A Cold War in The Arctic: Why Global Powers Are Competing for Arctic Dominance

Some of the world’s biggest nations are amassing military power in the Arctic, and it may be the cause of our next global conflict. In 2021, both the United States and Russia, among many other countries, have discussed their intentions to regain Arctic dominance. So, why are countries willing to risk an international conflict for this desolate tundra? 

The value of the Arctic lies in two different places, the first being its economic utility. In the 1960s, both the former Soviet Union and the United States made major energy discoveries in their respective Arctic regions. These findings led them to uncover that the Arctic holds 13% of the world’s oil reserves and 30% of its natural gas reserves. Since this discovery, nations have been eager to capitalize on this with eight countries exercising their legitimate claims to the region (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States).

The economic utility of the Arctic is further enhanced as the Arctic also possesses new trade routes that are being revealed due to global warming. As the ice recedes, it opens up new waterways that allow ships to travel through the Arctic as opposed to circumnavigating the globe. Nations now believe that something akin to the Northwest Passage may soon become available and are eager to claim this passage for themselves.

The second value, intertwined with the first, is the Arctic’s military utility. Governments understand that military power in the region is vital to protect their economic interests. Additionally, there is also an understanding that the region provides an exceptional military advantage. This is not a new discovery and dates back to the Cold War when the US and the former Soviet Union used the region to house ICBM’s and gather military intelligence. Since the end of the Cold War, as tensions have relaxed, interest in the region has declined. However, in 2021 military tensions and economic interests are back on the rise. The reason for this is global warming. 

As the earth heats up, the Arctic melts at a rapid rate, losing Arctic sea ice at a rate of 13% per decade. As this Arctic ice recedes, more resources become available. This has attracted the attention of the eight Arctic countries and other world powers, including China. Within the past year, the United States Army published a new “Arctic Strategy,” with the goal of regaining Arctic dominance. Russia has expressed similar sentiments and assigned 81% of its nuclear weaponry to Northern Fleets. Even China, which does not have a legitimate claim to the region under international law, has joined various Arctic councils and sent naval vessels to the region. 

It is clear that these Arctic states realize the tremendous economic and military value of the Arctic region and are willing to risk conflict to further their national interests. As of 2021, tensions are clearly increasing as global warming continues to make the region more attractive to global powers. It is very possible that sometime in the near future we may see powers such as China, Russia, and the United States increase their militarization to secure the Arctic and its natural resources.