[Show/Hide Left Column]

On the Geopolitical Significance of the Arctic States

(by Willy Østreng)



Geopolitics concerns the relationship between geographical space and international relations.1  This relationship is by some assumed to be extremely tight. E. W. Said reasons: “Since no State is outside or beyond geography, no State is completely free from the struggle over geography.2 Or in J. Painters imagery: “There can be no politics which is not geographical.”3 These statements are geographical determinism in the extreme. A more relaxed version of the role of geography in politics claims that: the world image of States are conditioned by their own geographical location and horizon; technological changes transform the strategic significance of an area; and, supply lanes of energy and mineral resources tie regions together and show their vulnerability and interdependency.4

The Arctic Ocean attracts political interest from an increasing number of states, European as well as Asian, big as well as small, polar as well as tropic. This interest relates in varying degrees to six geopolitical features of the Arctic:

  1. Its geographical location in between three continents – America, Europe and Asia, offering short trade distances - destination as well as transit.
  2. Its assumed abundance of strategically important industrial resources and mineral deposits, in particular oil and gas, offering degrees of increasing economic and energy security to the parties taking part in regional resource extractions.
  3. Its sea lanes - inside and outside of the region - and its man-induced operational conditions.
  4. Its dwindling sea ice regime due to global warming and climate change, offering more easy access to resources and better exploitation conditions in the region.
  5. Its uique environmental fragility, vulnerability and eco-systemic interconnections with ecosystems in southern latitudes
  6. Its regulatory affinity to existing global ocean conventions, in particular the third Law of the Sea Convention of 1982 (UNCLOS III).

These six features will be related to the national interests of big powers in the region aiming at providing an imagery of what the geopolitical future of the Arctic may look like. The assumption is that the common denominator of big power interests will forge an “informal operational regime” for the region for other states to accept and/or comply with - willingly or unwillingly.

Four categories of states are included: 1) The big Arctic insiders5: USA and Russia; 2) Small Arctic insiders: Norway, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Iceland and Canada; 3) The Arctic insider and outsider6: EU; and 3) The Arctic outsiders7: Japan, China, South Korea and India. As indicated by the insider-outsider dichotomy, these states are differently positioned in Arctic collective decision-making, but all possess - directly and/or indirectly - an ability to influence the long term direction of the ‘informal regime’, not least if their interests coalesce.

The big power focus here is not to say that small developed states or alliances of such states may not impact regional operational conditions through an active political posture and diplomacy, but the combined interests of big powers are assumed to be even more important in defining the intrinsic conditions, values and features of such a regime. Votes count but power decides.

The Six Features Combined

The interaction of the features 1, 2, 3 and 4 has unleashed a fresh interest in exploiting Arctic resources for industrial and societal purposes, whereas features 5 and 6 basically have been articulated as responses to and “warning” of possible negative consequence of increasing exploitation. Let us start with the significance of location.

None of the major industrial areas in Russia, North America, Europe or Japan are located more than 3,860 nm from the North Pole. That is to say that some 80% of world industrial production takes place north of  30 degree N. latitude, and some 70% of all metropolises lie north of the Tropic of Cancer. The Arctic Ocean is thus an industrial ‘Mediterranean Sea’ lying in between the world’s most advanced and productive regions.

Historically, this fact has attracted more attention from the military-industrial complex than from the ship-owners and industrialists of the world. As early as 1935, General Billy Mitchell maintained in a speech to the US Congress: “Alaska is the most central place in the world for aircrafts. He who holds Alaska holds the world.”8 A scant decade later, in 1944, US Air Force General Henry A. Arnold was to echo this, stating that the North Pole would become the strategic centre point if a third world war should break out.9 Some 200 year before them, the famous Russian scientist Mikhail Lomonosov had stated: “The power of Russia shall be increased by Siberia and the Arctic Ocean.”10 These and similar pronouncements, controversial as they were at their respective times, pointed to an undisputable geopolitical fact that have since been put into military action.

Developments in military technology during World War II, combined with the geostrategic location of the Arctic Ocean between the superpowers, made the Arctic a suitable deployment area for strategic, high-tech weapon systems. In the 1950s and 1960s Arctic airspace served as a deployment area and as an attack route for strategic bombers. This deployment pattern was further accelerated in the 1970s with the deployment of new generations of intercontinental ballistic missile.

