Professor Gisele Arruda and Dr Marko-Filijović – Written Evidence (ARC0009)

Main challenges for the UK strategy in the High North: military-strategic overview

Changes in the Arctic geopolitical situation have an objective influence on UK security, given the proximity of the isles to the region, and the country's security and other strategic interests in the area surrounding the North Pole. Aside from climate change and a rapidly changing natural landscape, one of the major challenges the UK faces are geopolitical issues arising from Russia and China's recent behaviour and activity. Specifically, since Russia invaded Ukraine, Russia and China have become increasingly more active in the Arctic region. Russia's remilitarisation of the High North, coupled with China's enhanced economic and overall dynamism in the mentioned area, represent significant factor in planning future military and strategic options. This report aims to explore and explain the reasons behind such behaviour and activity, as well as the challenges it poses in a military-strategic context. It also outlines potential solutions for the UK and its allies, along with recommendations for further well-informed action.

Geostrategic setting: Russia and China

  1. Climate change represents one of the biggest security challenges for the Russian Federation in the High North. Throughout history, extreme climatic conditions have acted as a natural barrier, protecting Russia's long Arctic coast. However, the rapid thawing of the "eternal ice" induced by climate change became a major cause of concern, especially since it means Russia now has new borderlines that need to be safeguarded from any potential aggressors. According to Kluge and Paul (2020, p.2), "a naval threat could theoretically now come from the east, through the Bering Strait, or from the west via bases in Greenland and Norway". Therefore, robust remilitarisation of Russian Arctic could be understood from the Moscow’s point of view as a reaction to this challenge in the context of protecting Russia’s national security. However, for UK and its partners, process of militarisation coupled with Russian aggression in Ukraine is a source of concern. Moreover, with Finland now a part of NATO considering Russian hostilities in Ukraine, the wider Arctic geopolitical landscape has become even more complex and intricate. Recent tensions in Ukraine have the potential to escalate beyond its borders and have far-reaching implications, especially for the Baltic and Arctic regions. With these two areas being geographically connected, it is important to take steps to ensure their safety and security (Filijović, 2022).


  1. When it comes to China, its ambitions since 2013 when it became an Arctic observer, have been mostly focused on Arctic natural resources, climate change impacts, maritime expansionism via new shipping routes and economic power projection along the Polar Silk Route. China becoming an Arctic observer has important geopolitical significance. The region has seen heavy investment, manly in Russian gas fields and ports, and the establishment of varied scientific research stations and institutes, all of which fall in line with the outlined context of gathering strategic local information and building up soft power and applying science diplomacy (Arruda and Filijović, 2022). On the other hand, the Chinese government's lack of public denunciation of Russia's behaviour in Ukraine and their simultaneous desire to further strengthen ties with Moscow raises the question of what China's real intentions are regarding the High North. Recent sightings of joint formations of Chinese and Russian warships in the Bering Sea near Alaska imply that Beijing could have other ambitious intentions regarding the region around the North Pole. Even though this action followed international laws and regulations, it could also be interpreted as a display of strength or power. Besides demonstrating China's willingness to cooperate with the Russian military publicly, it also "creates strategic ambiguity about the extent to which that relationship may extend" (Schreiber, 2022). To create a more powerful and global presence, it's possible that China will be more active in the Arctic area, which could also mean military involvement and domination. This shift could have a major impact on the region’s dynamics and on Arctic governance leading to a scenario of interference and transformation of Arctic's geopolitical landscape due to the Arctic Council’s observer status being used to domestic and strategic interests putting into jeopardy the international law, the sovereign rights of Arctic nations as well as human rights of the indigenous peoples.

Military-strategic challenges for the UK and its allies: concise description and analysis

There are several important issues which the UK and its partners should consider regarding the evolving situation in the High North:

