insidepolicyglobalsecurityState actors may pose a challenge to Arctic security, writes Adam Macdonald. But Canada should recognize that the region remains a relatively stable geo-strategic environment. As such, it should focus on addressing real deficiencies in its Arctic military posture and eschew more ambitious military plans.

By Adam MacDonald, March 24, 2017

The Arctic seems increasingly ripe for rivalry, as Arctic states and external actors compete over access to resources. In this formulation, the peaceful and largely cooperative post-Cold War regional order will be overwhelmed by a new geopolitical reality defined by contestation and possibly great power politics. Such tensions are reflected in the “militarization” of the Far North by all Arctic states, most importantly Russia, as well as the push by external actors – China being top of mind – desiring greater involvement. These developments are seen as threatening the stability of the region and Canada’s Northern sovereignty and security.

In reality, however, the changing geopolitics of the Arctic is not as clear cut as it seems, whether in terms of threats or the appropriate military requirements to deal with this evolving environment.

Russia’s Military Build Up in the Arctic

Over the past 15 years, Russia has steadily rebuilt its Arctic military forces to levels not seen since the Cold War, including establishing new Arctic specialized army units, expanding its icebreaker fleet (the world’s largest), and restoring Soviet-era air bases and naval stations and deploying fighter aircraft and anti-ship missile systems to them.

A number of rationales inform Moscow’s actions. The Arctic is among Russia’s most important regions due to its resource wealth, with the Kremlin determined (paranoid perhaps) to ensure no one contests ownership of these areas. Even as it promotes the Northern Sea Route as an international shipping route, it also claims them as Internal Waters and is positioning military and constabulary forces to forestall any attempt, legal or otherwise, to alter this designation. This concentration of forces is further motivated by the location of Russia’s Northern Fleet, home to their nuclear ballistic missile submarine force. These activities, finally, placate domestic audiences by solidifying President Putin’s strongman status as a defender of Russia against a hostile West.

Yet any decision by Russia to frame the Arctic exclusively in antagonistic geopolitical terms would ultimately be self-defeating.

Despite Russia’s determination to counter NATO along its borders, Moscow has so far not disengaged from or undermined the regional political architecture in the Arctic – even though all the other Arctic coastal states are Alliance members, and others (Sweden and Finland) are seriously considering NATO membership or closer relations. The Alliance remains wary about the possibility that this could change in the future, especially given the growing friction between NATO and Russia elsewhere. Yet any decision by Russia to frame the Arctic exclusively in antagonistic geopolitical terms would ultimately be self-defeating – it would finally unite the other Arctic states towards establishing a permanent NATO presence in the region (to the chagrin of some Arctic states like Canada, which are worried about external actors meddling in their own neighbourhood).

Russia possesses the largest and most capable military in the Arctic, but its ability to project force beyond its borders remains limited; a common challenge for all Arctic states. How and if Russia would use its superior Arctic forces in a hostile manner is unknown, but there is a constant overestimation of Russia as a military juggernaut, especially its naval power. Despite its tough language against NATO, Russia’s military build up appears primarily designed to counter the other Arctic states and external actors, specifically China, from compromising Russian ownership of its claimed territories and waters, even if this possibility is extremely low.

China Looking North

Over the last two decades, external states like China are developing greater interest and involvement in the Arctic, exemplified by its expanding its activities in the Far North. Indeed, Beijing now defines itself as a “Near Arctic state” and “Arctic Stakeholder,” even if the region is not a high priority. Still, it remains ambiguous as to how and what degree it thinks it should be involved in the regional political order.

The sailing of a Chinese task group off the coast of Alaska in the Aleutian Islands in 2015, also generated unease of the growing reach of their navy. Someday it may be employed in the Arctic to promote their “rights” as a polar power.

