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How the Arctic became a strategic and disputed target between Russia, China and the US

By Mariana Braga

The Arctic contains about 90 billion barrels of oil, which represents 13% of the planet’s reserves, and around 44 billion barrels of natural gas – almost a quarter of the world’s gas resources, according to estimates by the US Geological Survey.

The region located in the Arctic Circle has suffered historical disputes over its domain, which today has different territories or territorial waters belonging to eight countries: the United States, Russia, Canada, Norway, Iceland, Sweden, Finland and Denmark.

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the energy crisis has generated even greater interest in this 16.5 million km2 area, the equivalent of two Brazils.

Arctic Circle, How the Arctic became a strategic and disputed target between Russia, China and the US
Iceberg in Grennland in the Arctic (Photo internet reproduction)

The weather phenomenon also intensified disputes. According to a Norwegian study published in August in Communications Earth & Environment, from the Nature group, “over the past 43 years, the Arctic has warmed almost four times faster than the planet”.

The progressive melting of the ice accelerates the accessibility of natural resources, leading the States present in the polar lands to a strategic battle to assert their energy dominance on the world stage. Nations have the right to extract and exploit them in their exclusive economic zones (EEZ).

The Kremlin, motivated by the opportunity the Arctic offers, has come out ahead. In July of this year, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a reinforcement of the fleet in the Arctic. The country has deployed 18 military bases in the region, deploying natural resource exploration ships and nuclear attack submarines.

Earlier, in April 2021, the Russian representative had already filed a request with the UN commission, claiming an expansion of the Russian area in the Arctic by 705,000 km2. Moscow argues that the great oceanic Lomonosov ridge is part of its EEZ.

“We have never seen a country straddling its neighbors in this way, claiming all of Canada and Denmark as part of its continental shelf,” wrote Robert Huebert of the University of Calgary in Canada, an expert on security issues in the Far North, on the Canadian website Eye on the Arctic.

Russia is also investing in infrastructure to transform the Arctic into a global transit zone. There are 25 ports along the coast, making trade with Europe and Asia more accessible. In addition, Russia wants to build an oil terminal in Mourmansk, the largest in Siberia.


Russia is not the only imperialist threat in the region. China has positioned itself internationally “as a state close to the Arctic” and as “an important stakeholder in Arctic affairs” since the 2018 release of the white paper – an official document published by the government – “China’s Arctic Policy.”

Chinese movements in the region, however, began much earlier, in the 2000s. In addition to expeditions, whose objective, according to the Asian giant, is both scientific and military, the Chinese are increasingly interested in this region rich in natural resources as part of of the Polar Silk Roads, a series of interconnected routes through South Asia and used in the silk trade between the Orient and Europe.

Beijing has already bought mines in Nunavut, a Canadian part of the Arctic, and has tried to acquire, in 2020, a territory of 1,100 km2 with port infrastructure and an airfield in the Canadian part of the polar region.

China even became part of the Arctic Council as an observer, with an eye on the appropriation of a former American base between Greenland (from Denmark) and Alaska (from the US).


On the other side of the map, military investments in the Arctic are not a priority for the United States, but they reinforce the historical disputes between the Americans and the Russians. As a coastal state, the US retains a great deal of influence over the Arctic, especially since it purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867.

The US government is investing hundreds of millions of dollars on the West Coast to expand ports that serve US Navy and Coast Guard vessels.

The country’s Air Force has also transferred dozens of F-35 fighters to Alaska, announcing that the state will be home to “more advanced fighters than anywhere else in the world”. In 2021, even before the new geopolitical configuration resulting from the war in Eastern Europe, the US Army released its first strategic plan to “regain hegemony in the Arctic.”

As soon as the war in Ukraine broke out, the US, fearing an attempt by Russia to expand in the Polar Circle, announced that it would place three new icebreakers in the Arctic Ocean. Russia, however, already had more than 50 in operation.

Just over a month after the Russian invasion of the neighboring country, the US Navy still conducted exercises above and below the polar ice cap north of the Arctic Circle, also launched a plan to protect the country’s interests in the region, warning in a note that a weak presence there would mean that “peace and prosperity will be increasingly challenged by Russia and China, whose interests and values differ profoundly from ours.”

With information from Gazeta do Povo

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