The Arctic has been a theatre of conflict ever since World War II. Currently, it has become the epicenter of a Cold War 2.0, in which climate change could be the deciding factor.
Since the Cold War, the Arctic has been militarised by the superpowers. In the latest episode of actions and reactions in the arctic region, Norway is opening Tromsø and its harbor for US submarines, Norway’s Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen confirmed. Besides widespread criticism from the population, Russia uttered its criticism also. Nevertheless, it is Russia that has arguably caused these developments.
Despite Norwegian statements that there was no intention to establish a permanent American military base in Tromsø, Russia considers a further expansion of NATO powers to be “against the previous practice of neighborly relations,” which would not remain without an answer, Russia’s Foreign Ministry stated in February this year, when the idea was first communicated.
In response to Russia’s concerns, Norwegian Defense Minister Bakke-Jensen stated that nothing had changed. The US mooring in Tromsø was a regular part of allied activities, and the international security regulations were complied with. The submarines that would be expected in Norwegian waters had no nuclear weapons, and the quay in Tromsø would only be needed 4-5 times a year. The 1975 Bratelli Doctrine, which prohibits the entry of warships with nuclear weapons on board, was therefore not being violated
The answer, the Russian Foreign Ministry referred to came in the form of what observers called the largest submarine operation in the North Atlantic since the end of the Cold War in October. At least ten submarines stationed on the Russian peninsula of Kola were involved in conduct that was continuously monitored by Norway and other NATO countries. Further Russian submarines had been discovered in the Norwegian Sea and the Barents Sea in what was not a mere military exercise but a demonstration of Russian strength. Moreover, it was meant to display the Russian capability of threatening the US coast via nuclear submarines.
And indeed, the Kremlin has significantly increased its activity in the Arctic. Abandoned bases from Soviet days have been reactivated, new bases have been built, and existing ones were expanded. In March 2017, Admiral Korolyov announced that Russia’s submarines would have reached 3,000 days of patrol in 2016, the same level that the underwater fleet had during the Cold War.
Russia has not been making a secret of the region’s relevance either. In Russia’s Maritime Doctrine of 2015, the Kremlin even considers the Arctic as a region of military conflict in the future. In this case, a potential military conflict is not warranted by traditional casus belli but on current environmental developments that have led to two Russian objectives:
First, climate change suggests that temperatures in the Arctic have increased drastically, with the results that a permanent Northwest and Northeast passage from Asia to America and Europe might open, which could significantly shorten the transport route. Moreover, Russia, which has always claimed parts of the Arctic, aims to levy service fees here. Second, the Arctic is likely to contain large quantities of raw materials, particularly gas, which could become available in the near future.
NATO has been monitoring Russia’s increased activity with concern and significantly expanded its scope of action in return. With the result that the total number of NATO nuclear submarines has decreased around the Arctic Circle also.
Moreover, NATO and its members, above all the United States, have set up new strategies that include increased military exercises and maritime patrols to counter the Kremlin’s maritime operations. Utilizing Tromsø will not be the last attempt in a Cold War 2.0 that is no longer just an arms race but a race for the Arctic and the future.