Released 15 June 2022.
This podcast argues shortfalls in the international institutions governing the Arctic have allowed Russia and China to expand control over the region. It provides an overview of regional governance and power dynamics, outlines a three-part approach to correcting deficiencies, highlights attempts by Russia and China to circumvent international governance, examines how the Arctic’s governing institutions address Russian and Chinese growth in the region, and focuses on the institutional failures that have allowed Russia and China to expand—failures academic scholarship and US policy have not adequately addressed. Practitioners will find specific steps for rectifying issues with Arctic institutions to support the United States’ interests in the region.
Click here to read the article.
Keywords: geo-economics, economic statecraft, Russia, gray-zone warfare, hybrid warfare, geopolitics, Artic
Stephanie Crider (Host)
Welcome to Decisive Point, a US Army War College Press production featuring distinguished authors and contributors who get to the heart of the matter in national security affairs.
The views and opinions expressed on this podcast are those of the podcast guests and are not necessarily those of the Department of the Army, US Army War College, or any other agency of the US government.
The guests in speaking order on this episode are:
(Guest 1: Mark T. Vicik)
Decisive Point welcomes US Army Captain Mark T. Vicik, author of “Strengthen Arctic Governance to Stop Russian and Chinese Overreach,” which featured in the summer 2022 issue of Parameters. Vicik is a student at the Military Intelligence Captains Career Course at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. He holds a bachelor-of-arts degree in international relations and Middle East and North Africa studies from the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University. He conducts research on and writes about Arctic great-power dynamics and security issues and is the author of “The Future Arenas of Great Power Competition,” which was published in The SAIS Review of International Affairs.
Mark, I’m glad you’re here. Let’s talk about Arctic governance. Observers often credit effective intergovernmental organizations like the Arctic Council and universally respected international agreements like the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea with maintaining this prolonged period of cooperation in the Arctic. American policymakers have consistently relied on the maintenance of this rules-based order as foundational for their national security strategy in the Arctic. How does Arctic governance currently work?
Yeah, so, first off, thanks so much, Stephanie, for having me on and letting me share my work. It’s been such a privilege working with you and the teams at Parameters and Decisive Point. So the broad umbrella of what we call Arctic governance includes a variety of agreements that regulate activity in the region. The two that I highlight in my work are the ones that are most often cited by policymakers and academics as indicative of this spirit of cooperation that I look at kind of critically assessing questions about my work. But those two are the (United Nations or) UN Convention on the Law of the Sea or UNCLOS and the Arctic Council.
Looking in some detail at those two institutions, in 2008, in Ilulissat, Greenland, the five Arctic littoral states—Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the US—met and pledged to adhere to the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas (UN Convention on the Law of the Sea) to regulate territorial claims in the Arctic. This would give countries the right to exercise sovereignty to 12 nautical miles off their coastline as well as rights to exploring and exploiting resources up to 200 miles off their continental shelf and their exclusive economic zone. Any disputes to these territorial claims are supposed to be resolved through the UN Convention on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf).
Looking at the Arctic Council, it’s a multinational organization focused on improving conditions in the region. It provides a platform for Arctic states, indigenous groups, and interested observers to discuss issues like environmental protection, sustainable resource use, and human development. Russia, as an Arctic state, is one of the permanent members—and, as of 2021, is actually the chair, a position that rotates permanent members every two years. So, they’ll be in seat from 2021 to 2023. And China holds observer status.
Again, it’s frequently cited as one of the defining features to suggest this region’s atypically successful multinational governance.
It looks like things might be changing, though. How do Russia and China fit into the Arctic dynamic looking forward?
Speaking generally, Russia has a deep cultural connection to the region and has historically been one of the major players in international Arctic politics. To state the obvious, it has the largest Arctic territory of any state. It’s a key member of the Arctic Council and has historically had a pretty effective military capacity in its far north.
Since 2001, though, it’s really been rapidly expanding its military and economic presence in the region. It established the Northern Fleet Joint Strategic Command in 2014, and its 2008 (Foundations of the Russian Federation’s) State Policy for the Arctic (until 2021 and beyond) identified Arctic energy and mineral deposits as its strategic resource base for the future.
China, on the other hand, is lacking that historical connection to the region, so it’s been scrambling to artificially craft a foothold there as it increasingly acknowledges the region’s potential for future commercial activity. It’s been referring to itself as “a near-Arctic power,” which, I should note, the US government has referred to this title as nonsense (rightfully so).
More concretely, it’s been trying to work its way into Arctic governing institutions, primarily through scientific research. So it established the Yellow River Scientific Research Station on the Svalbard Islands in 2004, and, in 2013, that helped it get observer status in the Arctic Council. They’ve been using this scientific footprint to increasingly expand their economic—and, potentially, in the near future, military—capacity in the region. It’s been funding large infrastructure projects in various Arctic states, to include, in large part, Russia.
Talking specifically about my work, I argue that over the last decade or two, Russia and China have been deliberately exploiting shortfalls in Arctic governing institutions in order to increase their control in the region.
Regarding the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas (UN Convention on the Law of the Sea), there are two major, unresolved issues, the first being the Lomonosov Ridge, the second being the status of the North Sea Route (Northern Sea Route)—both of which Russia and China have been capitalizing to increase their control of the region.
Looking at the Lomonosov Ridge, it’s a roughly 1,100-mile-long underwater feature on the Arctic Sea floor that is likely quite resource-rich. In 2001, Russia submitted their first claim for its inclusion into their exclusive economic zone under UNCLOS. Since then, its claims have been rejected multiple times as scientifically insufficient. The ridge’s status still remains in dispute between various Arctic powers. In a 2007, though, we saw Russia send a deep-sea submersible to plant the national flag on the seabed there, which was an early indication that, without a clear ruling from the UN, they consider that space to be Russian territory—or, at the very least, space that they can and will attempt to exploit for resources.
