Arctic Security Dynamics in the 21st Century | Carlsbergfondet
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Arctic Security Dynamics in the 21st Century

Postdoc-stipendium i Danmark | 02/05/2016

The Danish patrol vessel Ejnar Mikkelsen breaks through sea ice in the Arsuk Fjord in Southern Greenland. Source: and Kim Petersen

Worsened relations between Russia and the West following the Ukraine crisis have spread to the Arctic and made it more difficult for the regional states to cooperate with one another. It shows that Arctic politics are not just shaped by regional concerns, but that global events and dynamics shape the otherwise well-functioning regional cooperation.

Worsened relations between Russia and the West following the Ukraine crisis have spread to the Arctic and made it more difficult for the regional states to cooperate with one another. It shows that Arctic politics are not just shaped by regional concerns, but that global events and dynamics shape the otherwise well-functioning regional cooperation. The present research project uses the impact of the Ukraine crisis on High North politics to examine how Arctic politics is linked to global political dynamics. It shows that the impact of the Ukraine crisis on Arctic politics has been less severe than the impact of the crisis on other regions. Russia has acted aggressively in many other regions, but Moscow has been more hesitant in the High North. One can argue that the West has been more assertive than Russia in the polar region. The project argues that the Ukraine crisis shows a link between global and Arctic politics. Russia’s hesitancy can be explained by the fact that Moscow depends on Western assistance to achieve its significant energy goals in the region. Conversely, the US and EU have no grand strategic interests in the High North and they are therefore willing to include the Arctic in their punishment schemes. Arctic politics is therefore interest-driven, but one can only appreciate its regional dynamics by looking at the link between global and regional interests.

The impact of the Ukraine Crisis, perhaps the worst security crisis in Europe since the Cold War, was not just felt in Eastern Europe, but reached places that one does not immediately link to Kiev, Crimea, and the Donbas. The Arctic, a region where Russian-Western relations drive local politics, was one of those places. In April 2015, Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s controversial deputy prime minister, used a legal loophole in the Svalbard Treaty to visit Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago, thus circumventing the Western sanctions that prohibited him from entering Norway. The spectacular media stunt was a slap in the face of the Norwegian government and showed that the Western sanctions were not water-tight. Experts became worried when the Russian foreign minister concurrently decided to boycott the biennial Arctic Council ministerial for the first time since 2004. The crisis meant that the strength of the region’s well-functioning cooperative order was put to the test: could cooperation survive in the face of sanctions and mutual provocations?1

A small Danish search and rescue vessel sails in the Nuuk Fjord in Greenland. Search and rescue is one of the areas where regional cooperation is increasingly important. Source: and Signe Ryborg.

The Impact of the Ukraine Crisis

Figure 1: Western scrambles of Russian planes. Source: Rahbek-Clemmensen (2015)

My research has thus far shown that the impact of the crisis, though significant, has been less severe in the Arctic than in comparable regions. For example, Russian regional flight patterns illustrate how Russia has been less aggressive in the High North, compared to the Baltic region (see figure 1 below). Norwegian Air Force planes had to meet (scrambled, in military jargon) Russian planes 20 % times more in 2014 compared to 2013. In comparison, NATO experienced a 300 % increase in scrambles of Russian planes in the Baltic region. Regional cooperation continues in spite of a few unfortunate episodes, such as Rogozin’s visit to Svalbard and the Russian foreign minister’s boycott of the 2015 Arctic Council ministerial. The 2015 ministerial yielded significant accomplishment and opened for new concrete areas of cooperation. Russia’s 2015 continental shelf claim also indicated that Russia is careful not to increase regional tensions.2  The main threat to the status quo seems to be the Western sanctions scheme, which prohibits Western companies from providing essential technology and capital to the Russian Arctic energy industry. The Western sanctions have thus crippled off-shore energy exploration in the Russian Arctic and has halted otherwise promising projects, including an ExxonMobile-Rosneft project in the Kara Sea. In that sense, the Arctic seems to have avoided significant fall-out from the Ukraine crisis and, if anything, the West seems to be more bullish than Russia in the High North.3

A single vessel approaches the Nuuk Fjord in Greenland. Source: and Signe Ryborg.