In the course of the 1980s the Soviet Northern Fleet based at the Kola Peninsula moved its strategic submarines from the fringes of the Arctic Ocean to the water columns beneath the ice cover of the Central Arctic Basin.11 Thus, in a short while, the Arctic transformed from being a military vacuum in the post-world war II period to a military flank in the 1950-70 period to a military front in the 1980s.

Due to its location, the Arctic became an integral part of conflicts originating in southern latitudes. This rather quick transformation of the region into a military arena points to the linkage between geography and technology on the one hand, and military and political might on the other.12In theory, the same geographical features can be put to work for the economic benefit of civil societies.

Table 2.1: Distance in km between Harbours Using Various Southern and Northern Routes


Panama Canal





Suez and Malacca

London - Yokohama

23 300

15 930

13 841

21 200

Marseilles - Yokohama

24 030

16 720

17 954

17 800

Marseilles - Singapore

29 484

21 600

23 672

12 420

Marseilles – Shanghai

26 038

19 160

19 718

16 460

Rotterdam – Singapore

28 994

19 900

19 641

15 750

Rotterdam – Shanghai

25 588

17 570

15 793

19 550

Hamburg – Seattle

17 110

15 270

13 459

29 780

Rotterdam - Vancouver

16 350

14 330

13 445

28 400

Rotterdam – Los Angeles

14 490

15 790

15 252

29 750

Gioia Tauro – Hong Kong

25 934

24 071

21 556

14 093

Barcelona – Hong Kong

25 044

23 179

20 686

14 693

New York – Shanghai

20 880

17 030

19 893

22 930

New York – Hong Kong

21 260

18 140

20 982

21 570

New York – Singapore

23 580

20 310

23 121

18 770

Source: http://www.diis.dk/graphics/Publications/Briefs2009/sac_northern_searoutes.pdf(external link)

There is an obvious, and at time considerable, distance advantage involved in using the three Arctic transportation corridors between ports in the Pacific and those in the Atlantic, as compared to the Suez and Panama Canals. The distance between Yokohama in Japan and Hamburg in Germany, for example, is only 6,600 nm by way of the NSR, as against 11,400 nm through the Suez Canal. This implies a 42% reduction in freight distance. Another example is between the town of Tromsø in northern Norway and Vancouver on the Canadian west coast, 3,350 nm can be saved by using the NSR instead of the Panama Canal – a distance reduction of about 37%. If one uses the TPP across the North Pole, the distance is shorten with yet another 700 nm miles (see Table 2.1).

As is evident from Figure 2.1, the distance from London to all ports north of Hong Kong is shorter via the NSR than through Suez. It is just as far from London to San Francisco through the Panama Canal as by the NSR. Most of the North American West coast, the Russian East Coast, Japan, China, Korea and Taiwan are all closer to the European Union/European Economic Area in freight distance through the Arctic than by way of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. Thus viewed, the Arctic Ocean is indeed an ‘industrial Mediterranean’ in the true geographical sense of the word.

Several examples from the 1960s and 1970s – before the ice melt started triggered by global warming - can illustrate the potential of the NEP/NSR/TPP as alternative transportation corridors to existing trading routes in southern waters. Voyages previously undertaken by Russian freighters confirm the time-saving benefit of using the NSR.  In September 1989, a Soviet vessel carried cargo from Hamburg to Osaka in 22 days by the NSR. Previously, such sailings have taken less than 20 days in summer. By the Suez Canal, voyages from Continental Europe to the same destination would normally take between 30 to 33 days. Thus, in summer time, 10 to 15 days may be saved by using the NSR instead of the Suez Canal between Japanese and North European ports.13

Transit time between the US northwest coast and Hamburg through the Suez Canal averages some 28 days. Via the Arctic Great Circle Route, passing north of the large island masses in the Arctic Ocean, calculations indicate an 18-day voyage.14

Figure 2.1: Sea Routes between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans


Source: http://www.fni.no/INSROP/image1.gif(external link)

