UK Security and Defence Review 2015




The Arctic is an area of strategic interest for three central reasons: the epicentre of a physical state change in the earth’s geography and climate; a region in which former, present, and possibly future superpowers may compete for strategic control over an emerging global trade route, (the Northern Sea Route ((NSR), as well as access to energy and vast mineral reserves; and finally an arena in which international relations will be severely tested in terms of deploying philosophically contrary governance frameworks, (sovereignty, versus sovereign rights/international law), to avoid and reduce inter-state tensions, and facilitate responsible globalization of the region. Combined, these factors are altering the strategic, geopolitical, and economic value of the Arctic. As stated by the Arctic Council (AC) in 2014, a common political vision, strategic burden sharing, and an economic commitment are the minimum membership requirements to “manage” the Arctic. With China, South Korea, Singapore and India all now Observer members of the AC, the UK will have to intensify its efforts just to maintain its influence in the AC, against such powerful newcomers as China, which is arriving with finance for R&D, joint venture infrastructure projects, and heavy political / diplomatic and legal representation, and South Korea which has pledged $3 billion for research in offshore exploration and marine activities.


In terms of Arctic governance, the AC has proven to be an effective and exceptional international forum where successes have been broad, international, strategically sound, and consistent. The single biggest casualty of a confrontation between Russia and the West in the Arctic could be this essential forum, which in many ways is a model of international cooperation, collaboration, consensus, and compromise – when it is needed, to achieve equitable results between the region’s powerful states. Unlike NATO, the AC’s guiding framework is based on sovereign rights and not sovereignty/territory, per se. One of the AC’s founding mandates is an agreement to exclude defence matters from formal discussions. The potential incursion of NATO into the Arctic, (as now seen by Russia), could logically undermine the AC’s purpose and effectiveness, and undercut one of its founding principles. Should Russia then withdraw from the AC because of its undermining, this would be akin to the U.S. withdrawing from NATO. All western Arctic experts agree that Russia is the indispensable actor in the Arctic. This is a potential Russian trap therefore that must be considered by western policy makers.


The latest Western sanctions on Russia’s Arctic oil and gas industry, may lead to closer economic relations (energy) between China and Russia in the region over time. Russia’s ability to respond to sanctions within the Arctic is potentially uncontainable. It is difficult to imagine a region of the world where Russia is stronger and where the West would be least minded and capable of confronting it. Sanctions have in no way restricted Russia’s freedom of movement in the European Arctic. Arguably it has emboldened Moscow to activate dormant opportunities, including diversifying and intensifying alternative relations with both Arctic and non-Arctic states (China in particular), for both economic and geopolitical reasons. This was not the intention of western Arctic sanctions, but if not addressed soon, it could well be a/ the consequence. Western involvement, including the UK’s, in Arctic globalization may now be negatively affected by sanctions policy, including the ownership, control, and operation of a new global trade route (NSR), linking markets in Asia, EU, and US. One can argue that the NSR is a far more strategic prize than any oil exploitation in the Arctic in the 21st Century; Western sanctions have inadvertently exposed this geopolitical factor and accelerated the race to control this emerging global trade route. Unquestionably Russia is in the lead in this race, even before sanctions were imposed. The biggest long-term economic beneficiary in the European Arctic could in fact be China. The deployment of western forces to the Baltics and Poland suggests perhaps to Russia the intended Western containment of Russia in the European Arctic and the eventual undermining of its Arctic resource base. The attack on the wider economy through sanctions on Russia’s oil and gas industry as a whole has only reinforced this Russian perception, and may well trigger responses that are not politically advantageous to the West.


Politically, Russia may consider the following short-term responses:

• Question the governance of the AC as intellectually incoherent if the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is the key instrument in the Arctic.

• Debate the appropriateness of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea

(UNCLOS) framework, as the AC’s sovereign rights emphasis may be replaced by a sovereignty or territorial emphasis under NATO.

• Increase its focus on the US when it assumes the chair of the AC in 2015:

The US’s failure to ratify UNCLOS and thus its legal status in voting on any UNCLOS matter including aspects of the new Polar Code, where legislation impinges upon the US Navy’s right of Freedom of the Seas and” innocent passage” in the Arctic, could be exploited by Russia. Further political embarrassment could be caused with regard to the US’s attempt to launch the new Arctic Economic Council that was announced in 2014 to encourage growth of regulated international business in the region. Already Russia has vetoed the EU’s application to become an Observer member of the AC, something the EU has pursued for years. (This is serious as the EU’s R&D budget for scientific/climatic/environmental work in the Arctic, is twice the size of the total R&D budget of all the Arctic countries, combined). Great care must be taken in differentiating between Russian capability and intent, and between militarization and commercial securitization (guarding of offshore oil rigs/SAR activity, emergency response, by the Russian military, etc.), as ignorance of these subtleties could lead to military escalation in the region. It is a fact repeated by Admiral Papp, the Head of the U.S. Arctic Commission that the only security personnel in both Russia and in the west capable of operating in Arctic conditions are overwhelmingly from the military. Civilian security companies simply do not have the Arctic training, skill sets, or finance/logistical support to offer civilian security services. In other words, both western Arctic countries and Russia have no alternative but to “double hat” military personnel, with civilian training and responsibilities in activities such as Search & Rescue (SAR), Oil Spill Response, and Evacuation (Cruise liners). The potential loss of Western oil companies in the Arctic (because of sanctions) is ominous for the AC. Environmental protection (EP) and sustainable development (SD) are the two founding principles of the AC. Paradoxically, western oil and gas is one of the few industries with the capital, project experience, and technology to provide the necessary infrastructure for sustainable, and environmentally sound developments in the Arctic’s extreme and hostile conditions; and have the wherewithal to measure, assess, and manage EP & SD mechanisms, in line with international environmental standards. The question remains as to whether Russia’s Arctic exploration industry (on its own) will adhere to these principles under a sanctions regime. This has huge environmental security implications for the entire Arctic, not just in the Russian sector.


