2nd Place – Sinking their Claws into the Arctic: Prospects for Sino-Russian Relations in the World’s Newest Frontier

“The Arctic is not only the Arctic Ocean… It is the place where the Eurasian, North American, and Asian Pacific regions meet, where the frontiers come close to one another and the interests of the states… cross.”[1]

~ Mikhail Gorbachev

 The shortest distance between the continents of Asia, Europe, and North America is over the Arctic Ocean, which is warming at a rate twice as fast as the rest of the earth. As the Arctic warms, ice melts, and fresh opportunities arise: newly accessible natural resources, shorter maritime transport routes, and shifting strategic partnerships. These new developments could be just the lucky break that Russia has been waiting for— a crown of oil, gas, and strategic riches that will raise the faltering state back to its rightful position as a global superpower. But a rising China is paying close attention to the Arctic, too, with its economy demanding more and more resources and its global influence growing. Both countries have deep-seated expansionist tendencies, and the Arctic, described by the US as “one of our planet’s last great frontiers”[2] holds new sorts of promise.

All great frontiers are accompanied by a scramble; the terms “gold rush”[3] (or “cold rush”[4]) and “dividing up the melon”[5] have, sure enough, wound their way into Arctic discourse. Yet the Arctic, despite Russia and China’s growing hopes, remains shrouded in uncertainty—its treasures and dangers unknown, its icebergs uncharted, its territory not yet properly sliced up. Today’s “Arctic euphoria”[6] is a product of the last five years of growing international attention. While many media reports portray the Arctic as a modern Wild West, in reality, most of its resources are within uncontested state zones.[7] Even so, the current Arctic governance regime remains in “embryonic form.”[8] With remote expanses of the Arctic under no naval surveillance or satellite systems and the logistics of search-and-rescue and icebreaking still very weak, Arctic activity, whether economic or political, comes with plenty of risks. Such risks, heightened by emerging environmental pressures, could spur increased cooperation or stir new tensions as Arctic activity continues to expand. With ice melt unpredictable and the Arctic’s profitability dependent upon a complex web of factors, do the risks up north outweigh the rewards, and does the thinning ice really hold commercial and geopolitical weight?

Both Russia and China appear to think so. Both covet the Arctic’s “three resplendent jewels”[9]: resources, sea routes, and strategic significance. They have both begun to build up their Arctic capabilities, one with the intent of securing Arctic dominance, the other seeking to exert outside influence. Interdependence of Russian and Chinese energy and transport interests in the Arctic could be a critical driver for Arctic development and bears the potential to bring about significant changes to their relationship. While nothing is certain, the US should start to pay closer attention. 

What constitutes “the Arctic,” and why does it matter?

What, precisely, qualifies as “the Arctic”? While a universally accepted definition does not exist,[10] the dictionary defines “arctic” as “of or relating to regions around the North Pole,” which, under current international law, belongs to no one. While there is no official southern boundary for the region, the 60ºN parallel is a reasonable stand-in measure.[11] The only Arctic strategy published by one of the eight Arctic states to mention this definitional ambiguity is that of Finland, which states that “No single, unambiguous definition exists for the Arctic region. Its boundaries vary according to academic disciplines or political agreements. Similarly, for the purposes of the strategy, the Arctic region is to be understood flexibly in the given context.”[12] On the other hand, Chinese Arctic commentator Li Zhenfu has written that, “In actuality, the Arctic is not part of any country,”[13] a statement that is clearly false.

“Who owns the Arctic?” asked an October 2007 cover of Time magazine in response to Russia’s disputed decision to plant its flag on the ocean floor of the North Pole. Technically speaking, eight states in total claim Arctic status: the United States, Canada, Norway, Russia, Denmark (with Greenland), Iceland, Finland, and Sweden. The first five, as the only Arctic coastal states, comprise the “Arctic Five”; under the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), each is granted an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) that can extend 200 miles off its Arctic coastline, beyond which lie international waters. Biophysically, socioeconomically, and culturally diverse, the Arctic is home to around four million residents, including 30 different indigenous peoples.[14][15] The main Arctic forum for cooperation is the Arctic Council, founded in 1996 through a Finnish initiative. It has since grown in scope and importance, and has accepted the applications of 12 observer members, including China. However, the power of the Arctic Council is limited. It has no legal authority to bind its members, and its mission has always been restricted to environmental protection and sustainable development. It does not serve within a security framework, and it remains to be seen whether it will assume this role; thus far members have only discussed possible “task forces” and “permanent seminars” to avoid misunderstandings between Arctic states in traditional security issues.[16]

Climate change has brought about formerly unconsidered quandaries forcing Arctic coastal states to begin to rethink and readjust their land and maritime security postures.[17] A recent Economist article commented, “the great melt is going to make a lot of people rich.”[18] More forebodingly, Li Zhenfu has remarked, “Whoever has control over the Arctic route will control the new passage of world economics and world strategies.”[19] Less forebodingly, Anton Vasiliev, Russia’s ambassador to the Arctic Council, has stated that the Arctic can be characterized as positive, stable, and predictable, and is becoming “a model for other less stable regions of the world.”[20]