In the summer of 1995, Japan’s Ship and Ocean Foundation organized under the auspices of INSROP, an experimental voyage through the NSR, starting 1. August from Yokohama and ending up in the township of Kirkenes in North Norway. The whole trip lasted 28 days, including 3 days of scientific work. Due to lack of ice in the Chukchi Sea the multipurpose cargo vessel Kandalaksha used for the voyage had to pass north of Severnaya Zemlya in order to encounter sea ice and conduct the ice studies planned for INSROP. Kandalaksha did the trip without any assistance from icebreakers and took what the Russians refer to as the ‘the high latitudinal-route’ of the NSR. It took only 13 days for the ship to sail the 3,140 nm between the Bering Strait and Kirkenes, including the time it required to conduct scientific work. According to the expedition leader, this part of the voyage might have taken “..less than 10 days without the time taken for special mission tasks.”15

Fig. 2.2: Between the Bering Strait and Kirkenes 


Source: Northern Sea Route; Future and Perspective. The Proceedings of INSROP Symposium Tokyo (1995)

The Kandalaksha voyage is interesting also in light of global warming and ice melt. Due to a notable temperature rise at the time, the Chukchi Sea was to a large extent ice free. Thus, the vessel took to 81 degrees and 23 minutes N before it encountered sea ice, i.e. approximately to the same latitude that Nansen and Johansen reached in their quest for the North Pole in 1894/95. Whereas, Nansen and Johansen had to fight their way through hostile ice conditions before giving in and turning south, the crew on Kandalaksha had an easy ride under blue water conditions to the same spot.

Since the time of the Kandalaksha voyage, sea ice conditions have become much more negotiable, but the western shipping industry is still somewhat sceptical and reluctant to involve their fleets in operations in these waters. Why? Three explanations could apply: a) Attitudes to and lack of Arctic-specific knowledge; b) Lack of adequate applied shipping technology; and c) Subordination of civil needs to military interests.

Western Attitudes and Lack of Arctic-Specific Knowledge

Throughout history, the Arctic Ocean has remained off the beaten track of large-scale world shipping operations. It has been the operational backyard of a few Soviet/Russian ships. In the West, the general tendency has been to play down the geopolitical aspects of the Arctic Ocean and emphasize the climatic, hydrological and bathymetric restrictions of the NSR and NWP. On the whole, the conclusion has been that these routes are of no interest for market-based economies.

Lack of regular sailing schedules, limited length of sailing seasons, costs of icebreaker assistance, high insurance premiums, limited sailing speeds and cargo capacity, and cost in building  ice-reinforced freighters, are just a few of the numerous cost-factors invoked when disregarding the Arctic Ocean as an alternative transportation medium between  the Atlantic and Pacific. Even the NSR - the most developed of these transportation corridors has been regarded as nothing but a misbegotten product of communist-command economy rather than as a legitimate offspring of market forces.

In most western quarters the Arctic routes have never been seen as viable and realistic alternatives to the Suez and Panama Canals. Such blanket rejections have failed to take into consideration the fact that there are several feasible uses apart from all-year transit sailings, among them destination Arctic applied  transport - the Kara Sea Route being the most prominent example.

As stated by the former President of the Norwegian Shipping Association, Rolf Saether in 1999: “To study the possibilities facing sea transportation (in these waters) was a task too complex for individual companies. This (called) for international cooperation. When the INSROP programme was presented, we decided to follow it closely.  The programme seemed well organized and the most outstanding experts worldwide were invited to cooperate in INSROP. Our purpose for joining in was that the research programme could reveal the potential of the Northern Sea Route to commerce and shipping both economically and technically. We expected the programme to answer the questions we had about the ice - and weather conditions along the route. Further we expected to learn about the environmental challenges along the Northern Sea Route, and how these challenges could be met. We knew that the natural resources in the northern regions were very rich, but we needed more accurate information about oil and gas, minerals, forests and other resources. Finally we hoped the INSROP would indicate the type of know-how a shipping company would need to be a quality operator in the area.”16

INSROP was the first international program to address the complexity and multiplicity of questions involved in arctic navigation. Ever since several multilateral projects have been launched to follow up on INSROP, including ARCOP, JANSROP, AMSA etc. The knowledge base is building and expanding, and a gradual change in the attitudes of the shipping industry to the opportunities of the North is emerging.

