Security and the Arctic

          Fifth Annual Symposium of the Center for Security Policy Studies: The Arctic

October 27, 2022

To watch the Symposium, click HERE

For Panelists Biographies, click HERE

The Schar School’s Center for Security Policy Studies organizes an annual symposium on topics of enduring significance for international security.  Past topics have included the rise of Asia, nuclear weapons policy, the future of alliances, and technology’s impact on the future of warfare.  In 2022, the symposium focused on the Arctic as an emerging region – due to climate change –  where geopolitical and international economic competition and cooperation is changing, and may demand more attention from national policymakers.  This summary captures many of the points that a diverse group of Arctic experts provided during the event. 

To watch the Symposium, click HERE

PANEL ONE – Geography, Governance, Human Security

This first panel on Arctic Security highlighted how the Arctic is changing as well as the broader picture of governance in the region. The three panelists were Erin Sikorsky (Director of the Center for Climate and Security), Marisol Maddox (Fellow at the Wilson Center), and Eugenie Panitcherska (Canadian Embassy in DC).  The panel was moderated by Schar School Professor  Todd LaPorte.

Erin Sikorsky opened the discussion with a few critical points. Ms. Sikorsky notes the Arctic is warming four times faster than the rest of the world. What is known as the ice-albedo feedback loop ensures that the region will continue to heat at faster rates as damages continue to fuel the cycle. Scientists expect that if this warming pattern continues, we could see a sea ice-free summer once a decade. Without sea ice more human activity and damages to the ecosystems will occur. Ms. Sikorsky noted the unique risks to infrastructure. As permafrost melts, roughly 50% of Arctic infrastructure is at risk of damage by 2050.

Marisol Maddox addressed the unique challenges from a homeland security perspective as well as some of the critical governance bodies for the region. Ms. Maddox noted the common misconception that it is easy to liken the Arctic to Antarctica. Antarctica is a continent surrounded by ocean and governed through an international treaty. The Arctic, by contrast, is an ocean, surrounded by land mass and most of the Arctic falls within national jurisdiction of the Arctic 8 (US, Canada, Denmark (Greenland), Iceland, Finland, Sweden, Norway and Russia).

Maddox argued that the concept of a “race for resources” is more harmful than it is helpful; the resources are mostly already divvied up. The UN Convention on Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) is the most significant international governance mechanism for the Arctic. While the US is not party to this convention, it does view it as customary international law. Each of the eight Arctic nations have their own territorial claim to continental shelves in which the vast majority of resources lie. For a nation to extend its continental shelf it must submit a proposal to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf within 10 years of signing onto UNCLOS.

Ms. Maddox identified the Arctic Council (AC) as the premier forum for dialogue and coordination. The AC is not a governance body but has been host to several important legally binding agreements such as on Search and Rescue and Oil Spill Response. The AC is a consensus-based body and chairmanship rotates between the Arctic states every four years. With Russia  as chair until 2023, the remaining states agreed to cease meetings  due to Russia’s war on Ukraine. Due to the urgency of the work, indigenous peoples pushed to resume talks only in working groups where the projects do not include Russia.

Eugenie Panitcherska discussed human security impacts in Canada’s North. Canada’s North has the youngest and the fastest growing population in the nation and views its northern peoples and territory to essential to the nation’s overall identity.  Canada is guided by its Arctic policy framework released in 2019. It was co-developed over two  years with close collaboration among provinces, territories, and indigenous communities. The Arctic framework builds upon already in place initiatives such as the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change, and the Oceans Protections Plan.


Does COP22 signal an opportunity for Arctic matters to be addressed?

Ms. Maddox believes that one of the most important aspects that will be addressed at COP22 will be the financing of loss and damages, while Ms. Sikorsky does not have high hopes for the meeting, as tensions between the US, Russia, and China will make positive dialogues difficult.

Pertaining to Arctic state preferences regarding climate – is there a balancing act between economic development of the region and environmental protections?

Ms. Panitcherska responds that Canada is determined to push a strong financial commitment to the sustainable development of the region through inclusive policy in conjuncture with indigenous businesses and leaders, as reflected in their Northern Strategy. Ms. Maddox shows that the US needs to diversify projects and commitments to Alaskan resource extraction.

Are there infrastructure investments for the people who are already there in the region? The Arctic is becoming more habitable; spontaneous and/or voluntary migration north?