Meanwhile, the Arctic’s current warming trend is surpassing all previously recorded levels. September 2011 marked the lowest volume of sea ice ever recorded in the northern polar region,[21] and climate models predict the Arctic Ocean could be ice-free in summer as late as 2060 or as early as 2014.[22][23] Ultimately, however, the extent, impact, and rate of climate change are uncertain, unpredictable, and “poorly understood.”[24]

What seems less poorly understood is a set of numbers that make an appearance in every Arctic-related article, the primary pair being 13 and 30: the Arctic promises 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil resources and 30 percent of its gas resources.[25] As such, about 97 percent of these resources are believed to exist within the EEZs of the Arctic states.[26] The situation breeds a precarious “Arctic paradox”: rising temperatures caused by burning fossil fuels enable more Arctic hydrocarbons to be extracted and burned, and thus more warming.[27] But much still rests on greedy conjecture. “When you don’t know for sure, you act as if the area is extremely rich,” said Jens Ostreng, Norway’s prime minister. “It is not easy to give up strategic resources.”[28]

Both Russia and China stand to benefit from engagement in the Arctic

Russia and China share a proclivity for claiming things, and when it comes to the Arctic, their dispositions are no different. Russia, with its undying great power ambitions, wants to claim as much of the Arctic as possible for its own. While the region offers many opportunities for gain, the patriotic desire to expand its frontiers seems to drive Russia’s efforts more than levelheaded pragmatism; one could even call such cravings for conquest an “identity-building project.”[29]

Russia has 10,000 miles (the lion’s share) of Arctic coastline, half of the Arctic region’s inhabitants, and a historical presence in the region dating back around 500 years;[30] in other words, if the Arctic were to crown a king, the clear choice would be Russia. At the core of Russia’s Arctic endeavors is the belief that more Arctic means more size means more influence. At a 2009 address to the Russian Geographical Society, Putin rhapsodized, “When we say great, a great country, a great state — certainly, size matters… When there is no size there is no influence, no meaning.”[31]

China, though a non-Arctic state, sees its participation in the economy and governance of the Arctic as a given based on its position as a rising global power.[32] This mindset is reflected in a Chinese admiral’s 2010 statement that since China has 20 percent of the world’s population, it should have 20 percent of the Arctic’s resources.[33] In addition, Chinese leaders raise the point that changes in the Arctic climate pose direct threats to China’s domestic food production and weather, a factor that grants China an important say in Arctic discussion. For now, China is taking concrete diplomatic steps to ensure it becomes a player in the Arctic game and can eventually secure what it regards as its fair share of the Arctic treasure trove.[34] Chinese analysts have started to circulate the terms “near-Arctic state” and “Arctic stakeholder” to describe China’s emerging role in the North.

Beyond the egoistic rhetoric, Russia and China both have serious economic and strategic interests in the High North. Russia’s 2008 Arctic policy aims to make the region “Russia’s national resource base of the 21st century”[35] and to make Russia a leading Arctic power by 2020. The Arctic is seen as crucially important for Russia’s future wealth and global competitiveness, a zone “capable of fulfilling the socio-economic tasks associated with national growth.”[36] Russia’s central Arctic interests are composed of security, resources, and transportation infrastructure. To a struggling state whose economy depends almost entirely on oil and gas, the resource-rich Arctic is like manna from heaven: 80 percent of known Russian gas reserves and 90 percent of Russian hydrocarbon deposits are situated in the region,[37] while 60 percent of total Arctic oil exists in areas that belong to or are claimed by the Kremlin (equaling 375 billion barrels of oil – more than Saudi Arabia’s oil reserves and Qatar’s gas reserves combined[38]). Though Arctic infrastructure is still weak, Russia has already started making moves. In 2009, Russia’s Rosneft announced plans to apply for operating licenses for the development of 30 offshore sites on its Arctic continental shelf,[39] and in April 2013, the company finalized a deal with ExxonMobil to invest up to $500 billion in developing offshore reserves.[40]

China, while lacking Russia’s Arctic proximity, has much to gain as well. Its key economic interests lie in securing access to Arctic shipping routes as well as Arctic resources and fishing waters. At the moment, China seems focused on the potential profits of the Northern Sea Route (NSR). This alternate shipping route to Europe shaves 6,100 nautical miles off of the current passage via the Suez Canal, which could save a week’s sailing time and around $600,000 per passage.[41] This would shift global trade and shipping patterns in a way that favors China and turn Asia’s high latitude ports into new international shipping centers.[42] Apart from shipping, China also seeks to capitalize on the Arctic’s natural resources, whether with permission of or in teamwork with Russia, and oil and resource deals are already underway. Presidents Xi and Putin have already agreed on the joint exploration of oil in the Barents Sea,[43] while the China National Petroleum Corporation and Russia’s Sovcomflot group signed a 2010 agreement on transportation of hydrocarbons.[44] Meanwhile, both countries have built up strong polar research capabilities and continue to invest in Arctic research and infrastructure, which includes projects such as research stations and ice-fitted planes. Russia currently has 18 operational icebreakers, seven of which are nuclear powered, with even more in the works, while China, with only two in full operation, still has a larger and more modern fleet than either the US or Canada.[45]

