Russia arctic icebreaker as confrontation with Nato builds - Ekaterina Anisimova/AFP

Periodically, the Arctic, the second-most desolate region on Earth, raises a gloved hand to demand attention in the global discussion. This is one of such times due to the upcoming NATO membership of Sweden and Finland.

Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, commander of the UK armed forces, declared Russia has “strategically lost the war in Ukraine” only four months after its invasion of Ukraine in 2022. The first of his justifications for doing so was the way the conflict was bringing NATO together.

The partnership was in a shaky state before the invasion. The US, its most senior member, questioned why it had to continue footing the bill while European nations, who had long unpaid but benefited from its protection, were proposing alternatives like the EU. However, such was the European rhetoric, and it is understandable that the US was not impressed.

Then Putin attacked Ukraine (again), and all eyes were immediately focused once more on the strongest military alliance in the world. The Arctic countries of Sweden and Finland quickly requested to join.

All of the Arctic nations—all save Russia—will be Nato members whenever they enlist. The same two factors that make any marine trading location in the globe important apply here: routes and resources.

The Northeast Passage (Russia and Norway) and the Northwest Passage (Canada and Alaska) will likely take longer to become economically viable as commercial shipping routes. According to the most recent Met Office data, the volume of sea ice is currently lower than the average from 1981 to 2010 (when some of the most dire ice-retreat projections were first surfacing), although the trend has slightly reversed during the last five years. In other words, it’s difficult to forecast the ice in the Arctic. The passageways will be exposed to greater commercial traffic with the insurance and operating concerns that this creates if they open up and are used for two or three months a year by 2030, as many analysts estimate. In this instance,

It concerns how the nations that border these routes are organised and whose treaties they have ratified.

But it’s not only for business shipments. In the Arctic, Russia maintains a sizable military presence, including a nuclear deterrent fired from a submarine. There are 16 nuclear-powered assault submarines in the Northern Fleet, the centre of the Russian navy, ranging in age from “old and noisy” to “new and extremely capable.” When I was in charge of a Royal Navy anti-submarine frigate, I had to contend with the latter, and I can attest to their strength.

The so-called “Main Directorate of Deep Sea Research” (also known as Gugi), a flotilla of specialist submarines, oceanographic research vessels, underwater drones and autonomous vehicles, sensor systems, and other undersea systems operated by Russia, is expanding in size, capacity, and daring. Gugi is not a scientific institution; rather, it is one of the Russian military’s most top-secret units. More than 30 surface ships, including two nuclear-powered missile battlecruisers that are the biggest surface warships in the world, are also part of the Northern Fleet and are designed for deployment in the Arctic. The Kalibr missile is widely used and taunts the West with examples of excellent missile design and interoperability.

Two arctic motor-rifle brigades, naval infantry, special forces, and reconnaissance assets are all stationed in the north along with maritime patrol aircraft, the rare bomber, and more than 70 fast jets. The Northern Fleet command also has strong ground forces. In other words, a wide range of conventional warfighting capabilities are present in the Russian north. Much of Russia’s Arctic-facing capabilities will have been weakened by a mix of sanctions, corruption, general negligence, and loss of personnel and equipment reassigned to Ukraine – supposedly most of the soldiers and marines have been relocated south to the warzone – but, as always, they cannot be discounted.

There is a lot of competition for resources in the High North. Oil and gas are in the news because they mayThere are 20% of the world’s untapped hydrocarbon reserves there, in addition to deposits of nickel, zinc, diamonds, rubies, and methane hydrates, not to mention fish and tourism.

Furthermore, disputes may arise over more than simply natural resources. The vulnerability of underwater infrastructure was made abundantly clear by the Nord Stream hack. Such pipelines are all over the Norwegian continental shelf, and in recent years, Russian “activities” have included everything from drone overflights to fishing boats with no fishing gear to visits from Russian Orthodox priests who showed an ungodly amount of interest in the Severomorsk to Kirkenes water supply.

A danger need not be traditional in nature.