  1. Unresolved dispute concerning the Lomonosov Ridge represents the first one. Given that it is rich in significant energy and other resource potentials, Canada, Denmark, and Russia each assert that the ridge is a natural extension of its continental shelf (Arruda and Filijović, 2022). The parties involved agreed that a solution to the dispute should be sought based on the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), according to which coastal states have the right to extend their control over resources beyond 200 nautical miles (their Exclusive Economic Zone - EEZ). This can be done by providing proof to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) that their continental shelf extends beyond said limit. For the CLCS's approval, countries need to provide scientific evidence showing that their seabed goes past the 1% sediment mark and extends outside the EEZ. If this condition is met, the extension may be approved. Countries have 10 years after signing UNCLOS to submit a request, and if denied by the CLCS, they may collect additional evidence to strengthen their claim. The process is still ongoing. However, despite the desire of all parties involved to handle the dispute peacefully, some factors raise serious doubts about the whole delimitation process and its resulting outcome. Käpylä and Mikkola (2013) highlight procedural issues with the right to extension that can foster conflict dynamics, such as a weak legal mandate and lack of transparency. The judgements given by the CLCS are not legally binding, but only recommendatory in nature. This means that the commission does not possess any legal power to settle border disputes between countries. Furthermore, the commission is not obligated to publicly justify its decisions, just as countries do not have to publicly divulge their scientific data to support their claims. These procedural weaknesses can diminish the legitimacy of any CLCS decision, particularly if a certain coastal state does not approve of it. Moreover, certain actions taken by Arctic nations have not done anything to ease the tensions, which intensifies the suspicion that their commitment to settling disputes peacefully is not entirely genuine (for instance, Russia's demonstration of power with the planting of a Titanium flag at the bottom of the North Pole in 2007 or some statements made by politicians promoting appropriation of still undivided territories). Through such actions and behaviour, Arctic coastal states can be seen to be engaging in some kind of "ownership battle", which can potentially lead to diplomatic spats or even the use of forceful means “as a way of securing the claim to one’s ʻownʼ continental shelf" (Käpylä & Mikkola, 2013, 5).


  1. According to Gronholt-Pedersen and Fouche (2022), the West would need a decade or more to achieve the same military power as Russia if it chooses to do so in the Arctic. This is the second issue, and it is caused by several factors. In addition to the weak presence of permanent NATO forces in the region, Russia also has a significant advantage in terms of military strength and resources in the area, including infrastructure, weaponry, and personnel. More precisely, one of the most daunting challenges for UK and its NATO allies involves advanced hypersonic missile systems such as Avangard, Tsirkon, and Kinzhal. Given their ability to develop speeds of 7,600, all the way up to an incredible 20,000 miles per hour and hit targets ranging from 1,200 to 3,700 miles away with high accuracy, it's understandable why they pose a distinct threat. Moreover, there is currently no adequate protection against them, as they are designed to evade all existing sensors and defences (Arruda and Filijović, 2022). In addition to the Russian Arctic military arsenal there is also a giant nuclear-powered torpedo - the Poseidon 2M39 - claimed to have "unlimited range and can travel at speeds in excess of 124.3 miles per hour". This so-called super weapon can also pass "undetected through the ocean and detonate the warhead when it reaches its target", while "having the potential to cause radioactive waves that would render coastal areas virtually uninhabitable" (NZHerald, 2023). The absence of these kind of weapons or countermeasures inside NATO's military arsenal is a major disadvantage.


  1. In the event of conflict spilling over from Ukraine, the Baltic would represent NATO's "soft underbelly," where the protection of the Suwałki Gap, Finland's Åland Islands, and Sweden's Gotland Island is of critical importance. Namely, although the Baltic is located outside the Arctic Circle, some view it as an extension of the Arctic geopolitical matrix in the context of the accession of Finland (and maybe Sweden) to NATO and Russia's possible military response to that act. This is logical because the territories of mentioned countries (Russia, Finland, and Sweden) extend to both regions, which implies that the analysis of events in the Arctic cannot be completely separated from the one in the Baltic and vice versa (Filijović, 2022). Nagashima (2022) predicts that Moscow could gain a stronger military involvement with the islands, likely as a tactic to fragment NATO's power. If Russia were to gain control of the islands and arm them with long-range weapons, such as Iskander-M intermediate-range nuclear missiles, NATO countries would face a potential military threat situated just a few kilometres away. This situation is strikingly like the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, which since the Soviet times has been heavily militarized, serving as the home port of a large part of Russia's Baltic Fleet and hosting substantial aviation, air defence, and ground forces (Brauß and Rácz, 2021). According to Nagashima (2022), if Russia or Belarus were to take control of the Suwałki Gap, a 104 km-long strategic NATO defence corridor situated at the Polish-Lithuanian border, then a long forward line of defence would be formed, linking Belarus, the Suwałki Gap, Kaliningrad, and the occupied islands of the Baltic Sea, putting the three Baltic NATO members in danger of being isolated. This isn't an unrealistic prediction as military publications from both Russia and the West acknowledge that controlling the Suwałki corridor would be essential in any potential conflict between NATO and Russia in the area. In case of Russia taking control of the corridor, NATO's Baltic States would be cut off from their other allies, immensely complicating any efforts for reinforcement (Brauß and Rácz, 2021). Besides, Åland and Gotland are also key cable relay stations in the Baltic Sea. If Russia were to invade the islands and cause destruction to the cable systems, it could have a severe impact on communications between NATO members, particularly for those located in the Baltics. Not only could this physically interfere with NATO's operations, supplies, and communication networks, but it would also lead to the loss of digital data exchange, command functions, and control processes (Nagashima, 2022). This third issue should be addressed with particular attention.


