Arctic — 2024
Andrey Zagorsky
Ph.D. in History, Head of the Department of Disarmament and Conflict Resolution of the Centre for International Security at IMEMO RAS, Professor at the MGIMO Department of International Relations and Foreign Policy of Russia, RIAC Member
Arctic — 2024

The Arctic remains an exception in the growing tensions between Russia and Western countries. Cooperation in this region has not been sacrificed to the current crisis. The situation is stable and predictable in the near future. Although the sanctions led to the decline in intelligence cooperation on the Russian shelf and cooperation in the military-political sphere, still interaction is developing both within the framework of the Arctic Council (AC) and in other formats. At the same time, problems that exacerbate political uncertainty in the medium and long term do accumulate here. The main issues that arise in assessing options for further development are limited to how long it will be possible to isolate the region from the negative impact of the general crisis in relations between Russia and the West (the U.S.).

2018 Review

In May 2018, the Maritime Safety Committee of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) approved the scheme for the transit of ships in the Bering Strait, proposed by Russia and the United States, which will take effect on December 1, 2019. [1] On May 23, the Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation entered in force. It was prepared under the chairmanship of Russia and the United States and concluded in 2017. [2]

On May 22–23, Ilulissat (Greenland) hosted a meeting for the countries of the AC, on the occasion of the 10-year anniversary of Ilulissat Declaration, a meeting of the foreign ministers of the five coastal Arctic states (Russia, Denmark, Canada, Norway and the USA). In 2008, coastal states agreed to strengthen cooperation in the Arctic and declared commitment to the orderly settlement of any possible overlapping claims as per United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea as of 1982 (Convention of 1982). [3] At the anniversary meeting the Arctic States affirmed their support to the principles of the 2008 Declaration.

On October 3, in Ilulissat, an Agreement to Prevent Unregulated High Seas Fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean was signed by five coastal Arctic states, as well as by the European Union, Iceland, China, the Republic of Korea, and Japan. The parties agreed not to start commercial fishing in the area until sufficient scientific information is collected on its reserves and ecosystems and the necessary mechanisms for regulating fisheries are established. [4]

Cooperation of the AC member states is developing within the framework of the Arctic Coast Guard Forum established in 2015. The first full-scale exercises were conducted under its auspices in September 2017. The following exercises are scheduled for early 2019.

Forecast for the Short Term and until 2024

To assess the prospects for the development of the situation in the Arctic in the medium term, one should start with a number of inert and therefore relatively predictable processes. These include the expected changes in climate conditions, the prospects for the coastal countries to establish outer limits of the continental shelf in the Arctic Ocean, and the dynamics of the military-political situation.

Despite the rapid warming, the existing forecasts do not provide grounds for a radical change in the natural and climate conditions in the Arctic in the medium and even long term. The prospects that the Arctic Ocean loses most of the age-old ice cover are considered real in the following decades, and in the middle of the 21st century the ice cover is likely to disappear for a short period at the end of the summer and in September. [5] However, the replacement of age-old ice with seasonal sea ice will not make the Arctic seas look like the waters of the Baltic Sea. Ice cover will remain here for most of the year, and even during its retreat, the concentration of ice in water will be a deterrent to navigation.

According to the calculations of RAS A. Obukhov Institute of Atmospheric Physics, in the period until 2025 the navigation season of the Northern Sea Route (NSR) with sea ice concentration below 25% can last from 3 to 5 months a year, which slightly exceeds the navigation of the NSR at present. The shoulder period with ice concentration not exceeding 15% will be even shorter. [6] The U.S. Navy proceeds from a similar forecast: by 2030, the navigation season can last up to nine weeks as long as the maximum sea ice in open water does not exceed 10%, and the shoulder season lasts five weeks before and after the main one when sea ice concentration is below 40%. [7] In the warmer western Arctic seas (Barents Sea, Norwegian Sea) the conditions for navigation are even more favorable. In other Arctic seas (Laptev Sea, East Siberian Sea, Chukchi Sea, Baffin Bay, Greenland Sea), the climate conditions in the foreseeable future will remain much more severe. [8]

Based on these forecasts, it can be noted with a high degree of confidence that during the period under review international navigation in the Arctic region will be developed primarily through export and import — the projected sea export of mineral resources through the port of Sabetta and the import of construction materials for new industrial facilities in the basin of the Kara Sea. Any significant international Arctic transit is, at best, a matter of a more distant future.