However, lack of knowledge and misconceived attitudes were not the only reason for the shipping industry to stay away from operations in these waters. The dominant position of the military-industrial complex in regional affairs kept the industry at arm length distance from the region for a long time. The second reason, for western companies to hold back from involving itself in Arctic shipping, stems from this attitude and the lack of adequate ship technology.

Lack of Adequate Applied Shipping Technology

One argument put forward for not building ships suited for ice-infested waters was that the shallowness of the shelf areas of the coastal corridors did not allow for building ships of sufficient size and cargo capacity. The draught of ice class ships operating along the NSR excluded vessels of more than 20,000 – 25,000 dwt, whereas the routes through the Suez and Panama Canals can accommodate ships many times that tonnage. The conditions underlying these assumptions do not necessarily reflect the current situation.

The Ship Research Institute in Tokyo has been working on the construction of an icebreaking tanker of 200,000 dwt for transport of oil from the Arctic to Japan on a year-round basis. Model trials made as early as in the early 1980s show that this vessel is capable of forcing its way through two-meter-thick ice by own propulsion at a speed of 5 knots, and in ice-free waters, at 15 knots. Cargo capacity amounts to 246,000 cubic meters and keel draught 11 meters, corresponding to the keel depth of the larger nuclear icebreakers, which is 12 to 13 meters.17

Thus existing technology in the 1980s allowed for the building of icebreaking super tankers that not only satisfied the requirements of special draught conditions along the NSR, but are also capable of progressing without icebreaker assistance, a point which may increase the profitability of major freighter transportation, destination Arctic as well as transit. These ships can be built even bigger if transpolar passages over the Central Arctic Basin are being employed.

The cost of building double-hulled ice-class vessels is a good deal higher than for conventional vessels. Capital investments will therefore increase the costs of using the three arctic transportation corridors. Some of these extra costs have already been covered in the building of modern conventional tankers. The international trend is to fit blue water tankers with a double hull to reduce risk of environmental pollution due to accidents and groundings. This is reflected in the legislation of more and more countries – among them the USA, requiring all tankers calling on their ports to have double hull. To operate in ice-infested waters, double hull is a requirement.

Thus, the price differential between conventional and ice-class ships is getting smaller. There are of course more cost-intensive requirements for achieving ice-class status than double hulls, but this is a step in direction of gradually reducing the difference in technology and price.

Attitudes and technology were not the only reasons for the low profile of western shipping in Arctic waters. Politics, actually, played a major role.

Subordination of Civil Need to Military Interests

The gradual inclusion of the High North into Cold War strategic planning made most governments conceive of Arctic security solely in military terms. Due to the hegemonic features of the East-West conflict, civilian issue-areas like circumpolar transportation, resource extraction, scientific research, environmental protection and trade were not accorded autonomous significance of their own.

The two set of issue-areas – civil and military – were for strategic reasons, tightly interlinked. Not only were few distinctions made between them, but civil affairs were subordinated to military requirements. As a rule, military interests and security considerations gained the upper hand in national priorities for the North. Whenever the military establishment perceived of a conflict between the two types of interests, the obligation to yield rested with the civil sector.

According to Russian analysts, the Arctic was “…viewed in the USSR in terms of strategic interests, and this… produced a situation in which all issue areas concerning the region – including economic, social and in some cases even cultural ones – (was) shrouded in secrecy to a degree that was uncommon even by Soviet standards. Even non-military matters concerning the Arctic were discussed by a limited group of people within a special interdepartmental body (State Commission on Arctic Affairs) and all publications about Arctic-related issues were subject to special censorship procedures.”18 Use of the NSR fell prey to the security-based hegemonialism of the Cold War and became integrated into it.