Finally, there are also political interests at play. The Arctic is Russia’s most important arena for international and military security,[46] especially now that climate change is melting away the fourth wall that has kept the Kremlin landlocked for centuries. Aside from granting Russia some long-sought legitimacy, the Arctic also offers an excellent opportunity for both Russia and China to engage peacefully and cooperatively in an emerging international space; the Arctic states, influenced by a strong Nordic contingent, put a premium on cooperation. While topics at the Arctic table have recently undergone a marked shift, the same spirit of cooperation can still continue, and Russia and China can, if they so choose, dispel beliefs that they will act aggressively and purely out of self-interest by participating pragmatically and respectfully within the Arctic Council and other forums. An underlying, though unstated objective, according to Arctic expert Linda Jakobson, is that “China seeks respect as a major power and wishes to be seen as a responsible member of the international community.”[47] Russia and China have already begun to forge new partnerships with individual Arctic states, and hopefully such patterns will continue. Either way, it’s clear that Russia and China are not afraid to get their feet cold.

Russia and China can’t go it alone in the Arctic, even if they have each other 

Unfortunately for Russia and China, and perhaps fortunately for everyone else, the two regional giants need outside help in order to be operational in the Arctic’s onerous conditions. Russia, despite its expanding Arctic infrastructure and military presence, cannot access its own resources without foreign capital and technological expertise. China needs Russian authorization if it wants access to Arctic resources, and also relies on Russian maritime infrastructure, such as fueling, satellite, and search and rescue in addition to being equally reliant on Western technology.

Russia does not possess the essential capital it needs for its resource ventures. Costs of operating in the icy waters are high: Russia needs to build modern harbors, establish a proper system of communications and crisis management, and maintain icebreaker capability. Drifting ice, extreme temperatures, and poorly mapped waters all mean higher costs and risks, and Russia cannot bear them alone, especially if others are to share the same waters. At the 2013 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, President Putin invited all Asian states, including China, to invest in the development of the NSR.[48] In the realm of resource extraction, Russia’s lack of technology and capital opens the way for trilateral joint ventures; such ventures would combine Russia’s raw materials with Chinese (or other) capital and Western deep-sea extraction technology.

Practically speaking, China is woefully impotent in the Arctic without help. Its shipbuilding companies lack experience in building vessels for polar conditions; its second icebreaker required Finnish expertise.[49] As prospects for large-scale Arctic shipping draw nearer, China will need to emphasize the rights of non-Arctic states on issues such as emergency response and environmental standards. The country’s best chance at investment lies in co-development projects with partners like Russia or Canada. China’s keen Arctic interests could prove to be a catalyst for the region, potentially providing added impetus to Russia’s development objectives.

In addition, China’s participation in Arctic affairs relies on the receptiveness of the Arctic states, and in awareness of this fact, Beijing has encouraged them to consider mankind’s common interests.[50] China relied on the Nordic countries to support granting it observer status on the Arctic Council, while Canada, the US, and Russia remained silent. An ice-free Arctic will increase the value of close ties with Nordic countries, since the NSR will make them China’s new gateway to Europe,[51] and already, China has begun to buddy up with some of these states. Chinese resource companies have been most active in Greenland,[52] investing jointly with British corporations, and in June 2012, then President Hu Jintao paid Denmark its first ever visit by a Chinese head of state.[53] Similarly, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s visits to Iceland in April 2012 were the first by a senior Chinese leader in 40 years.[54] While these visits indicate growing Arctic interests, they also reflect China’s expanded activities as a rising global power. That said, the fact that China has let relations with Norway grow frosty since Wei Bo’s 2010 Nobel Peace Prize signals that the Arctic is not yet a top-tier priority.

Russia and Norway, on the other hand, share the Barents Sea and consider each other the most important strategic bilateral partner among the Arctic states. They have both benefited from nearly a century of Norwegian-Russian marine research cooperation, while more recently, Norway has proposed a joint economic and industrial cooperation zone[55] and committed to strengthening cooperation with Russia as part of its High North Strategy, citing the relationship as an important channel for European dialogue.[56] While Norway expresses disapproval of Russia’s handling of certain issues such as freedom of expression and human rights, they consider their policy objectives separately. In 2010, Finland and Russia also launched an Arctic partnership, and Russian relations with Canada and Denmark have been improving. 