In upcoming period of time, the issue of the boundaries of the continental shelf in the Arctic Ocean will not be clarified. Processing the applications of the coastal states by the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (the Commission or CLCS) will take considerable time.

The Commission is currently reviewing an application from Denmark on the northeast continental shelf of Greenland, submitted at the end of 2014, and a revised application from Russia on the Arctic Ocean, submitted in the summer of 2015. Canada is about to submit its application to the Commission. There is a possibility that in the period under review the Commission may wish to comment on the Russian application. The application from Denmark, by all accounts, will still have to wait for a long time to be processed: a sub-commission to review the application has not been created yet. The Commission considers applications from states in the order they are received. The Danish application is No.76 in the queue. Over 17 years of work the Commission has established 35 sub-commissions to review incoming applications and made recommendations on 23 of them. [9] This allows to assume that it will take quite some time before it comes to consider the Danish application, not to mention the Canadian one.

The military-political situation in the Arctic during the period under review will remain stable and predictable, although it is highly likely that the debate on the militarization of the region and its securitization will further increase.

In 2017, a planned review of the defense policies of most Arctic states was completed. [10] Despite the fact that it coincided with tensions in relations between Russia and the West, the Western Arctic states did not change the very modest plans on military construction in the region adopted a decade ago, that do not involve the deployment of any significant non-strategic forces on a permanent basis.

In the period under review, the policies of Western countries may change. The next scheduled review of the defense policy is expected soon, and the states might make other decisions. However, military construction programs in the Arctic are extremely expensive and inert. For this reason, the modest modern programs might be implemented by the middle of the next decade.


The above mentioned parameters of the situation development indicate high level of inertia in the short and medium term. At the same time, one cannot deny that space for cooperation in the Arctic in the foreseeable future will narrow down and not expand. Some of the symptoms of this forecast have already occurred.

In recent years, primarily in Denmark, there has been a growing sense of political uncertainty as to how the issue of establishing the outer limits of the continental shelf in the Arctic Ocean will be dealt with. As the Commission considers the applications of the Arctic states, various scenarios are possible. It is not ruled out that in case the Commission disagrees with at least some of the evidence presented in the Russian application, Moscow can ignore its recommendations and take unilateral steps to assert its rights on the continental shelf right up to the North Pole. Should the Commission confirm the validity of Russian claims, Moscow may consider the issue finally resolved in its favor and insist on its rights to the whole shelf area declared without waiting for recommendations on the applications from Denmark and Canada, potentially complicating the subsequent border demarcation. It is believed that this will lead to an increase in political tensions in the region, which will also affect cooperation within the AC. [11]

Arctic states affirming their 2008 Ilulissat pledge in 2018 certainly works to increase the predictability of their policies. However, this is hardly enough to set aside all the doubts that have appeared in recent years.

In the conditions of suspended military-political cooperation between Western countries and Russia, securitization, i.e. subjective expectations of a possible conflict in the Arctic, is being intensified. This effect is fueled by large-scale Russian military construction in the region, mutual rhetoric about military exercises held in northern latitudes, and a growing political opposition to the policy of military restraint in the Arctic in the U.S. Congress and the Canadian Senate. At the stage of defense policy being reviewed, these sentiments may turn into decisions aimed at increasing military presence in the region, primarily that of the United States. Since today both Russia and the West are thoroughly calculating the worst possible scenarios, this may contribute to the start of an arms race in the Arctic.

However, even if the U.S. authorities reconsider the policy in the region, any decisions on military construction in the Arctic will require a lot of time and money. Their practical implementation is possible only beyond the period under review. However, a number of other decisions may affect the military-political situation in the Arctic already in the period considered, although they will only concern the region indirectly.