Ms. Sikorsky notes that migration patterns globally are mostly from rural to urban areas and Ms. Panitchersky discusses that in Canada, it is mostly young people who are moving to the urban areas for work/school/etc. Ms. Maddox notes that many Arctic nations are concerned of losing their homogeneity and warming will only bring more and more outsiders to their region. 

Issue of stakeholders vs rightsholders. How are forums like the Arctic Council, Arctic Economic Council, Arctic Circle Assembly and Arctic Frontiers, etc., making a space for indigenous communities and those most at risk, in the policy making process?

Ms. Maddox highlights that many of the institutions pertaining to the Arctic are private entities with no real legal capacity, however, are crucial as the conversations that happen on the margins of these meetings bring positive benefits. In the case of Canada, Ms. Panitcherska notes that Canadian stakeholders are integrated into Canada’s co-development efforts and have a rightful place in decision making. Ms. Sikorsky closes out the conversation to note that the Arctic is a microcosm for how geopolitical competition plays out globally. The question arises; are the institutions we’ve used previously fit for purpose? The US National Security Strategy that was recently released focuses on geopolitical competition between the US, Russia, and China and how all nations are seeking to set the rules of the road.

Written by Andrew Arlotto, Schar School MA candidate

PANEL TWO – The International Economic Dimensions

Experts on this panel highlighted the natural resource potential of the region while challenging common tropes about the region’s shipping and energy outlooks. Panelists included Cpt. Lawson W. Brigham of the University of Alaska and Wilson Center, former ambassador and current Schar School professor Richard Kauzlarich, and Safe Ports Inc. CEO Lucy Duncan. Kenneth Reinert, the head of the Schar School’s Global Commerce and Policy program, moderated the discussion.

Rich Resource Potential

Per the panelists, natural resources are central to the Arctic’s economic story. Lawson W. Brigham described a variety of the region’s endowments, including 10% of the world’s fishing; significant deposits of palladium, nickel, diamonds, platinum, zinc; 30% of global undiscovered natural gas; 13% of the earth’s undiscovered oil; potentially a quarter of the world’s rare earths; and significant coal and fresh water resources. These resources have generated significant investment attention. Brigham said hard mineral extraction is the region’s economic future, drawing global investors from Australia, China, Japan, and South Korea.

Arctic powers have started to take advantage of these resource endowments. According to Richard Kauzlarich, Russia has launched projects in oil fields in its Vostok and West Siberian regions. He also said Norway, which has become a major replacer of Russian oil imports for Europe, could use its considerable High North resources to further reduce continental reliance on Russia.

However, these resources are not easy, automatic windfalls. The business case for mining these assets, particularly the energy-related ones, follows global commodity prices. Kauzlarich pointed out that the natural gas price in Europe has plummeted and that peak oil consumption could potentially arrive this decade, so the diminishing revenue outlook may not merit operating in the expensive icy conditions. The war in Ukraine has further stymied energy projects in Russia, where Lucy Duncan said global commodity prices are a particularly strong driver of whether investments make sense. Of current market dynamics, Kauzlarich said sanctions have stunted Russia’s access to equipment imports, and military mobilization has drawn skilled workers away from the sector.

Tough Routes

Shipping—particularly shipping routes—presents a significant barrier to the Arctic’s potential. Shifting routes north can be an attractive notion; Lucy Duncan recalled Vladimir Putin touting the Northern Sea Route above Russia as a safer, more efficient alternative to traveling through the Suez Canal, particularly in the wake of the Evergreen incident. However, the experts contested the notion that these routes are real substitutes for non-polar passages. Duncan said shipping firms care about both the time and distance covered by voyages, and Brigham pointed out that the Arctic Ocean is “bluer,” but still substantially icy.

This iciness is a major impediment to the efficient traversing of the Arctic. Since Arctic ice can be unpredictable, Duncan said the slowness of traversing the Arctic offsets the shorter distance. Cargo ships’ containers are also not necessarily proofed against frigid temperatures, and the region’s extreme weather could damage cargo or even knock it overboard. Larger ships experience these issues to an even greater degree and must move even more carefully; if polar ice were to piece the fuel supply of massive cargo ship, the oil spill would be virtually impossible to clean. This goes both for goods shipped through the Arctic and from it, even for attractively priced resources like rare earths; Duncan said that shipping goods out of the region will remain expensive if there are not many companies with many items of cargo to fill up ships. 

Further Discussion:

What are the prospects for human capital development in the region?