For China, working with Russia in the Arctic is potentially economically significant and geopolitically advantageous. For Russia, however, the opposite is true, i.e.. geopolitically significant and economically advantageous. This crucial difference will largely determine how successful any commercially/energy based alliance proceeds. The crucial observation is that in the Arctic under western sanctions, China appears to see economic opportunities trumping geopolitical gains. Thus it is unlikely that we will see a Chinese military incursion into the Arctic, as China knows only too well that the U.S. is an Arctic country. Nonetheless, one way to look at a Sino-Russian Arctic alliance and its unifying vision is that neither China nor Russia views western exclusion from the globalization of the European Arctic as disastrous – if their alternative alliance can make it work. The key for continued economic investment in the Russian Arctic is predictability and stability. China will be no different to western operators are in this assessment, and it is for Russia to demonstrate that it can deliver this kind of investment and operating environment in the Arctic, if it wants China’s participation, investment, and perhaps political alignment as well in the European Arctic, in due course.


The possible impact of increasing tensions between the west and Russia in the Arctic is significant. The intended globalization of the Arctic for instance could well be curtailed or stopped, and the attendant development of the NSR as a new international trade route between east and west, rendered commercially doubtful too, especially if Russia withdrew from the Arctic Council. Under such circumstances China may well argue that as the AC’s founding mandate of a ban on strategic discussions by AC members is now clearly being challenged by an increasing NATO presence, then the twin guiding AC policies of environmental protection and sustainable development are thus irrelevant too if there is to be no globalization, and that China’s original view of the Arctic as “a zone of peace and a global common for the benefit of all mankind” should be reviewed again: This means that subsequent views on different governance models (NATO/AC), access to resources, and presence in the Arctic would be open to discussion/debate by all-comers. Russia may conceivably ameliorate the governance/NATO threat by suggesting a loose strategic modus operandi with China in the Arctic, designed to oppose NATO/US militarization of the region. Obvious projects for discussion could include: joint development of the NSR; Russian Arctic gas deliveries to China/Asia, and not the EU; and deliberate courting of non-NATO Arctic countries such as Finland and Sweden, commercially linked non-EU Norway, powerful old allies like India (now an AC Observer), as well as energy poor Observer countries like Singapore, South Korea, and Japan. There could conceivably be an informal/formal Arctic alliance created of some of these countries, led by Russia, and possibly underwritten by China.

For Britain’s Armed Forces, deterioration in Russian-western relations in the Arctic is alarming. The cost of deepening militarization in the Arctic is formidable. This means that the defence burden sharing ability with existing allies will need re-addressing; lack of infrastructure and a return to territoriality – and its link to sovereignty, only adds to the complexity and increasing tension. It may be that countries such as Sweden and Finland will become members of NATO. In the short term these two countries joining NATO may seem logical and a clever tactical move, but it can also be heavily manipulated in the media and turned against the west by Russia citing deliberate further expansion of NATO towards Russia’s Arctic border, and escalating western militarization of the European Arctic, traditionally and geographically dominated to date, by Russia



UK interests in the Arctic include commercial, scientific, and environmental activities, as well as traditional political/strategic factors. However, the weighting of all these factors is changing, reflecting the inevitable globalization of the Arctic in the C21. The break out of a Soviet fleet via the UK-Iceland-Greenland gap, and protecting Norway against a Soviet land invasion was less of a threat until very recently, but the “soft” visa regime at the Russian /Norwegian border, and the prospect of China developing deep water ports in Iceland, is still a legitimate UK/NATO concern. So whilst the nature of the threat changes, the “choke” points and potential adversaries do not, necessarily. Established UK military objectives, such as the support of NATO allies in the Arctic, and the security of gas supply from Norway to the UK remain essential. Additionally, the globalization of the Arctic means that UK Arctic policy and its military objectives may need a constant updating too. Moreover, with the introduction of increasingly rigid regulations in the Arctic Ocean for security, SAR, and Health & Safety (HSE) reasons (e.g. the Polar Code), the concept of the “freedom of the seas”, necessary for Naval/military operations, may be challenged in the Arctic.