Arctic enterprise is no easy maneuver, and Russia and China are fully aware of that fact. As the dragon and bear reach to sink their claws into the ice, they must solicit the assistance and partnership of other Arctic players to avoid slipping. Indeed, solving the unfamiliar challenges of climactic forecasting, comprehensive mapping, search and rescue, and disaster response in this icy, undeveloped region may require unprecedented levels of multilateral cooperation. Simply stated by Sweden’s Arctic Policy, “The challenges facing the Arctic are too multifaceted and broad for any single individual state to successfully deal with them on its own.”[57] 

As coastal and non-coastal states, Russia and China have conflicting Arctic interests

The simple facts of geography run a deep divide between Russia and China’s fundamental approaches to appropriation of Arctic territory. Russia, boasting the longest swath of Arctic coastline, which comes with another 200 miles of extended continental shelf (under UNCLOS), wants to stake out ownership of the most Arctic area possible. It strongly favors the division of territory over the establishment of a common zone; such a division would greatly benefit Russia, since, after all, more size means more influence. However, as a non-coastal state, China has a very different set of priorities. It wants Arctic waters to be treated as international waters that allow for open passage. China is concerned about the possibility of Russia claiming total ownership over the NSR and charging exorbitant fees, a move that would take away the route’s profitability.

Russia and China belong to two bigger camps. Countries with no direct access to the Arctic (non-coastal states), which includes Finland, Sweden, and Britain, underscore their rights as users of the region, while coastal states like Russia, Canada, Denmark, and Norway put emphasis on sovereignty and security and “want to settle on a formula for dividing up the region”[58]—back in 1907, Russia and Canada were already contending that their borders should extend to the North Pole.[59] The US, though a coastal state, belongs to the first camp, since its Arctic coastline is very limited and the country is a staunch defender of freedom of navigation.

Russia’s “offensive” approach to the Arctic is characterized by words like “conquest” and “subjugation,”[60] the lofty ideal of sovereignty over the Arctic a possible example of “control for control’s sake.”[61] Its vast Arctic territory is its central source of power in the High North, and any disputes could be “difficult, contentious, protracted.”[62] To China’s chagrin, Russia defines the NSR as a national transportation route under Russia’s jurisdiction; navigation through the NSR must comply with Russia’s laws, and also includes passage through straits within and between four Russian Arctic archipelagos.[63] In 2009, Russia announced it would charge ships a “fair” price to take the NSR from the Atlantic to the Pacific.[64] A similar mindset can be found in regards to Canada and its Northwest Passage (NWP), which it sees as clearly belonging to Canada. Canada and Russia together occupy 74 percent of Arctic coastline and both claim that the channels between their Arctic islands and coasts are their “internal waters,” meaning that foreign vessels seeking passage require authorization.[65]

Russia has made other somewhat threatening moves, as well. Its 2007 flag-planting stunt spurred international media headlines like “Arctic Meltdown,” “A New Cold War,” and “Arctic Land Grab.”[66] Though the squabble soon died down, Russia has left widespread impressions that it will do whatever necessary to stake out maximum claims and establish a comprehensive Arctic presence, even if that means acting unilaterally. That said, Canada has at times exhibited equally strong Arctic aggression. In response to the flag incident, Canadian foreign minister Peter Mackay declared, “The question of sovereignty in the Arctic is not a question. It’s clear. It’s our country. It’s our property. It’s our water… The Arctic is Canadian.”[67]

China, in contrast, sees the Arctic as “a treasure of human kind”[68] that belongs to everyone rather than to any one country or group of countries. Commentator Li Zhenfu writes that international seabed regions and their resources are the “shared heritage and wealth” of all nations.[69] China even sees a multilateral treaty system among Arctic powers to the exclusion of China as somewhat reminiscent of bullying suffered during its century of humiliation.[70] Old grievances aside, China continually emphasizes how Arctic issues have a bearing on the existence and development of all humankind, and therefore noncircumpolar states should not stand idly by.[71] China functions under the assumption that increased internationalization of Arctic affairs will work more to China’s advantage than territorial dispensations, and even links China’s Arctic interests with world peace.[72]

According to UNCLOS, all states enjoy freedom of navigation in a coastal state’s EEZs,[73] as well as the right to exploit resources in international waters.[74] However, if Russia’s claims over the underwater terrain between the Lomonosov and Mendelev ridges are approved, Russia alone would have the rights to an enormous deposit of Arctic resources.[75] China would prefer an arrangement modeled after the 1920 Svalbard Treaty, which grants all signatory countries access to Svalbard while recognizing Norway’s absolute sovereignty.[76] However, as it is, China finds itself in a rather ironic situation when commenting on the Arctic; while it seeks to question the territorial rights of Arctic states, it cannot truly do so without challenging fundamental notions of sovereignty, one of China’s core principals.

For the time being, China must accept Arctic regulations and follow the stipulations of the Arctic Council, encouraging scientific, environmental, and economic cooperation when and where it can. With its “shared wealth of humankind” rhetoric running directly counter to Russian notions of ownership, China runs the risk of being too intrusive. In 2010, Reuters quoted Russian Navy commander Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky as saying, “We are observing the penetration of a host of states which… are advancing their interests very intensively, in every possible way, in particular China.” He added that Russia “would not give up a single inch” in the Arctic.[77]

The US sees Russia’s Arctic behavior as aggressive; shares more in common with China

