For much of the post-Cold War years, the Arctic was seen as a zone of exceptionalism by Western policymakers and academics, immune to geopolitical machinations. Climate change, combined with increasing geopolitical competition and hostilities, has focused renewed attention on national security interests in the Arctic since at least 2015 and particularly since Russia’s reinvasion of Ukraine in 2022. This shift in thinking is important to recognize, but begs the question of what the nature of security threats are to and from the Arctic.1For examples, see David Auerswald, “Geopolitical Iceberg,” Proceedings 141, no. 12 (December 2015): 18-23; Heather Exner-Pirot and Robert Murray, “Regional Order in the Arctic: Negotiated Exceptionalism,” The Arctic Institute, October 24, 2017, https://www.thearcticinstitute.org/regional-order-arctic-negotiated-exceptionalism/; Gunhild Hoogensen Gjørv and Kara K. Hodgson, “‘Arctic Exceptionalism’ or ‘Comprehensive Security’? Understanding Security in the Arctic,” Arctic Yearbook, 2019, https://arcticyearbook.com/images/yearbook/2019/Scholarly-Papers/11_AY2019_Hoogensen_Hodgson.pdf; David Auerswald, “Arctic Narratives and Geopolitical Competition,” In Handbook on Geopolitics and Security in the Arctic, edited by Joachim Weber (New York: Springer Publishing, 2020), Chapter 15, 251-71; Gabriella Gricius and Erin B. Fitz, “Can Exceptionalism Withstand Crises? An Evaluation of the Arctic Council’s Response to Climate Change and Russia’s War on Ukraine,” Global Studies Quarterly 2, no. 3 (July 2022): ksac042, https://doi.org/10.1093/isagsq/ksac042; Kai Kornhuber, Kira Vinka, Evan Bloom, Loyle Campbell, Volker Rachold, Sarah Olsvig, and Dana Schirwon, The Disruption of Arctic Exceptionalism, German Council on Foreign Relations, February 2023, https://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/media/uploads/documents/The%20Disruption%20of%20Arctic%20Exceptionalism.pdf; Harri Mikkola, Samu Paukkunen, and Pekka Toveri, “Russian Aggression and the European Arctic: Avoiding the Trap of Arctic Exceptionalism,” FIIA, Briefing Paper 359, April 2023, ISSN 1795-8059. There seems to be little consensus on the answer to that question.2For example, see David Auerswald, “China’s Multifaceted Arctic Strategy,” War on the Rocks, May 24, 2019, https://warontherocks.com/2019/05/chinas-multifaceted-arctic-strategy/. This might be because analysts tend to focus on what they see as the most important or interesting threat without explicitly considering the interaction among threat vectors.
To solve this conundrum, a group of scholars (including the author) at the National Defense Universities in the United States and Sweden embarked on a project to explore the future of Arctic security. As part of this endeavor, we conducted an abbreviated scenario planning exercise in December 2022 with twenty-six diverse experts from the United States and northern Europe. Rather than approaching the region from a US perspective, most participants were from the European Arctic, the Arctic subregion most likely to be affected by geopolitical tensions between NATO and Russia, the United States and China, and Arctic and non-Arctic states. The focal question for participants was, “What are the potential security threats to nations in the European Arctic in 2035 and what are the implications for national and NATO defense planning?” The exercise was led by an expert facilitator who followed a modified scenario planning methodology popularized by Peter Schwartz of Global Business Network.3Peter Schwartz, The Art of the Long View: Planning for the Future in an Uncertain World (New York: Currency Doubleday, 1991). Participants were divided into five heterogenous groups, each of which produced a set of possible Arctic futures.
The groups considered social, technological, economic, environmental, political, and security factors (STEEPS, to use scenario planning vernacular) when deciding on possible futures into 2035. Scenario planning methodology calls these factors driving forces. From a social science perspective, they are equivalent to causal variables. Each group brainstormed a large number of STEEPS driving forces and then came to an agreement on two primary forces/variables that in their view could significantly influence future Arctic security conditions. Groups were encouraged to explore the extremes of each variable, under the criteria that the extremes did not have to be likely but simply plausible. Each variable was presented on a spectrum bounded by each extreme (yet plausible) value of that variable. The intersection of each group’s two primary driving forces was represented on a two-by-two matrix and described by the group in four short narratives. In total, the exercise thus yielded 20 possible Arctic scenarios.
