Gabriella Gricius - Written evidence (ARC0001)


About the Author.


1. Gabriella Gricius is a PhD Candidate in the Political Science Department at Colorado State University. She is also a Research Fellow with the North American and Arctic Defence and Security Network (NAADSN), and Research Associate at the Arctic Institute and the European Leadership Network. Gabriella holds an MA in International Security from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, a BA in International Relations and German Language from Boston University in the United States, and a Certificate in Journalism from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the United States. She is also a member of the Younger Generation Leaders Network on Euro-Atlantic Security (YGLN) and the Thematic Network on Geopolitics and Security through the University of the Arctic. Gabriella has previously worked at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, the Public International Law and Policy Group in the Netherlands, the Hague Center for Strategic Studies, and the International Criminal Court. She has also spoken at the NESA Center for Strategic Studies, the Arctic Security Working Group, CNBC, and various other outlets. Her research interests broadly cover international relations and environmental politics with a focus on Arctic security.




2. Since 2020, Gabriella has been researching Arctic security – a key area addressed in this submission as a PhD Candidate at Colorado State University and since 2018 has been working on issues of Russian security. She was asked to submit evidence as a recognized expert.


3. The following two questions from this call for evidence are addressed in this submission: Question 1: How do changes in the security situation in the Arctic impact UK security; and Question 2: What is Russia’s strategy with regard to the Arctic and High North, and how should the UK and its allies respond?


4. In the first part of this submission, I will discuss the one of the main drivers of Arctic security that impacts the UK – namely the increase of great power competition and increasing behaviour by belligerent actors in the Arctic. I will suggest that increasing dynamics of great power competition on the world stage are driving actors like Russia and China to show increased interest in the Arctic region through traditional and new approaches to statecraft, which has consequences for the UK’s security (paras. 6 to 11).


5. Second, I will argue that Russia’s strategy in the Arctic is – despite all evidence globally – one of seeking low tension and cooperation. This is very much in contrast to Russia’s behaviour globally and counterintuitively suggests the UK should parse out important differences between Russian status seeking behaviour and actual aggression, pay close attention to the burgeoning Russia-China relationship, and develop an alliance-based coherent response to Russian Arctic strategy (paras. 12 – 17).




Changes in Arctic Security – Impacts on UK Security


6. Great power competition is not new to the international system. However, for the Arctic region that has long been considered by some as exceptional, it is a relatively new phenomenon. Today one of the key drivers of changes in the security situation in the Arctic is precisely this: the implications of increasing great power competition between states like the United States, Russia, and China. Ostensibly, all three have increased their rhetoric and investment in the Arctic region whether through icebreaker construction or the publication of new policies but materially, there have already been real consequences to this behaviour in the region.[1]


7. On an international level, Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine drove the Arctic states of Finland and Sweden to seek out NATO membership. While Finland has formally joined the alliance, Sweden’s membership continues to be held up in the Hungarian and Turkish parliaments. Geopolitical shifts due to this war also led the seven Western Arctic states to pause their participation in the Arctic Council in March 2022, although many projects taking place without Russian engagement restarted in June. Beyond these Russian-focused changes, China too has expressed increasing interest in the Arctic region through an increase in foreign direct investment in critical infrastructure, resource extraction projects, and science diplomacy.[2]


8. These dynamics have direct implications for the UK’s security as they represent the ‘Arctic turn’ that both Russia and China have been making for some time. Russian militarization of the region is not inherently new, but it continues to increase with the development of nuclear-powered icebreakers and the increasing pace of military exercises.[3] Similarly, Chinese interest in the region has also been increasing since the 2018 White Paper where it called itself a ‘near-Arctic state.’ These dynamics have counterintuitively generated increased alliance cohesion amongst Western allies and a greater shared understanding that the West should create a more coherent narrative for the Arctic.[4]


9. Although the UK is not directly in the Arctic, its geographic proximity means that increased competitive behaviour by great powers will inherently impact it. This may mean a greater degree of submarine activity in its area, more military exercises – both run by NATO and the JEF – that it is a part of, but similarly implies that the UK must pay more attention to how Russia and China are acting in the region. Is Russia or China making strategic investments in critical infrastructure or resource extraction projects? The UK may not be an oblique target of traditional geopolitical competition, but it may well see the downstream effects of being adjacent to the region and heavily involved in key Arctic governance institutions. In short, although the UK may call for the Arctic to be a region of ‘high cooperation and low tension’ – the reality is that cooperation between the West and Russia is at a historic low. Acknowledging this will help the UK better prepare for this world of great power competition in their backyard through 1) paying attention to Russian and Chinese behaviour in both its domestic sphere as well as its near abroad, 2) calling for more alliance cohesion through existing relationships such as NATO and the JEF in the face of security challenges, and 3) recognizing that traditional conflict will likely not happen in the Arctic, but a variety of other threats are certainly on the table.


