As global warming is thawing permafrost around the Earth's poles, the Arctic is gradually emerging from under the eternal ice as a new geopolitical arena, a focal point of interest and concern to the major world powers. The conflict of economic interests is already on the horizon and won’t probably be resolved any soon, although military clashes remain an equally hazy perspective.
In the past, only scientist and journalists seemed to be concerned about the “opening up” of the Arctic. Now, politicians and the military are also turning their gaze to this region, which rising temperatures have made more accessible than ever.
The global media and especially local agencies are bristling with threats of a new Cold War in the Arctic, while major northern states are meeting to discuss regional security. One of such meetings was held by military chiefs of all Arctic powers in Canada on April 12, 13. It was attended, among others, by Gen. Nikolai Makarov, Chief of Russia’s Armed Forces General Staff.
The meeting took place at a time when the icy region was buzzing with activity, with both Russia and NATO engaged in war games beyond the Arctic Circle. In March, NATO wrapped up its Cold Response maneuvers on the stretch from Sweden to Canada, with 16,300 troops engaged in this unprecedented military exercise. The war game was only clouded by a crash, when a Norwegian C-130J plane rammed into the western slope of the Swedish mountain, Kebnekaise, killing five servicemen.
The Russian military kept apace, staging their own maneuvers. Its 200th motor rifle brigade from Murmansk tested the T-80 tanks, which are believed to be best-suited for the Arctic climate, with their gas turbine engines, which are much easier to start in the cold weather than the traditional diesel ones. The Russian Northern Fleet, as well as Air Defense planes, choppers and marine aviation participated in the drills.
The Air Forces also trained in Russia’s northern reaches. On April 9-15, Russia staged Ladoga 2012 maneuvers at the Karelian Besovets air base with 50 choppers and aircraft, which engaged and shot down over 150 air targets.
In their war games, NATO and Russia are both pursuing one and the same goal. As rising temperatures are freeing larger and larger areas of the Arctic from its icy shackles, all regional key players are flexing their military muscle to score psychological points in the information battlespace, the main arena of modern diplomatic conflicts.
No one wants a “Hot War.” Even more so, the US, the potential northern leader, is now focused on more pressing issues in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Pacific, where it is engaged in a standoff with China. However, Arctic’s natural riches, territorial disputes and expanding shipping lanes have rendered it a very lucrative region – and thus potentially a “hot” one. The situation around maritime traffic nodes has never been simple. Such was the case with the Mediterranean, the Horn of Africa, or the Strait of Malacca. If the Arctic emerges as another junction of sea lanes it will spawn conflicts among the world powers, depending on how determined they will be to protect their national interests.
Russia is one of such ambitious northern powers, currently planning on boosting its Arctic infrastructure, for instance building twenty frontier posts to protect its polar reaches. Some of them will be erected close to nine emergency and transport ministerial centers, set up to further the development of Russia’s Northern Sea Route. The rest of the frontiers will be built on the islands. A satellite system called Arktika will allow for their uninterrupted communication with the "mainland."
These frontier posts, which are to be erected in the upcoming years, will serve as Russia’s bulwark beyond the Arctic Circle and will be secured by its Northern Fleet, air forces and the so-called “Arctic brigades,” specially trained to operate in the polar region.
For now, Arctic conflicts are still a matter of theoretical disputes and an inspiration for computer games designers. For instance, the recent game called Naval Warfare: Arctic Circle tells a story about navies and air forces of Russia and NATO fighting for Arctic dominance. Today, major world powers are too busy wrestling with global economic crisis to let this story out of its cyber realm. But no one knows what the nearest future has in store for us.