The New Cold War Unfolding at the Top of the World

Image result for U.S. Marines and Green Berets patrol the tundra near a radar station outside Barrow, Alaska, during a training exercise. The troops were participating in an annual U.S. military operation called “Arctic Edge.”

U.S. Marines and Green Berets patrol the tundra near a radar station outside Barrow, Alaska, during a training exercise. The troops were participating in an annual U.S. military operation called “Arctic Edge.”

ON A CALM, bright morning in August 2007 a pair of Russian submersibles dropped 14,000 feet to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean and planted a flag made of titanium at the North Pole. 

It was a bold move, made with drama in mind, and images broadcast around the world of the Russian tricolor standing on the seabed drew quick condemnation in the West.

Image result for U.S. Marines and Green Berets patrol the tundra near a radar station outside Barrow, Alaska, during a training exercise. The troops were participating in an annual U.S. military operation called “Arctic Edge.”

“This isn’t the 15th century,” said Peter MacKay, then foreign minister of Canada, on CTV television. “You can’t go around the world and just plant flags and say, ‘We’re claiming this territory.’”

MacKay was technically correct; the Russian stunt held no legal weight. But his rebuke carried a note of petulance, as though he wished the whole thing had been Canada’s idea. Ten years on, MacKay’s reaction is easier to understand. 2007 was, at the time, one of the warmest years on record, and the Arctic summer ice pack—the vast expanse of floating ice that covers the North Pole even through the summer—had shrunk to the lowest levels ever recorded. The frozen polar sea, foil to human ambition for centuries, appeared to be melting, and Russia was staking a symbolic claim on whatever lay beneath the slush.

“The summer of 2007 saw the largest Arctic ice-loss in human history and was not predicted by even the most aggressive climate models,” says Jonathan Markowitz, assistant professor of international relations at the University of Southern California. “This shock led everyone to suddenly understand that the ice was rapidly disappearing and some nations decided to start making moves.”
In the decade since that “shock event,” the Arctic has been transformed by rising temperatures, vanishing ice, and international attention. 

Countries with Arctic territory—and some nations with no polar borders—have been scrambling for advantage on the Earth’s latest frontier. Entrepreneurs, prospectors, and politicians have all turned north, recognizing that less ice means more access to the region’s rich stores of fish, gas, oil, and other mineral resources.

“Predictions about the Arctic Ocean have been wrong,” says Michael Sfraga, director of the Polar Initiative at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. “And now there’s an ocean opening up before us, in real time. This hasn’t happened before.”

Other Arctic nations, including the United States, Canada, and Denmark, lavish far less attention on their northern territories. Sfraga and others have called the U.S. a “reluctant Arctic power,” and Markowitz points out that although Canada often talks about raising its northern game, there’s little behind the words.

“National interests are largely a function of income and revenue,” Markowitz says. “What states make influence what they take, and states that make things—like the U.S.—are much less interested in securing Arctic resources. The Russians, on the other hand, don’t make much. They don’t have a Silicon Valley or a New York City and they view the Arctic as their strategic future resource base.”

The disequilibrium in Arctic approaches has worried some observers and led to news headlines that regularly describe the Arctic as a kind of Wild West, or as a frigid theater where nations will square off in the next Cold War. Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014 and China’s ongoing play for military dominance in the South China Sea have intensified anxiety.

Markowitz, who has been tracking military development in the Arctic for years, says that Russia maintains 27 operational military bases above the Arctic Circle, more than double the number it had before the “shock event” of 2007. The U.S., in contrast, keeps just one base in the Arctic, an air force installation on the borrowed ground in Greenland. Canada, which is second only to Russia in the size of its northern territory, has only three small Arctic bases.

Canadian and American forces do operate bases just south of the Arctic Circle, though, in Alaska and the Northwest Territories, and Sfraga said both nations are capable of rapidly dispatching aircraft, troops, and submarines into Arctic territory. The two nations are also slowly expanding their cold-weather military infrastructure. Canada is building a naval refueling base on Baffin Island, and the U.S. announced plans earlier this year to re-establish the Navy’s Second Fleet, which will counter Russian activity in the North Atlantic.

In the meantime, Canadian and U.S. forces, along with other members of NATO, continue to regularly train for cold weather conflict. Today, in Norway, NATO opens its largest training exercise since the end of the Cold War—two-weeks of war games involving 50,000 troops from 31 nations. The massive operation, called Trident Juncture, imagines a scenario in which northern Norway is invaded, prompting allies to rush to its defense. The gallery here reveals how extreme even practicing for a war in the north can be.

While the imaginary enemy in Trident Juncture isn’t named, Norway shares Arctic land and sea borders with Russia and tension between the two nations have risen in recent years. Some observers worry that future disputes between the neighbors overfishing or mineral rights could pull the NATO alliance into a conflict for which it is unprepared.

Still, the Arctic remains one of the world’s calmer regions, where contact between nations is relatively open and stable. Russia, Norway, the U.S., and five other Arctic countries are all members of the Arctic Council, a group formed in 1996 to encourage communication and cooperation across the pole. Even as NATO forces gather in Norway, the council continues coordinating meetings on Arctic science, environmental issues, and search-and-rescue operations.

Sfraga and Markowitz agree that the Arctic Council, operating outside the military framework of NATO, offers one of the best paths forward for easing the strain. Some experts also point to the south pole—where an international treaty has preserved Antarctica “for peaceful purposes only”—as a model for what could be possible in the Arctic.