The ghost of an “iron curtain” hangs over the Arctic, a very strategic space

On Norway’s northern coast, 20 tonnes of goods shipped from Russia were stopped for several weeks at the Russian-Norwegian border crossing at Storskog. His final destination: a city of Russian miners to deliver on the Svalbard island chain in the Arctic. Enough to provoke Moscow’s anger. As it did with Lithuania with regard to the Kaliningrad Wall, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs raised the threat of “retaliation” after what he considers to be one “unfriendly action”. Oslo cited strict compliance with EU sanctions against Russia as a justification for blocking the goods, and Oslo ended up allowing the container to transit through a port on its Arctic coast.

Although the case has been clarified, the case reflects the now icy relationship between the Western powers present around the Arctic (Scandinavia and North America) and Russia, marginalized in the far north since the invasion of Ukraine. In turn, the war between Russia and Ukraine broke the fragile architecture of cooperation built in the 1990s. At the height of East-West tensions, the Arctic was a Cold War hotspot, ultramilitarized and equipped with nuclear warheads. And then the peaceful policy of Mikhail Gorbachev, who called as early as 1987 that ” Arctic, become a peace zone ” then the collapse of the USSR in 1991 brought relaxed conditions north of the 66th parallel. This diplomatic warming led to the establishment in 1996 of the Arctic Council, in which the eight countries bordering the region (Canada, USA, Denmark, Iceland, Finland, Sweden, Norway and Russia) and the indigenous peoples inhabiting it.

The ghost of a new “iron curtain”

The said council suspended their die its activities after Russian tanks broke the Ukrainian border. Before resuming a few weeks later by dismissing Russia from its projects. Institutions such as the Arctic Council were designed in peacetime in a co-operation logic at least on consensual issues around indigenous peoples, climate and environmental issues. Nothing is planned in case of a boycott of a state. The risk is to see an iron curtain fall between the seven Western states that want to work together on the one hand and Russia on the other. », analyzes Florian Vidal, associate researcher at IFRI (French Institute of International Relations). This specialist in the region sees in this the end of the “Arctic exception” from the last thirty years. A parenthesis that wanted the Arctic, like space, to remain a zone of cooperation sheltered from the conflicts that shake the rest of the world.

These contradictions around the North Pole are not so new. The shock wave of the annexation of Crimea and the (first) war in the Donbass had already spread to the northern parts of the globe. Since 2014, Russia has modernized its military infrastructure, stemming from the Cold War and its northern navy, determined to push its advantage on the ice flag while NATO exercises multiply there. The membership of Sweden and Finland in the Alliance was to increase the militarization of the Arctic Circle, which offers an ideal geographical position for intercepting or firing missiles, at a short distance from the major countries of the northern hemisphere. At the time of the balance between nuclear deterrence, the USSR and NATO planned for the respective orbits of their missiles to pass through the Arctic for a reduced flight time. ” The militarization of the Arctic is still far from what it was at the height of the Cold War », temperament Florian Vidal. But the time has come for the powers to return to the area.

The lusts of the great powers

At the border with the Arctic Ocean thanks to Alaska, the United States attaches increasing importance to the Arctic. In 2019, Donald Trump even bought Greenland from the Danish authorities … who called the offer ” absurd ». More seriously, the U.S. Army General Staff released a document in 2021 setting out its strategy for ” regain Arctic dominance ” presented as one area of ​​great power rivalry » whose” China and Russia » at the expense of US interests.

Arctic resources arouse their greed as much as their military interest. The subsoil essentially hides huge reserves of gas and oil. The mineral wealth that is colossal, whether it is gold, platinum, diamonds, titanium or the rare earths that are essential for electronic materials and electric batteries. The Pentagon estimates Arctic mineral reserves at $ 1,000 billion. ” Russia, which owns more than 50% of the Arctic coast, remains the main country to exploit these resources, with Canada having a large mining sector. »remembers Florian Vidal.

Global warming also reveals new resources, ” mainly halite (from fishing) » thinks Florian Vidal. The international waters of the Arctic Ocean will open up for fishing when they become ice-free in a few decades. An agreement signed in 2018 between the EU, the eight states of the Arctic Council, China, Japan and South Korea bans commercial fishing in international waters in the central Arctic Ocean. The agreement proves to be of little use as long as the ice hinders this sea, but illustrates the appetite of the great nations.

The melting of the ice clears a new maritime route to the north. If it is still little used due to the bureaucratic constraints required by Russia, the insurance and the specific equipment required for the boats, its gradual opening during the summer will redirect the flow of world trade. Traveling from Shanghai to New York by container ship via the northern route takes seven days less than via the Panama Canal. Climate models predict ice-free summers in the Arctic in 2050. The map of the Arctic is still being redrawn.