A Sky News investigation has revealed growing fears of future war as Russia, NATO and China battle for dominance on the ‘top of the world’.
Senior military brass, senior diplomats and esteemed analysts have told Sky News of their concerns that an armed conflict in the Arctic looks increasingly likely.
Russia, the United States and the Nordic countries have significantly increased their military presence in the Arctic Circle in recent months.
NATO expansion, Russia’s recent belligerence, and a predicted race for billions of dollars in resources made available due to melting ice, have heightened tensions and can serve as catalysts for conflict.
Russia’s ambassador to Norway told Sky News he was “not convinced” war in the Arctic could be avoided.
“Not on our initiative, we are not adding a single point to make the situation worse,” Teimuraz Otarovich Ramishvili said.
“We didn’t do anything, we didn’t do anything.
“We are always ready to prevent the militarization of the Arctic.”
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Norway – a founding member of NATO and effectively the alliance’s Arctic stronghold – is particularly wary of spillover.
“We are very concerned about the risk of a massive attack from Russia,” Espen Skjelland of defense think tank FFI told Sky News.
“It is not the potential for a war between Norway and Russia resulting from any crisis in bilateral relations between the countries, but it is part of a larger game, the game of deterrence. between, above all, the United States, NATO and Russia.
“We have analyzed what can go wrong, what can threaten our way of life in Norway and in Russia is certainly a potential threat to our way of life.”
Norway’s existential threat reflects the seriousness of the stakes in the geopolitical battle waged in the Arctic.
The region has become a new theater of great power competition – which is likely to impact global trade, climate and potentially world order.
WAR FOOT IN FINNMARK
Norwegian troops prepare for a possible Russian invasion.
Sky News has witnessed massive war games recently staged in the northern region of Finnmark on Russia’s northwest border.
Six hundred and thirty soldiers, using 100 vehicles and an artillery battery, rehearsed the eradication of the foreign invaders.
“I’m really happy with what I saw today,” said Captain Thomas Pettersen after the third day of exercises.
“We see that we are able to synchronize maneuver, fire and support at the same time.”
The fake enemy was not named, but it was a clear show of force for the increasingly defiant neighbor to the east.
Analysts suggest Finnmark would be in Moscow’s sights should Russia go to war with a NATO member.
Claiming it is essential for Russia’s protection of its northern naval fleet and its ability to launch retaliatory nuclear attacks.
“The main challenge here is for strategic nuclear forces and strategic bases on the Kola Peninsula, just across the border from Norway,” says Skjelland.
“For Russia, they have to protect their bases, what we call the Bastion, so they have the defense of the Bastion, so we think that can strengthen their defense, in certain circumstances, to attack northern Norway.”
The Norwegian government has increased funding for military bases in the north, just as it did after the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014.
Finnmark’s Porsanger battalion did not exist four years ago – in three years it will be one of the largest in the country.
“It is important because it is a political decision and linked to the NATO alliance that we show that we will be able to strengthen the defense and that we are able to defend ourselves,” Sky News told Sky News. commander of the Porsanger Battalion, Lieutenant-Colonel Ronny Bratli.
Norway’s recent military buildup pales in comparison to Russia’s.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered huge investments in Russian assets in the Arctic.
The Trefoil base – just 900 kilometers from the North Pole – was refurbished last year, with runways apparently extended to accommodate nuclear bombers.
Naval bases on the Kola Peninsula near the Russian-Norwegian border have also been reinforced.
Norwegian and American intelligence indicates that more nuclear submarines have been added to the fleet based near the city of Murmansk.
“The Arctic is of the utmost importance to Russians,” renowned Arctic analyst and Bonn University scholar Dr Joachim Weber told Sky News.
“Their strategic capabilities are very well stored in the Kola Peninsula, especially their second-strike capabilities, which makes the Arctic a really indispensable region for them.”
The United States has also pledged to expand its Arctic bases in Alaska and Greenland.
It has increased submarine patrols in the Arctic and last month won permission to build new facilities at bases in Norway.
Finland’s and Sweden’s NATO membership – which could be ratified as early as the end of this year – will further tie the fate of the Arctic to the Western military alliance, given that an attack on a country member is considered an attack on all.
“The West slept for quite a while, as the Russians returned this polar area, especially around the Kola Peninsula, they remilitarized it, says Dr Weber.
“So nothing happened there for, say, 25 or 20 years, but around 2010 or so the Russians started to heavily rearm the Arctic region and NATO really slept over the years, especially the Americans, they didn’t realize what was going on.
“Now things are turning, the Americans have woken up and they realize that they have to do something in this region to counter the Russian efforts.”
As China tries to interfere in Arctic affairs, it recently declared itself a “near-Arctic nation” and ordered two icebreaker ships to operate in northern waters.
Dominating the Arctic brings massive economic benefits.
Melting ice caps are expected to make billions of dollars worth of oil and gas accessible.
The US Geological Survey estimates that around 30% of the world’s untapped gas and 13% of its oil could soon be exploited by those who are quick and assertive enough to claim rights.
Some of this may be in territory disputed by the eight Arctic nations, and nations may choose to deploy their armed forces to reinforce potential adversaries.
Melting ice is also impacting intercontinental trade routes.
Moscow – with investment from Beijing – has already spent billions of rubles developing an Arctic shipping route and northern ports, to drastically reduce the time and cost of intercontinental travel.
Strict restrictions limit the access of ships from countries that Russia deems “unfriendly”.
A PRECARIOUS PEACE
Things are definitely heating up in the freezing north.
The largest geographic presence in the Arctic – Russia – threw out the rulebook; his invasion of Ukraine made the situation in the Arctic even more precarious.
The region is now a crucial theater of competition for the great powers and its importance will only grow.
The worrying military buildup, provocative rhetoric, new players joining this geopolitical game, and the potential race for resources suggest that the prospect for peace in the Arctic is on thin ice.
“On Thin Ice: Rising Tensions in the Arctic” airs Saturday, July 9 at 10:30 a.m. AEST on Sky News Australia.