Will The Next War Be In The Arctic?

Earlier this month, Norway held its “Joint Viking” military exercises in Finnmark, the country’s northernmost province that shares a border with Russia. Involving 400 vehicles (6km if they were put end to end!), over 5000 troops, submarines, surface ships, and Air Force fighter jets, these war-games were the most extensive in 50 years. The last time Norway held military exercises in this region was 1967. (Click HERE for more about “Joint Viking”).

Just as this demonstration of Norwegian force was concluding, the Russian military began an even larger military exercise involving 40,000 servicemen, 41 warships, 15 submarines, and an undisclosed number of fighter jets. All of this was on the heels of Russia’s December announcement (click HERE) that it had formed a new strategic command to defend its interest in the Arctic and approximately 18 months after it began re-opening previously abandoned airbases in the region (click HERE).


Meanwhile, Canada recently announced a C$3.6 billion order of five highly specialized naval vessels (Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships) that would, among other tasks, “assert and enforce Canadian sovereignty when and where necessary” (click HERE). These ships are part of a C$36.6 billion National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy that includes the acquisition of Canadian Surface Combatants to “monitor and defend Canadian waters” (click HERE). Last summer, Canada’s NATO delegation exchanged aggressive tweets (that went viral) with a Russian delegation about geography and sovereignty (click HERE to see the tweets) and Canadian Premier Stephen Harper vowed to reassert Canada’s territorial sovereignty in the Arctic.

Over the past few years, many other nations have articulated an Arctic strategy.   The list includes the United States (click HERE), China (click HERE), Sweden (click HERE), Finland (click HERE), Denmark (click HERE), Iceland (click HERE), Japan (click HERE), Korea (click HERE), Singapore (click HERE), and even India (click HERE).

Why the sudden surge of interest in the region? One of the primary drivers, I believe, is climate change. As polar ice melts, natural resources become accessible. According to the USGS (click HERE), the Arctic contains “about 22 percent of the undiscovered, technically recoverable resources in the world,” most of which remain offshore.   The fact that tensions are rising at current oil prices is concerning given diminished economic incentives (click HERE).  Might higher oil prices catalyze conflict?  The strategic navigation lanes that are opening up as temperatures rise are another motivation. The amount of cargo transported through the Arctic has been rising rapidly and voyages through the Northwest Passage might reduce travel time for certain trips by as much as 40% compared to using the Suez or Panama canals.


Another explanation for escalating tensions may be Russian aggression in Ukraine and the resurgence of NATO’s relevance. While organizations such as the Arctic Council exist to enable multilateral dialogue, Russian tolerance for Western dominated institutions has been waning.   Given that Canada currently chairs the Arctic Council and the US is set to take over that position later this year, multilateral efforts to maintain peace in the Arctic may prove futile.  In fact, Duncan Depledge recently suggested the Arctic could be the next Crimea (click HERE).

In thinking about global risks, it’s worth considering the possibility of war in the Arctic and the ramifications for Russia, Norway, Canada, the United States, and other nations. Although the risk currently seems low, like temperatures and tensions, it’s definitely rising.