November 5, 2019

Increasingly ‘Slippery’ Arctic: The United Kingdom in the Arctic and the Future of Arctic Security

Dr Duncan Depledge, Politics & International Studies Fellow at Loughborough University and Dr Caroline Kennedy-Pipe, Professor of War Studies at Loughborough University.
Dr Duncan Depledge, Politics & International Studies Fellow at Loughborough University and Dr Caroline Kennedy-Pipe, Professor of War Studies at Loughborough University.

Seemingly established beliefs about the geopolitics of an areas, such as the notion that the Arctic is “a permanently frozen zone of peace”, are changing.

On 5 November 2019, the International Centre for Defence and Security welcomed Dr Duncan Depledge, Politics & International Studies Fellow at Loughborough University and Dr Caroline Kennedy-Pipe, Professor of War Studies at Loughborough University, to a roundtable addressing Arctic security.

Science, commerce, defence

Concerning UK policy in the Arctic, Dr Depledge set the stage by outlining how current trends in the Arctic lend themselves to the notion of ‘slippery geopolitics’.

As trends in the Arctic have become increasingly ‘slippery’, the UK has taken a greater interest in the region, with then-Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson’s announcement in 2018 of a Defence Arctic Strategy (DAS), later renamed the UK Contribution to the High North. Several developments in the Arctic involving the UK were mentioned by Dr Depledge including the Royal Navy’s resumption of under-ice submarine operations, the ten-year programme to have over at least 800 Royal Marines training annually with Norwegian forces in the Arctic, the UK’s procurement of a fleet of P-8 Poseidon aircrafts to resume maritime patrols over the North Atlantic and High North, and NATO Air Policing by Royal Air Force Typhoons over Icelandic airspace, which began this week.

Dr Depledge then highlighted the UK’s three core interests in the Arctic in order of importance; science (e.g. climate change, technology development, environmental protection etc.), commerce (oil, gas, and trade as it relates to the City of London, and to a lesser extent tourism), and defence.

More open Arctic

British leadership in Arctic scientific endeavours, in particular, may depend on the future shape of the UK’s relationship with the EU. Dr Depledge explained that the UK would like to see a more open Arctic which is accessible to near-Arctic states, but not at the expense of its commitment to peace and stability. He also pointed out that British interests in the Arctic and Baltic are “coevolving” and at times intersecting as they are all part of the emerging Wider North. The UK, the Baltics and the Nordics also share common interests in preserving the strength of NATO in the Arctic (including through such exercises like Trident Juncture 2018) and beyond.

Professor Carline Kennedy-Pipe underscored that the UK’s defence strategy has been heavily influenced by previous conflicts in the Middle East, with Iraq specifically looming large. Therefore, the shift to consider the Arctic through a military lens after Iraq has been fairly recent. She also touched on Brexit and devolution which have together resulted in Scotland emerging to make a case for sitting at the Arctic table. The Republic of Ireland is also likely to be thinking about forming their own strategy for the Arctic.

Both roundtable guests also later addressed the future of UK Arctic policy saying that it will likely depend on the results of the upcoming elections. Over the past two decades, the main emphasis of the British approach to the Arctic has shifted between climate change, energy security, commerce and defence, depending on the Government of the day.

Russia in the Arctic

On the topic of Russia in the Arctic, Dr Depledge cautioned that the Arctic could be a source of division between NATO member states which could be leveraged and exploited by Russia. For the UK, it remains important to understand Russian interests in the Arctic, weigh how hard it should push back against Russian actions in the region and identify the line where actions could cross into provocation.

Dr Kennedy-Pipe added that Russia’s interest in the Arctic is not just about energy security, but also can be viewed and linked to Russia’s revisionist and expansionist agenda in the High North. A combination of declining demographics, sanctions, and instability in the Far East have raised the question of whether a declining Russia means a more dangerous Russia (hence Russia’s new mode of political warfare against the West), an important consideration when discussing geopolitics in the Arctic. Indeed, one upcoming issue will be resolving overlapping claims concerning the outer limits of continental shelves in the Arctic Ocean. When asked what NATO’s strengths were in the Arctic, soft-power diplomacy in the form of science, economics, and commercial access was noted.

China, India, Brazil

Other up-and-coming nations like China and India have also taken a keen interest in the Arctic thus introducing new questions. As China pursues their Arctic Silk Road, attempts to establish an Arctic presence through Greenland and Iceland, and rises on the international stage, how will this rebalancing of power affect Russian relations? As India increases their global reach and re-shapes their international identity by opening research stations in the Antarctic south and possibly by purchasing Russian Arctic coal, how will they open-up as a stakeholder in the Arctic and Antarctic? Does Brazil stand to benefit at all if Arctic developments establish a precedent for Antarctica in the event the current Antarctic Treaty System collapses? If the world pivots to renewable sources of cheap, clean energy and demand for fossil fuels slumps, how will this impact Russia’s Arctic resource ambitions? Will Russia act more deliberately to secure Arctic resources and take advantage of the market while it still remains? If major shipping companies are serious about boycotting Arctic shipping and are not, simply “green-washing” will this leave Russia and China to dominate Arctic shipping?

Transpolar Shipping Route

Discussions were had as to the extent a transpolar shipping route would impact international commerce. It was pointed out that the power of many international shipping routes comes from the ability to offload freight along the journey. However, it was noted that a transpolar shipping route need not rival the Suez or Panama Canal to be worth serious investment. A transpolar route could act as a backup canal for trade if the Suez Canal were closed off. Data gathering from commercial shipping could equip countries like China with significant knowledge about Arctic conditions.

Lastly, other roundtable participants noted that any serious conflict in the Arctic is unlikely to be only about international shipping or territorial claims for resources on exposed islands or the seabed. More broadly, conflict in the Arctic risks being a small part of a broader escalatory puzzle; if Russia sends their “little green men” to probe and test NATO in Svalbard, would this trigger a possible invocation of Article 4 or 5?

As the roundtable drew to a close, it was clear that the Arctic is now raising new questions for NATO and all countries looking to take advantage in a new era of slippery geopolitics.


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