Firstly, this touches upon the decision to restore the Greenland—Iceland—United Kingdom (GIUK) critical anti-submarine warfare chokepoint in order to ensure the safety of transatlantic sea routes in the context of renewed Russian submarine trips to the North Atlantic. Decisions have already been made on deployment of American anti-submarine aircraft based at Keflavik (Iceland), which the U.S. has not used since 2006, and the ongoing refurbishment of the runway at Thule Air Base in Greenland, which until now only had an American missile warning radar system. [12] Special attention is given to the protection of trans-Atlantic maritime communications as highlighted by the decision taken at 2018 NATO summit to establish the Joint Force Command Norfolk headquarters (the USA) and the new Joint Support and Enabling Command (JSEC) in Germany to move troops more quickly across Europe [13] — the new edition of North Atlantic command disbanded in 2002.

Secondly, the existing plans for the post-2020 deployment of Navy's component of the U.S.―Europe Ballistic Missile Defense System in the waters adjacent to the Arctic and coastal areas will lead to further concentration of naval and air defense systems for ships with information and combat components of missile defense system. In order to neutralizing them, significant strengthening of combat and support facilities of the Northern Fleet will be required. [14] As a result, the Arctic will increasingly be drawn into a new arms race.

Multiplicity in assessments of the Chinese policy will also have an impact on the situation in the region. Despite clear explanations of the principles and objectives of this policy in the White Paper published by Beijing in 2018, [15] the discussions on what kind of challenge China may be in the Arctic region are becoming a central topic in the West today. [16] In the framework of modern confrontation with the West, Moscow can hardly allow itself any comments and actions that can be perceived in Beijing as anti-Chinese. For this reason, discussing the Chinese policy in the Arctic will not necessarily lead to the consolidation of the AC member states. Would this mean a breakdown of "Arctic Exceptionalism," which until recently had promoted cooperation among the Arctic States? [17]


The longer the current crisis between Russia and the West exists, the more likely it is that in the medium and long term the Arctic cooperation will be put to a test. Securitization of the region, freezing military-political cooperation with Russia in the Arctic, mutual doubts about the predictability of partners' policies, growing debate on China's policy — all these factors gradually lead to deepening the boundaries inherited from the Cold War, reinforce the tendency to analyze the problems of the region primarily through security considerations rather than the benefits of cooperation.