In the aggregate, three causal variables drove the majority of group scenarios: Russia, China, and climate change.4Note that the climate change driving force encapsulated the related concepts of global temperatures, emerging technologies, and sources of energy. Different groups highlighted one or another of those, but their narratives largely discussed the effects on climate change, justifying bundling them into one driving force. The Russia variable had at one end of the spectrum Russia devolving into a failed state or into several ministates, with the central government dissolving altogether or at least losing control of Russia’s Arctic territory.5This is but one possible future for a post-Putin Russia. For another among many others, see Duncan Allan, “Imagining Russia’s Future after Putin,” Chatham House, May 24, 2023, https://www.chathamhouse.org/2023/05/imagining-russias-future-after-putin. At the other end was Russia dominating the European and Russian Arctic and Russia’s near abroad—countries like Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, and several Central Asian republics.6The scenarios assumed in this instance that either an aging Putin remained in power or that a Putin successor was at least as aggressive as the Putin regime.
The possibilities for China ranged from China losing all interest in the Arctic region to China becoming the dominant power in the Arctic. The climate change variable had at one extreme a dramatic acceleration of warming, leading to a 5 degree Celsius (°C) increase in mean global temperatures by 2100, which given amplification effects would be even more pronounced in the Arctic, perhaps significantly so, given what we know from today’s climate models.7Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “Summary for Policymakers, IPCC AR6 SYR,” March 2023, https://report.ipcc.ch/ar6syr/pdf/IPCC_AR6_SYR_SPM.pdf. For a discussion of Arctic climate amplification effects, see Yeon-Hee Kim, Seung-Ki Min, Nathan Gillett, Dirk Notz, and Elizaveta Malinina, “Observationally-Constrained Projections of an Ice-Free Arctic Even under a Low Emission Scenario,” Nature Communications 14, no. 3139 (2023), https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-023-38511-8; Paul Voosen, “The Arctic Is Warming Four Times Faster than the Rest of the World,” Science, December 14, 2021, https://www.science.org/content/article/arctic-warming-four-times-faster-rest-world. At the other extreme was net zero emissions by 2035, leading to the possibility of continued global warming in the near term but a gradual decline in human-caused global warming over the next century back toward preindustrial levels.
Interesting was that none of the groups cited the United States as a major driver of Arctic security futures. That could be because the country has prioritized other regions of the world over the Arctic or because the Arctic is not a vital interest for the United States while it is for others. Regardless of the reasons, the groups felt that non-US driving forces would have a much more determinative effect on Arctic geopolitics than would US behavior.
Combining these futures is best visualized using a graph metaphor. Plotting the Russia variable on the x-axis, the China variable on the y-axis, and the climate change variable on the z-axis yields eight possible futures, listed in Table 1. Four combinations were inherently implausible. It seemed illogical that a future Russian empire would exist if China dominated the Arctic, for example, given the importance of Arctic resources to Russia’s continued viability as a nation-state, much less as an empire. That takes out two scenarios. The idea that Russia could have a sustained empire in a world with decelerated climate change also seemed illogical given that the Russian regime is supported by petrodollars, funds that would dry up if the world abandoned fossil fuels. That deletes another scenario. Finally, the scenarios with significant climate change did not seem compatible with China’s exit from the region given China’s interest in Arctic resources, unless Russia forced China out by establishing a regional empire. That invalidates a fourth scenario.
The section that follows examines the four remaining most-plausible scenarios, shaded in red in Table 1. Each scenario has implications for NATO security policy and the policies of individual regional actors. I make no a priori claims, however, as to which scenario poses the most serious security concerns from a Western perspective. At this point we can say only that each represents a complicated security challenge.
One other thing is worth pointing out at this stage. The scenarios assume that the rest of the world continues in roughly the same state as existed in May 2023, unless otherwise specified in the scenarios. For example, the scenarios assume that the United States and China do not go to war before 2035 and that there are no massive disruptions to the global economy. The scenarios also do not consider the myriad details that affect international relations in non-Arctic parts of the world: things like the bilateral relations between countries X and Y, civil unrest or famine in specific locales, or the election results in a particular country. And the scenarios assume that the basic structure of the international system (e.g., nation-states, international organizations, multinational corporations) is not abandoned or supplanted by a new organizing principle.
Simply mapping the three variables in Table 1 against each other suggests interesting implications, even before getting into the specifics of the scenarios themselves. Perhaps most important is that there is only one combination (Tsar) where the West needs to be concerned about an imperialistic Russia in the Arctic—namely, if climate change accelerates and China backs away from (or is forced to abandon) any Arctic ambitions. That is not to say that Russia fades into the background in other scenarios. Far from it. Instead, the other three plausible scenarios all focus on a failed Russian state and the serious security issues that arise from that possible reality. It is also apparent that China plays a complicated role in the scenarios, with China retreating from the region in two plausible scenarios (Tsar and Freezer) and dominating in two others (Hot Sauce and Middle Kingdom). This suggests that Sino-Russian interactions will need to be explored to understand the security dynamics in the four scenarios. Finally, it is important to note that there is nothing inherently positive or negative associated with climate change in these scenarios, at least with regard to Arctic security.8This in no way is to suggest that climate change is a good thing. There are obviously environmental, economic, human security, and cultural harms caused by global warming, and significant reasons to reverse climate change that have nothing to do with these scenarios. Two scenarios with significant security implications involve accelerated warming (Tsar and Hot Sauce). Two involve decelerated warming (Middle Kingdom and Freezer). It is the combination of climate change with geopolitical developments that produces Arctic security challenges.
