Even before the recent tensions in Ukraine began to heat up, Russia’s Arctic neighbours – including Greenland – were wondering about its intentions in the north.
Last September, the Russian Navy engaged in an exercise involving a fleet of ten ships, led by a nuclear cruiser and several icebreakers, which sailed to the New Siberian Islands, an archipelago located in one of the most remote sections of the Arctic Ocean.
The ships left behind everything needed to reopen a military airport that had been shut down in the 1990s.
A long journey ahead
“We have come, and we will stay there forever. This is the beginning of a long journey,” Arkady Bakhin, Russia’s deputy defence minister, told the Moscow Times.
Last December, Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, told reporters that a military presence in the Arctic region is among the top priorities for his nation’s armed forces.
Putin said that Russia will restore more Arctic military air bases that fell into neglect after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
Climate change development
As the ice melts in the Arctic, the potential for conflict among the players increases.
One of the biggest issues facing countries with Arctic interests is control of the seaways opening up in the region, including the Northern Sea Route on the Russian side.
More important than Suez
Putin has claimed that the Northern Sea Route had the potential to become more important than the Suez Canal for commercial freight transportation.
Shorter transit routes for commercial vessels are far from the only issue at play in the Arctic. The other, perhaps more important matter can be summed up with one word.
Oil. At the 2014 Arctic Oil and Gas Summit in Norway, organisers estimated that there could be an estimated 44 billion barrels of oil under the melting glaciers of the Arctic Ocean.
Thinly populated regions in places like Greenland offer far less risk than hotspots like the Middle East and the pressure for exploration is already building.
Following the first export of Russian Arctic oil earlier this month, Putin signed a law that allows oil and gas corporations to establish private armed security forces to defend their infrastructure.
“Oil and gas production facilities, loading terminals and pipelines should be reliably protected from terrorists and other potential threats,” Putin told the Russian Security Council.
Denmark’s establishment of a specialised military command to police the country’s vast Arctic territories in 2012 underlined its intent to develop a heightened defence and security strategy in the increasingly significant region.
An icy chess match
However, according to Simeon Wezeman of the Stockholm International Peace Research Centre, the military build-up in the region is so far just gamesmanship.
“Right now all of the claimants are interested in strengthening their military presence through mainly patrol ships and patrol forces,” he told RT News. “The Danes, because of Greenland, have always been rather strong in the area of patrolling.”
Threat is low
Wezeman said that the threat of intentional conflict between the Arctic countries is relatively low.
“It’s not a very strong threat," he said.
"But there is always the chance with more weapons around that things can go wrong, accidents happen, guns get pointed and people do things they shouldn’t do."
Wezeman said any kind of confrontation would not result in a full-scale war, but had the potential to develop into “a very nasty diplomatic incident.”
In pole position
No-one, in fact, is suggesting that an Arctic arms race is underway, but bases are being upgraded, ice-breaking fleets expanded and Arctic battalions re-established.
Russia is doing the most: its North Sea fleet is due to receive a new Mistral-class amphibious assault ship and six new 170 metre icebreakers – the world’s largest. New aircraft carriers are also on the way.
Warmer waters and its improved Arctic naval advantage have already put Russia in the driver’s seat in the Arctic, without the need to fire a single shot.