Tony Blair Institute for Global Change – Written Evidence (ARC0013)


The following submission represents the views of experts in the Geopolitical Team at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change (TBI). It brings together the insight of internal experts on geopolitics, international security, cyber policy and global political leadership on foreign affairs.




The Arctic is an increasingly important regional geopolitically. As the climate changes the sea routes through the Arctic are becoming more important. As the struggle globally over natural resources continues, the hydrocarbons in the region have come under more focus. And as the international community’s attention is increasingly attuned to Russia’s global role, scrutiny on its strategy in the Arctic has sharpened. All of this has required a step-change in policy-making by the UK and its allies, including NATO. This is welcome but as NATO expands, and the global threat from Russia evolves in the context of the war in Ukraine, further and deeper cooperation is required to fully met the challenge of putting in place the right strategy for the Arctic.


Russia’s strategy with regard to the Arctic and High North and potential responses for UK & it allies


The Arctic is a vital area of interest for Russia. It has deep and long-standing territorial, economic, transportation and military interests there. Russia sees the Arctic as its territory and vital to its national interest. In May 2021 Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated that the Arctic belongs to Russia. President Putin, not long afterwards, said Russia would “knock the teeth out” of anyone who tried to “take a piece”.[1] In 2020, Russia set out its current arctic policy: Basic Principles of the State Policy of the Russian Federation in the Arctic Zone Until 2035.[2] There are three key elements to its strategy.





Allied response: Deeper engagement &, unified strategy


The invasion of Ukraine has brought to the focus not just Russia’s strategy in that region, but its influence and strategy globally. The wider global dynamics that have stemmed from the war in Ukraine have highlighted the fact that the West has not taken seriously enough, soon enough, Russia’s influence in key parts of the world.


In the context of the Arctic region, given Russia’s 2035 strategy, the West should urgently consider the following steps:





China’s strategy towards the Arctic: Opportunities for UK & its allies during China’s pause in the Arctic


China set out its official arctic policy in a 2018 report, although major events such as the war in Ukraine have since caused major disruption to its intentions in the Arctic. The 2018 report defines China as a “Near Arctic state” and reiterates China’s status as an observer member of the Arctic Council and signatory of the Spitzbergen Treaty.

China’s key strategic interests in the region are:





However, the war in Ukraine, logistical risks and concern amongst Arctic states about dual-purpose facilities have stunted Chinese efforts in the Arctic. This includes the pause or abandonment of projects including the Sino-Russian LNG project – LNG2 in Siberia – due to concerns about European sanctions, as well as land sales and shared research projects that have been declined, frozen or discontinued by the Finnish, Swedish and Danish governments. Communications conduit infrastructure initiatives along the Northern Sea Route (NSR) between Asia and Europe have fallen through, and Chinese shipping firms like COSCO have drastically decreased Arctic transits – with none this year compared to eight in 2018.


This challenges the conventional wisdom that China and Russia are closer since the war and shows the continued effectiveness of sanctions as relates to China. At the same time, however, China has refused to acknowledge the Arctic Council following Russia’s expulsion from the forum. This suggests an unwillingness on the side of Beijing to use the Arctic Council to apply pressure on Moscow, and underlines Xi’s broader foreign policy strategy of deepening geopolitical engagement through multilateral institutions more broadly.


This provides opportunities for the UK and its allies to shore up investments into land, research and infrastructure initiatives before Sino-Russian ties in the region are strengthened again, as well as to seek opportunities to constructively engage with China in the Arctic without Russian interference. Russia and China need not, and often are not, natural allies in the Arctic. Careful engagement by the UK and allies can begin to disaggregate the Moscow/Beijing relationship in the Arctic and offer different ways China can engage and be engaged with.