10. Increasing great power competition has also led to a corresponding increase in hybrid threats across the Arctic including information warfare, cyberattacks, and recent physical interference with undersea cables.[5] Such threats are also present in the UK, with a recent report published by IBM showing that the UK accounted for 43% of cyberattacks observed in Europe in 2022.[6] Most concerningly, the increase in physical interference attacks in the Arctic such as the cutting of a cable between Svalbard and mainland Norway,[7] the sabotage of the Nord Stream pipeline,[8] and the disappearance of a cable for the Lofoten-Versteralen Observatory on Svalbard[9] could be warning signs of a new pattern of attacks where the UK is particularly vulnerable.


11. These trends in the Arctic match the increase in Russian submarine activity that has been observed worldwide. There is material evidence that this may already be happening in a way that directly influences the UK’s security, as made clear by the cable disruption between the Shetland Islands and the mainland UK in October of 2022.[10] This type of threat to the UK’s security is difficult to respond to because 1) it is difficult to assign attribution and blame to specific state actors, 2) maintaining credible deterrence becomes difficult in the face of a blameless action, and 3) undersea cables specifically are very vulnerable to such malignant action. The UK has around 60 undersea cables. If many were disrupted, it could lead to chaos not only regarding internet traffic, but also financial market stability and healthcare access. Thus, there are serious consequences for the UK’s security if these vulnerabilities are not addressed.


Russia’s Arctic Strategy & UK’s Response


12. Answering the second question, it may seem odd to characterize Russia’s Arctic strategy as one that historically sought low tension and cooperation. Globally, Russia has been increasingly asserting itself on the world stage as resurgent and seeking global influence whether through war with Georgia in 2008, the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the interference in the 2016 US election, or through using mercenary groups such as the Wagner Group[11] in conflicts across Africa.[12] Seen through this light, Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 was for many analysts not a surprising deviation in Russia’s behaviour. However, in the Arctic, Russia has not been behaving in the same manner.


13. While Russia has been militarizing by reviving Soviet-era bases, rebuilding the Northern Fleet, modernizing its submarine and Arctic-capable ships, many have convincingly argued that this is part of a long-delayed rebalancing in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union.[13] Further, much of these upgrades whether to bases or ships are dual use in nature. This is not to say that it should not raise alarm bells in the UK, but that it is closely related to Russia’s shaping of the Northern Sea Route as a viable alternative for corporations and its long-term goal of using the Arctic as a source of natural resources (primarily oil and gas), on which its national and economic security relies on.[14] Further, much of Russia’s exercises and outward-facing behaviour has more to do with claiming and reinforcing its identity as an Arctic power than actual aggression aimed at other Arctic states.[15]


14. Thus, Russia’s strategy in the High North is disincentivized away from conflict with Arctic neighbours.[16] Because its goals are primarily economic in nature – building the Northern Sea Route and capacity-building for oil and gas extraction – a conflict in the region would be against its best interests. As sanctions have made it near-impossible for Russian companies to partner with Western companies for their goals, instead they have turned to China for finances, transport logistics, and technological innovation. Most recently, China and Russia agreed to create a joint working body for the development of the Northern Sea Route.[17]


15. Understanding Russia’s Arctic strategy through this lens implies that the UK should first, parse out important differences between Russian status seeking behaviour and actual threatening behaviour that deviates from the norm. For example, military exercises – while portrayed by media outlets as threatening shows of force – should be understood as a traditional security approach to defence. The UK should also ensure that it has a historically informed understanding of Russian goals in the region. In other words, by seeing Russia’s reliance on oil and gas as key to its national security, the UK can articulate a nuanced strategy to perceived Russian aggression versus actual threatening action.