The scenarios that follow are overviews of plausible trends and the intersections of those trends between now and 2035. Think of them as stories. Individual readers might take issue with specific claims or projections. That is okay. The details are included only to add verisimilitude to the eventual broad outcome in each scenario. The details are not intended as a definitive, unalterable story of how we get from here to there, with each detail guaranteed to happen. The broad futures are what we care about because they force us to think creatively and establish the overall parameters within which future strategists might operate. The scenarios are also distinct from the narratives generated during the December 2022 scenario planning exercise, though insights arising from them inform the discussion that follows. The biggest difference, of course, is that the scenarios discussed below represent the intersection of three causal variables rather than two considered by each group in the original December exercise.
Scenario 1: Arctic Tsar (accelerated climate change, Russian dominance, and Chinese withdrawal)
In this scenario, accelerated climate change between now and 2035 produces what is expected to be a 5ºC rise in global temperatures by 2100, largely from the world’s inability to curb fossil fuel consumption and corresponding emissions. The expansion of nuclear energy for electricity generation is derailed following an accident at a civilian nuclear plant and the release of substantial radioactive material. Though not on the same scale as Chernobyl, the event spreads public fear and deadlock on the ability to safely pursue nuclear power. Europe’s conversion to renewables cannot meet demand because of underinvestment and protectionist trade disputes on renewable technology. The continent turns back to imported coal, oil, and gas to alleviate energy shortages. The developing world, seeing backsliding within the Group of Twenty, fails to embrace renewables.
Despite pleas from the United States, Eastern Europe, and the Baltic states to hold firm, a fractured West ends Russian sanctions and again imports large amounts of oil and gas from Russia’s Yamal Peninsula, boosting Russian economic power. With the West divided and Russia in no mood to compromise, Arctic institutions lose their utility as coordinating forums. Regulating Arctic extraction—on minerals and fish, in particular—becomes more difficult.
Russia regains great power status. European states, faced with energy woes, projected coastal inundation from rising sea levels, and economic dislocation, focus on national problems. The West abandons Ukraine in the war’s third year. In short order, Russia conquers Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Georgia, and Kazakhstan. Though partisans launch guerilla wars within these occupied areas, Russia has de facto control over much of its near abroad by 2035, funded by increased hydrocarbon revenue and the plunder of heavy industry and natural resources in conquered territory. Europe sees increased refugee flows from Ukraine, Belarus, and Georgia. Russia becomes even more totalitarian in an effort to maintain control over the new empire. Russia extends its nuclear deterrent to cover its conquered territories and resumes nuclear testing in the Arctic.
Russia imposes very strict access controls on fully half of the Arctic. Russia fortifies its shared border with Finland and the Baltic states, rebuilds its Arctic infrastructure to handle thawing permafrost, and stations new military capabilities in the Kola Peninsula and along the Northern Sea Route (NSR). Some capabilities are defensive in nature. Other assets have a distinctly offensive character. Russia claims the undersea Lomonosov Ridge, which runs from Yamal to northern Greenland, both to control undersea mineral deposits along the ridge as well as to assert de facto control well into the central Arctic Ocean.
NATO is divided over what to do in the Arctic beyond upholding Article 5 commitments. Southern NATO members focus on more pressing issues (from their perspective) like refugees. Eastern members focus on defending against a possible Russian invasion. Sweden and Finland are full NATO members but face Russian military threats and frequent gray-zone attacks. Countries across the region are dealing with the effects of significant sea level rise in coastal communities, to include Oslo, Stockholm, Malmö, Gothenburg, and Helsinki. Norway, Denmark, Canada, and the United States continue to rearm across the Arctic.9For a recent discussion of sea level rise, see Enrico Ciraci, Eric Rignot, et al., “Melt Rates in the Kilometer-Size Grounding Zone of Petermann Glacier, Greenland, before and during a Retreat,” PNAS 120, no. 20 (May 8, 2023), e2220924120, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2220924120. Norway establishes a military facility in the Svalbard archipelago for rotational forces from Norway, Denmark, the United States, and England. Russia protests that the facility violates the Spitsbergen Treaty and steps up military harassment of resupply vessels. NATO affirms a focus on territorial defense, rather than out-of-area operations, but does not publish an Arctic security strategy given divisions within the alliance on the region’s importance.
