On Thin Ice: UK Defence in the Arctic Contents

2The Arctic and the High North


3.The Arctic is a region that defies easy definition. Scientists tend to disagree over how to define the southern boundary of the Arctic expanse. The bound of the Arctic Circle running at 66.6° north of the Equator does not necessarily reflect the physical characteristics of the Arctic environment, however it provides a stable basis for considering how the region is constituted geopolitically. Eight countries (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the USA—often known collectively as the ‘Arctic States’ or A8) have territory within the Arctic Circle. Five of those states (Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the USA) are littoral states to the Arctic Ocean. Four million people live north of the Arctic Circle, around half of these in Russia.

4.A range of definitions can also be applied to the term ‘High North’. In this inquiry we have generally taken it to apply to the ‘European Arctic’, roughly stretching from Greenland in the West to the Norwegian/Russia border in the Barents Sea in the East, and encompassing areas of strategic importance such as the Greenland-Iceland-UK (GIUK) Gap and Svalbard.


5.An array of legal and governance regimes operates in the Arctic. These regimes include generally applicable international treaties, as well as a range of multilateral agreements relating to scientific, environmental and commercial activity. The leading intergovernmental forum is the Arctic Council. Instituted by the Ottawa Declaration in 1996, the Council brings together the A8 and representatives of Arctic indigenous communities. The United Kingdom was present as an observer at the inaugural meeting in 1996 and has held observer status since 1998. As Jane Rumble OBE, the Head of the Polar Regions Department (PRD) at the FCO told us, the UK is an engaged and influential participant in the Council’s work.3 ‘Military security’ is specifically excluded from the Council’s remit by the Ottawa Declaration.4

The changing Arctic

6.The Arctic is changing in rapid and profound ways. The region is warming twice as fast as anywhere else on Earth. The Arctic Ocean is transitioning from being permanently ice-covered to seasonally ice-free.5 The general consensus is that without action to mitigate human sources of greenhouse gas emissions, the Arctic Ocean could be ice-free during the summer months before 2050, and possibly within the next decade or two. Since the mid-2000’s low minimum ice extents have become the norm.6

7.The environmental changes that arise with the melting ice are likely to be accompanied by changes in human activity. A leading example of this which witnesses mentioned to us is the increase in commercial activity relating to natural resources. As ice melts, the possibility of exploiting resources that have previously been inaccessible or commercially unviable to access increases. In 2008, the US Geological Survey (USGS) estimated that technically recoverable resources in the Arctic amount to around 30% of the world’s undiscovered gas and 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil.7 In its written evidence the MoD says that “Easier access to resources raises the potential for regional competition and conflict.”8 The region is also thought to contain considerable reserves of rare earth metals and minerals.9

Source: US Office of Naval Intelligence/Us Government Accountability Office

8.A second aspect of human activity likely to change is shipping activity along the new sea routes which are becoming increasingly navigable as the ice melts. The North West Passage passes mostly along the northern coast of North America and the North East Passage, of which the Northern Sea Route is part, passes along the northern coast of Russia and Scandinavia. The latter was identified in evidence as having the potential to be a major new shipping route, significantly cutting the transit time between Europe and Asia.10 There is however some divergence in written evidence about the extent to which the route will become commercially viable in the near future.11

Disputes and sources of tension

9.More recently, and particularly since the end of the Cold War, the Arctic States have sought to characterise the region as one of low tension, where states work through established multilateral mechanisms to build agreement through dialogue and collaboration.12 From the UK’s point of view, when asked if there were any areas of tension in the Arctic which gave her cause for concern, Ms Rumble said that “I don’t think there are any significant areas of tension”.13 Our evidence has nonetheless pointed to several areas which may give rise to tensions in the future. One submission described the legal architecture applying to the Arctic as “precarious”.14 Another stated that:

“High North, Low Tensions;” “Arctic exceptionalism;” “a zone of international peace and cooperation”: These are expressions that have been used to describe the Arctic. But recent events do not reflect nor necessarily suggest that the Arctic region will organically remain free of conflict because we wish it to be so.15