16. Second, the UK should observe the extent of Russian-Chinese cooperation in the Arctic. While many agreements and meetings have occurred between both Putin and Xi as well as lower-level bureaucrats, the extent to which cooperation occurs is key to watch. Russian partnership with China is happening due to Western sanctions and largely as a response to Western refusal to work with Russia. While this is certainly the right response to the war in Ukraine, it has consequences for increasing Chinese legitimacy in the region and for the type of partnership that Russia and China may form in opposition to the West.


17. Third and last, the UK should develop a coherent response that is carefully coordinated with its allies to Russian behaviour broadly, but specifically in the Arctic as well. The largest risk is that different Western states react differently to Russian actions, which then allows Russia to find vulnerabilities and pit ally against ally. The UK should, along with its allies, clearly communicate its interests, goals, and redlines. For example, the coordination of the seven Western Arctic countries to pause their activities in the Arctic Council sent a strong message to Russia that the Arctic would not remain detached from global security realities. For now, similarly, Europe has remained relatively united in its response to Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine since February 2022. Such actions should also be coordinated when it comes to responding and deterring Russian behaviour in the Arctic, including how to respond to hybrid threats, energy intimidation, and even traditional military threats – however unlikely.


13 June 2023

[1] Gricius, Gabriella. 2021. “Arctic Great Power Competition: The United States, Russia and China” Global Security Review. 12 April 2021. Accessed 11 April 2023.

[2] Greaves, Wilfrid. 2022. “When Powers Fail: Russia, Ukraine & the New Arctic Geopolitics.” War Room – US Army War College. 1 December 2022. Accessed 11 April 2023; Gricius, Gabriella. 2022. “How the war in Ukraine has altered the Arctic’s regional dynamics.” Responsible Statecraft. 18 April 2022. Accessed 11 April 2023.

[3] Klimenko, Ekaterina. 2019. “The Geopolitics of a Changing Arctic” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. December 2019. Accessed 11 April 2023

[4] Wall, Colin and Njord Wegge. 2023. “The Russian Arctic Threat: Consequences of the Ukraine War.” Center for Strategic and International Studies. 25 January 2023. Accessed 11 April 2023.

[5] Conley, Heather and Colin Wall. 2021. “Hybrid Threats in the Arctic: Scenarios and policy options in a vulnerable region.” The European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats. August 2021. Accessed 11 April 2023.

[6] IBM. 2023. “IBM Security X-Force Threat Intelligence Index 2023.” Accessed 11 April 2023.

[7] Schia, Niels Nagelhus, Lars Gjesvik, and Ida Rodingen. 2023. “The subsea cable cut at Svalbard January 2022: What happened, what were the consequences, and how were they managed.” The Norwegian Institute of International Affairs. 18 January 2023. Accessed 11 April 2023.

[8] Oltermann, Philip. 2023. “State actor still main suspect behind Nord Stream sabotage, says investigator” The Guardian. 6 April 2023. Accessed 11 April 2023.

[9] Berglund, Nina. 2021. “Surveillance cables mysteriously cut.” News In English: Views and News from Norway. 7 November 2021. Accessed 11 April 2023.

[10] Downer, Alexander. 2022. “The threat to Britain’s undersea cables” The Spectator. 29 October 2022. Accessed 11 April 2023.

[11] Gricius, Gabriella. 2019. “Russia’s Wagner Group Quietly Moves into Africa.” Riddle Russia. 11 March 2019. Accessed 11 April 2023.

[12] Weiss, Andrew and Eugene Rumer. 2020. “Reckoning with a Resurgent Russia.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 9 September 2020. Accessed 11 April 2023.

[13] Buchanan, Elizabeth. 2023. Red Arctic: Russian Strategy Under Putin. Brookings Institution Press.

[14] Gricius, Gabriella. 2021. “Conceptualising the Arctic as a Zone of Conflict.” Central European Journal of International and Security Studies 15(4): 4-30.

[15] Boulegue, Mathieu. 2022. “The militarization of Russian polar politics.” Chatham House. 6 June 2022. Accessed 11 April 2023.

[16] Buchanan, Elizabeth. 2023. Red Arctic: Russian Strategy Under Putin. Brookings Institution Press.

[17] TASS. 2023. “Russia and China ready to cooperate on development of Northern Sea Route.” 21 March 2023. Accessed 11 March 2023.