With its limited Arctic coastline, the US has come to view the High North region as peripheral to its national interests. Its Arctic coast is one-fifteenth that of Russia and its largest Arctic indigenous communities have only 4,000 inhabitants, compared to 325,000 in the Russian city of Murmansk.[78] It has allotted little funding for Arctic defense and infrastructure and has yet to sign UNCLOS and claim its exclusive economic zone. But shifts in the last five years have led the US to take Arctic politics more seriously. Like China, it wants to take advantage of Arctic resources and preserve the openness of Arctic waters, but it is also wary of Russia’s growing presence in the North. The US has only recently begun to send representatives to various Arctic forums, and still holds a largely tentative approach. The US Department of Defense (DoD) expresses a reluctance to invest resources into the Arctic before it is truly necessary, which opens up the possibility of the US finding itself severely underprepared for future Arctic circumstances. The DoD writes that while the harsh Arctic environment and polar icecap have long enhanced U.S. security by acting as a significant physical barrier to access from the north, the current Arctic bears a “relatively low level of threat” despite uncertain effects of climate change.[79] The DoD does not expect the Arctic to shift to something more than a peripheral interest in the next decade or more, absent some external event.[80]

The US has, somewhat belatedly, published its own Arctic strategies, and its strategic priorities include advancing US security interests, pursuing responsible Arctic region stewardship, and strengthening international cooperation.[81] The latter two priorities align very neatly with China’s primary stated considerations. Both countries are looking to pursue arrangements that promote shared Arctic prosperity, environmental protection, and secure and reliable infrastructure. They both put a premium on cooperation through existing forums, namely the Arctic Council and the International Maritime Organization. And, of course, both are interested in Arctic oil and gas deposits to feed their domestic energy needs.

China’s Arctic aspirations evoke the type of anxiety that accompanies the rise of any large power. In some places, U.S. and Chinese language addressing the Arctic seem interchangeable in a reflection of China’s growing international status. Echoes of the American position of “international policeman” can be heard in rhetoric such as “China has a key role in safeguarding the Arctic.”[82] In their so-called universal concern for the Arctic, the US and China share a similar stance, reflected most clearly in their attitudes towards freedom of navigation in international waters. The US attitude towards the NWP parallels Chinese sentiments towards the NSR. Like Russia, Canada has claimed ownership over passage waters, including an attempt to rename the route the Canadian Northwest Passage.[83] The NWP could become a major shipping lane for international trade between Europe and Asia, though currently, navigation is only possible within a seven-week period with the use of icebreakers,[84] and estimates for when the NWP could be ice-free in summer are similar to those for the NSR. The US sees the NWP as a strait for international navigation, while Canada considers it “inland seas” under Canadian sovereignty. Until resolved, the NWP will remain a point of tension between the US and Canada, since the US considers freedom of the seas a top national priority.[85]

China’s emphasis on climate concerns, in large part a strategy to circumvent topics such as sovereignty and resources, can also play to American advantage. International cooperation on the environment will highlight common interests, strengthen ties, and further engage China in international frameworks. Interestingly, Linda Jakobson raises the idea that the US could observe China’s Arctic policy for clues on China’s long-term goals. 

As for Russia, the US perceives a country planning to fight for possession of a huge Arctic space.[86] Russia’s motions are colored by its great power ambitions and nationalist rhetoric, as well as significant emphasis on military capacity. Russia has declared full willingness to defend its national interests in the Arctic with military force if necessary, and has stated hopes for its navy to become the world’s second-most powerful in the next 20 to 30 years.[87] The Arctic, in this light, provides an opportunity for Russia to develop and grow as a maritime power. Russia has been very active in building up its capabilities in the High North, moving rapidly to establish comprehensive sea, ground, and air presence in the High North. Russian polar explorer Artur Chilingarov has said that even NATO lacks the technical capability to enhance its military presence in the Arctic. “Only our country has the unique technical equipment capable of solving the problems of extreme Arctic conditions, and nothing can be compared with our fleet of icebreakers in terms of mobility and effectiveness,”[88] he concluded. Meantime, most of U.S. security infrastructure in the region is left over from the 1950s and 60s.[89] Inheriting the Arctic has given Russia a new boost; it has stepped up anti-American policies and rhetoric and is likely to challenge U.S. interests wherever it can, including up North.[90]

The US and China are similar in that they currently see the Arctic as a low priority. However, the U.S. defense system seriously risks falling behind the curve. As stated in a 2010 New York Times article, “How can the U.S. Coast Guard guard the Arctic coasts of the United States without the required vessels? Icebreakers are not Cold War relics but essential components of Arctic security. The need to repair and make more of them is pressing and real, now, and it will be in the future.”[91] At minimum, it is in U.S. interests to maintain defensive capabilities that will allow the US to participate in the security of the Arctic region. While speculation about a third world war or “War from the North” is outmoded,[92] and current Russian commanders have ruled out such possibilities, Russia still tends to be perceived as the “wild card” in the Arctic strategic equation.[93] The Arctic Five, while preaching peaceful cooperation, continue to bolster their military presence and capabilities, and occasional sensationalist statements still float the possibility of Arctic conflict, such as this line from Chinese magazine Dongdai haijun: “it is not difficult for us to imagine that the probability of the future outbreak of war in the Arctic is very high, and that as soon as war breaks out, the United States, Russia, and Canada will be its main principals.”[94] While Russia’s Arctic ambitions are still far from realization, it appears reasonable to expect the US to ensure that its military system is Arctic-ready.

