Art design: Jean-Dominique Lavoix-Carli

The militarization of the Arctic – So what?

Over the last few years, NATO, the U.S. and Scandinavian militaries have been multiplying national and regional manoeuvres in the Arctic. This is especially true in Norway and the Barents Sea, very close to the Norwegian and Russian land, air and sea frontiers.

The number of air patrols and military exercises grows year after year. For example, on 20 October 2020, the U.S.S. Ross missile-guided destroyer sailed its third tour of the year in the Barents Sea (Thomas Nilsen, “Increase in NATO scrambled jets from Norway”, The Independent Barents Observer, and “US warship returns Barents Sea”, September 14, and October 2020).

This follows the installation of the NATO Atlantic Command at the Norfolk Navy base, in September 2020. The area of responsibility of this new command is the protection of European and North American sea-lanes.

Among them, we find the Greenland-Iceland-U.K. (GIUK) gap to and from the Arctic. In other words, the Joint Force Norfolk Command’s mission is to project U.S. and NATO power in the Arctic (Levon Sevuts, “NATO’s new Atlantic command to keep watch over the European Arctic”, The Independent Barents Observer, September 18, 2020).

This current U.S. and NATO interest for the Arctic, especially as far as the European and Russian part is concerned, appears as being a response to the heightening economic and military development of the Arctic led by Russia and by a growing number of Asian countries, chiefly China among them.

However, if the growing U.S. military and NATO presence increase the level of military gesticulation, we have to wonder if this military presence is really up to the Russia-China strategic development of the Arctic.

From a Western point of view, some European, U.S. and Canadian private companies are developing their presence in the Arctic, but this does not amount at all to a strategy, be it from the U.S., from member states of the European Union nor from North Atlantic countries.

In other terms, the Russian part of the warming Arctic is becoming a planetary attractor for the Asian great powerhouses. Thus, it is increasing the power and status of Russia and China (Jean-Michel Valantin, “Arctic China: Towards new Oil Wars in a Warming Arctic?”, The Red Team Analysis Society, September 14, 2020). As a result, a major geopolitical question is to ponder if Western powers are not missing their own “warming Arctic Axis”.

The warming Arctic, cradle of the Russo-Asian block

Who is developing the Arctic?

As we have explained in The Red Team Analysis Society’s publications, and related conferences since 2014, the notably Russian, Chinese, Japanese, and Indian race towards the Arctic is driving the emergence of the continental Russo-Asian bloc.

Indeed, the vast Arctic Russian economic exclusive zone is attracting Russian and Asian energy developpers (Jean-Michel Valantin, “The Warming Russian Arctic: Where Russian and Asian Strategies Interests Converge?”, The Red Team Analysis Society, November 23, 2016).

The mammoth oil, gas, mineral and biological resources are becoming a giant economic attractor. Meanwhile, because of the effects of the Arctic warming, the Russian authorities open the “ Northern sea route”.

This new sea lane follows the Siberian coast and connects the Bering Strait to Norway and the Northern Atlantic. Thus, it also connects the immense Asian basins of economic development to Northern Europe and to the Atlantic. In the same time, Moscow militarizes the Siberian coast, the archipelagos. In the same dynamic, the Russian Northern Fleet and Army multiply patrols and sea and land manoeuvres.

The Arctic convergence of Russia and Asia

The combination of these two dynamics is also driving a continent-wide process of integration. It drives the construction of railroads, river and land roads, from Siberia to central Asia and China. In other words, the development of the Arctic is one of the drivers of the coupling of the Russian Northern sea route with the Chinese inter-continental Belt and Road initiative (Atle Staalesen, “Arctic gas finds new way from Yamal to China”, The Independent Barents Observer, April 1, 2020).

This massive shift of Asian and Russian societies towards the Arctic signals that this region is also becoming a convergence between states, economies and actors of different values, ideologies, and belief-systems, i.e. civilization (Norbert Elias, The civilizing process, vol.II, State formation and civilisation, 1982).

Hence, the Arctic Russo-Asian dynamic is nothing less than an adaptation strategy, at civilizational level, to the planetary upheaval of climate change (Jean-Michel Valantin, “Planetary Crisis Rules, (2)“, The Red Team Analysis Society, February 15, 2016).

This begs the question of the place of the West in the new “Game of Thrones” of the changing Arctic.

The Western Arctic non-strategy

Militaries without a strategy

If we compare the way Russia and Asian countries develop the Arctic, and the Western countries’ corresponding actions, it comes that the latter remain largely passive. It becomes increasingly obvious that Western Europe, as well as the U.S. and Canada do not know how to project themselves in this new planetary and geopolitical reality.

This Western non-strategy results from an absence of real reaction by most Western countries to the warming of the Arctic (Edward Luttwak Strategy, the Logic of War and Peace, 2002). Indeed, these reactions become a geopolitical system of passivity.

Actually, the most visible kind of reaction is the built-up of military forces, without any clear long term strategic statement.

This is the case, for example, of the 2016 and 2018 massive Norway-Iceland exercises. Those added up to the multiplication of air patrols, and the growing presence of U.S. Navy war ships. This presence takes place along the air and maritime borders of Russia on the Barents Sea. The U.S. Navy manifests itself also by conducting manoeuvres around the Bering Strait (“Navy, Marine Corps conduct Arctic expeditionary capabilities exercise in Alaska”CPF Navy Mil, 3 September, 2019”).