10.The status of the new shipping routes mentioned above in paragraph 8 is contested. The North West Passage and Northern Sea Route traverse parts of the territorial waters and Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of Canada and Russia respectively. Canada claims parts of the North West Passage to be internal territorial waters, a status disputed by the United States, amongst others, who consider these areas to be ‘straits used for international navigation’.16 Russia has asserted similar rights of regulation along the Northern Sea Route through domestic legislation, instituting a high level of state-controlled regulation for foreign registered ships seeking to traverse the route.17 Two low level maritime disputes are active relating to Canadian claims against Denmark and the USA respectively.18 Russia’s continental shelf claim relating to the area surrounding the resource-rich Lomonosov Ridge is currently under arbitration by a UN Commission, with overlapping claims from Canada, Denmark and Russia being arbitrated.19


11.The Svalbard archipelago is a group of islands around halfway between Norway and the North Pole. Although part of the Kingdom of Norway, the exercise of sovereignty over the islands is subject to the terms of the 1920 Svalbard Treaty. The treaty extends rights of equal access and commercial exploitation to all of the 46 contracting parties. The treaty also specifically prohibits the establishment of a naval base or any fortifications or structures used for ‘warlike purposes’. A series of events over the past few years has sustained a level of tension on the islands. In 2015 Norway demanded an explanation when the Russian Deputy Prime Minister flew into Svalbard, in defiance of a travel ban on a journey to the North Pole.20 In April 2016 Chechen special forces instructors landed in Svalbard before holding a parachute exercise over the polar ice cap.21 It was reported as part of the Zapad 2017 exercise that a simulated amphibious assault masked by extensive electronic warfare capabilities was conducted by Russia against Svalbard.22 Around the same time the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov launched a new attack on a number Norway’s policies on Svalbard and linked the Norwegian position to the wider issue of the militarisation and the stronger role of NATO in the High North.23

12.Recalling some of these events in oral evidence, Professor Klaus Dodds of Royal Holloway, University of London said “Some obvious flashpoints would be anything to do with Svalbard … you would not have to be terribly clever to think of scenarios where the delicate relationship that exists between Russia and Norway could be upended.”24 Dr John Ash of the Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge took a similar view of Svalbard as a flashpoint:

As far as Svalbard is concerned, there is a potential flashpoint. There is a Russian population on Svalbard. The last population size I saw—this was at Barentsburg—was about 471 people. That could potentially constitute a casus belli under circumstances in which Russia wished to assert greater influence on the archipelago.25

James Gray MP pointed out that the complex position of Svalbard in international law might act as an encouragement to an aggressor, as NATO might be unable to come to a decision on whether it was entitled to intervene.26 Colonel John Andreas Olsen, the Norwegian Defence Attaché to the United Kingdom, addressed the point about the applicability of NATO’s collective security mechanisms to Svalbard:

[Svalbard] is Norwegian territory and where Norwegian law applies. We take that seriously. There is a treaty from 1920, implemented in 1925, that says that we should not use Svalbard for war-like purposes, so we will not build naval bases or other military infrastructure, but it is still Norwegian territory and an attack on Svalbard would constitute an Article 5.27

New interest from Asia

13.China, Japan, India, Singapore and South Korea were all admitted as Observers to the Arctic Council in 2013. Both India and South Korea had well established polar research programmes and have research facilities on Svalbard. South Korea published its first Arctic policy document in 2013.28 Professor Caroline Kennedy-Pipe of the University of Hull described how:

India is now describing itself as a polar player. It has extensive interests in the South Pole, but increasingly, if one looks at the rate of papers on global warming and climate change, India has a vested interest. As the High North melts, Bangladesh will be hugely affected.29

