The current crisis in the world economy has spurred the various imperialist players to drive towards increasingly desperate and destructive policies. Unable to overcome the logic of capital and the tendency for its rate of profit to fall, the various actors in the global imperialist framework are now thrashing in the cold Arctic waters, a region witnessing extreme militarization in light of the desperate imperialist rivalry. The new imperialist arena has opened up due to rapid and catastrophic environmental calamity, which has made it possible. The Arctic no longer presents itself as an icy desert, but is instead a region of increasingly attractive mineral and energy resource along with coveted sea routes which could be more lucrative than the Panama or Suez canals. Salivating over these minerals are Chinese industrialists who desperately desire the resources required to stoke their ever expanding factories and their Canadian counterparts whose grip on global mining presents itself as a life or death scenario. Nervous over these sea routes are American admirals whose fleet of aircraft carriers have long dominated world commerce, and Russian strategists poised to utilize the largest fleet of icebreakers to proclaim dominance over the “new Suez”.
With the collapse of the USSR, the Arctic was widely considered a special diplomatic zone for which demilitarization and “cooperation” were presumed to be the norm. This joint recognition was short-lived. A widening division between Russia and NATO was exacerbated by the 2008 financial crisis, which acted as the historical marker toward this phase of re-militarization and bitter imperialist rivalry. By 2009, Canadian generals were vowing to intensify military drills and increase personnel in the region, claiming their goal was to have, “more boots on the Arctic Tundra, more ships in the water, and a better eye in the sky.”1 The increase of Canada’s military attention to the Arctic region is not surprising. After claiming the Northwest Passage as its sovereign waters in the 1990s, by 2003 Canada became the third largest producer of diamonds, found largely in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories.2 Canada has long been a major player in the mining industry across the globe. As of 2013, 75% of the world’s mining companies were headquartered in Canada.3 When Canadian Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan toured the Arctic in 2018 the whole affair was mired in the increasing imperialist competition between Russia and Canada. Openly and loudly this competition was boasted in the press as Minister Sajjan made a new commitment to infrastructure and military equipment.
Denmark has established a northern military command in Nuuk Greenland, and in 2013 deployed units to join in Canadian military operations. With Denmark extending its claims to the Arctic sea bed to include larger portions of the Arctic, it has bolstered this claim by extending its participation in annual military drills with Canada and the United States, and sought to acquire more patrol boats for its arctic activity. Denmark’s interest in the region is directly connected to the mineral wealth of Greenland and the island’s strategic position geographically, which has caught the eye of both Chinese capital and US military strategists.
As early as 2007 Norway declared the Arctic as their strategic priority in national defence and began a redeployment of most military headquarters from the south to the north of the country. In 2013 Norway backed up this commitment by hosting a military drill involving 16,000 troops from 14 nations. In 2018 this was expanded as Norway hosted a NATO exercise consisting of 40,000 troops. In 2020 Norway signed a treaty with Sweden and Finland coordinating military cooperation with the aim to solidify alliances across Scandinavia. And with the United States granting Norway’s request for an increase in American marines on its soil the Russian state has claimed there will be “consequences” to such decisions. These moves by NATO forces in the Arctic of course run parallel to Russian militarization. The symbolic submarine planting of the Russian flag on the bottom of the ice cap. alongside the Russian military build-up in the Arctic has been ominous.4 This buildup has included everything from the reinstitution of abandoned USSR naval facilities in the north, a manned amphibious landing drill in 2012, to sailing a full armada through the Northern Sea Route (NSR) in 2013. One notable drill took place in 2013 when a series of exercises consisted of more than 160,000 servicemen, 1,000 tanks, 130 planes and 70 ships, one of the largest since the collapse of the USSR. By August of 2019 it would be topped by an even larger military exercise of 300,000 troops, the largest Russian military drill since 1981. In the meantime, Russia’s state oil giant Rosneft is developing what it claims will be the largest onshore drilling operation in the world, with trade routes ensured by a new fleet of nuclear-powered and armed icebreakers capable of subduing the ice sheets of the NSR.
