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Not So Quiet on the Northern Front: Arctic Environmental Cooperation and Geopolitical Conflict

Updated: Nov 16, 2022

Aidan Oliver">(c) Can Stock Photo / sommersby

Near the end of the Cold War, through a famous speech by none other than the President of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev advanced a new vision for the Arctic, stating:

Let the North of the globe, the Arctic, become a zone of peace. Let the North Pole be a pole of peace. (Gorbachev, 1987)

This call for peace, later known as the Murmansk Initiative, included several military and non-military security proposals meant to prevent a repeat of the Cold War conflict, when the Arctic became one of the most heavily militarized regions in the world (Tamnes & Offerdal, 2014). However, Gorbachev was not permitted to lead such an initiative. And, having fully realized the strategic value of the Arctic, the U.S. would not abandon its military defenses in the region. Nevertheless, tendencies towards multilateralism on the part of a Soviet leader, especially in a region where the USSR was geographically dominant, was seen as an opportunity to increase security in the Arctic and globally by promoting cooperation across the Cold War divide. The Arctic seemed to be an exception to the norm of Great-Power conflict that obtained elsewhere.

Since the end of the Cold War, the Arctic underwent rapid institutionalization. Collaborative region-building efforts led many scholars to support a notion of Arctic exceptionalism, suggesting the Arctic was isolated from global politics. Today, the Arctic is again vulnerable to the wider conflicts of the world, despite being in critical need of collaborative environmental protection. The Arctic’s strategic location means that the hegemonic balance between Russia and the West has always determined the degree of stability. But today, there is no Gorbachev.

The implications of geopolitics for Arctic governance should not have been unexpected; it was geopolitical circumstances that allowed this governance to form. As climate change has created increasingly accessible maritime routes and strategic alliances have grown, any direct conflict between great powers would again involve the Arctic, to the detriment of its natural environment.

While research had been undertaken during the Cold War, it was for the purpose of national security and remained classified. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the new Russian government was more willing to allow researchers to access the Russian Arctic and to admit to the environmental impacts of Soviet military practices (Huebert, 1998). Not only was the Russian Arctic found to contain radioactive waste, but European nuclear reprocessing plants and the Chernobyl accident had also led to radioactive contamination (AMAP, 1998, Executive Summary). Furthermore, Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), heavy metals, and oil pollution were found to be present in high levels.

A variety of climatological factors come together in the Arctic to create an environment that is particularly susceptible to climate change. As outlined by Young these factors include: 1) Low temperatures which slow the natural decomposition of both natural and manmade pollutants; 2) Regeneration of flora is slow due to a short growing season; 3) Species populations’ often occur in high concentrations, making them especially vulnerable to environmental catastrophes, 4) Sea-ice forms an essential part of the ecosystem and food chain; 5) Climatic conditions such as albedo effects lead to an stronger CO2-induced warming in the Arctic compared to other regions, and 6) harsh weather and extensive ice-cover make environmental protection and response efforts challenging (1992). Furthermore, the Arctic has been home to Indigenous peoples for time immemorial and they are immediately vulnerable to the outcomes of conflict, climate change, and environmental degradation in their homeland. Historically, being far removed from the centers of human and political spheres, the Arctic (and therefore its peoples) were largely ignored by governments centered physically and politically within Southern parts of their respective countries. While the notion of Arctic exceptionalism is questionable, environmental exceptionalism unquestionably makes the region unique.

While Gorbachev’s vision for widespread demilitarization failed, it sparked cooperative initiatives to enhance environmental security. Institutionalization seemed to be a viable solution to managing these vulnerabilities collectively. The Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS), a Finnish initiative, marked the beginnings of what would later be transformed into a central institution for circumpolar cooperation, the Arctic Council. However, the AEPS was a relatively simple strategy to implement because of its explicit focus on soft security rather than traditional military threats.

