Arctic & Antarctica
Mainland Svalbard looking west across Isfjorden, Oct. 18, 2022. | Ola Lewitschnik for POLITICO

Arctic - A Battle for the Arctic Is Already Underway. And the U.S. Is Already Behind.

Climate change is opening the Arctic. Can the U.S. and NATO surpass Russian capabilities and ambitions in a new Cold War? ...

SVALBARD, Norway — In January, when an undersea telecommunications cable connecting this far-flung Arctic archipelago to mainland Norway and the rest of Europe was damaged, Norwegian officials called to port the only fishing vessel for miles, a Russian trawler. Police in the northern city of Tromsø interviewed the crew and carried out an investigation into the incident, which was seen as a major threat to the security of Norway and other nations, including the United States. Had there not been a back-up cable, the damage would have severed internet to the world’s largest satellite relay, one that connects the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NASA and other government agencies from around the world to real-time space surveillance.

The investigation’s findings were inconclusive, if worrisome. Something “man-made” had damaged the cable, but Norwegian police could not prove the Russian fishing vessel was responsible, authorities told me. The police allowed the fishing boat crew to return to their ship and set back out to sea.

When I sat down in October with the governor of Svalbard, Lars Fause, he told me people here in the high north accept this sort of geopolitical intrigue as part of life. (He also stressed that nothing of value was lost when the cable was cut and the damage was repaired quickly.) Several Norwegian analysts and local journalists covering the Arctic told me they believed the Russians were behind the damage, and that they had damaged the cable as payback for Norway’s continued tracking of Russia’s newly upgraded nuclear submarine fleet that patrols this region. The Russian embassy in Oslo did not respond to request for comment.

“Everything we do is to keep good order at sea,” Rear Admiral Rune Andersen, the head of the Norwegian Navy and Coast Guard told me, weeks later. He said he’s seen an increase of both international commercial and specifically Russian naval maritime activity in the Barents Sea and Norwegian Sea over the last five years. Andersen says the Norwegian fleet has devoted new resources to underwater monitoring, aerial shipping lane surveillance and intelligence sharing with other Arctic nations like Sweden. “We’ve been improving to make sure we’ve control over the North Atlantic. What happens now in the North is important. It has a direct effect on security elsewhere.”

Since the end of the Cold War, the Arctic has largely been free of visible geopolitical conflict. In 1996, the eight countries with Arctic territory formed the Arctic Council, where they agreed to environmental protection standards and pooled technology and money for joint natural resources extraction in the region. Svalbard, Europe’s northernmost inhabited settlement, just 700 miles south of the North Pole, perfectly represents this spirit of cooperation. While a territory of Norway, it is also a kind of international Arctic station. It hosts the KSAT Satellite Station, relied on by everyone from the U.S. to China; a constellation of some dozen nations’ research laboratories; and the world’s doomsday Seed Vault (where seeds from around the world are stored in case of a global loss in crop diversity, whether due to climate change or nuclear fallout). Svalbard, where polar bears outnumber people, is considered a demilitarized, visa-free zone by 42 nations.

But today, this Arctic desert is rapidly becoming the center of a new conflict. The vast sea ice that covers the Arctic Ocean is melting rapidly due to climate change, losing 13 percent per decade — a rate that experts say could make the Arctic ice-free in the summer as soon as 2035. Already, the thaw has created new shipping lanes, opened existing seasonal lanes for more of the year and provided more opportunities for natural resource extraction. Nations are now vying for military and commercial control over this newly accessible territory — competition that has only gotten more intense since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

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