In order to for regional production to reach the scale necessary to make cargo shipment more affordable, the Arctic needs more workers.More workers are necessary to achieve the scale necessary to stock these ships fully, but the Arctic is hardly an employment hotspot. While there are some seasonal efforts to attract workers when the weather is not as severe, Brigham noted that the Arctic’s cold temperatures keeps workers away. He also identified infrastructure as a significant push factor; melting permafrost threatens the stability of existing buildings and chokes terrestrial access. In shipping, Duncan described intense layers of training and licenses needed to operate in the region.

Indigenous workers may be key to solving human capital issues. Brigham pointed to Alaska’s Red Dog zinc and lead mine as a promising success story. Owned by Arctic natives, the mine should operate for 50 years, while providing valuable training programs for local indigenous workers.

Do market-supporting institutions exist to complement economic growth?

As global attention homes in on the Arctic opportunity, the institutions that govern the region’s economy will become more important. Brigham identified the Arctic’s governance regime as a major influencer of its economy, pointing to the IMO Polar Code—which creates restrictions for ships larger than 500 tons—as seminal to maritime operations in the High North. These regulations are just as important for the Arctic’s environment as they are for its sailors, since Duncan said a non-icebreaker ship hitting an iceberg would create an impossible-to-clean oil spill. Duncan also addressed search and rescue as an important institutional capacity. Kauzlarich also highlighted global environmental policies—even ones that do not specifically target the Arctic—as key to the region’s economic future. Though the Arctic’s mineral assets could still be useful for innovative energy solutions, Kauzlarich said shift to renewables may further dampen the need for the region’s oil and gas.

How does the region’s economic prospects impact its security outlook?

The progress of Arctic markets and institutions will develop amid a changing security landscape for the region. Kauzurlich said that while the Arctic has not historically been a region of conflict, great powers are upping their attention for the High North. The war in Ukraine has created acute tensions in relations between Russia and its Northern neighbors; Kauzurlich said fellow Arctic nation Norway has been arresting potential spies in the wake of the opening of its pipeline to Poland. He also claimed that China’s budding interest in Greenland was a notable development, and Brigham said Canada has blocked proposed investments from the PRC. into the Canadian Arctic. Duncan said that, even if the business case for further development of the Arctic falters, governments will be willing to mobilize for development if a military need arises.

Written by Carter Coudriet, Schar School MA candidate

PANEL THREE – International Security Dimensions

The final panel addressed the strategic “war and peace” themes, and examined the national security perspectives of key Arctic states, and the prospects that new access to the region, and new competition over its resources, could lead to conflict. Panelists included David Auerswald from the US National War College, Doyle Hodges, Executive Editor of the Texas National Security Review and adjunct professor at the Schar School, and Rebecca Pincus, director of the Polar Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Ellen Laipson, Director of the Schar School’s International Security Program, and of the Center for Security Policy Studies, moderated the panel.  

David Auerswald reminded the audience that all of his remarks are personal and not on behalf of the U.S. government. He characterized the threat environment in the Arctic has changed from being an area of low tension to one of high tension due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.  Nordic states have been wary of Russian intentions in the Arctic for years and those tensions have only increased over the past ten months due to broken norms. The new 2022 National Security Strategy was brought up which mentions the Arctic and makes the point that the U.S. strategy towards the Arctic has not changed from past policy, which was also upheld in the National Strategy for the Arctic which has the same desired end state as what was published in 2013. He then turned his attention to focus on the European, and particularly the Nordic, region of the Arctic which is the most contested and least stable. The expansion of NATO to include Sweden and Finland is only increasing the instability; Russian threat perceptions change as their second-strike capabilities become more vulnerable.

Doyle Hodges began his remarks with a simple statement: it’s really cold in the Arctic and navigation isn’t easy. He then went on to lay out the challenges associated with land, air, maritime, and submarine domains. The challenge in the land domain is that there is not a lot of it due to the fact that the majority of the Arctic is maritime. Operating in the region can be akin to operating in chemical or biological warfare environments due to the amount of protective gear that is necessary. Operating in the air domain is challenging due to the cold and less accurate precise positioning systems which stems from less satellite coverage over the Arctic, making it difficult to operate precise weapons targeting systems. The maritime domain is challenging to navigate due to the amount of ice in the water and ice that accumulates on the ship which reduces the speed the ship can operate. The submarine domain’s main challenge is that while submarines are able to operate and hide beneath the ice, they cannot launch missiles through the ice, so their operations are limited. Doyle Hodges ended his statements with the fact that as much as we care about the region, the threats that the U.S. are prioritizing are not in the Arctic and, therefore, investing heavily in the Arctic could be a waste of military resources.