During the Cold War, the Arctic was a "closed" region — not so much because of the severity of the climate, but because of its importance for the strategic balance of forces of the USSR (Russia) and the United States, and because of the abundance of military facilities. The region gradually started opening for cooperation only in the late 1980s. The Arctic Council was created in 1996 due to this very reason. Now we are witnessing a reverse movement, and even if an arms race does not start in the region in the foreseeable future, the region may well again be closed to broad international cooperation for security reasons. This will definitely complicate the work within the AC, but most likely this will happen after 2024, unless the countries of the region show political will and stop further deepening the crisis in their relations.
1. International Maritime Organization approved the scheme for the transit of ships in the Bering Strait // TASS, 21.05.2018. URL: https://tass.ru/ekonomika/5219822
2. In Greenland Representatives of the Arctic Powers Discuss Cooperation // Federal Fishery Agency, 14.05.2018. URL: http://fish.gov.ru/press-tsentr/obzor-smi/22799-predstaviteli-arkticheskikh-derzhav-obsudili-v-grenlandii-voprosy-sotrudnichestva
3. Ilya Shestakov: It is necessary to take concerted measures for the conservation of Arctic biodiversity // Federal Fishery Agency, 23.05.2018. URL: http://fish.gov.ru/press-tsentr/novosti/22794-ilya-shestakov-neobkhodimo-prinimat-soglasovannye-mery-po-sokhraneniyu-bioraznoobraziya-arktiki; In Greenland representatives of the Arctic states discuss cooperation issues // Federal Agency for Fisheries, 14.05.2018. URL: http://fish.gov.ru/press-tsentr/obzor-smi/22799-predstaviteli-arkticheskikh-derzhav-obsudili-v-grenlandii-voprosy-sotrudnichestva; Welcome speech of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia S. Lavrov to the participants of the anniversary event on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the Ilulissat Declaration // Russian MFA, 23.05.2018. URL: http://www.mid.ru/ru/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/3231254
4. Russia signed an agreement to prevent unregulated fishing in the Arctic // Federal Fishery Agency, 04.10.2018. URL: http://fish.gov.ru/press-tsentr/obzor-smi/24654-rossiya-podpisala-soglashenie-o-predotvrashchenii-nereguliruemogo-promysla-v-arktike
5. Pavlova T.V., Kattsov V.M. The area of ice cover of the world ocean in calculations using CMIP5 models // Works of A.I. Voeikov Main Geophysical Observatory. 2013. V. 568. P. 22. See also: Alekseev G.V., Radionov V.F., Aleksandrov E.I. Climate change in the Arctic with global warming // Problems of the Arctic and Antarctic. 2015. № 1 (103). P. 36; V.M. Kattsov, T.V. Pavlova. Expected changes in ground-level air temperature in the Arctic in the 21st century: results of calculations using global climate model ensembles (CMIP5 and CMIP3) // Works of A.I. Voeikov Main Geophysical Observatory. 2015. T. 579. p. 7-21.
6. Mokhov I.I. Diagnostics and modeling of the Arctic climate features and its changes // Program of the Presidium of the Russian Academy of Sciences «Exploratory fundamental scientific research in the interests of the development of the Arctic zone of the Russian Federation". Publications on the results of 2014. p. 9. URL: http://www.ras.ru/FStorage/Download.aspx?id=469997d8-f446-4316-803b-96fa72172111
7. The United States Navy Arctic Roadmap for 2014 to 2030. – Washington: Chief of Naval Operations, 2014. Р. 11.
8. Rapport: Forsvarsministeriets fremtidige opgaveløsning i Arktis. – København: Forsvarsministeriet, 2016. Р. 15; Report to Congress on Strategy to Protect United States National Security Interests in the Arctic Region. – Washington: Department of Defense, 2016. Р. 12.
9. Submissions, through the Secretary-General of the United Nations, to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, pursuant to article 76, paragraph 8, of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 10 December 1982 // United Nations. Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea. URL: http://www.un.org/depts/los/clcs_new/commission_submissions.htm
10. Zagorsky A.V. Military construction in the Arctic under the conditions of confrontation between Russia and the West // Arctic and North. 2018. № 31. С. 80–97.
11. Intelligence Risk Assessment 2016. An assessment of developments abroad impacting on Danish security. Copenhagen: Danish Defence Intelligence Service, 2016. Р. 39; Intelligence Risk Assessment 2017. An assessment of developments abroad impacting on Danish security. Copenhagen: Danish Defence Intelligence Service, 2017. Р. 43.
12. Report to Congress on Strategy to Protect United States National Security Interests in the Arctic Region. Р. 11.
13. Brussels Summit Declaration. Issued by the Heads of State and Government participating in the meeting of the North Atlantic Council in Brussels 11-12 July 2018 P. 29 // NATO, 11.07.2018. URL: https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/official_texts_156624.htm?selectedLocale=ru
14. Arbatov A.G., Dvorkin V.Z. International political conditions for the development of the Arctic zone of the Russian Federation / ed. A. V. Zagorsky; IMEMO RAS. - M .: Magistr, 2015. P. 170.
15. China's Arctic Policy // The State Council Information Office of the People's Republic of China, 26.01.2018. URL: http://english.gov.cn/archive/white_paper/2018/01/26/content_281476026660336.htm
16. Read also: Mehta A. How a potential Chinese-built airport in Greenland could be risky for vital US Air Force base // Defense News. 07.09.2018. URL: https://www.defensenews.com/global/europe/2018/09/07/how-a-potential-chinese-built-airport-in-greenland-could-be-risky-for-a-vital-us-air-force-base/
17. Käpylä J., Mikkola H. On Arctic Exceptionalism. Critical reflections in the light of the Arctic Sunrise case and the crisis in Ukraine: FIIA Working Paper 85, April 2015. P. 6.