14.The involvement of a wider circle of nations is a manifestation of what Professor Dodds characterised as the ‘globalisation’ of the Arctic,30 and the most prominent actor in this has been China. China also has a long-established polar research programme and scientific installations established on Svalbard. Submissions noted the increasing commercial presence of China in the region, including substantial Chinese investment in mining operations in Greenland and in gas projects on Russia’s northern Arctic coast.31 China’s first free trade agreement with a European nation was concluded with Iceland in 2013.32 The Ambassadors of Denmark, Iceland and Sweden all welcomed the interest of China in the Arctic.33 The general consensus of our evidence also supports the view that China’s interests are currently primarily scientific and economic, rather than in pursuit of a ‘hard power presence’.34 This has been reinforced by the publication of China’s most recent Arctic policy document in January 2018, which identifies the Northern Sea Route as a maritime highway of the ‘Polar Silk Road’, part of the wider Belt and Road development initiative. Ms Rumble said she was “not particularly surprised by the content of that White Paper”.35 Nick Gurr, Director of International Security Policy at the Ministry of Defence, agreed with this analysis, saying “Most of the activity appears to be economically motivated.”36

15.Some witnesses, however, argued that one should not look at China’s conduct in the Arctic in isolation from its conduct elsewhere. Despite China’s ostensible commitment to multilateralism in the Arctic, Professor Kennedy-Pipe noted that China had declared its general preference for pursuing its economic agenda on a bilateral basis.37 Professor Dodds speculated how China’s policy on the status of territorial waters and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea might be received by the Arctic States if it began to be implemented in the High North.38 Written evidence has also raised the potential linkage between Chinese interest in the Arctic and its increasing international presence as a naval power. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) sent a small naval flotilla into the Bering Sea between Russia and Alaska for the first time in 2015.39 The PLAN made its first visits to Denmark, Finland and Sweden around the same time.40 Having possessed a single icebreaker since the early 1990s, a second, larger nuclear-powered icebreaker is due to be commissioned by China in 2019.41 A recent report has suggested that the PLAN may be considering future submarine operations in the Arctic.42

16.Since the end of the Cold War the Arctic States have been successful in maintaining the Arctic and High North as an area of low tension, and the region has been generally characterised by continuing close international co-operation amongst states which may have taken divergent positions on crises occurring elsewhere in the world. However, it is clear that the natural environment in the Arctic is going through a period of fundamental change, giving rise to issues which are bringing about a similar change in the security environment.

17.There is a risk that the perception of the Arctic as an area of exceptionalism where unique considerations of governance apply and where the application of general norms of international law are disputed could be exploited by nations who have shown an increasing disregard for the rules-based international order elsewhere. The Svalbard archipelago is an example of this, where the possibility of further adventurism by a resurgent and revisionist Russia cannot be discounted.

18.As the ‘globalisation’ of the region continues, an increasing number of states which are more geographically distant from the Arctic are declaring that they have an interest in Arctic affairs and wish to share in the benefits which might come from a more accessible Arctic. This is to be welcomed, as long as these interests continue to coincide. We should nonetheless be aware, in this new age of ‘great power competition’, that this state of affairs may not last indefinitely. The Government should work closely with allies to establish a common position on all aspects of international law in the Arctic to ensure that disputes active amongst states in the region are not aggravated or exploited.

3 Oral evidence taken on 31 January 2018, HC 388 [2017–19], Qq58–61

5 Dr Brooke Smith-Windsor (DIA0008);

6 Overland, J E, and Wang, M (2013), ‘When will the summer Arctic be nearly ice free?’, Geophysical Research Letters, Vol 40, 2097–2101; Arctic Program, Arctic Report Card 2017, accessed 16 July 2018

8 Ministry of Defence (DIA0020). See also Oral evidence taken on 1 March 2017, HC 879 [2016–17], Q9 [H.E. Torbjörn Sohlström], Q22 [H.E. Mr Claus Grube], Q27 [Professor Dodds]. Q37 [Professor Kennedy-Pipe]

