Munich Security Report 2017

The Arctic: Tempers Rising?

Warming at a pace of at least twice the global average,1 the Arctic is undergoing a dramatic transformation that may also entail far-reaching geopolitical and security implications. In late 2016, the average extent of Arctic sea ice was a staggering 8 percent less than a decade earlier, setting the lowest record since the beginning of satellite observation.2 The melting of these vast natural reflectors, which prevent the Arctic Ocean from heating up, thus endangers one of the planet’s most vital systems to moderate global climate. 

“The Arctic is key strategic terrain. Russia is taking aggressive steps to increase its presence there. I will prioritize the development of an integrated strategy for the Arctic.”13


While climate change in the Arctic exacerbates challenges to climate security worldwide,3 the Arctic’s increasing accessibility is also of economic significance: as melting sea ice reveals vast amounts of potentially exploitable hydrocarbon resources, some observers fear new conflicts over existing territorial disputes. Others regard the Arctic region as a positive example of cooperation among states that often are at loggerheads elsewhere but do cooperate quite well within the current governance framework, including the Arctic Council.4 Indeed, at least on Arctic matters, states have a history of adhering to international rules, with Russia’s submission to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf in 2016 serving as a recent example. Moreover, up to 95 percent of the region’s estimated resources are located in areas of undisputed jurisdiction.5 Thus, predictions of a hostile race for oil and gas in the High North seem unwarranted. 

Potential for conflict does exist, however. As the region becomes more navigable, Russian observers worry that “the ice melt will do to the Arctic what the fall of communism did in Eastern Europe,” i.e., diminish Moscow’s regional influence.6 Russian military engagement in the Arctic has increased remarkably in recent years. Moscow argues its activities are moderate and defensive in nature, but suspicion in the West is growing.7 Shipping rights and the power that comes with them mark an issue fraught with particular tension: in 2011, then-Prime Minister Putin said he expected the so-called Northern Sea Route to attain the economic significance of the Suez Canal.8 Moscow is trying to assert legal authority over that route, which most other nations, including the United States, regard as inter-national waters. Running roughly along Russia’s coastline, the route could become a major shipping passage, cutting transit time between Europe and Asia by up to 15 days compared to current routes and potentially allowing Russia to profit from tariffs of up to USD 500,000 per tour.9 

Consequently, Arctic affairs have become a matter of global attention.10 Speaking to the Arctic Circle Assembly in late 2015, China’s Vice Foreign Minister Ming declared his country “a major stakeholder in the Arctic.”11 In 2016, the European Union, too, underlined that it has a “strategic interest in playing a key role” in Arctic affairs, and that it is now “more important than ever to ensure that the Arctic remains a zone of peace, prosperity, and constructive international cooperation.”12 


  1. Henry Fountain and John Schwartz, “Spiking Temperatures in the Arctic Startle Scientists,” The New York Times, 21 December 2016,
  2. Jane Beitler, “Sea Ice Hits Record Lows,” National Snow & Ice Data Center, 6 December 2016,
  3. See, e.g., The Norwegian Polar Institute, “The Climate in the Arctic Has Impact Worldwide,”
  4. Kathrin Keil, “The Arctic: Hot or Not?,” Sustainable Security, 5 January 2017,
  5. Lincoln Edson Flake, “Russia’s Security Intentions in a Melting Arctic,” Military and Strategic Affairs, Vol. 6, No. 1, March 2014,
  6. See endnote 5.
  7. Kenneth S. Yalowitz and Vincent Gallucci, “Can the U.S. and Russia Avoid an Arctic Arms Race?,” Wilson Center, 19 April 2016,
  8. Gleb Bryanski, “Russia's Putin Says Arctic Trade Route to Rival Suez,” Reuters, 22 September 2011,
  9. For dates on shipping time, see Melissa Bert, “A Strategy to Advance the Arctic Economy,” Council on Foreign Relations, February 2012, For a dis-cussion of potential fees, see Mead Treadwell, “Will Arctic Nations Let Russia Control Arctic Shipping? Should They?,” Harvard International Review, Vol. 36, No. 3, 8 April 2015, Note, however, that unpredictable weather conditions, restrictions on vessel size, and other factors would still be likely to pose major obstacles to high volume maritime commerce along the straits of the Northern Sea Route.
  10. Jörg Dietrich Nackmayr, “Die Arktis,” Österreichische Militärische Zeitschrift, No. 4, July/August 2016. 
  11. Zhang Ming, “Keynote Speech by Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Ming at the China Country Session of the Third Arctic Circle Assembly,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, 17 October 2015,
  12. European Commission, “Joint Communication to the European Parliament and the Council: An Integrated European Policy for the Arctic,” 27 April 2016, TXT/?uri=CELEX:52016JC0021.
  13. Robbie Gramer, Foreign Policy, “Here’s What Russia’s Military Build-Up in the Arctic Looks Like,” 25 January 2017, 
  14. Derived from the map, “Maritime Jurisdiction and Boundaries in the Arctic Region,” Centre for Borders Research, Durham University, For more information on exclusive economic zone boundaries, special zones agreed to in bilateral treaties, status of continental shelf claims, and methodology for projecting the extent of potential continental shelf claims see the more detailed map at link above. Sea ice extent data is courtesy of the US National Snow and Ice Data Center.
  15. Data on the NATO fleet provided to MSC by the Center for Strategic and International Studies; data on Russia’s Northern fleet provided by the CNA Corporation, based on a comprehensive data set of Russia’s naval capabilities. All numbers portray operational vessels only; especially Russia’s Northern fleet has a sizeable number of vessels that are currently not operational. The naval forces depicted are those most likely to be used in the Arctic if a conflict were to erupt. Other NATO nations, like Germany, could in theory also support NATO’s efforts in the Arctic through naval capabilities, but have traditionally not been involved in Arctic matters.