The second issue pertains to the North Sea Route (Northern Sea Route), which is one of the key maritime transitways through Arctic waters, along with the Northwest Passage and the Transpolar Sea Route. It runs along Russia’s northern coastline. And with year-round ice coverage in the region increasingly shrinking due to climate change, it offers a potentially critical new commercial artery between East Asia and Europe.
Currently, the route’s status—that is, whether it’s classified as international waters or as a Russian internal waterway—remains ambiguous under UNCLOS. But Russia has been increasingly imposing constraints on foreign vessels attempting to navigate through the passageway. And additionally, they’ve been developing infrastructure fairly aggressively along that route, often with significant support from China via their Belt and Road Initiative.
Looking at the Arctic Council, its charter bans any discussion on military matters. Forums like the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable and the Northern (European) Chiefs of Defense used to partially fill this gap. But since 2014, Russia has been excluded from those venues based on their aggression in Crimea. And of course, China plays no role in them either. Economically, the Arctic Council has a pretty well-established norm of focusing on safe and noncontroversial issues, which has left these massive Sino-Russian infrastructure projects that increasingly define activity in the region as outside the purview of the Arctic Council.
So you can see that as developing military capacity and large-scale commercial operations increasingly define our adversaries’ activities in the region, Russia and China are able to continue to participate in following this rules-based international order while continuing to expand control of the region largely unchecked and outside the lens of multinational organizations.
In your article, you suggest a plan to strengthen Arctic governance. What would that look like?
Yeah, so, I offer up three areas of focus to supplement these existing Arctic governing structures to prepare for this increasingly competitive environment with our adversaries. The first is a proposal to supplement the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas (UN Convention on the Law of the Sea) to resolve specific Arctic maritime disputes—particularly, the ones that I highlighted earlier. The second proposal is for a new military and economic forum to fill the gaps in the Arctic Council. I genuinely appreciate the good work the Arctic Council has done. When Russia took over the chairmanship in 2021, it identified its priorities as promoting sustainable development, supporting indigenous populations, and protecting biodiversity. These priorities are pretty indicative of what we see on new countries taking over the chairmanship, and they’re good progressive goals that the US should be supporting.
But we can see that there’s a pretty glaring lack of mention of the massive economic projects and increased military activity that’s starting to form the foundation of Russian strategy in the region. We need a forum in place so that the US can continue to support those good, cooperative goals at the Arctic Council, but it has a venue to address and manage Chinese and Russian military and economic activity in a multinational setting.
Finally, I suggest the formation of the new northern security alliance that focuses on collective monitoring and security throughout the European and North American Arctic—like a (North American Aerospace Defense Command or) NORAD that would be extended to our European Arctic powers.
A lot of scholars talk about NATO as the potential future for multinational security alliances in the Arctic, but it really is falling short of being able to put forward a comprehensive plan for Arctic security. In 2016, NATO issued a general commitment to deter and defend threats to the North Atlantic. But, again, it’s fallen short of a comprehensive Arctic security policy. It’s a great alliance, but they’re just too many members with too limited an interest in the High North to really form an effective foundation for our security in the European Arctic. We need a more proactive, more streamlined, more focused northern security alliance to monitor and preempt Russian and Chinese incursions into the region.
Do you have any final thoughts? Can you pull this all together for us and put a bow on it?
I have two final thoughts, if you don’t mind: one focused and one a little less focused.
First off, I mean, whether or not everyone agrees with all of my assessments or recommendations, I hope that, at the very least, getting my work out there helps better frame the way we look at the strategic balance between cooperation and competition in the Arctic.
Since I started research for this paper, we’ve already seen some increased acknowledgement of the competitive aspects that our adversaries are bringing into the region. And the Army’s newly released Arctic Strategy, I think, does a really good job of acknowledging the changing competitive environment in putting forward some really good tactical- and operational-level changes to build our capacity to compete with our adversaries up there.
That being said, as we build this capacity to confront overreach by our competitors, I think it’s important to acknowledge that there’s good cooperation occurring in things like science and sustainable development and support to indigenous populations. And we need to be putting structures in place to separate the cooperative successes from the competitive necessities.
My second piece—and if you don’t mind me taking just a quick step back from the Arctic for a moment—I think it is worth noting, I have the privilege of being probably one of the more junior officers who’s had the privilege of contributing to this podcast. And I wanted to take a moment just to encourage my generation of young officers to think and write more critically about these strategic-level issues where we’re stepping into a highly complex strategic environment.
Based on all the junior officers and (noncommissioned officers or) NCOs I’ve had the opportunity to work with, I know we have teams in place that are more than capable of meeting those challenges. But I think we owe it to the American public that we’ve taken the oath to defend to continue to engage with these issues and prepare ourselves accordingly.
Thank you for taking that little side step, and thank you also for your contribution to Parameters.
I appreciate you giving me the opportunity to get my voice out.
Listeners, if you’d like to learn more about Arctic governance, you can read the article at press.armywarcollege.edu/parameters. Look for volume 52, issue 2.
Captain Mark T. Vicik, US Army, is a student at the Military Intelligence Captains Career Course at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. He holds a bachelor of arts degree in international relations and Middle East and North Africa studies from the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University. He conducts research on and writes about Arctic great-power dynamics and security issues and is the author of “The Future Arenas of Great Power Competition,” which was published in The SAIS Review of International Affairs.