While acknowledging the importance of the AEPS, Canada had a broader vision for circumpolar cooperation. Canada, largely for the sake of its relations with Indigenous communities, was undertaking domestic initiatives for remediation of the environmental impacts of the abandoned Cold War era Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line. In November 1989, Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney proposed the idea of an Arctic Council during a visit to Leningrad. Following this proposal, Canadian experts convened the Arctic Council Panel, an independent group funded by the Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation. After traveling to the Arctic and meeting with federal and territorial officials in 1990, the panel drafted a preliminary model for the Council (Axworthy & Dean, 2013). Due to significant Indigenous involvement, the preliminary report: To Establish an International Arctic Council, issued by the Arctic Council Panel took a different angle than previous reports that had a more state-centric lens. It emphasized an expanded vision for security:

It is a vision in which the Arctic figures not as a frontier but as part of the common home of the circumpolar nations. It is a vision which acknowledges that the outstanding resource of the Arctic is its people, not its oil and gas, hard minerals or space for military activities. (Kuptana & Griffiths, 1990)

Gorbachev’s request for circumpolar cooperation had emphasized arms control in 1987 but when the Arctic Council was established in 1996, military security was the only issue that was explicitly excluded. Instead, the U.S. opted to take a leading role in the trilateral Arctic Military Environmental Cooperation (AMEC) program. This program helped to dismantle Soviet era submarines and clean up environmental hazards. Having the military lead on the remediation of Cold War era degradation made sense in terms of the expert knowledge that it required. However, once AMEC served its purpose it dissolved and left a void in Arctic governance.

The Security Dilemma

Three warning bells heralded a new era of competition in the Arctic; but while garnering media sensation, they were dismissed from serious consideration. First, around 2007 Russia began modernizing its Northern Fleet. This military activity was largely interpreted by scholars as intended solely to protect economic assets and provide constabulary services in the face of increased activity due to climate change (Byers, 2017). Second, in August 2007 Russian scientists planted a titanium flag on the ocean floor at the North Pole. However, any potential for conflict was dismissed by scholars who argued this was solely a technological feat, comparable to the U.S. flag-planting on the moon (Byers, 2010). Finally, climate change came to be recognized as the climate crisis. The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment by the Arctic Council and the International Arctic Science Committee proved that the impacts of warming were especially severe in the Arctic (Exner-Pirot, 2019). In 2008, the United States Geological Survey sparked heightened concerns over a potential race for resources (USGS 2008, 4).

The immediate outcome was surface-level commitments to cooperation. In 2008, the five Arctic littoral states including Russia met in Greenland to sign the Ilulissat Declaration, reaffirming a commitment to the rules of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) (Lackenbauer and Dean, 2020). Thus, in the early 2000s increasing alarm regarding shipping and resource extraction brought Arctic states closer together, though only temporarily.

The root of Arctic military tensions, which resurfaced around 2008, can be largely explained by the security dilemma. The concept emphasizes the anarchy of the international system and the tendency for states to assume the worst from their adversaries (Åtland, 2014). That is not to say that the security dilemma cannot be mitigated through cooperative structures, policies, or confidence-building measures as was done for quite some time in the Arctic. However, as shown by the early refusal to accept Gorbachev’s proposal for Arctic demilitarization, force reduction creates a sense of vulnerability (Åtland, 2014). Indeed, Russian military investments in the Arctic were attributed to various causes; political (domestic image), practical (defending societal, economic, or environmental assets) or strategic (military defense and power projection) (Exner-Pirot, 2019). But ultimately, the challenge of making a definitive causal attribution fueled the potential for threat miscalculations and exacerbated conflict.

For the 26 years since its formation, cooperative socio-ecological governance in the Arctic continued despite traditional security challenges amongst the same nations in other parts of the world. Notably, the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment was adopted at the Arctic Council shortly after the 2003 Russian opposed, US-led invasion of Iraq. Then, the Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment was adopted after the widely condemned 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia (Byers, 2017). The desire to maintain stability in the Arctic was even more apparent after the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea when, although military and economic cooperation had ended, cooperative relations in the region otherwise continued.