The first public attempt to break out of the Cold War security thinking came from the party most rigorously insisting on it in the past. On the 1st of October 1987 Secretary General, Mikhail Gorbachev gave a speech in Murmansk in which he signalled willingness to initiate international cooperation in five civil issue areas: Energy planning, environmental protection, scientific cooperation, and transportation.19

In identifying these areas, Gorbachev also introduced a distinction between military and civil security. Both were regarded as vital for safeguarding national security, but the civil component was to be given priority from then on.20 Actually, the new approach held that security lay in the political rather than military sphere and that national security was a comprehensive and complex matter based on two principles: First, national security is an integral part of the security of others, implying that no country can be more secure than others and that one country’s insecurity equals the insecurity of the rest. Thus, military imbalances and asymmetries should in the long term be eliminated. Second, common problems of a trans-boundary nature – ecological, economic or whatever – can only be resolved through international cooperation.

The increased complexity and interdependence between states had, according to the new thinking, created a need to develop a comprehensive system of international security based on a mechanism capable of discussing common problems in a responsible way and at a representative level. The need was to extend the concept to comprise, in addition to military matters, economy, ecology and human rights. Thus, international cooperation in civil issue areas was defined as a measure to bolster national security.21

The purpose was to create extended security through international cooperation by decoupling military and civil issue areas. Coexistence between rather than exclusion of interests was the prescription suggested to transform the region into a cooperative place for civil activities to take place on their own preconditions and on an equal footing with military activities.22 The separation of Arctic security into interrelated parts was an acknowledgement of the complexity of national security, the military component being only one.

Whereas, the Cold War concept was one of military partiality, regarding civil activities as a potential obstacle, or even threat to military security, the new thinking was one of comprehensiveness, regarding civil cooperation in many fields as one of two sets of measures to prepare nations to meet all kinds of threat to national security, military as well as civil. The new security concept was one of comprehensive complexity, extended to comprise and counteract all possible threats to the well-being of states, civil as well as military. In achieving this, some civil issue areas should be the object of international cooperation. Thus, the Soviet Union was on a brand new track in regional security thinking – a track that the western arctic states had been on for some years already.23

In accordance with the new thinking, the Soviet Union on the 1st of July 1991 opened the NSR for international shipping. In the course of the 1990s a whole new set of cooperative

forums – among them the Barents Euro-Arctic Region, the Arctic Council, and the Northern Forum etc. – were established for scientific and environmental cooperation at different levels of governments.24

Thus, a new era of low politics and civil involvement in regional affairs has been put in the post-Cold War melting pot of Arctic affairs. Low politics (civil issues) have become part of high politics (national security issues). Military security has become extended security inviting the civil sector to take part in securing national interests in the region. A new page is being turned in Arctic history.

The incentives to utilize this fresh political foundation for civil purposes is being strengthened by global climate warming and changes in the sea ice cover of the Arctic Ocean. The Arctic is in a slow and gradual process of being tied into the economic securities of South East Asian, European and North American countries, relieving them of some of their dependencies of energy imports from the Middle East and the political turmoil of southern waters. Here global climate change is forcing a change in the global policy focus.

The Rise in New Economic Interests in Arctic Energy

The annual reductions in sea ice extent in the Arctic Ocean amounts to 45,000 sq. km, i.e. more than the size of Denmark. Since 1978, the overall reduction of sea ice extent has been more than 10%.25 In the period 1976-1990 the extent of sea ice was reduced by one million sq. km i.e. an area bigger than Norway, Denmark and Sweden combined. This reduction is most pronounced in the marginal seas of the Arctic Oceans. This ice melt is accelerating and opening up sizeable chunks of previously ‘ice-closed’ continental shelf areas for exploration and exploitation.

In its search for oil and gas, expectations are that the petroleum industry will follow the ice edge northward until it reaches the edge of the continental slope bordering on, but not overlapping with the operational area of strategic submarines. The access to Arctic resources is continuously improving.

According to the US Geological Surveys’ (USGS) most recent estimates, the Arctic may hold up to 22% of the world’s undiscovered hydrocarbons, i.e. 50 billion tons of oil equivalents.26 Of these resources, the shelf is supposed to contain a reasonable share – up to 84% - not least the Russian, which takes up about 40% of the seabed of the Arctic Ocean. In the view of the USGS, most of the undiscovered oil and gas resources are concentrated between the shoreline and the 500 m contour and within the 200 nm limit.

