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Disappearing Arctic Ice Cap Opens New Terrain for Imperialist Conflict

The Arctic Circle is the scene of escalating imperial tensions and militaristic escalation. Capitalist irrationality is destroying the planet.

Carlos Rubio

July 28, 2022
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A soldier holds a machine gun as he patrols the Russian northern military base on Kotelny island, beyond the Arctic circle on April 3, 2019. The Russian military base is home to 250 soldiers and is to serve as a model for future military installations in the Arctic.
Image: Maxime Popov/AFP

The recent NATO summit in Madrid (June 28–30) was key to determining new strategic axes for the alliance in the present decade, with an eye to the future. While the war in Ukraine has changed the focus of the European countries, the tension between Russian president Vladimir Putin and NATO is not only about Eastern Europe. With Sweden and Finland slated to become NATO members after decades of “neutrality,” new tensions are emerging in the Arctic Circle.

Sweden and Finland Join NATO

The accession of Sweden and Finland to NATO comes as no surprise. Tensions in the Baltic Sea have been running high over the last decade. Russian submarines and ships have been sighted near the Swedish coast, and there have been tensions around the island of Gotland, a strategic enclave in the Baltic where Sweden has built up its military presence. Tensions between Finland and Russia provoked the collapse of the latter’s neutrality: Finland cut off Russian supplies of electricity to Helsinki and will now join NATO.

To be sure, the war in Ukraine triggered this final break with neutrality for both countries, but there were already signs of rearmament on the horizon. NATO membership is about not only defending against a possible Russian threat but also justifying the rearmament that the two countries are carrying out as they aim to secure their interests in the Arctic.

Denmark and Norway are the most interested in securing their northern territorial positions, which include Greenland, Svalbard, and hegemony in the Arctic Sea. Sweden and Finland, despite having no bordering territory, are nevertheless part of the Arctic Council, through which they are integrated cooperatively with the other Nordic countries. NATO membership will make Swedish and Finnish military units available for the alliance’s objectives in this area of influence.

Polar Tensions

As the ice thaws in the Arctic Circle, larger and inevitable frictions have begun to heat up between NATO and Russia. This will worsen as new partners are added to NATO, especially ones with direct Arctic connections.

NATO’s main partner, the United States, is beginning to take positions in the Arctic region vis-à-vis Russia. The northern part of Greenland, some 1,500 kilometers from the North Pole in Danish territory, hosts the northernmost U.S. air base in the world, in Danish territory. The United States also maintains bases in Keflavík, Iceland, and Værnes, Norway. The principal U.S. capabilities, though, are structured around Alaska, with its many military bases, natural resources, and control of the Bering Strait, key for the transit of goods on the northern route (the Northwest Passage). Through fleet launches in the North Atlantic and recent military maneuvers with various NATO partners, the United States has of late been demonstrating its capacity to deploy its forces.

More than any other country, Norway is strengthening the U.S. military presence in the Arctic. Norway signed a contract a few months ago to build U.S. military facilities at three Norwegian airfields and a Norwegian naval base. But Oslo’s impetus to demonstrate its importance as a NATO ally doesn’t stop there. In March and April, Norway was the site of Cold Response 22, the largest NATO military exercise in Arctic territory since the 1980s, which involved more than 30,000 soldiers and 200 aircraft from the alliance’s various partners. But Norway is not the only Nordic country involved. Sweden and Finland had already participated in Trident Juncture 2018 military exercises, also hosted by Norway and organized by the United States.

Other NATO countries with significant Arctic territories have also been busy. Canada has increased its maritime capabilities by building patrol vessels and acquiring amphibious vehicles. Denmark, for its part, aims to maintain its sovereignty over Greenland, fully aware of the economic benefits possible from the systematic exploitation of the island and its surrounding waters.

Then there’s Russia, which seems to be the main antagonist in all these aspirations for Arctic dominance. Putin’s interests in the Arctic are well known. In recent years, Russia has claimed 50 percent of the total Arctic area. To secure these claims, it has since 2013 been deploying and equipping new military bases with supersonic missiles at key points, while increasing the capacity of bases left over from the days of the Soviet Union. As tensions with the European Union and NATO escalated after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, Moscow prepared a strategic plan for 2025 that includes increased military maneuvers in the Arctic territory and spending to improve military capabilities in the region. In 2018, Russia deployed Vostok-18, a military exercise involving 300,000 troops, the largest Russian maneuver in the Arctic in more than 40 years.

Now, in the context of economic sanctions on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine, Putin has new, necessary objectives: securing Russia’s dominance over a key resource environment and maintaining control of the northern passage (the Northeast Passage).

From time to time, as the ice continues to melt and their strategic positions shift, every state bordering the Arctic Sea makes a claim to Arctic territory. For its part, the European Union invested €1.2 billion from 2007 to 2013 in the economic development of Arctic territories. Against the backdrop of tensions between Russia and NATO partners, it is only a matter of time before competing claims are made, one country’s claim is declared illegitimate by another country, and open disputes erupt over specific maritime or land areas.

Even powers far from the Arctic Circle are beginning to extend their influence, adding to the already open tensions. China invests $60 million in polar research each year and will soon have as many icebreaking ships as Arctic countries like Norway. The northern route has begun to become important as part of Beijing’s plans for its “New Silk Road,” which means it’s only a matter of time before China seeks to increase its military presence in the area, as it has already been doing in Africa and other parts of Asia.