This drive towards militarization in the Arctic theater can only be understood when connected to the economic drive of both the great and regional powers. With the Arctic warming at twice the rate of the rest of the globe previously inaccessible resources now present themselves to profit-starved centres of capital.5 It is no surprise that when Putin commissioned a northern naval base he highlighted the Arctic as a key to Russian economic success, and in 2017 he cited an estimate of the mineral wealth alone to be 30 trillion dollars. Chinese industrialists eye these rich deposits of nickel, iron, lead, zinc, phosphates and gold, while Torontonian financiers seek to tighten their grip on global mining. In addition to mineral wealth vast reserves of unrecovered natural gas and oil are located just under the sea floor. The energy resources already in use have converted the previously barren North into a region from which a tenth of oil and a quarter of natural gas in the world is extracted. The attraction to this region is not purely for domestic economic purposes. Energy, particularly oil, has long been critical to “security” and “strategic” positioning inside the international framework. The relationship between capital and military adventurism has never been more apparent.
However, the real prize in the scramble for the Arctic is control over the two northern sea routes, the Northwest Passage on the Canadian side but particularly the Northern Sea Route on the Russian side. Since the days of mercantilism, the development of capitalism has always been inseparable from the ever-expanding networks of naval distribution. From the South China Sea to the Panama Canal, the arteries of economic life appear as the vast flow of commodities atop massive freighters. Historical events like the Suez Crisis in 1956, or recent events such as the blocking of the Suez Canal by the Ever Given, confirm the indispensability of these passages for world capital. The enthusiasm of the bourgeoisie to the opening of these northern passages can be marked by the celebration of the cargo ship Nunavik transporting nickel from Quebec to China in 2014. The voyage took two weeks less than the traditional Panama Canal route. Coinciding with the opening of Arctic shipping is the Canadian government’s plan to open and expand the infrastructure of deep-water Arctic ports, with new commitments to build a port in Nunavut and expanding the infrastructure of the port of Churchill, Manitoba. Across the pole, Russian policy is even more determined. The building of new naval bases is always geared toward controlling the NSR. With the first commercial ship making its way through the NSR in 2018, it can be estimated that the utilization of the NSR would lead to a reduction of days at sea by 40 percent in contrast to the traditional route through the Suez Canal. With 7,000 miles of Arctic coast Russia understands it is well positioned geographically to dominate what it hopes will rival the Suez Canal in connecting European and Asian markets. The Russian strategy is based on its ability to ferry cargo though the NSR with its modern fleet of nuclear powered icebreakers–with a fee of course. Putin has remarked that Russian dominance in the Arctic is key to Russia’s economic and strategic future. In response to Russian plans in 2020 the United States sailed a fleet of four destroyers with anti-submarine equipment though the Barents Sea. Future maneuvers are prepared to increase the number of destroyers from four to six. The message is clear, America wishes the northern routes to be “economic free zones” and “international waters”, while in real terms waterways would be under American power.
With the opening of the two northern routes China was quick to declare itself a “near Arctic country” and has entered the competition to push its interests by proclaiming a “polar silk road”. The polar silk road is attached to China’s massive Belt and Road Initiative which seeks to institute massive infrastructure projects throughout Asia, Africa and Europe to greater tie the world economy to Chinese capital and openly challenge American capital. Knowing that the NSR through the Russian northern coast offers the shortest route from China to Europe, in 2017 China’s state-owned shipping giant COSCO has proposed the development of an Arctic deep-water port on the Northern Dvina River near the northern Russian city of Archangelsk. Next to this are Chinese proposals to develop bridges and railroads in Norway and Finland. Even earlier there was Chinese interest in buying the Canadian Arctic port in Churchill, an offer which was clearly rejected as the Canadian press in 2020 proudly boasted that the port was 100 percent Canadian-owned. The American response to the Chinese initiative in the Arctic is exemplified by former president Donald Trump floating the possibility of purchasing Greenland from Denmark, where China has invested in rare-minerals. While the purchase offer for Greenland was rejected by the Danish government, the Danes did accept a $12.1 million economic aid package for Greenland, “aimed at strengthening mutual ties and boosting a renewed U.S. push for a greater military presence in the Arctic.”6 The point is clear: The number one priority of the U.S. is to stop the expansion of Chinese capital at all costs, and to achieve this through preparation for future military confrontation.