Ultimately, the US needs to look at the warming Arctic from a practical standpoint. It needs to engage in Arctic forums and improve its Northern infrastructure. It will be pursuing these goals alongside China, which shares many U.S. interests, and under the eye of Russia, who seems wary of any outsiders venturing near its Arctic territories. However, as the Arctic Five are greatly outnumbered by the rest of the Arctic Council and the world beyond, the US and China might have an opportunity to collaborate and push for their common interests. 

Conclusion—Whatever the case, Uncle Sam still needs more icebreakers

In 1945, Vilhjalmur Stefansson wrote thatthere are two kinds of Arctic problems, the imaginary and the real. “Of the two, the imaginary are the more real; for man finds it easier to change the face of nature than to change his own mind.”[95]

Shrouded in snow and ice, it can be difficult to decipher the more imaginary from the real when it comes to the Arctic. While geological estimates of energy and mineral resources exist, the numbers are far from certain, and a realistic timeline for proper extraction even murkier. The trajectory of climate change’s effects in the Arctic in the next decade, let alone half-century, is unknown. Russia’s temperament and consequent political moves are equally difficult to predict, and China’s rise, while labeled peaceful, is causing widespread anxiety.

Certain things appear to indicate that for now, though, the Arctic can stay off the main international radar. Lars Kullerud, President of the University of the Arctic, has stated, “The Arctic area would be of interest in 50 or 100 years—not now.”[96] Canada’s Chief of Defense Staff General Walter Natynczyk has joked, on a similar note, “If someone were to invade the Canadian Arctic, my first task would be to rescue them.”[97] In response to the 2007 flag-planting incident, Russian Arctic expert Sergei Balyasnikov said, “For me this is like planting a flag on the moon”[98]—too distanced from reality to really matter. The shale revolution has already reduced the importance of Arctic energy resources, and Western countries have been slowly moving away from energy dependence on Russia. Current military build-up is premised on cooperation, not competition, and participants at a recent Arctic conference agreed that not only is armed conflict in the Arctic highly unlikely, but the region is one of the most stable in the world.[99]

However, current actions don’t all reflect this dismissive talk. International maneuvering and dialogue is reflecting the Arctic’s sudden rise. “What happens in the Arctic will touch the security and prosperity of the rest of the planet,” recently stated one of Greenland’s government ministers.[100] The US has begun to send its Secretary of State to Arctic meetings, where until recently it dispatched only junior representatives. In December 2013, Putin gave one of his most direct orders yet to build up forces in the Arctic as a priority.[101] Norway has begun hosting regular exercises for NATO troops in its High North region.[102] Russia, Canada, and Denmark have all placed recent claims to parts of the continental shelf beneath the North Pole—“the center of a large, inhospitable ocean that is in total darkness for three months each year, thousands of miles from any port.”[103] In other words, it’s not about economic stakes, but rather domestic politics.[104] China’s clear interest in the Arctic, from its new engagements with Greenland and Iceland to its expanded icebreaker capacity, is causing more and more heads to turn. “If China is paying attention,” said a US official, “we cannot afford not to.”[105]

Indeed, in today’s Arctic, the US is a decidedly beta power. Instead, new players like Russia and Norway are at the top of the world, and in the most literal sense possible. The recent expansion of the Arctic Council to include observer states including China, Italy, and India indicates that the Arctic is clearly alreadyof international interest. Climate change, more threatening than ever, is changing the dynamic between enclosable land and free-flowing water, raising new questions around claims to sovereignty and freedom of navigation. And at the heart of the growing Arctic dialogue is the High North relationship between Russia and China. Their emerging Arctic interdependence in energy and transport interests will be crucial in the Arctic’s future development, and climate change will only speed up these developments. The Arctic could drive the two mammoth states closer together or farther apart.

The outcomes of the Sino-Russian relationship in the Arctic provide both threats and opportunities to U.S. interests. A closer relationship strengthened through increased bilateral cooperation in the Arctic could put the US in a position of weakness and vulnerability in the High North. Economically, the two could edge out the US; militarily, they could bolster their already more capable Arctic defense systems; and strategically, they could ally on Arctic issues or agreements to the exclusion of other states (for example, an exclusive bilateral agreement over use of the NSR).

Alternatively, Russia and China’s incongruity in priorities shaped by their statuses as coastal and non-coastal states could push them apart. This might manifest itself in dispute over international waters and the NSR, disagreements within Arctic Council discussion and China’s proper extent of involvement, or undesired military or political maneuvering by China. Economically, they might butt heads in claiming partnerships with Arctic states such as Iceland and Greenland. This could benefit the US in certain ways, such as helping to promote freedom of navigation, but ultimately, such tensions would harm U.S. interests more than they would help.

