The New Arctic Geopolitics

Frosty geopolitics: an ice hotel in Jukkasjärvi, Sweden, where Arctic environment ministers convened for a meeting in 2013. Image: GRID-Arendal / Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Arctic cooperation is on ice following the most recent phase of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The Russo-Ukrainian War has altered the trajectory of international cooperation in the circumpolar Arctic. Regardless of whether Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – which began in 2014 – ultimately ekes out some form of victory for Moscow, or is beaten back by Ukrainian resistance with support from the West, it has redefined Arctic geopolitics, and its outcome will shape its future. In this, the war threatens to undo 30 years of progress on pan-Arctic cooperation and institution-building that have been a central achievement of the post-Cold War international order.

Until recently, circumpolar politics has been guided by the idea of the region as ‘One Arctic’ characterised by peaceful cooperation based on similar social, economic and ecological foundations. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, all Arctic states have committed to the maintenance of a rules-based region, founded on multilateral cooperation, consensus decision-making and non-violent dispute resolution. This regional order has been built on three pillars: privileging the role and interests of the eight Arctic states; emphasising the Arctic Council as the premier forum for regional cooperation; and limiting the role and activities of NATO – founded, after all, as a defensive alliance against the Soviet Union – in the circumpolar region.

All three pillars have been strained before. Over the past two decades, there has been significant growth in interest in Arctic politics from non-Arctic states. Thirteen non-Arctic states have been granted observer status at the Arctic Council since its establishment in 1996, including seven since 2013. In that year, Asian countries including China, India, Japan, South Korea and Singapore all became observers, significantly globalising the composition of actors participating in the council’s activities. The EU also observes meetings, although a final decision on its contentious application has been deferred. China’s interests and ambitions in the Arctic have attracted particular attention and some concern from Arctic states, which have acted to prevent Chinese investment in potentially sensitive or strategic infrastructure in Canada, Greenland and Finland. China has nonetheless met with some support for its polar activities from Iceland and Norway, while investing considerable resources in its own Arctic icebreaking, scientific and diplomatic capabilities. However, although the door to Arctic cooperation has been opened slightly to the outside world, the Arctic states have remained at the centre of polar politics and firmly in control of its regional institutions.

The Arctic Council has also been challenged as the premier forum for Arctic cooperation. For instance, in 2008 and 2010, the five Arctic coastal states (Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the US) held a pair of high-level meetings without including either the remaining Arctic states (Finland, Iceland and Sweden) or representatives of the Arctic’s diverse Indigenous peoples. The so-called ‘Arctic 5’ have not met without all their Arctic neighbours since 2010, when then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticised such ad hoc meetings as ‘creating new divisions’ by excluding legitimate stakeholders in the region. Other forums have been established as alternative sites of regional cooperation, some with looser criteria for inclusion which make them more welcome to non-Arctic and non-governmental actors.

In the absence of conditions that permit cooperation directly with Russia, the other Arctic countries should reiterate their commitments to peaceful and collaborative regional relations

Likewise, debates for and against an expanded Arctic role for NATO have been actively underway since 2007, when relations between the West and Russia began to deteriorate following the planting of a Russian flag on the ocean floor at the geographic North Pole. Some allies, such as Norway, have been supportive while others, such as Canada, have been more sceptical, but increased tensions have fuelled more allied training activities in the region. NATO has undertaken regular multinational military exercises in the European Arctic theatre on a scale not seen since the Cold War, but overall its Arctic role has remained limited.

However, in the wake of Russia’s war with Ukraine and the ensuing collapse in its diplomatic relations with European and other Western states, all three of these pillars of regional geopolitics are poised for significant revision. Sanctioned and isolated from access to Western investment capital and technological resources, Russia has become even more reliant on its relationship with China. Already, Sino-Russian cooperation has been a defining feature of the Eurasian Arctic subregion, namely Chinese investment in Russian fossil fuel exports and increased shipping along the Northern Sea Route. The longer Russia is cut off from Western capital, the more reliant upon China it becomes. All this means that as China seeks to grow its polar influence and activities in line with its Arctic strategy, Russia will likely be a compliant partner.

The Arctic Council, meanwhile, has been a casualty of the war. At the start of Russia’s expanded invasion on 24 February, the seven other member states issued a rare joint statement pausing their involvement in all council activities. They announced they would not attend any meetings in Russia, which, given that Russia currently holds the council’s rotating chair, effectively suspended the political activities of the Arctic Council indefinitely – though some scientific-technical cooperation does continue.

But in the absence of conditions that permit cooperation directly with Russia, the other Arctic countries should reiterate their commitments to peaceful and collaborative regional relations by maintaining a diplomatic infrastructure for regional governance. This bloc – in essence an ‘A-7’ group of Arctic democracies – should maintain financial and logistical support for as many of the Council’s projects as possible. Their officials should also meet regularly to sustain a framework for Arctic cooperation until such time as the Western Arctic states normalise relations with Russia and the full Arctic Council is reactivated. The vision of One Arctic may have guided the region for many years, but the geopolitical reality of Arctic cooperation for now is one in which the members of the A-7 are engaged alongside other Western states in a multilateral effort to isolate, sanction and punish Russia for its violations of Ukrainian sovereignty and alleged commission of war crimes and genocide in that country.

The accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO would not only expand the Alliance's border eastward and double its length with Russia, but also deepen the regional strategic realignment in the Arctic

To underscore this new reality, NATO is likely to expand its activities and deepen its strategic posture in the Arctic. Since its founding in 1949, NATO has comprised five Arctic states (Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Norway and the US), balanced against the neutrality of Sweden, Finnish accommodation with the Soviet Union, and the Soviet Union itself, succeeded by Russia. The Arctic was thus divided throughout the Cold War among West, East and officially neutral states. In the 1990s, Finland and Sweden both became NATO partners, but refrained from pursuing membership due in part to opposition from post-Soviet Russia. The deterioration in relations between Russia and the West after 2014 led Finland and Sweden to increase their defence cooperation with NATO and multilaterally among their Nordic and Baltic neighbours.

Now, despite Russian threats of potential nuclear escalation, both Finland and Sweden have rapidly reconsidered their strategic positions and are expected to pursue NATO membership. With the Alliance signalling support, their accession could occur within months, not only expanding the border of NATO eastward and doubling its length with Russia, but also deepening the regional strategic realignment in the Arctic of the A-7 versus Russia. With seven out of eight Arctic states in NATO, the region will effectively be partitioned into roughly equal halves by area and population: seven allied, democratic and capitalist societies sharing broadly liberal values; and a geopolitically isolated, strategically handicapped and Sino-dependent Russia. Incidentally, more NATO involvement in the Arctic to ensure the defence of the A-7 will also increase the participation of non-Arctic states in the region. While China enters the Arctic through its partnership with Russia, powerful non-Arctic European states which are already Arctic Council observers – such as France, Germany and the UK – will gain greater relevance through their leading contributions to NATO.

The war appears likely to transform strategic relations among the Arctic states, binding the A-7 even closer while widening the gap with outlying Russia. This is the new geopolitical reality in the circumpolar Arctic, and is a direct consequence of Russia’s aggressive behaviour. Pan-regional cooperation and the restoration of the Arctic Council should remain the long-term goals for the A-7, but for now the Arctic is fundamentally divided, and will remain so until Russia’s war is resolved, one way or another.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Wilfrid Greaves

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