For UK defence, the implications are complex and include factors such as: speed of decision making and flexibility of planning required; both will impact how the UK defence policy for the Arctic is created and remains flexible, and effective in an emerging region of the world where past, present, and future superpowers co-exist. This has military implications for maintaining stability, for both natural resource exploitations and associated shipping security needs. The scalability, complexity, and cost of such challenges in the Arctic are such that international commercial/state collaboration, tactical alliances, technical cooperation, and scientific / knowledge sharing are all essential in the High North. This will extend to defence planning, commercial security, coordination with Coastguards, HSE, and SAR matters as well. The legal corollary of this is very challenging: globalization and associated international law /UNCLOS is more concerned with sovereign rights than territorial sovereignty per se; globalization in other words requires rights of access to a state’s territory, and use of (but not sovereignty over) transiting routes, for instance. Business alliances in the High North will typically include Chinese, Norwegian, Russian, and UK/US consortia, adding to the complexity of defence planning. Lack of infrastructure is also a critical logistical factor in the Arctic, for all players. Without it, connecting and collaborating with people in the Arctic is both limited and limiting. This includes UK allies in the Arctic, and/or NATO forces. Because of the centrality of significant geophysical changes in the Arctic itself, all policy planning must therefore be flexible and designed to withstand considerable and regular adaptation, and therefore conceived within an overall risk mitigation/management framework, which is also in line with the AC’s governance mandate of promoting and prioritising above all other factors, EP and SD. International Relations is under intense scrutiny and use in the Arctic as well, in terms of alternative governance models. Significantly, Russia recognizes UNCLOS and the AC as the governing instruments (ie sovereign rights/international law- led) of the Arctic in commercial terms, but strategically it still sees the Arctic through a geopolitical prism with sovereignty (linked to territory and sea boundaries) as a primary national security component. Recent events in Ukraine and Syria will only enhance this view.


Emerging additional issues that may directly affect UK military planning include: the potential opening up of the Northern Sea route; resource competition; governance framework implications; issues of new boundaries, their definition (use of a straight base line for establishing EEZs and continental shelf extensions); the impact on what is being defended in the case of sovereignty – and sovereign rights in the Arctic nations’ EEZs and beyond; the degree of actual involvement in the Arctic by NATO; insufficient Arctic knowledge; worsening international relations; the associated danger of confusing securitisation of the Arctic, for commercial reasons, with militarisation for geostrategic reasons; the steady and inevitable incursion of Observes such as China and South Korea, and perhaps most importantly the re-emergence of the Cold War “capability-v-intent” dilemma with regard to Russian, NATO, and potential Chinese activity in the Circumpolar North. The AC has emphasised that the requirement for all Observer countries in the Arctic is burden sharing. As globalization develops in the Arctic, UK interests will extend into defending those legitimate commercial interests; the military may well have an extended role in this too, by maintaining stability, assuring access, and patrolling transit routes (including infrastructure), for UK and allied commerce.


The military planning for the Arctic would benefit immensely from deeper coordination and debate over UK Arctic policy regarding the Armed Forces’ future role in a globalising Arctic, and a clear exposition of the present and future (post Crimea/Syria) role of NATO in the industrializing European Arctic. Harmonisation with UK/allied commercial interests in the form of Public Private Partnerships (commercial security with UK military for instance) may be a force multiplier solution for commercial securitisation of the Arctic, but it may not be appropriate/sufficient if Russian-NATO relations worsen. Secondly, there are matters that the UK must address independently of the AC. This is likely to require the setting up of additional military fora to discuss some of these strategic matters with Arctic, and non-Arctic participants. The tasking of an aircraft carrier in the Arctic (of all places) for instance, without dedicated airborne maritime surveillance assets – as relations stand with Russia at present (perhaps in alliance with China) is unfathomable. Strategically, the military may need to educate a generation of officers in Polar studies and the international relations of the Circumpolar North. Knowledge and science in particular are the foundation stones of both foreign and defence Arctic policy formulation, and facilitates the ongoing globalization and environmental security of the entire Arctic. Alliances in the High North are essential to UK security. Norway is paramount but others (including from Observer AC states) may in the future be equally as important. Through alliances the UK can gain access to necessary infrastructure, establish regional hubs, plan logistical requirements/FMBs and thus facilitate the deployment of such critical assets as maritime and airborne surveillance, and by doing so demonstrably contribute to burden sharing in the Arctic, as explicitly required by the AC. Recent global events make this now imperative. In summary, the next SDSR review would be an ideal, and necessary time to consider all of the above, and begin the process, planning, and budgeting for intensified UK securitisation (or partial/full militarization if relations with Russia deteriorate further) of the European Arctic in the 21st Century, in line with established (and new) allies’ needs and the AC’s clear directive on a shared political vision, burden sharing, and economic commitment to the stable globalisation of the Arctic in the 21st century.

Tim Reilly

Founder – Arctic Advisory Group

Senior Associate Fellow at the Institute for Statecraft

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