Many agreements were signed in the years following 2014. The Arctic Coast Guard Forum (ACGF) was established just a year later amongst all eight Arctic states. Being the closest thing to a military security forum, this allowed for continued cooperation on practical issues such as search and rescue and disaster response. The International Maritime Organization’s International Code forShips Operating in Polar Waters (Polar Code) was adopted in November 2014 and entered into force in January 2017. The Agreementon Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation was signed at the Arctic Council’s Ministerial meeting in 2017. And the International Agreement to Prevent Unregulated Fishing in theHigh Seas of the CentralArctic Ocean was signed in 2018 alongside many non-Arctic states (Lackenbauer and Dean, 2020). It was not until the wholescale invasion of Ukraine that the weaknesses in the notion of the Arctic as an insulated region became clear, and Arctic Council work was paused entirely.

This suspension in work and fraying of relations called into question the future of the region due to the severity of climatic change and the cooperative response it demands. As the foundation of international law is universal standards of acceptable behavior, I argue that there was always a limit to keeping great power relations insulated from the outside world, especially in an area with such historical and strategic significance. So, the question becomes, what to do next?

There is no circumpolar cooperation without Russia

Russia accounts for approximately 53 percent of the Arctic coastline and comprises over half of the region’s population (Minter, 2022). Cooperation could surely continue without Russia as there are ongoing discussions of a new ‘A7’ but, this would neither be productive nor enhance security. Due to the size of its Arctic territory alone, no meaningful cooperation could occur without Russia especially when it comes to climate change. Economically, Russia’s exclusion from the Arctic Council’s sustainable development efforts would lead it to turn more heavily towards China. In terms of traditional security, excluding Russia from a new organizational structure would heighten the division already caused by its being the only Arctic nation that is not member or partner to NATO.

As early warning signs for renewed conflict were largely ignored due to the long isolation of Arctic issues from global conflicts, allied nations are increasingly concerned that investments in North American continental defense were not made sooner. For example, the North Warning System, built to replace the Cold War era Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line, has been allowed to become obsolete. Investment in early warning, being clearly defensive and within sovereign territory, would be an effective means of preventing escalation. Yet, historically even defensive operations have led to forced relocation of Indigenous communities and environmental degradation (Lackenbauer, 2018). In line with Canada’s commitments towards reconciliation, Federal Budget 2022 commits $9.5 million to the Department of National Defence to align its operations with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (GoC, 2022). While the budget does not outline how this may be done, I suggest this money could be used to grow and strengthen the Canadian Rangers program. As a unique part of the Canadian Armed Forces Reserves that promotes sovereignty and security in remote regions, the Rangers represent an existing channel of communication between the Armed Forces and Northern communities that should be strengthened.


The future of Arctic security is uncertain because it depends on a diplomatic settlement between NATO and Russia on tensions outside of the region. In the current context, the “exceptionalism” of the post-Cold War era is over. A delay in recognizing this will only prevent progress. The Arctic, due to its strategic location and vulnerability to the unilateral interests of relevant superpowers, will unlikely be demilitarized. However, military issues are difficult to separate from environmental cooperation.

When tensions ease, the next positive step should be to expand cooperation to the military sphere through an Arctic Military Code of Conduct. Regulating what is allowed in the Arctic during peacetime could prevent uncertainty and escalation towards conflict. It could help maintain cooperation in the region by serving as a guide for handling conflict outside the region and thus preventing spill-over effects. Accepting the centrality of the region in international politics is the first step towards defending the Arctic - for its environment and for its people.

Aidan Oliver, a Blumenfeld Junior Fellow at Science for Peace, is completing her master’s at Carleton University. This Article represents a portion of her Undergraduate Thesis, written for her BA completed at the University of Toronto in June 2022

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