Written by Nikita Pia Jensen (Ambassador to Germany)

Edited by Timo Schröttke


This article explores the transformation of the Arctic from a symbol of international cooperation into a region marked by escalating military activities and geopolitical tensions, particularly following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The suspension of collaborations after the invasion, as well as increased military activity due to the US-China power struggle, have strained regional relations even further. The lack of effective communication between Russia and NATO has heightened tensions, and the inclusion of Finland and the prospective accession of Sweden to NATO further complicate the geopolitical landscape. The article also highlights the broader consequences of severed ties, from immediate military concerns to the disruption of scientific collaboration. It advocates for using established forums for cooperation and emphasises the importance of diplomatic efforts to prevent adverse consequences for both local inhabitants and the global community.


The Arctic played an important role in Cold War geopolitics, serving as a direct confrontation point between Russia and the US. Following Glasnost and Perestroika, the Arctic transformed from an area of competition and deterrence into a platform for international dialogue and cooperation. However, despite this evolution and the renewed advent of global geopolitical confrontation, the region has traditionally received minimal attention on the security agendas of Western nations. This neglect can be attributed, in part, to the idea that the peaceful cooperation in the Arctic exists independently of broader geopolitical tensions, leading to the term Arctic Exceptionalism (Rachold, 2022).

However, Russian military activities have increasingly challenged this perception of the Arctic, particularly following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Consequently, with its 2022 Strategic Concept, and, for the first time in history, NATO officially acknowledged the strategic importance and potential risks associated with Russia’s actions in the Arctic region (Landriault et. al., 2023). Against this backdrop, the recent Finnish membership of NATO, plus the prospective accession of Sweden,  intensifies the already tense relationship between the alliance and Russia. The Arctic, once considered a realm of collaboration and scientific exploration, now stands at the forefront of a potential clash between major global forces.

The aim of this article is to explore the history of Arctic exceptionalism and subsequently analyse the current situation following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. By doing so, it is asking whether the region is once again on the verge of an “Ice Curtain” (Huebert, 2019) – reminiscent of the Cold War’s Iron Curtain – or if it could serve as a platform for sustaining multilateral dialogue amid escalating geopolitical strains.

The History of Arctic Exceptionalism

Due to the proximity of the Russian Arctic and Alaska, the Arctic region has served not only as a buffer zone between the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War (Gunhild and Hodgson, 2019), but was also considered the epicentre of their nuclear deterrence strategy, with nuclear submarines from both sides frequently stationed in the Barents Sea (Rachold, 2022). 

A year after the talks of nuclear disarmament at the Reykjavik summit failed, Mikhail Gorbachev gave a speech in which he not only called for an end to the nuclear deterrence in the North, but also urged all Arctic States for close cooperation in scientific matters (Gorbachev, 1987). A week later, the US and the USSR signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, effectively banning all ground launched missiles, including the ones stationed in the Arctic. This marked the beginning of an exceptional cooperative effort among the Arctic States. After Finland initiated talks about Arctic environmental protection, four working groups were formed: The Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP), Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME), Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response (EPPR) and Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF) (Rachold, 2022). Out of these, the Arctic Council (AC) was established in 1996. The AC is defined as an intergovernmental forum to “enhance cooperation, coordination and interaction among the Arctic States with the active involvement of Arctic Indigenous Peoples and other Arctic inhabitants on common Arctic issues” (Ottawa Declaration 1996).

The Council includes the eight Arctic States: Norway, Denmark (through Greenland), Finland, USA (through Alaska), Russia, Canada, Iceland, and Sweden, as well as several observer states. Notably excluded from the mandate of the Arctic Council are any issues that relate to national or international security. This initiative aimed to prevent geopolitical tensions from influencing Arctic governance (Huebert, 2019). Adhering to the agreement subsequently led to almost 25 years of cooperation between the involved parties, eventually giving rise to the term Arctic Exceptionalism.

Although the decisions of the AC are not legally binding, a majority of the Arctic States typically adhere to their recommendations. Some accomplishments stemming from this cooperation include the Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic in 2013, and the Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation in 2017 (Rachold, 2022).

Nevertheless, over the last years, there has been a growing divergence in opinions regarding the assessment of Arctic Exceptionalism. Some argue that despite the absence of direct confrontation in the region, other conflicts are spilling over through a geopolitical context of increasing tension between America, China, and Russia (Raspotnik and Osthagen, 2022).