The administration of the Arctic has been one of its issues over time. All governing bodies and treaties either lack a legally enforceable mandate, are not ratified by all key nations, or have no global impact. The Arctic Council, which was founded in September 1996 but lacks a solid legal charter, may serve as an example of this problem. In any event, the invasion has temporarily halted the Council. Although neither organisation has universal signatories, the International Maritime Organisation and the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea both have components of regulatory authority.In the Arctic, “out of sight, out of mind” is a serious issue. flag planting antics,Apart from polar bear videos and doomsday ice projections, most people simply don’t give a damn.

As always, one nation has the means and influence to effect change. The United States published its first “National Strategy for the Arctic Region” in many years in October 2022. Security, climate change, sustainable economic growth, and global collaboration and governance are its main concerns. Russia is referenced twenty-one times in its fourteen pages.

Has the invasion compelled the US to allocate funds to the High North at last?

Many other nations have a strong interest in seeing that Russian misbehaviour in the Arctic is controlled. The Arctic Five’s Canada, Denmark, and Norway are the most prominent, but there are also Arctic Council States Iceland, Finland, and Sweden, with the last two currently yearning to join NATO. By the time you get to the 38 countries who are Arctic Council Observers, there is a lengthy list of nations who have resisted the invasion. The six permanent participants who represent the people who really live there must figure in all discussions. There is also a strong interest in stability on the part of the UN and the EU.

In other words, everyone will have to face Putin as and when he engages in nefarious activities in the Arctic, not only Nato.

What options does the UK have in this situation?

The UK is a significant member of the G8, G20, Commonwealth, and NATO. It is also a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a state observer on the Arctic Council. The UK is able to address many Arctic issues with credibility thanks to its extensive membership in a variety of minor Arctic organisations, including the Arctic Military Environmental Cooperation Programme (AMEC), the Arctic Ocean Science Board (AOSB), and the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC). The UK also benefits from the well-established Polar Regions Unit within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The Arctic Circle is not far from the Shetlands, which mark the northernmost point of UK territory. The UK is a prominent proponent of the need for international maritime organisations, which we host, andsecure shipping. Since the era of whaling, Britain has also been actively involved in commercial activities in the Arctic.

The UK can play a part in influencing sustainability in the area and advancing Arctic science through reputable international institutions like the British Antarctic Survey, which, despite its name, also has an Arctic mandate. By applying its unrivalled charting skills, the UK Hydrographic Office (UKHO) has a clear part to play.

For those who research UK Defence, the narrative is well known from a military perspective. We have some good equipment up there, but not enough of it. Since their creation, our attack submarines have operated below the ice, and since the beginning of the Cold War, our frigates have been monitoring and discouraging Russian submarine activities near the vital transatlantic cable system. At most, one of each is now allocated to this work. Similar to that, we just bought the new navy auxiliary ship Proteus to safeguard our underwater cables. She is a valuable asset, but there is only one of her, and from the moment she deploys until the day she is paid off, her dance card will be full. We require more.

Our sole ice patrol ship, HMS Protector, broke the northerly latitude record for an RN ship in 2021, but her operational schedule in the Antarctic prevents more frequent work there. We only have nine of the fantastic new P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft for the RAF. so on.

To put it another way, the UK’s strategy for containing Russia in the High North is largely the same as it is elsewhere: it relies heavily on soft power, diplomacy, research, and technological know-how, but has only the barest minimum of military weapons to credibly support it.

Is this important? I don’t believe it does in the Arctic’s situation. Being the only major European country now not significantly expanding its defence spendingThe feeble response “but that’s why we have allies” is our only option in this situation.

The good news is that as Russia inevitably violates accepted international rules of behaviour, all it will find is unified diplomatic and military resistance from everyone who lives and operates there. This is especially true given that the US is already looking north and that significant Arctic actors are poised to join NATO.

Russia’s resurgence of NATO is a strategic failure everywhere, including the High North, Admiral Radakin was correct.

Former Royal Navy officer Tom Sharpe. He was in direct touch with Russian submarines while in charge of an anti-submarine frigate engaged in operations in the Greenland-Iceland-UK Gap.

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