The US is best served by Russia and China’s current strategic partnership or a slightly warmer Sino-Russian bilateral relationship. A rift in the relationship or some sort of cooling would be more problematic, potentially isolating Russia and increasing the possibility of unilateral actions by either of the two countries. Currently, the Sino-Russian economic partnership is beneficial to both and their militaries are not yet a threat. It is possible to conjecture that their relationship might provide a stabilizing force in the Eastern region. Sino-Russian conflict could stir expansionist disputes over territory or rights to resources in areas such as Central Asia and the Middle East. None of this would be favorable for the US. With this in mind, the US should seek a cooperative stance with both countries in the Arctic, seeking China’s support on the issue of freedom of navigation and becoming an informed and consistent participant in the Arctic Council. In the far future, China will be a more important Arctic ally, but the US cannot afford to alienate Russia any further. Russia and China’s peaceful cooperation within Arctic forums can set a positive precedent for their cooperation more broadly.

An unusual territory of water and ice, the Arctic provides a unique space for the processes of multilateral governance and cooperation to play out—and to observe the way each player is playing. The US should keep its eye on the icy expanse as a means to gain a sense of other states’ geopolitical motives, with a specific focus on Russia and China. Their interaction in the Arctic could be indicative of their individual objectives as well as the nature or aims of the bilateral relationship. Much is still uncertain, but the US cannot ignore the collision between two of the world’s most pressing problems and two of its biggest strongmen: global warming and the need for raw materials combined with Moscow and Beijing, converging all together in the Arctic to shape the world’s geopolitical contours. Russia and China are edging to sink in their claws and shape things to their own advantage. Uncle Sam needs to invest in some snow boots, unless he wants the two of them to succeed.

TaoTao Holmes (’14) is a Global Affairs major in Branford College.


Works Cited

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[1]Hannes Gerhardt, Philip E. Steinberg, Jeremy Tasch, Sandra J. Fabiano, and Rob Shields. “Contested Sovereignty in a Changing Arctic.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 100:4 (2010): 998.

[2]”National Strategy for the Arctic Region,” Whitehouse.gov, The White House, May 2013, Accessed Nov. 22 2013, 1.

[3]Ariel Cohen, Alexandr Golts, Marlène Laruelle, and Katarzyna Zysk, “Russia in the Arctic,” Ed. Stephen Blank, Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, July 2011. Nov. 20, 2013, 93.

[4] Philip Stephens, “The Grab for Greenland,” Financial Times, Dec. 6, 2013. Accessed Dec. 9, 2013.

[5]David Curtis Wright, The Dragon Eyes the Top of the World: Arctic Policy Debate and Discussion in China. (Newport, RI: China Maritime Studies Institute, U.S. Naval War College, 2011), 6.

[6]”1 Oct. 2013: Russia’s Strategy for Developing the Arctic Region Until 2020,” Sipri.org, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Oct. 2013, Accessed Nov. 28 2013.

[7]Kristofer Bergh, “July/Aug 11: Arctic Cooperation Must Become More Inclusive,”Sipri.org, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Aug. 2011, Accessed Nov. 27, 2013.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Wright, 2.

[10]”Arctic Governance in an Era of Transformative Change: Critical Questions, Governance Principles, Ways Forward,” Arcticgovernance.org, The Arctic Governance Project, Apr. 14, 2010. Accessed Oct. 23, 2013, 4.

[11]William C. Wonders, The Arctic Circle: Aspects of the North from the Circumpolar Nations, (Don Mills, Ont.: Longman Canada, 1976), 13-14.

[12]Finland, Prime Minister’s Office, Finland’s Strategy for the Arctic Region 2013, N.p.: n.p., 2013, Accessed Oct. 29, 2013.

[13] Wright, 21.

[14]”Arctic Governance in an Era of Transformative Change: Critical Questions, Governance Principles, Ways Forward,” 4.

[15]Kingdom of Denmark, Kingdom of Denmark Strategy for the Arctic 2011-2020, European Commission, Jan. 1, 2012. Accessed Oct. 25, 2013, 9.

[16]”The Arctic Council in Transition: Nordic to North American Leadership (SIPRI Workshop),” Sipri.org, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Nov. 29, 2012, Accessed Nov. 28, 2013.

[17]Heather Conley, Terry Toland, and Jamie Kraut. “A New Security Architecture for the Arctic: An American Perspective,” A Report of the CSIS Europe Program (2012): 31.

[18]”The Melting North,” The Economist, Jun. 16, 2013, Accessed Oct. 24, 2013.

[19] Wright, 15.

[20]”1 Oct. 2013: Russia’s Strategy for Developing the Arctic Region Until 2020″.

[21] Conley, 1.

[22]”The Melting North”.

[23]Pilita Clark, “Arctic Sea Ice Melting Faster than Expected, UN Report Finds,” Financial Times, Sept. 18, 2013, Accessed Nov. 6, 2013.

[24]United States Department of Defense, Report to Congress on Arctic Operations and the Northwest Passage, 2011, AccessedOct. 23, 2013.

[25] Conley, 1.

[26]Kingdom of Denmark, 24.

[27]Lassi Heininen, Alexander Sergunin, and Gleb Yarovoy, “Russia’s Energy Strategies in the Arctic,” Valdaiclub.com,Valdai Discussion Club, Jan. 7, 2013, Accessed Nov. 1, 2013.

