Despite the historical, cultural and political gulf between the United States and Russia, at the Arctic sea-Pacific ocean gateway the two global superpowers are only a mere 3.8 kilometers apart.
The geography of the Arctic matters more now than ever before. As global warming melts the permafrost and redefines the northern landscape, an unprecedented window of economic and political opportunity has sparked mounting geopolitical tensions between the United States and the increasing Russian and Chinese presence in the region.
The once peaceful high-north-low-tension Arctic is now of great geostrategic importance, and in an effort to protect the Northern Hemisphere from escalating economic and geopolitical threat in the region, The United States has announced the impending appointment of the first Arctic ambassador in US history.
The Office of the Secretary of State has said the senate-approved ambassador will take the place of the existing Arctic coordinator, Jim DeHart, continuing promotion of scientific research, climate-related efforts, and cooperation with the Arctic Council and Indigenous governments of the High North, whilst also protecting US national security and economic interests in the region.
— USArctic (@us_arctic) August 26, 2022
NATO Chief Jens Stoltenberg marked the announcement with a recent trip to military bases in the Canadian Arctic with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, highlighting his intentions to increase situational awareness of stakeholders and their intentions near the North Pole.
Wrapping up an excellent visit to #Canada, which makes key contributions to #NATO & to international security. Thank you for all you do, including strong support to #Ukraine, leading our multinational forces in Latvia, and increasing our awareness of evolving #Arctic challenges. pic.twitter.com/nBowP07FUk
— Jens Stoltenberg (@jensstoltenberg) August 26, 2022
“Preserving security, stability and co-operation in the High North” is NATO’s priority as the threat of securitisation and militarisation of the Arctic by authoritarian regimes increases.
It’s fair to say, the Arctic is becoming a lot warmer and a lot busier as the sea ice melts and the “scramble for the Arctic” intensifies with both Russia and China scale-up their military and research activity in the region.
The Arctic sea meeting point of the US and Russia is denoted by the neighboring American “Yesterday” and Russian “Tomorrow” Diomede islands. These islands are separated by several invisible lines: the International Date Line, the Soviet-era “ice curtain,” and most importantly – the top of two Arctic shipping lanes: the Northern Sea Route and Northwest Passage.
As global warming continues to reshape the Arctic landscape, previously impenetrable parts of these shipping lanes will become more navigable, providing shortcuts for Eurasian trade routes and access to 22% of the earth’s untapped natural resources.
Russia has taken aggressive action to stake their claim on the evolving terrain and its assets, dramatically increasing their military activity in the region, building Soviet-era military bases and weaponizing a fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers with hypersonic missiles.
They have even previously attempted to declare metaphorical ownership of Arctic land, sea, and billions of dollars worth of oil and gas reserves via the age-old flagpole claim on the North Pole seabed using submarines.
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The Secretary General of NATO has warned this aggressive military activity is concerning as “the shortest path to North America for Russian missiles or bombers would be over the North Pole,” and that US Aerospace Defense will be “vital for North America and for NATO.”
Similarly, despite being nearly 900 miles away geographically, China’s self-declaration of “near-Arctic state” status and growing interest in Arctic affairs and policy-making, has made their economic and political agenda in the region crystal clear.
Over the past few years, behind the facade of a spectrum of strategic soft power plays like investment and the building of research stations, China has carved out strong economic and scientific connections with Arctic nations.
At the icy ground level the Arctic might seem peaceful, isolated, and quiet, but the expanse of space above the northern region is an extremely busy area of satellite activity that’s far from uninhabited.
Under the guise of “safety monitoring” for ships in treacherous waters, China has used space technology to monitor the climate-induced changes to shipping routes within the Arctic landscape, watching the sea ice melt from space and waiting to make their move on the ground to gain access to shipping shortcuts that could cut down on the economic and time-related costs of trading via their “Polar Silk Road.”
There has been much debate amongst the 7 nations of the Arctic Council as to who these sea lanes rightfully belong to, and up until now, despite being no strangers to a cold war, both the U.S. and Russia, when in the Council Chair have historically pledged to promote peaceful cooperation in the region.
But with Arctic temperatures rising four times faster than the rest of the world, and future summers predicted to be largely ice-free, a unique opportunity for northern dominance has surfaced. This next chapter will prove a great strategic challenge for NATO and the soon-to-be ambassador in maintaining low-tension in the region.
Stoltenberg hopes the implementation of a U.S. Arctic Ambassador will help highlight NATO’s prioritization of the Arctic’s integral role in Euro-Atlantic security, climate change, and geopolitical stability. His concern, and it is likely to be broadly shared in the West, is ensuring that the Northern Hemisphere is prepared for potential Arctic conflict with what Stoltenberg calls “authoritarian regimes that are clearly willing to use military intimidation or aggression to achieve their aims.”
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by the authors are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the Featured Photo: Aerial view of US Coast Guard on Arctic sea ice. Featured Photo Credit: NASA Image and Video Library.