9 RUSI (DIA0002); Arctic Advisory Group (DIA0003); Scottish Global Forum (DIA0012); Ministry of Defence (DIA0020)

10 Oral evidence taken on 1 March 2017, HC 879 [2016–17], Q37 [Dr Dimitriy Tulupov]; Oral evidence taken on 15 March 2017, HC 879 [2016–17], Q57 [Dr John Ash]; Oral evidence taken on 15 November 2017, HC 388 [2017–19], Q3; Oral evidence taken on 31 January 2018, HC 388 [2017–19], Q67, Q137

11 Dr Pavel Baev (DIA0014). See also RUSI (DIA0002).

12 See for example Oral evidence taken on 1 March 2017, HC 879 [2016–17], Q3

13 Oral evidence taken on 31 January 2018, HC 388 [2017–19], Q62

14 Dr Sascha Dov Bachmann and Mr Andres B. Munoz Mosquera (DIA0029)

15 Heather A. Conley and Jon Rahbek-Clemmensen (DIA0011)

16 Professor James Kraska and Professor Sean Fahey (DIA0015); Dr Adam Lajeunesse (DIA0024)

17 Professor James Kraska and Professor Sean Fahey (DIA0015; Ministry of Defence (DIA0020); New restrictions coming up in Russian Arctic shipping’, The Barents Observer, 28 March 2018

18 Dr Peter Hough (DIA0004); Scott Polar Research Institute (DIA0009); Canada, Denmark forge tentative deal on Lincoln Sea boundary’, CBC News, 29 November 2012

19 Dr Peter Hough (DIA0004); Dr Andrew Foxall (DIA0005); Ministry of Defence (DIA0020); Bruce Jones (DIA0026)

20 Oxford Research Group (DTA0001); Scott Polar Research Institute (DIA0009); ‘Norway in Arctic dispute with Russia over Rogozin visit’, BBC News, 20 April 2015

21Chechen special forces instructors landed on Svalbard’, The Barents Observer, 13 April 2016

22 Oral evidence taken on 15 November 2017, HC 388 [2017–19], Q8; Oxford Research Group (DTA0001); ‘Go West: Analysing “Zapad”’, Jane’s Defence Weekly, 26 October 2017; ‘Zapad exercises underline Russia’s domestic security concerns’, Jane’s Defence Weekly, 31 October 2017

23 Oxford Research Group (DTA0001); ‘Lavrov attacks Norway, says relations on Svalbard should be better’, The Barents Observer, 19 October 2017

24 Oral evidence taken on 1 March 2017, HC 879 [2016–17], Qq27–29

25 Oral evidence taken on 15 March 2017, HC 879 [2016–17], Q53

27 Oral evidence taken on 24 January 2018, HC 388 [2017–19], Q23

29 Oral evidence taken on 1 March 2017, HC 879 [2016–17], Qq27–29

30 Oral evidence taken on 1 March 2017, HC 879 [2016–17], Qq24 [Professor Dodds]

31 Scott Polar Research Institute (DIA0009); Dr Pavel Baev (DIA0014)

32 Oral evidence taken on 1 March 2017, HC 879 [2016–17], Q22 [Mr Óskarsson]; Scottish Global Forum (DIA0012)

33 Oral evidence taken on 1 March 2017, HC 879 [2016–17], Q22

34 Arctic Advisory Group (DIA0003); Scottish Global Forum (DIA0012)

35 Oral evidence taken on 31 January 2018, HC 388 [2017–19], Q64

36 Oral evidence taken on 31 January 2018, HC 388 [2017–19], Q65

37 Oral evidence taken on 1 March 2017, HC 879 [2016–17], Q37 [Professor Kennedy-Pipe]

38 Oral evidence taken on 1 March 2017, HC 879 [2016–17], Q37 [Professor Dodds]; Scott Polar Research Institute (DIA0009)

39 Scott Polar Research Institute (DIA0009)

40 Dr Rob Huebert (DIA0013)

41China’s first home-built icebreaker in production’, Daily Telegraph, 13 April 2018

42 ‘China planning for Arctic operations’, Jane’s Defence Weekly, 4 July 2018

Published: 15 August 2018