Within the Arctic territories themselves, the Inuit peoples and First Nations in both Canada and Greenland are talking more and more about independence, a reaction to their imperialist domination by the Canadian and Danish states. The isolation to which the Canadian government has subjected the Native peoples for decades, and the systematic exploitation of their resources, have combined to create harsh social exclusion and conditions of poverty far worse than anywhere else in the country. The lack of opportunities that Canadian policies impose on these people is also responsible some of the highest suicide rates in the world.

Greenland remains a semicolonial territory that, despite having a nominal self-government, remains under the tutelage of Copenhagen. The desire of Greenland’s Inuit peoples for self-determination are being used by the United States, China, and other powers as they seek to establish their energy companies in the territory and exploit the enormous reserves of diverse natural resources, including uranium, gold, and zinc that are being found under the ice. This U.S. interest in Greenland was reinforced by Donald Trump when he proposed to Denmark that the United States purchase the island, but despite that comical request the objective has been building gradually, with contracts that open the way for the U.S. mining in the territory — including one signed in 2020 for 11 billion euros.

Thaw: Problem for the World, Advantage for the Imperialists?

Prior to the NATO summit in Madrid, NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg and the Spanish State’s prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, had emphasized that one its main topics would be to address how to cooperatively mitigate the effects of the climate crisis. Nothing could be further from the truth. NATO, Russia, and other powers such as China are actually interested in a thawing Arctic, which increases possibilities for exploiting natural resources that until now have been largely untouched, for colonizing territories difficult to take over when their climates were more extreme, and for opening and facilitating commercial travel through the Arctic Sea. Opening the Arctic Sea would significantly shorten the route between Asia and Europe, which is why commercial giants such as China have begun to include it in their plans for expansion and commercial hegemony.

January 2022 saw about 184 ships making the voyage through the Arctic, an increase of 15 percent over the same month one year earlier. While most of these ships were fishing vessels, more oil and gas tankers are poised to appear in the region. The Arctic accounts for an estimated one-fourth of the planet’s oil and gas reserves, and states are beginning to test that figure. Nearly 600 mining and gas exploration projects are already underway, with that number expected to grow by 20 percent. Add to oil and gas the other resources of the Arctic, such as rare earths, and the value is thought to be $1 trillion.

The lack of any effective regulation of the territory makes the disappearance of the ice a key opportunity for capitalist powers to become contestants in a new polluting game in which tensions are growing between all the countries involved.

The Arctic ice cover is melting at a yearly rate of 12 percent. The loss in Greenland is even more worrying: more than 5,000 gigatons of ice have been lost in the last two decades, with no reversal in sight. The frenetic melting of the poles will, according to studies, cause a rise in sea levels that will cause floods around the world, with catastrophic consequences for more than 400 million people.1Sources

Angel García Estrada, “Cambio climático y aproximación de las potencias al Ártico” [Climate change and how the world’s powers are approaching the Arctic], bie3: Boletín IEEE (17): 650–77.

James Meadway, “The Next World War Could Be Over the Arctic,” Novara Media, May 24, 2022.

Ignacio José García Sánchez, “El Ártico: ¿Vieja o nueva geopolítica?” [The Arctic: Old or new policy?], in Spanish Ministry of Defense and Instituto Español de Estudios Estratégicos, eds., Panorama geopolitico de los conflictos [Geopolitical overview of conflicts]: Madrid, 2015.

Northern Sea Route Information Office, “NSR Shipping Traffic — Activities in January 2022,” Nord University, n.d.

We Need a Way Out of Escalating War in the Arctic

We face entrenchment and militarization in the Arctic, with increasingly direct confrontation between NATO and Russia and the involvement of other actors such as China. Simply put, an open military clash in the future cannot be ruled out. The hegemonic imperialist powers and the emerging powers all aspire to conquest and domination. They seek to systematically exploit large parts of the territory. They are abandoning any pretense of cooperation and diplomacy that once existed.

To ensure their capitalist interests, the imperialist countries are increasing their military expenditures as they prepare for new confrontations and to redouble their plundering of the world’s people. This will mean destroying ecosystems that are key to human life, putting at risk millions of people and leading to irreversible consequences for the environment.

In the face of this greater warmongering, only the world’s working class and oppressed can offer a progressive solution. The growing destruction of the Arctic, the worsening climate crisis, the exploitation of polluting resources against the will of the Native peoples surrounding the Arctic Sea, and direct war between the planet’s major powers make it urgent — for survival — that we fight to abolish this destructive capitalist system. We must fight for a socialist society in which workers about our own future on the planet, in a rational way, as we put an end to capitalist private ownership.

Capitalism aims to destroy the planet. Instead, let’s destroy capitalism!

First published in Spanish on July 26 in IzquierdaDiario.es.

Translation by Scott Cooper

Notes

Notes
1 Sources

Angel García Estrada, “Cambio climático y aproximación de las potencias al Ártico” [Climate change and how the world’s powers are approaching the Arctic], bie3: Boletín IEEE (17): 650–77.

James Meadway, “The Next World War Could Be Over the Arctic,” Novara Media, May 24, 2022.

Ignacio José García Sánchez, “El Ártico: ¿Vieja o nueva geopolítica?” [The Arctic: Old or new policy?], in Spanish Ministry of Defense and Instituto Español de Estudios Estratégicos, eds., Panorama geopolitico de los conflictos [Geopolitical overview of conflicts]: Madrid, 2015.

Northern Sea Route Information Office, “NSR Shipping Traffic — Activities in January 2022,” Nord University, n.d.

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