Dr. Rebecca Pincus began her remarks with the fact that the U.S. National Defense Strategy had been released during the symposium, and its text gave little mention of the Arctic.  In her view, this implies that the Arctic is not a strategic priority U.S., particularly as compared to the centrality of the Indo-Pacific. Yet she cautioned that geopolitical tensions in other parts of the world could have spillover effects in the Arctic.  First, she mentioned horizontal escalation where a conflict is deliberately expanded geographically into the Arctic to distract or increase pressure. Next, the focus was on unintentional escalation via three avenues. The first is in the Gray Zone where a state operates below the threshold of conflict in the Arctic, such as attacks on cables or GPS jamming, which can escalate in uncertain ways. Second, escalation through military exercises can occur if there are accidents, which occur somewhat frequently in the region and have special risks due to the nature of the Arctic. Lastly, community impacts could lead to escalation if a civilian accident occurs on or around border areas due to limited search and rescue and the potential for a military response.


Q: When accidents happen in the Arctic, do you see the Arctic environment as permitting countries to help each other in spite of differences? In the scenarios of accidents, is this something that Arctic nations are looking to diffuse and help each other? Would we respond differently within the context of the Russia conflict?

Rebecca Pincus responded that we currently see strong information sharing between Arctic nations, minus Russia, and strong multilateral and bilateral relationships. In the last several months we have even seen strategic declassification which enables allies to operate with a common denominator and trust. There used to be more interaction and cooperation between Russia and Nordic states whereas now there is a wall with tensions the highest they have been in decades.

David Auerswald made the point that there already exist relevant treaties that lay out levels or areas of responsibility in the Arctic. While countries are not obligated to help if the accident occurs outside of their zone, they can provide help voluntarily.

Doyle Hodges added that a lot of times it will depend on the nature of the mishap where the greater the event/tension, the greater the incentive to respond. The U.S. Navy makes a point to routinely provide assistance if they are able to for the purpose of upholding norms and the right to be in the region.

Q: How active is China in the Arctic? How significant is the China factor? To what extent should the Arctic be part of the Indo-pacific strategy?

David Auerswald responded by laying out two aspects: economics and security. Ten years ago, states started to become more aware of Chinese economic influence. Due to that awareness, Arctic states have prevented or pushed back on Chinese investment so that today there is limited Chinese economic investment in the Arctic. On the security side, there is concern that China will employ technology in the region to monitor NATO countries and gather intelligence.

Doyle Hodges stated that China is not a country of infinite resources and that there are other places China would like to put resources. While he cannot say for sure that we will not see a brief Chinese presence in the Arctic, there is not a near-term danger of China building a substantial presence.

Rebecca Pincus added that China may be pursuing polar-capable submarine capabilities to expand second-strike capabilities. Additionally, there has been more Russian and Chinese military cooperation which is showcased via combined military exercises as well as increased economic cooperation.

Q: How should we think about the role of conventional forces vs special ops forces in the Arctic? What is the balance?

Doyle Hodges answered that special ops can be conceptualized as highly specialized light infantry and because it is really difficult to operate in the Arctic, a small unit might have more impact. However, the Arctic is not uniquely suited for special ops and it would be very difficult to extract a team.

Rebecca Pincus asserted that conditions in the Arctic are extremely inhospitable so the risk of ground or surface naval invasion is very low. She also made the point that not a lot of targets in the region would require a soft team and could be targeted using a missile since they are fixed-position systems.

Q: States cannot do everything, what do they give up in order to devote resources to the Arctic?

David Auerswald established that the impression of U.S. policy is that it is not willing to give up a whole lot to prioritize the Arctic, but will instead do things that do not cost a lot of money, time, or resources.

Doyle Hodges similarly claimed that militarily, the U.S. military gives up the Arctic since it is not overly concerned that there will be a dramatic, highly capable adversary in the Arctic.

Rebecca Pincus brought the event home by stating that the U.S. has more 5th Generation fighter aircraft in Alaska than anywhere else to serve as a ready response force for any type of incursion. The U.S. also has a highly capable submarine force that operates in the Arctic as well as an over-the-horizon radar system that is calibrated toward threats we think are most likely. There is little to no concern over a land invasion from Alaska; the U.S. is more worried about a long-range missile attack.

Written by Sarah Wells, Schar School MA Candidate