[28]Walter Gibbs, “Russia and Norway Reach Accord on Barents Sea,” The New York Times, Apr. 27, 2010. Accessed Oct. 25, 2013.

[29] Cohen, 63.

[30] Gerhardt, 996.

[31] Cohen, 16.

[32] Linda Jakobson, “Northeast Asia Turns Its Attention to the Arctic.” The National Bureau of Asian Research, Dec. 2012, Accessed Nov. 24, 2013, <http://www.nbr.org/publications/issue.aspx?id=275#.UqiymGRDujI>.

[33] Wright, 7.

[34] Ibid., 32.

[35]Ekaterina Klimenko, “Oct.13: Interdependence, Not Sovereignty, Is the Key to the Development of Russia’s Arctic Region,” Sipri.org, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Oct. 13, 2013, Accessed Nov. 15, 2013. 1.

[36] Cohen, 17.

[37] Cohen, 96.


[39] Jakobson, “Northeast Asia Turns Its Attention to the Arctic.”

[40]”The Melting North.”

[41] Linda Jakobson, and Jingchao Peng, “China’s Arctic Aspirations,” SIPRI, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Nov. 2012, 7.

[42] Linda Jakobson, “China Prepares for an Ice-Free Arctic,” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, N.p., Mar. 2010, Accessed Oct. 28, 2013, <http://books.sipri.org/files/insight/SIPRIInsight1002.pdf>.

[43]”Infrastructure of the Northern Sea Route and Environmental Protection in the Arctic (Federal Media Monitoring: August 19-25, 2013),” Arctic-info.com, Arctic Info, Aug. 26, 2013, Accessed Nov. 20, 2013.

[44] Jakobson and Peng, 8.

[45] Wright, 33.

[46] Cohen, 46.

[47] Jakobson and Peng, 20.

[48]Klimenk, 2.

[49] Jakobson, “Northeast Asia Turns Its Attention to the Arctic”.

[50] Jakobson, “China Prepares for an Ice-Free Arctic”.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Jakobson and Peng, 20.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Ibid.

[55]Norway, Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, The Norwegian Government’s High North Strategy, N.p.: n.p., 2006, Regjeringen.no, Accessed Oct. 21, 2013, 18.

[56] Ibid, 1.

[57]Sweden, Ministry for Foreign Affairs. Government Offices of Sweden, Sweden’s Strategy for the Arctic Region, Stockholm: n.p., 2011, Government.se, Oct. 23, 2013.

[58]Dmitri Trenin, and Pavel Baev, “The Arctic: A View from Moscow,” The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (2010), Accessed Oct. 20, 2013.

[59] Gerhardt, 996

[60] Trenin, “The Arctic: A View from Moscow.”

[61] Ibid.

[62] Ibid.

[63] Cohen, 108.

[64] Ibid., 26.

[65] Ibid., 13.

[66]Caitlyn Antrim, The New Maritime Arctic. Geopolitics and the Russian Arctic in the 21st Century,” Russia in Global Affairs, Oct. 15, 2010, Accessed Oct. 25, 2013.

[67] Gerhardt, 996.

[68] Jakobson and Peng, 14.

[69] Wright, 21.

[70] Ibid., 3.

[71] Ibid., 13.

[72] Ibid., 17.

[73] Jakobson and Peng, 17.

[74] Jakobson, “Northeast Asia Turns Its Attention to the Arctic.”

[75] Jakobson, “China Prepares for an Ice-Free arctic.”

[76] Jakobson, and Peng, 11.

[77] Wright, 5.

[78] Conley, 17.

[79] United States Department of Defense.

[80] United States Department of Defense.

[81]”National Strategy for the Arctic Region,” 7.

[82] Jakobson and Peng, (conclusions).

[83] Cohen (Laruelle), 63.

[84] Cohen, 27.

[85] Ibid., 27.

[86] Cohen (Golts), 47.

[87] Ibid., 67.

[88] Ibid., 43.

[89] Conley, 18.

[90] Cohen, 14.

[91] Wright, 33.

[92] Trenin,

[93] Cohen, 93.

[94] Wright, 6. Quoted from Chinese magazine Dangdai haijun.

[95]Vilhjalmur Stefansson, The Arctic in Fact and Fable, (New York: Foreign Policy Association, 1945), 5.

[96] Cohen, 47.

[97] Ibid.,109.

[98] Gerhardt, 996.

[99]”1 Oct. 2013: Russia’s Strategy for Developing the Arctic Region Until 2020.”

[100]Philip Stephens, “The Grab for Greenland.” Financial Times, Dec. 6 2013, Accessed Dec. 9, 2013.

[101]“Putin Orders Russian Military to Boost Arctic Presence,” BBC News, Dec. 11 2013, Accessed Dec. 112013.

[102] Stephens.

[103]”Putin Orders Russian Military to Boost Arctic Presence.”

[104]”Putin Orders Russian Military to Boost Arctic Presence.”

[105] Stephens.



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