  1. Fourth and the last issue in this brief report is related to China. Namely, even though government in Beijing officially "calls for the peaceful utilization of the Arctic and commits itself to maintaining peace and stability" in its official documents (China’s Arctic Policy, 2018) and through the Arctic observers’ commitments, towards respecting international law and nation’s sovereign rights, the strengthening of its military ties with Russia in the Arctic and other regions is evident and should represent a source of concern for UK and NATO. Namely, with Finland joining the Western Military Alliance, Russia’s decision to deepen its military ties with China it doesnt come as a surprise. Moreover, if Sweden do the same, that will leave Russia as the only country in the Arctic Council which is not part of NATO, changing thus the balance of power within the organisation and affecting its functioning (Filijović, 2022). Furthermore, the boycott of Council activities by Western countries due to the Russian intervention in Ukraine has made an already difficult situation in northern regions even worse. This has created a window of opportunity for China to further expand its overall influence in the area, including that of a military nature.

Action points for UK and its allies: objective observations and recommendations

In facing the existing strategic challenges in the Arctic, the UK and its allies should prioritize the following points:

  1. With tensions rising in the Arctic region, it is of utmost importance that all issues, and especially the Lomonosov Ridge dispute, are discussed and resolved as peacefully as possible. International diplomatic channels are the best way to ensure this happens. All countries involved should continue to push for dialogue and negotiations that could lead to a mutually beneficial agreement. By doing so, any further conflict in the region can be avoided and peace and stability for all involved ensured. The UK should use and strengthen its diplomatic means to encourage such an outcome.


  1. Considering Russia's military-technological superiority, especially regarding advanced hypersonic missile systems, options for the development of similar systems or countermeasures should be urgently explored. One of the possible options could be to build up anti-missile systems based on Chinese models/solutions run by Artificial Intelligence (AI). According to Chinese military researchers, they have successfully invented a new AI technology that can accurately predict the trajectory of hypersonic glide missiles when homing in on its target. AI-powered air defence systems can detect and respond to incoming threats in a matter of minutes, giving them an advantage against potential adversaries. According to reports, the Chinese Navy has recently equipped its latest warships with a new cannon capable of defeating hypersonic weapons. This cannon is said to be able to fire 10,000 rounds of shells per minute at the target's predicted trajectory (Chen, 2022).


  1. The UK and its allies should urgently consider placing larger number of permanent military forces in the High North and establish additional military outposts. Focus should be placed on several strategic locations. In this respect, protecting the Suwałki Gap is of critical importance. While NATO has some permanent forces in Poland, Lithuania, and other Baltic countries, additional troops should be considered, especially in Elblag.  Åland and Gotland islands are also important. Although Sweden started to militarise Gotland after 2018 with ground-to-air missile defence systems, including personnel, infrastructure and hardware, this island, so as Åland archipelago should station a permanent military outpost. The UK should support this action and interoperability should be the key, with rotating personnel on the ground including UK special forces. In this regard, while UK and Norway, Island and Denmark have highly developed military cooperation, identifying further opportunities needs to be in focus, mostly because of the strategic significance of safeguarding the GIUK (Greenland-Iceland-UK) Gap. It is also very important that the UK and other NATO countries, especially the Scandinavian and Baltic states, work on interoperability with Finland, the newest NATO ally, which shares a long border with Russia. Ultimately, the UK should continue with advocating for NATO to take a more proactive approach to the High North, including more significant presence of US submarines in the already mentioned GIUK maritime area.

Concluding remarks

"The UK's Defence Contribution in the High North" (UK Ministry of Defence, 2022) is a comprehensive policy paper outlining a response to a variety of issues in a very complexed region. However, despite the extensive scope of the paper, there were still a few strategic questions left unanswered. As the Arctic continues to become increasingly important for UK and its allies, it is essential that these gaps in strategy are efficiently addressed in order to ensure the UK interests in the region. The aim of this brief report was to discuss and analyse these aspects to add value to the UK’s strategy and scenario planning in tackling this fast-changing scenario in the High North and its implications for British defence policy.


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13 May 2023