctic&text=FP%20Analytics'%20two%2Dpart%20Arctic,and%20territory%20in%20the%20Arctic.
2. Shipping Plans Grow as Arctic Ice Fades, by Ed Strzik, Yale Environment 360, Link: https://e360.yale.edu/features/cargo_shipping_in_the_arctic_declining_sea_ice.
3. It’s Time to Draw Borders At The Arctic, by Johnny Harris, 24th October, 2017, Link: https://youtu.be/Wx_2SVm9Jgo.
4. Arctic Climate Change, Economy and Society: Integrated Perspectives, by Anne-Sophie Crépin, Michael Karcher, and Jean-Claude Gascard, Link: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5673869/#Fn7.
5. 'It Could Have Been Worse, But our Leaders Failed Us at Cop 26’, by John Vidal, Link: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/nov/13/heres-the-truth-our-leaders-at-cop26-have-failedus-the-rest-is-spin.
1. The History and Future of Arctic State Conflict: The Arctic Institute Conflict Series, Jen Evans, The Arctic Institute, published 25th May 2021, Link: https://www.thearcticinstitute.org/the-history-and-future-of-arcticstate-conflict-the-arctic-institute-conflict-series/.
2. Russia Unveils New Arctic Development Strategy: Focal Points and Key Priorities, Sergey Sukhankin, The Jamestown Foundation, published 9th November 2021, Link: https://jamestown.org/program/russia-unveilsnew-arctic-development-strategy-focal-points-and-key-priorities/.
3. Putin pledges Russian superiority in the Arctic with new icebreakers, Reuters, published 3rd November 2020, Link: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-putin-idUKKBN27J2AU.
4. NATO Keeps Wary Eye on Russia's Military Buildup in the Arctic, Ankur Kunda, The Maritime Executive, published 18th April 2021, Link: https://www.maritime-executive.com/article/nato-keeps-wary-eye-on-russias-military-buildup-in-the-arctic.
5. The 5 most important races for the Arctic, Charlie Duxbury, Politico, published 1st January 2020, Link: https://www.politico.eu/article/5-races-for-the-arctic-trade-resources-supremacy-tourism-salvation/.
6. Russia in the Arctic—A Critical Examination, Eugene Rumer, Richard Sokolsky and Paul Stronski, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, published 29th March 2021, Link: https://carnegieendowment.org/2021/03/29/russia-in-arctic-critical-examination-pub-84181.
7. Environmental Détente: What can we learn from the Cold War to manage today’s Arctic Tensions and Climate Crisis?, Pavel Devyatkin, published 8th June 2021, Link: https://www.thearcticinstitute.org/environmental-detente-learn-cold-war-manage-todays-arctic-tensionsclimate-crisis/.
1. China, Russia, And Arctic Geopolitics, Ling Guo and Steven Lloyd Wilson, The Diplomat, published on 29 March 2020, Link : https://thediplomat.com/2020/03/china-russia-and-arctic-geopolitics/.
2. US-Russia Cooperation in the Arctic, American Security Project, Link : https://www.americansecurityproject.org/us-russia-cooperation-in-the-arctic/.
3. Race To Resources In The Arctic: Have We Progressed In Our Understanding Of What Takes Place In The Arctic?, Timo Koivurova, The New Arctic (Switzerland: Springer), 189-201, published 2015, Link : https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007%2F978-3-319-17602-4#toc.
4. The Arctic Council, Arctic Council, published 2022, Link : https://arctic-council.org/.
5. The Arctic Council: An Agent Of Change?, Tom Barry, Brynhildur Daviðsdóttir, Níels Einarsson, Oran R. Young, Global Environmental Change 63, published on 3 June 2020, Link : https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0959378020300674