This naval and aerial military build up is a way for the U.S. to assert themselves as a sea power. And as such, they have to show their capabilities to disrupt the naval movements of land powers such as Russia and China. However, this capability does not support the definition of political aims and military goals (Luttwak, ibid). They are nothing but a presence that has no distinct effect on the Russian and Asian Arctic strategies.

Western integration to Asian stategies

The other category of Western Arctic “actors” embraces the countries that integrate and support Russian and Chinese strategies. For example, since 2014, China projects itself in the Arctic. Among other things, it obtained the status of “near Arctic nation” at the Arctic Council. In the same time, Beijing turned the “Northern sea route” into the Arctic segment of its “Belt and Road initiative”.

Among others, the Chinese president Xi Jinping promotes this “Polar Silk Road”. Between 2014 and today, he signed bilateral trade and technology with Iceland, Greenland, Danemark, Finland, Sweden, and Norway. In the same time, Russia and China multiply joint trade, industrial, transport and military operations ( Jean-Michel Valantin, “Arctic Fusion: Russia and China convergent strategies, 2014)”, The Red Team Analysis Society, June 23, 2014).

In other words, the very members of the Arctic council, all of them Western countries, at the notable exception of Russia, are becoming stakeholders and supporters of the Chinese strategy in the Arctic.

This means that, despite a growing military presence, Western powers are non-strategic actors in Russian and Asian Arctic strategies. At best, they are stakeholders. In other terms, Russia, China and other Asian countries are starting to dominate the warming Arctic, while Western powers are not (Jean-Michel Valantin, “Towards a US-China War? (1) and (2): Military Tensions in the Arctic”, The Red Team Analysis Society, September 16, 2019).

Embracing the planetary crisis

However, geophysically, what currently happens in the Arctic also signals the installation of a chronic and growing instability. This geophysical dynamic translates itself into geopolitics. It follows that the merging new politics of this region are also in a state of constant change.

It is interesting to note that the nations that react rapidly to this situation are Russia and China. They have in common to have gone through decades upon decades of dramatic and extremely violent changes.

That was the case for Russia and China since the start of the twentieth century, and even since the middle of the nineteenth century for China (Lucien Bianco, La Récidive, Révolution russe, révolution chinoise, 2014).

Adaptation and crisis

One can also note that for Asian belief-systems, such as Taoism, the world is in a state of constant flow. And when it comes to Russia, one must remember its collective resiliency and adaptation capability.

This capability emerges from the collective experience of centuries of social, climate and political harshness. Thus, those societies inherit from the collective experience of continuous rapid and necessary adaptation to extreme conditions (Giovanni Arrighi, Adam Smith in Beijing, 2007).

Elsewhere, Western countries have been through a long cycle of social and economic development since World War II. This took place alongside a long period of political stability. This collective experience inclines certainly to maintain stability. In the same dynamic, it motivates to reject extreme situations that induce the necessity to adapt quickly (Arrighi, ibid).

However, nowadays, climate change is hammering the whole world, i.e. Western countries, as well as Russia and Asia. In this context, the race to the Arctic is going to intensify. Indeed, accessing to the warming Arctic is becoming a major geo-economic concern. Indeed, during the next years, the destabilization of the Arctic is going to reinforce the global climate crisis.

Towards a Western awakening in the Arctic?

Paradoxically, change in the Arctic is also becoming a new template to support modern economies. Thus, it may also support their possible transition towards sustainability. Indeed, this transition, if it happens, will need arbitrations and settlements about who does what in this region.

This new reality is a very powerful driver for the definition and projection of Western strategies in the Arctic. They need to do so in order to install a new system of checks and balances in this very unstable region. As it happens, “the roof of the world” is also the ultimate geopolitical high ground. You hold it, or you don’t.

Published by Dr Jean-Michel Valantin (PhD Paris)

Dr Jean-Michel Valantin (PhD Paris) leads the Environment and Security Department of The Red Team Analysis Society. He is specialised in strategic studies and defense sociology with a focus on environmental geostrategy. He is the author of "Menace climatique sur l’ordre mondial" (Climatic threat on the world order), "Ecologie et gouvernance mondiale" (Ecology and world governance), "Guerre et Nature, l’Amérique prépare la guerre du climat, "(War and nature: America gets ready for climate war) and of "Hollywood, the Pentagon and Washington".

Join the Conversation


  1. As always, these insights offer welcome depth and perspective to evolving global issues and dynamics. The West has been slow to respond to Asian investment in the rich Polar regions – now the question is if new responses will play well for the future? Just days ago, the US Coast Guard’s aging heavy Icebreaker, the Polar Star, was ordered to the Arctic.
    Also in this challenging year, the US Congress has finally funded and started ordering new heavy icebreakers, and potentially medium ice breakers as well. These moves have been influenced by leaders such as Admiral Thad Allen, (USCG retired) who chaired the Council on Foreign Relations Independent Task Force report, “Arctic Imperatives: Reinforcing U.S. Strategy on America’s Fourth Coast.”
    Will the West be able to leapfrog technology, and open new fronts such as space and sustainable, renewable, and effecient energy that will reduce or eliminate the strategic value of the East’s focus on this area? While the article highlight’s the adaptability of current leading Asian nations, “Western” society and capitalism has often proven capable of opening new fronts in strategic materials, resources, and technologies that can change the game drastically. But, that requires both political leadership and societal cooperation to achieve. We will see…

  2. I would like to add the following – sometimes the human element can make a huge difference in unexpected ways. Good people doing the right thing can build trust, and cooperation… l

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.