The interest in exploiting these resources is fuelled by two extraterritorial and geopolitical circumstances. First, the global rate of oil finds has dropped drastically since the late 1960s, indicating that world energy production may be on a steep downhill track in the years ahead. At the same time the demand for oil is expected to increase by some 60% over the next 30 years. Here, find rates, supply and demand are on a course of fatal collision.

New energy forms, sources and provinces are in high demand. The assumed role of petroleum in this rather bleak futuristic scenario is that oil and gas will remain the dominant form of energy supply for at least 40 more years.27 As stated in the US National Security Presidential Directive and Homeland Security Presidential Directive of January 9, 2009: “Energy development in the Arctic region will play an important role in meeting growing global energy demand as the area is thought to contain a substantial portion of the world’s undiscovered energy resources.”28

Second, to take energy resources from the Arctic complies with the policy of most oil and gas importing countries to reduce their vulnerability of being subjected to energy blackmails from governments in politically unstable and volatile areas. The attraction for Arctic oil and gas is fed by the war against terrorism, piracy in southern waters and the enduring political dramas of the Middle East and Central Asia providing the bulk of fossil energy to import-dependent countries in the Western world. The Suez and Panama Canals run through some of the most politically turbulent and volatile areas of the World.

At the same time, the effectiveness and commerciality of international ship-based trade has for long been founded in and dependent on the enduring and continuous functioning of these waterways. The Suez Canal has been closed two times for extended periods of time in the post-World War II period forcing international ship-based trade to go around the Cape of Good Hope to markets in Western Europe and North America. In addition comes, six Israeli/Arab wars, the Gulf War, the Afghan War, and the 11 year-long war between Iraq and Iran, all introducing severe uncertainties in the supply of oil to energy dependent countries in the West.

These events cause energy prices to soar to unprecedented levels seriously hurting the world economy, and in particular the least developed countries (LDC). Piracy outside of the East Coast of Somalia and in the East China Sea and conflicts among Asian countries makes supply routes eastward and northward from the Middle East an uncertain business. As has been pointed out “From a logistical point of view, the security of marine transportation routes for crude oil between Northeast Asia and the Middle East has been seriously threatened by piracy, conflicts among Asian countries and military affairs.”29

These countries are looking for alternative routes of supply through politically stable waters. This again draw attention to the formal establishment of a Northern Pacific Corridor and the Northern Maritime Corridor and the Fram Corridor, which in due course may increase the role of Arctic transportation corridors in international trade in relation to the sand swept tropics and the piracy-infested waters of the Indian Ocean and East China Sea. As has been suggested “The prospects that ships with western cargoes will one day be sailing through the Arctic, instead of the Suez Canal, would seem to be one good reason for opening a dialogue with the (Russians) on ice navigation technology.”30

The former President of the Norwegian Shipowners’ Association, Rolf Saether followed suit stating that “We should all join forces to promote the sustainable development in the (NSR), a development that might stimulate the economy and improve the living conditions…(which) might be a stimulus to international trade and shipping. If so, it might turn out that the Northern Sea Route will eventually emerge as a new and important trade route in world commerce. We would all like that to happen.”31

Will this civil wish - shared by more and more - cause competition between the civil and military sectors over access to the same ocean expanses, and introduce fresh conflicts to the region?

Availability of Ocean Space and Extended Security

The Arctic Ocean is an ocean suited for submarines, not for surface warships. Surface warships are constructed with thin hulls because of speed requirements, whereas cargo vessels are ice-strengthened to cope with ice on the expense of speed. According to Admiral Anatoliy Yakovlev, this is why the NSR has never been used for operation and battle training of Soviet/Russian surface warships, and why “..transference of Russian warships (between the Pacific and Northern Fleets) along the NSR has nearly stopped”.32

What is more, the coastal shelf areas are not suitable for strategic submarines due to the combination of their size, shallow shelves and sea ice. These vessels experience limitations in manoeuvring ability through the restricted underwater spaces between deep extending ice and the extremely shallow waters covering the shelves off Siberia and North America. In general, strategic submarines (SSBNs) are simply too large to operate in most of these areas. As an example, the Russian Delta class submarine are much longer (150 meters) than a soccer field, wider than a handball field and as tall as a 10-storey building (approximately 25 meters).