As it relates to Canada, there is trepidation that China, eager to use opening shipping lanes and participate in resource extraction, could challenge Canadian sovereignty with respect to the status of the Northwest Passage (NWP) and Extended Economic Exclusive Zone (EEZ) claims. The sailing of a Chinese task group off the coast of Alaska in the Aleutian Islands in 2015, also generated unease of the growing reach of their navy. Someday it may be employed in the Arctic to promote their “rights” as a polar power, including challenging the authority of the Arctic coastal states over their maritime jurisdictions.

Much remains unknown about China’s Arctic motivations, but to date their actions have been conducted within accepted legal and state practices, including at a low and non-intrusive level in the regional political order. A Chinese challenge on Canada’s NWP designation would concern Russia due to their use of similar designation over the Northern Sea Route – a waterway that Beijing is far more interested in. Making a definitive statement on the legitimacy of the Extended EEZs of Arctic states would compromise their position in the South China Sea, a far more strategically important region where Beijing is making controversial and exaggerated EEZ claims. Chinese ships, scientific, commercial and possibly naval, may one day become a common scene in the Far North, but there is no indication Beijing is preparing, militarily or otherwise, to challenge the regional order or the Arctic states’ sovereignty, even if they hold misgivings about them.

Canadian Arctic Force Requirements – Adjustments or Fundamental Change?

Canada’s military has an important and legitimate role to play in the Far North; a role which many argue Ottawa is unwilling to allocate the resourcing and direction necessary to building, deploying, and sustaining even a fraction of the forces required to deal with this altering geopolitical landscape.  Any critique, however, of Canada’s Arctic military presence, posture, and capacity must start by evaluating current and future planned capabilities, explaining their inadequacies in order to postulate the “correct” force structure necessary.

Is an acceleration or limited expansion of existing capabilities needed (i.e., more Canadian Rangers and search and rescue aircraft or faster procurement of Arctic specific assets)? Or is a fundamental change required, such as the permanent deployment of combat forces? The latter seems logical from assessments of a growing military threat from large state actors in Russia and China, but a full appreciation of the enormous resources and efforts of such a new configuration is needed. It would necessitate nothing short of the Arctic becoming a strategic region for Canada to create the infrastructure, logistics chains, and command and control to permanently station even modest numbers of forces there. This may be justified, but these factors need to be considered when advocating for more planes, ships, and soldiers in the Arctic.

We also tend to fixate on the increasing potential of state actors challenging Canadian sovereignty and security, as opposed to the actual probabilities of them doing so. This detracts from developing a criteria to prioritize capability development and resource allocation to address the most pressing and immediate challenges. The military’s involvement in the Arctic must be suitable given the threat and operating environment, as well as being sustainable in light of the high costs and challenges associated with maintaining forces and capabilities of any size in the region. Exercising, and therefore defending, sovereignty through sound stewardship over our territory and enforcing rules and regulations amidst a growing mixture of non-state actors operating in the North is the real and immediate challenge.

Such a force composition, also, is a better fit against state actors that are more likely to use non-violent albeit still aggressive measures (i.e., deploying “scientific” research ships to sail through claimed maritime regions versus employing lethal force to occupy Canadian territory and/or waters). The military continues to develop robust and efficient relations with other security agencies in the North but an excessive fixation on military, specifically combat, developments may detract from investing in those agencies better situated from a mandate and experience level to exercise sovereignty in the Arctic.

Anxieties over sovereignty should not dominate the Arctic security discussion. Otherwise, the military will be seen as the only state instrument able to deal with what are actually largely constabulary matters. There are serious deficiencies regarding Canada’s military capabilities in the Arctic, including domain awareness and maritime patrolling. State actors do pose security challenges to Canada’s Arctic. But we need to be wary of arguments that either advocate or create the expectation of large permanently deployed combat forces being needed. Such a prohibitively expensive proposition may distract from addressing the more real and immediate challenges in an evolving, but still stable, geo-strategic landscape in the Arctic.

Adam P. MacDonald is an independent academic whose work focuses on Canadian foreign policy in Asia, Chinese naval developments, and the ongoing political transition in Myanmar. He can be reached at

MLI would not exist without the support of its donors. Please consider making a small contribution today.

Donate Now Through!