The icebreaker is the seminal piece of machinery required to contest the Arctic waters. Icebreakers use their strong hulls to bear down on sheets of ice to crack its upper surface. A fleet without icebreakers is vulnerable to the unpredictability of the Arctic climate and runs the risk of a reduction in maneuverability or even getting trapped in the sea ice. Russia hosts a fleet of 40 icebreakers, the largest stock in the world, including its new class of nuclear-powered icebreakers. This has American officials lamenting that the Russians can treat, “[the] Northern Sea Route like it’s the Mississippi River.”7 The United States fears that the Russian edge in geography and hardware will turn what is predicted to become a major shipping route into a Russian dominated toll route. In contrast, the United States can only boast of possessing 3 icebreakers, which officials fear leaves them vulnerable and unable to compete despite America’s otherwise massive capabilities. Meanwhile, China has announced its plan to build its own class of nuclear-powered icebreakers and Canada can field 13 of its own icebreakers.
The current state of the stock of U.S. icebreakers has the American Defense Department decrying an “icebreaker gap”, reminiscent of the cold war “missile gap”. In response to this “gap”, former President Trump demanded a new fleet of icebreakers be commissioned, containing 3 heavy and 3 medium icebreakers, to be ready by 2029. While the U.S. Coast Guard announced it had signed a $746 million contract for the design and construction of a new class of heavy icebreakers. Nonetheless, the U.S. Defense Department’s obsession over the ‘icebreaker gap’ has not been quelled, with American admirals nervously stuttering to the press “who puts missiles on icebreakers?”8 when remarking on Russia arming its nuclear-powered icebreaker fleet. In contrast to the American military worried if it can defend crucial chokepoints, such as the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom corridor, the Russian Northern Fleet is conducting a study of combat operations in the western and eastern Arctic sea zones via large military drills. The situation is clear. The dire economic situation facing the bourgeoisie has spurred an arms race in the Arctic Theatre. As capitalism meanders toward another crisis, no actors in the fight for Arctic dominance appear willing to stand down. While it is always “too soon” to declare a potential site for inter-imperialist bickering to result in global conflagration, there is reason to shed light on maneuverings in the Arctic. The climate has assuredly and permanently opened the once-frozen landscape to exploitation. Decades ago, the question was “is it possible for conflict to arise here?” Today, we must ask “how soon should we expect it?” as the massive centers of national capital scramble to secure the dwindling profits.
What is clear is that capitalism’s response to its crisis of profitability is the escalation of imperialist competition next to massive attacks on the condition of the working class. What does this crisis mean for Chinese workers but the 996 work week and fighter jets over Taiwan. What does this crisis mean for Canadian workers but larger military drills and rising rents. What does this crisis mean for Russian workers but tank maneuvers on the borders of Europe and longer hours. What does this crisis mean for American workers but Uber-style jobs and an icebreaker build up. What else can this mean but that “the main enemy is at home”! For the bosses misery and militarism are the solutions to the crisis. Against the bosses drive towards total barbarism the solution of the working class can only be a world communist revolution!
1 Baseline of Russian Arctic Laws (2019, Mar 30) . Paul Arthur Berkman, Alexander N. Vylegzhanin, Oran R. Young. Springer.
2 Fitzpatrick, P. J. (2007). A new staples industry? Complexity, governance, and Canada’s diamond mines. Policy and Society, 26:1, 93-112.
3 Dean, D. (2013, Jul 9). 75% of the World’s Mining Companies Are Based in Canada, VICE. https://www.vice.com/en/article/wdb4j5/75-of-the-worlds-mining-companies-are-based-in-canada
4 Faulconbridge, G. (2007, Aug 2). Russian sub plants flag under North Pole. Reuters.
5 Scott, Michon (2020, Dec 8). 2020 Arctic air temperatures continue a long-term warming streak. NOAA. https://www.climate.gov/news-features/featured-images/2020-Arctic-air-temperatures-continue-long-term-warming-streak