It goes without saying that such a vessel, as big as the largest battleships of World War II, need considerable space to manoeuvre, horizontally as well as vertically. As stated by US submarine experts: “It is axiomatic that a short submarine is more manoeuvrable than a long one. Any submarine longer than 350 feet (approximately 105 meters) probably is incapable of meeting manoeuvrability requirements under ice in shallow waters.”33  The operational space needed between surface (ice) and sea bottom has been estimated to between 180 to 200 meters.34

The Kara, Laptev and Chukchi Seas all have average depths of less than 100 meters. In the East Siberian Sea, depths are generally less than 40 meters and 53% of the Laptev seabed have depth of less than 50 meters.35 In fact, in extensive parts of these areas, a Delta class submarine sitting on the sea floor would have its tower protruding above the surface of the ocean.

The depth of the Canadian Archipelago are in average somewhat deeper than the offshore areas of Siberia, but several of the channels of the NWP are both too narrow and shallow to allow the access and effective operations of big strategic submarines. With or without the presence of ice, the depths of these seas do not suffice to fulfil optimal operational requirements of large strategic submarines.36 No Admiralty in its right senses would gamble with the survivability of its strategic submarines in such waters as long as better alternatives are immediately at hand.

The deep Central Arctic Basin are such an alternative, offering depths of thousands of meters and a moving ice sheet producing more than enough ambient noise to provide adequate noise protection to strategic submarines. The strategic interest for the area is picking up. In 2007 and 2008 14 longer patrols were conducted by Russian submarines in the Central Arctic Ocean, and a US attack-submarine surfaced in the vicinity of the North Pole in mid-October 2009. The increased Russian submarine activities in the Arctic Ocean come after near two decades of little Russian naval activity in the region.37

The only area where clashes of interests may occur is in the Barents Sea, with an average depth of 229 meters, and where submarines in a future scenario may have their thoroughfare restricted and narrowed in by oil, gas and other civil installations.38

Thus, by and large, nature to a certain extent will see to it that the civil and military sectors can fulfil their objectives and activities in separate parts of the Arctic Ocean avoiding interference in each other’s activities. The shelf areas seem to be “reserved” by nature for the civil sector – shipping and resource mining - whereas the Central Arctic Basin is the prime operational space of strategic submarines – a strategic ‘sanctuary’ of submarines. 39 This natural separation scheme is in no way absolute, but it seems to suffice the needs of the two sectors to conduct most of their activities without continuous and undue interference from the other.

If in the future the Trans Polar Passage (TPP) is being used for regular freighting purposes, the shipping industry will share ocean space with strategic submarines. This, however, does not provide an insurmountable risk for clashes of interests in that freighter traffic across the North Pole area will only create additional noise to the noise created by moving sea ice, providing added protection for submarines against detection from enemy sonars. If, collisions of interests should occur in this part of the Arctic Ocean - which cannot be ruled out completely - the shipping industry still have the option of using the coastal corridors, and even high-latitudinal routes above the shelf north of the archipelagos. 

To an astonishing extent, natural parameters provide for cohabitation between military and civil actors in the Arctic Ocean, and for both sectors to fulfil their obligations on their own terms without necessarily interfering in the activities of the other. Thus, military-strategic interests are no longer an absolute obstacle to the civil sector as they were assumed to be during the Cold War. Here nature (ice melting and shallow shelves) and politics (Murmansk speech) coalesce.