Personnel from the Danish patrol vessel Ejnar Mikkelsen pose in front of the ship in the Arsuk Fjord in Southern Greenland. Source: and Kim Petersen.

Arctic Politics and Global Dynamics

The fact that the Arctic differs from other regions, where Russia has been very assertive, indicates how High North politics is linked to global political dynamics. My research shows that Arctic politics is driven by the interaction between regional and global grand strategic interests. For instance, Russia needs to find oil and gas in the Arctic if it is to maintain its status as a great power in the decades to come. However, the Russian energy industry depends on cooperation with Western companies and this dependence makes Moscow interested in maintaining regional cooperation in general. This explains why Russia has been less assertive in the High North than in other regions. Conversely, the EU and the United States have very few significant interests in the region and it therefore makes sense for them to exploit Russia’s vulnerability in the region to punish Moscow. Unlike what is sometimes claimed in the literature on Arctic politics, the region is not different from other regions per se. Arctic politics is driven by the interests of the most powerful regional players, but this constellation of interests just happens to facilitate regional cooperation.4

The Danish patrol vessel Knud Rasmussen helps Anguteq Ittuk, a Royal Arctic Line vessel which is stuck in the ice near Greenland. Source: and Kim Petersen. 

Experts and policymakers should, of course, appreciate these fortunate circumstances, but they should not take Arctic cooperation for granted. Interests change over time and it takes an active effort to preserve Arctic cooperation. Russia’s Arctic energy interests are the key variable to keep an eye on the years to come. Any sign that Moscow may put less emphasis on these interests or any dynamic that may make the Russian Arctic energy interests less profitable (such as the Western sanctions over Ukraine) should cause worry in the High North capitals. 

The Current Project

My three-year research project, two thirds of which is supported by the Carlsberg Foundation, examines whether and how the Ukraine crisis affects Arctic politics and how the region is linked to global political dynamics more generally speaking. The grant has allowed me to focus squarely on Arctic affairs and to collect data both in the Arctic and in the capitals of the High North states. For instance, I will be interviewing key decision-makers in Nuuk, Washington and Ottawa later this year. These trips allow me to gather data for my project and to build cross-cutting networks between the Arctic and the capitals. These networks can be used in future Arctic-related research projects. 

My research has always embodied principles similar to scientific social responsibility. The current project hopes to shed light on the dynamics of Arctic institution-building and thus helping to facilitate more durable Arctic institutions in the future. Regional development depends on effective international institutions and cooperation, which in turn depend on well-functioning relations between the great powers. This is why institution-building is one of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals. For instance, in recent years, the Arctic Council, the regional international institution of the High North, has spear-headed several regional initiatives in areas such as shipping safety, economic development, and environmental protection. Such initiatives only work because the great powers do not let disagreements in other regions affect whether and how they cooperate about concrete challenges in the Arctic. By mapping how Arctic politics may be affected by events in other regions, the present project helps to make policymakers aware of the dangers of conflict spill over and provide concrete recommendations for avoiding unnecessary clashes in the High North. Denmark is one of the five Arctic coastal states and has a large influence on regional matters and this research is therefore especially pertinent for Danish policymakers.

Estimated potential off-shore oil and gas preservers in the Russian part of the Arctic (without the Pechora Sea)

Potential reserves (barrels of oil/oil equivalent) Share of potential reserves
Years of Russia’s current total production
Oil 14 %
40 %

Source: Rahbek-Clemmensen (2015)


  • 1Jon Rahbek-Clemmensen, “Arktis Og Ukrainekrisen - Perspektiver for Rigsfællesskabet” (Copenhagen: Danish Institute for International Studies, 2015).
  • 2Jon Rahbek-Clemmensen, “Carving up the Arctic: The Continental Shelf Process between International Law & Geopolitics,” Arctic Yearbook, 2015, 327–44.
  • 3Rahbek-Clemmensen, “Arktis Og Ukrainekrisen - Perspektiver for Rigsfællesskabet.”
  • 4Jon Rahbek-Clemmensen, “The Ukraine Crisis Moves North – Is Arctic Conflict Spill-over Driven by Material Interests?,” Forthcoming, 2016.