UK strategy towards the Arctic: A Need for Greater Emphasis on Resilience of Cyber-Physical Systems


Whilst both the Arctic Policy Framework and the Defence Contribution in the High North have highlighted the UK’s commitment to both critical national infrastructure and digital connectivity, this is an area that requires further development in both policies. The security and resilience of the internet and digital architecture is key to balancing Russian and Chinese interests in region, ensuring that communications infrastructure for both civilian and military uses is accessible,[6] as well as contributing to achieving the access to the internet crucial for the sustainable development of indigenous people of the Arctic. Building the resilience of the infrastructure on which UK’s cyber power rests is a core component of the Cyber Strategy 2022[7] and was highlighted by Prime Minister Sunak in 2017.[8]  Greater emphasis in the UK’s Arctic Policy and Defence Contribution to investment in alternative Arctic cable infrastructure and commitment to norms and law governing subsea cables can help the UK have a greater voice in the future of the Arctic and UK strategic stability.


Investment in building new Arctic submarine cable infrastructure


The conflict in Ukraine and the increase of countries’ deep-sea capability has highlighted both the importance and vulnerability of the Arctic subsea cables. Prior to the conflict, in January 2022, one of the two fibre optic cable between the Norwegian mainland and the Norwegian administered Svalbard station that provides connectivity to the SvalSat facilities was damaged. The SvalSat station is key to operators of polar operating satellites, including UK satellite operators,[9] and the interference is potentially associated with either military or industrial espionage.[10]


Increased geopolitical tensions led to breakdown of agreements with Russia for a pan-Arctic cable that would connect Japan, US, Canada and Europe vis the Northwest passage. The reconfigured plan that will cost $1.15 billion, offers an opportunity to bypass Suez – one of the critical choke points- and reduce single points of failure. The EU is currently considering investment in the new cable,[11] and UK investment could not only help UK increase resilience for its own satellite operators but also provide an area for increased cooperation with Europe on securing global critical infrastructure. Further, it would help balance both Russia’s proposed alternative Polar Express cable, due to be launched in 2026, or potential investment from China Huawei Marine and China Connect in the new pan-Arctic cable.


Public-Private Collaboration for Critical Infrastructure Resilience in the Arctic


Private actors, including tech companies, have proved crucial to countering Russia’s cyber operations including their attacks on cyber-physical systems in the Ukraine conflict.  Their agility in bolstering systems or providing alternative infrastructure has materially impacted the balance of power in the conflict and has demonstrated the power of tech companies to impact a political crisis.  As tech companies increasingly diversify their offering throughout the different levels of the internet stack, including backbone infrastructure such as subsea cables, collaboration will be key in setting the agenda for internet resilience in the Arctic and beyond.[12] 


Working with tech companies as well as allies from the Arctic Council in a Digital Infrastructure Defence Alliance (DIDA) can help close the digital divide in the Arctic as well as protect the internet stack from geopolitical shifts.  Further, encouraging tech companies to have a robust and transparent policy on their engagement in geopolitical crises will bring greater understanding for policymakers of how to work with tech companies to ensure cyber-physical resilience in the Arctic.


Reinforcing commitments of responsible state behaviour for protection of subsea cables


A recent UNIDIR report has highlighted the need to accelerate efforts to strengthen the resilience of subsea cables in order to protect their role in enabling connectivity between remote regions in the rest of the world, as well as essential scientific research. [13] The integrity of the internet is crucial for both globally, commercial and national interests in the Arctic, as well as for the wellbeing and development of underserved populations.


The UK should ensure that in its Arctic policy and Defence Contribution to the High North it reiterates its commitment to the three critical-infrastructure norms recommended at the UN on international security and ICTs in the 2015 Group of Government Experts. Further, it should lead in creating a clear national position on the applicability of UNCLOS and international law to malicious state behaviour regarding subsea cables, as well as the elements for a framework for responsible state behaviour on subsea cables globally.




This response has been prepared by Brianna Miller, Dr Melanie Garson, Dr Matthew Godwin, Edward Knight, Kitty Mant, Ruby Osman & Daniel Sleat.


14 May 2023




[2] Basic Principles of the State Policy of the Russian Federation in the Arctic Zone Until 2035 (Arctic Policy 2035), Government of the Russian Federation, March 5, 2020.


[4] NDC - Research (









[13] UNIDIR, Wading Murky Waters: Subsea Communications Cables and Responsible State Behaviour.