  •  1. Gould, L.M. (1958), The Polar Regions and their Relations to Human Affairs, American Geographical Society, New York, 1958.
  •  2. Granovsky, A. E. (1989), Soviet Approaches to Security in the Arctic, in W.A.Hurlburt (ed): The Arctic. Choices for Peace and Security, Gordon Soules Book Publishers, Seattle, 1989
  •  3. Painter, J (1995), Politics, Geography and “Political Geography”: A Critical Perspective, Arnold, London, 1995
  •  4. Parrott, B. (1988), Soviet National Security under Gorbachev, Problems of Communism, vol. 37, no. 10, 1988.
  •  5. Said, E. W. (1993), Culture and Imperialism, Vintage Books, London, 1993
  •  6. Sæther, R. (2000), What Do We Need? The Shipping Industry’s View on the Northern sea Route’s Potential and Problems” in Claes Lykke Ragner (Ed.) (2000a): The 21st Century – Turning Point for the Northern Sea Route?, Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordre
  •  7. Watson, G. G. (1991), Technical Aspects of Ice Navigation and Port Construction in Soviet Arctic, Lawson Brigham (ed): The Soviet Maritime Arctic, Belhaven Press, Scott Polar research Institute, Cambridge, 1991
  •  8. Wergeland, T. (1992), The Northern sea Route – Rosy Prospects for Commercial Shipping? International Challenges, vol. 12, no. 1, 1992.
  •  9. Yakovlev, A, O. Kossov, A Ushakov (1994), Political Aspects of International Shipping along the Northern sea Route”, INSROP Discussion Paper, IV.2.2., St. Petersburg, December, 1994.
  •  10. Yamaguchi, H. (1995), Experimental Voyage through the Northern Sea Route, in H. Kitagawa (ed): Northern Sea Route; Future and Perspectives, SOF, Tokyo, 1995.
  •  11. Yeong-Seok Ha (2006), Transportation System of natural Resources in Korea in Hiromitzu Kitagawa (ed): New Era in Far East Russia & Asia, OPRF, Tokyo, 2006
  •  12. Østerud, Ø (1996): Statsvitenskap. Innføring i politisk analyse, Universitetsforlaget, Oslo, 1996
  •  13. Østreng, W. (1977), The Strategic Balance and the Arctic Ocean, Cooperation and Conflict, 1, 1977.
  •  14. Østreng, W. (1982), Sovjet i Nordlige Farvann. Atomstrategien, Nordflåten og norsk sikkerhet, Gyldendal Norsk Forlag, Oslo, 1982.
  •  15. Østreng, W., H. Simonsen (1992), The Barents Region and the Northern Sea Route, International Challenges, vol. 12, no. 4, 1992.
  •  16. Østreng, W. (1992), Political-Military Relations among the Ice-States: The Conceptual Basis of State Behaviour, in Franklyn Griffiths (ed): Arctic Alternatives: Civility or Militarism in the Circumpolar North, Science for Peace/Samuel Stevens, Toront
  •  17. Bergesen, H., Moe, A., Østreng, W. (1987), Soviet Oil and Security Interests in the Barents Sea, Frances Pinter, London, 1987
  •  18. BP Statistical Review of World Energy (2005), Putting Energy in the Spotlight: Natural Gas and Putting Energy in the Spotlight: BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2005: Oil.
  •  19. Stokke (1999), p. 35
  •  20. Members of the Arctic Council
  •  21. EU being an insider through the membership of her member states Sweden Denmark and Finland in the Arctic Council and being an outsider not having its own separate seat in the Council
  •  22. Extraterritorial states are outsiders in that they are not littoral states to the Arctic Ocean nor members of the Arctic Council, but still exerts a market influence in international resource dealings that may affect the future direction of Arctic affairs
  •  23. Cited from Swartztrauber (1965), p.1
  •  24. Vartanov et al. (1999), p. 60
  •  25. Schrivener (1989).
  •  26. Østreng (1999/1)
  •  27. Impacts of Global Climatic Change in the Arctic Region (1999), p. 12
  •  28. Focus North 5 (2007).
  •  29. US Directive (2009), p. 6
  •  30. Boyle,Lyon (1998), p.33
  •  31. Hønneland (1997).
  •  32. For a more extensive discussion of the operational conditions in these waters see, Østreng, Kolodkin, Brubaker, Jernsletten (1999), pp. 290- 297
  •  33. Barentsobserver (2009) 11-16
  •  34. Fuhs, P. (1992), Marco Polo in the 21st Century”, Henning Simonsen (ed): Proceedings from the Northern Sea Route Expert Meeting, 13-14 October, 1992.
  •  35. Fujita, Y. H. Narita and H. Kitagawa (1986), Design Study of a 200 000 dwt. icebreaking Tanker, Proceedings of the Fourth Offshore mechanics and Engineering Symposium, vol. 4, 1986, ASME

Willy Østreng, 2010, On the Geopolitical Significance of the Arctic States, CHNL.©