For both America and Russia, the Arctic remains a crucial part of their military deterrence strategies. Additionally, Russia has long opposed the expansion of NATO and has been keen to increase its military presence in the North (Huebert, 2019). For example, in 2007, Russia resumed its Arctic bomber patrols and built multiple air-defence radar stations and airfields. In 2012, Vladimir Putin signed a decree to modernise and revitalise the Russian Navy by 2030, with a special emphasis on its Northern Fleet(Bott, 2021). As a reaction, America and NATO are increasingly drawn to the region themselves and have substantially increased their military activity in the Barents Sea (Osthagen, 2022). Furthermore, Alaska is home to Fort Greely, America’s largest anti-ballistic missile base and the primary shield against a nuclear attack (Huebert, 2019). 

In the meantime, China has also increased its presence in the High North and started referring to itself as a “Near-Arctic State” in its 2018 security concept. With the Arctic experiencing an increase in temperatures that is almost four times as high as the global average (Rachold, 2022), the melting ice opens up the option for China to establish a “Polar Silk Route”, which would be hugely beneficial to its economy. Additionally, with China being overly dependent on foreign countries for its energy supply, the vast amount of untapped natural resources in the Arctic are of high interest to  China.

The Arctic after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

The much appraised High North cooperation took another severe hit after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Most cooperation with Russia has been halted, including the work of the Arctic Council (AC), which Russia had chaired until May 2023. Since there is no legal mechanism to remove Russia from the AC, any cooperation within the region can only take place outside of the AC, making overall coordination significantly harder (Landriault et. al., 2023).

The absence of effective communication, coupled with heightened military activities from both Russia and NATO, has resulted in escalating tensions in the region. Most notable is the joint Russian and Chinese military operation just off the coast of Alaska in September 2022. This not only underscores the growing strain in the region but also emphasises the deepening cooperation between Russia and China. While all parties are still carefully avoiding direct military confrontation, there have been multiple occurrences of hybrid threats, such as the sabotaging of critical infrastructure or illegal intelligence gathering (Osthagen, 2023). These incidents have always remained under the threshold of plausible deniability and have therefore not caused any major crises. They nevertheless indicate the testing of boundaries and are likely increasing in frequency with a continued lack of communication.

Furthermore, with the accession of Finland, and soon Sweden, to NATO, all of the Arctic States except for Russia are now part of the alliance, creating a direct vis-à-vis frontline between the two sides (Osthagen, 2023). As a result, this strategic context could possibly lead to even more military activity in the Arctic. In October 2023, during the Arctic Circle summit, the Chair of the NATO military committee delivered a speech addressing the significant threat arising from the presence of Russia and China. He explicitly emphasised the need for preparedness in the face of potential worst-case scenarios (NATO News, 2023). Coupled with NATO’s recent security concept —  acknowledging Russia’s presence in the High North as a threat for the first time — it underscores a noteworthy shift in the perception of the Arctic. Once celebrated as a symbol of intergovernmental cooperation, it now appears to be undergoing a transformation into a potential hotspot for conflict.

Experts widely agree that resuming dialogue with Russia is highly unlikely for the next five to ten years (Landriault et al., 2023). This sentiment extends not only to the Arctic Council but also encompasses other forums such as the Arctic Coast Guard Council. The consequences of this situation, however, extend far beyond the immediate military concerns faced by the Arctic States. Aside from its geopolitical significance, the Arctic plays a crucial role in scientific research on climate change due to being an exceptionally sensitive region to rising temperatures and melting ice (Rachold, 2022). The discontinuation of collaboration between scientists and environmentalists with Russia, which possesses the largest share of Arctic land among all the Arctic States, poses an obstacle to scientific progress on climate change. This disruption not only impacts the inhabitants of the region but also has far-reaching consequences globally. Without Russian data, it becomes virtually impossible to comprehensively assess the full scale of environmental effects in the Arctic.


The era of Arctic Exceptionalism and its once-praised intergovernmental cooperation is undeniably over. It has been replaced by heightened military activities and hybrid threats. Geopolitical tensions have surged not only between NATO and Russia but also between the United States and China. Against this backdrop, prospects for improved regional relationships in the coming years are bleak.

While the decision to sever ties with Russia in various forums, especially within the Arctic Circle, is justifiable given the unjust war it wages, it is important to acknowledge the potential long-term repercussions. Ceasing communication not only increases the likelihood of small incidents escalating but also obstructs scientific progress on climate change. Such a setback could have lasting consequences for both local inhabitants and the global community alike.

Therefore, it is crucial to use the already established forums for cooperation in order to address this dilemma. While the swift resumption of collaboration with Russia is unlikely, it is worth noting that the Arctic was once a symbol of successful international cooperation and still harbours the potential to become one once again. This undertaking presents significant challenges for all parties involved, but the consequences of not succeeding could be even more adverse.



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