Timo Koivurova – The Arctic as a setting for global security challenges

Timo Koivurova, Research Professor at the Arctic Centre (University of Lapland)

Many of the security challenges facing our planet are manifesting themselves in the Arctic region. The current estimate is that climate change is warming the region approximately four times faster than the global average. The global confrontation between the United States and China is visible in the region, as well. The war in Ukraine is changing the security environment of the region and poses serious questions on the future of Arctic co-operation. It is a critical time to discuss how we ought to react to these inter-connected security challenges in the region and what these challenges mean for Northern Europe in concrete terms. Helsinki Security Forum offers a unique opportunity for undertaking this debate.

Over many centuries, factors such as coldness, darkness, and remoteness have prevented the Arctic from being a site of armed conflicts between states – at least when compared to other parts of the globe. While the human population of the region has remained moderate in size, states have gradually extended their influence over a large part of the region over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries. At the same time, they have subjugated indigenous peoples – those, who have inhabited the region for centuries previously – under their sovereignty.

Although there have been almost no armed conflicts in the Arctic region – with the prominent exception of military operations in the European Arctic and Barents Sea areas during the major military conflicts of the 20th century– this does not mean that the region has not been of strategic military interest.

During the Cold War, the Arctic was one of the key strategic areas of interest for the Cold War’s main powers, the Soviet Union and the United States. In fact, they are even border neighbors at the Bering Sea – and the shortest route to hit the opposite side with a nuclear weapon was through the Arctic region. However, the expansion of military infrastructure and the ongoing presence of strategic forces never evolved into a “hot” conflict.

The end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union made it possible to launch international cooperation in the Arctic. It was, in fact, Finland who in the end of 1980’s took the initiative of starting international environmental cooperation between the eight Arctic states (the five Nordic states, USA, Russia, and Canada). The underlying goal of this initiative, also known as the mini-OSCE (the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe), was to create a communication channel between the Cold War rivals and in this way stabilise the relations between them. In 1991, cooperation on environmental protection was initiated between the Arctic states. It was further expanded with the establishment of the Arctic Council in 1996.

In general, the end of the Cold War enabled a flourishing atmosphere of cooperation in the Arctic region, which continued strong until Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. Even after this, cooperation in technical matters continued. However, the deteriorating relations between Russia and the West started to make cooperation increasingly difficult, even before Russia attacked Ukraine on February 24, 2022. Many processes in the Arctic region, such as the cooperation of the Arctic Council, have now been frozen for the time being due to Russia’s irresponsible and illegal attack.

The lived reality in the Arctic region is increasingly influenced by global security challenges. Once perceived a “frozen desert”, the Arctic is now warming at a tremendous rate, possibly up to four times faster than the global average. Climate change causes enormous challenges for the region’s environment and human communities residing in the area.

Many perceive the effects of climate change as a doorway to opening up the area for economic activity: for an even better utilisation of the area’s abundant natural resources or for new, shorter sea routes connecting the world’s key trading places. This has also meant that countries outside the region, especially China and other actors, have become interested in the region.

China’s growing scientific, economic, and alleged military presence in the region highlights another global security challenge in the region: the global geopolitical competition between China and the United States. The United States and its allies are concerned about Chinese activities around the world and challenge the Chinese presence also in the Arctic region.

For some time now, the United States and, more broadly, its Western allies and EU countries have deliberately blocked China’s attempts to make strategic investments in various parts of the Arctic region. This reflects the West’s changed relationship with China, a country which today is perceived as a strategic challenger or systemic rival.

Although the war in Ukraine can be considered a regional war, it is also a challenge to the entire global security system. The world’s second largest military power has attacked an independent state, with the intention of subjugating it to its sphere of influence. The reasons and actions of the Russian leadership show that it does not care about rules or institutions but perceives the world as a field of power politics. The frightening thing about this attack has also been the fact that it has fundamentally endangered the security of the entire planet. The Russian regime has explicitly threatened the West that it is ultimately ready to use nuclear weapons.

The war, which is still ongoing, has a powerful effect on the Arctic region, as well. It has already pushed Finland and Sweden to apply for NATO membership. If they are accepted as members, all the countries of the Arctic region – except Russia – will be NATO members. Since the current Russian leadership is explicitly hostile toward NATO expansion, it is hard to think that this would not have an obvious impact on the region’s geopolitical tensions or opportunities for cooperation.

Thus, insecurity in the Arctic region is now pervasive and complex. Climate change with its direct and indirect effects, the return of superpower politics, and its reflection in the Arctic region make the situation extremely complicated.

At present, it seems clear that the area is increasingly observed through the lens of hard security. NATO’s new 2022 strategic concept includes the High North dimension, and the United States and its allies have been increasing their strategic and operational capabilities in the region for some time already.

Many questions relevant to the development of the Arctic are still open. Questions such as: Will Putin’s power regime prevail in Russia even though the war in Ukraine has not gone according to their plans? Will the complete rift between the West and Russia push Russia to further deepen its Arctic co-operation with its strategic partner China, even though China appears to be maintaining a distance from Russia due to its dependence on Western markets?

It is clear that there is now a need for direct and explicit discussion regarding hard security policy. Traditionally, the Arctic region has been left out of these discussions. Having one place where the West and Russia can cooperate has been perceived as beneficial – even if general tensions between them remain. There has also been a continued desire to maintain co-operation on important issues, such as combating climate change and adapting to its effects in the region.

Russia’s attack on Ukraine has changed everything. Russia has explicitly framed its “special military operation” in an independent state in terms of power politics, while not even attempting to provide serious justifications in the framework of international law. This has awakened decision-makers to a vital fact: the need to treat the country and the actions of its current leadership with extreme seriousness. Trust in Russia is gone, and this presents fundamental challenges to any future Arctic co-operation.

The Helsinki Security Forum (HSF), organised in Finland, is extremely well-positioned to highlight the importance of the Arctic region from the hard security point of view. Arctic issues are of the utmost importance to us Finns.  A large proportion of our country is located in the Arctic and we have a long-standing presence in Arctic international politics. We share a long border with Russia. One of Russia’s major military establishments, it’s Northern Fleet, is located very close to us on the Kola Peninsula. It was Finland who initiated the process for international co-operation between the Arctic states. Again, it is Finland who has consistently supported it and made attempts to create ways of further strengthening it, e.g. via the meeting of the Arctic heads of states.

In other words, we in Finland very concretely face the security challenge presented by Russia, but remain ready, when the time is ripe, to find peaceful solutions to Arctic challenges. For these reasons, the Helsinki Security Forum offers a unique opportunity to open a serious discussion about possible approaches and to discuss how best to deal with these complex interconnected global security threats that manifest in the Arctic region.


Timo Koivurova is a research professor at the Arctic Centre (University of Lapland) and he is also a member of the Finnish Institute of International Affair’s Scientific Advisory Council.

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