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Fears for possible Arctic conflict grow as NATO expands, Russia’s belligerence and a race for resources serving as a catalyst

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A Sky News investigation has revealed mounting fears of a future war, as Russia, NATO and China battle for sway at the ‘top of the world’.

Military top-brass, senior diplomats and esteemed analysts have raised concerns with Sky News that an armed conflict in the Arctic is looking increasingly likely.

Russia, the United States and Nordic nations have significantly increased their military presence within the Arctic circle in recent months.

NATO’s expansion, Russia’s recent belligerence and a predicted race for billions of dollars worth of resources made accessible due to ice melt, have increased tensions and serve as possible catalysts for conflict.

Russia’s Ambassador to Norway told Sky News he’s “not confident” war in the Arctic can be avoided.

“Not on our initiative, we are not adding a single point to make the situation aggravated,” Teimuraz Otarovich Ramishvili said.

“We didn’t do anything, we didn’t do anything.

“We still are ready to prevent militarisation of the Arctic.”

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Norway – a NATO founding member and effectively the alliance’s Arctic bastion – is particularly wary of a boil-over.

“We have been very concerned about the risk for a massive attack from Russia,” Espen Skjelland of the defence think-tank, FFI, told Sky News.

“It’s not the potential of a war between Norway and Russia spinning out of any kind of crisis in the bilateral relationship between the countries, but it’s a part of a larger game, the deterrence game between, above all, the US, NATO and Russia.

“We have been analysing what can go wrong, what may threaten the way we are living in Norway and Russia is definitely a potential threat to our way of life.”

Norway’s existential threat reflects the severity of the stakes of the geopolitical battle being fought in the Arctic.

The region has become a new theatre of great power competition – which is likely to impact global trade, the climate and potentially the world order.

WAR FOOTING IN FINNMARK

Norwegian troops are preparing for a possible Russian invasion.

Sky News witnessed massive war-games recently held in the northern region of Finnmark, on Russia’s north-western border.

Six hundred and thirty troops, using 100 vehicles and an artillery battery, rehearsed rooting out foreign invaders.

“I’m really happy with what I saw today,”  Captain Thomas Pettersen said following the third day of the exercises.

“We see that we are able to synchronise both manoeuvre, fire and support.” 

The mock enemy wasn’t named but it was a clear show of force to the increasingly provocative eastern neighbour.

Analysts suggest Finnmark would be in Moscow’s sights if Russia went to war with any NATO member.

Claiming it is critical for Russia’s protection of its northern naval fleet and its ability to launch retaliatory nuclear attacks.

“The key challenge here is about strategic nuclear forces and the strategic bases in the Kola Peninsula, just across the Norwegian border,” Mr Skjelland explains. 

“For Russia, they need to protect their bases, what we call the Bastion, so they have the Bastion defence so we think it may strengthen their defence, under certain circumstances, to attack north Norway.”

The Norwegian Government has boosted funding for northern military bases, just as it did after the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014.

Finnmark’s Porsanger Battalion didn’t exist four years ago – in three years it’ll be one of the biggest in the country.

“It’s important because it’s a political decision and related to the NATO alliance that we show that we will be able to strengthen the defence and that we are able to defend ourself,” Porsanger Battalion Commander Lieutenant Colonel Ronny Bratli told Sky News.

RUSSIAN RAMP-UP

Norway’s recent military build-up pales in comparison to Russia’s.

Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered considerable investment in Russia’s assets in the Arctic.

The Trefoil Base – a mere 900 kilometres from the North Pole – was renovated last year, with runways being expanded seemingly to accommodate nuclear bombers. 

Naval bases on the Kola Peninsula, near Russia’s border with Norway, have also been bolstered.

Norwegian and U.S. intelligence indicates more nuclear submarines have been added to the fleet based near the city of Murmansk.

“The Arctic is of utmost importance for the Russians,” renowned Arctic analyst and University of Bonn academic, Dr Joachim Weber told Sky News.

“Their strategic capabilities are very much stored at the Kola Peninsula, especially their second-strike capabilities and this makes the Arctic for them really an indispensable region.” 

The United States has also committed to expanding its Arctic bases in Alaska and Greenland.

It’s increased submarine patrols in the Arctic and was last month granted permission to build new facilities at bases in Norway.

Finland and Sweden’s addition into NATO – which may be ratified as early as the end of this year – will further tie the fates of the Arctic to the western military alliance, given an attack on one member nation is considered an attack on all.

“The West has slept for quite a while, while the Russians were returning this polar area, especially around the Kola Peninsula, they remilitarised it, Dr Weber says.

“So there was nothing going on there for let’s say 25 or 20 years but then around 2010 or so, the Russians started to re-arm the Arctic region heavily and NATO has slept really over the years, especially the Americans, they didn’t realise what was going on.

“Now things are turning, the Americans woke-up and they realise they have to do something in that region to counter the Russian efforts.”

While China is trying to wade into Arctic affairs, having recently declared itself a ‘near Arctic nation’ and commissioned two ice-breaker ships to operate in northern waters.

ARCTIC RICHES

The dominance of the Arctic brings massive economic boons. 

Melting ice sheets is expected to make billions of dollars worth of oil and gas accessible.

The US Geological Survey estimates around 30 per cent of the world’s untapped gas and 13 per cent of its oil may soon be able to be tapped by those fast and assertive enough to stake claims.

Some of that may lie in territory disputed by the eight Arctic nations, and nations may choose to deploy their military to strong-arm potential challengers.

The ice melt is also impacting inter-continental trade routes.

Moscow – with investment from Beijing – has already spent billions of rubles developing an Arctic shipping lane and northern ports, to significantly cut time and costs on inter-continental travel.

Tight restrictions limit the access for ships from nations Russia deems ‘unfriendly’.

A PRECARIOUS PEACE

Things are unmistakably heating up in the frigid north.

The Arctic’s largest geographic presence – Russia – threw out the rulebook; its invasion of Ukraine has made the situation in the Arctic even more precarious.

The region is now a crucial theatre of competition for the great powers and its importance will only increase.

The foreboding military build-up, the provocative rhetoric, the new players joining this geo-political game and the potential race for resources suggest the prospect of peace in the Arctic is on thin ice.

‘On Thin Ice: Rising Tensions in the Arctic’ airs Saturday 9 July at 10:30amAEST on Sky News Australia.

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