China deemphasizes its ambition of becoming an Arctic power when a newly assertive Russia rejects Chinese demands for a governance role in the Arctic. Russia argues that the Arctic is for Arctic states alone, with a special role for Russia as the largest Arctic power—the same argument that Russia made before the 2022 Ukraine war. The fact that Russia can once again export energy to Europe significantly weakens Chinese leverage over Russia. Bilateral Sino-Russian deals on energy and mineral extraction within the Russian Arctic are negotiated on a more equal footing between the two nations compared with the 2022-24 period. China shifts its focus away from an Arctic governance role to maintaining internal stability and communist party rule, dominating the South China Sea, and engaging in transactional economic relations with Russia.
Scenario 2: Hot Sauce (accelerated climate change, Russian collapse, and Chinese dominance)
In this scenario, as in Arctic Tsar (scenario 1), accelerated climate change produces a 5ºC rise in global temperatures. The first difference from Arctic Tsar is in the effect of climate change on Russia. Here, Russia initially benefits from increased oil and gas revenue. Those gains are short-lived, however. Warming temperatures, melting permafrost, and coastal inundation cause catastrophic damage to Russia’s extractive infrastructure around the Yamal Peninsula. At the same time, Western sanctions against Russia remain in place. The absence of Western technology, investment, and scientific collaboration prevents Russia from reconstituting its oil and gas infrastructure and further degrades Russian military capabilities, particularly its air and naval forces. Russians’ standard of living drops precipitously.
Without adequate Russian funds, the war in Ukraine becomes a frozen conflict. There are sporadic exchanges of fire across the highly fortified line of control in eastern Donbas and between mainland Ukraine and Crimea. Large portions of the Russian military collapse from overextension and desertions. Remaining Russian ground forces are concentrated along the Ukraine border, with no spare capacity for offensive operations in the Nordic-Baltic region. The Russian navy and air force remain largely out of the Ukraine war.
Popular unrest continues to grow across Russian territory. Citizens are increasingly unhappy with their economic situation and repeated waves of press-gang conscription. Protests and social unrest grow inside Russia as a result of continued conscription, high casualty numbers, economic stagnation, and domestic instability feeding on each other.
Russia’s military and state apparatus collapse, leading to large ungoverned spaces and the rise of Russian warlords with access to stolen Russian weaponry and little concern for international norms. Russian oil and gas facilities, despite their degraded status, become the prize in the growing civil war among rival Russian warlords.10Thomas Grove, “Feud between Russian Warlords Exposes Cracks in Kremlin’s War Machine,” Wall Street Journal, June 1, 2023, e-ISSN: 25749579. There is the very real possibility that facilities will be collateral damage in such fights, if not targeted to keep them out of the hands of rival factions, with tremendous economic and environmental harm should facilities be damaged or destroyed.
Western intelligence can account for most of Russia’s strategic nuclear force but acknowledge that some weapons are controlled by ethno-nationalists. No one knows the fate of Russia’s tactical nuclear arsenal with any fidelity. A tactical weapon is detonated during fighting among rival factions in Chechnya, and another among groups seeking to control pipelines from the Yamal Peninsula. Russian refugees pour into the Nordic-Baltic states to avoid the chaos. Roughly one million refugees cross into Finland, five hundred thousand into the Baltic states, three hundred thousand into Sweden, and one hundred thousand into Norway.
The second major difference from Arctic Tsar is in Chinese behavior. Here, China steps into the void. Seeing Russia’s pending collapse, Beijing spends a decade dramatically increasing the size of its ground forces and its expeditionary military capabilities, and prepositions equipment in its northern and western provinces. In 2033, China’s military annexes central and eastern Russian territory ranging from the Pacific Ocean to the Ob River, as well as the Kola and Yamal Peninsulas and related NSR infrastructure, totaling well over half of Russian territory. China’s public rationale is that it is providing regional stability and environmental protection across ungoverned spaces, and establishing control of loose nuclear weapons, all for the benefit of humanity. Chinese forces quickly pacify their occupied territories, though Russian warlords in the remaining Russian provinces vow they will eventually liberate Russian territory from the Chinese occupiers and restore Russia’s greatness. The reality is that provincial leaders spend more time fighting among themselves over the scraps of the old Russian regime than they do plotting against China.
In 2034, Chinese state-owned enterprises take over the management of the NSR and Russian oil fields. China restores and upgrades equipment damaged by permafrost melt and local fighting. It sends the region’s oil and gas to China. The West protests China’s violation of another nation’s territorial integrity but is unwilling to intervene militarily or economically. Privately, some in the West are happy that China has brought some stability to the region. That changes, however, when China begins fortifying the northern and eastern Siberian coasts, putting Chinese conventional forces within striking distance of Alaska, and closes the NSR to non-Chinese vessels. Chinese submarines and armed icebreakers, unmanned sea and air vehicles, and manned aircraft patrol Arctic waters. In 2035, Chinese “settlers” begin moving north and west into sparsely populated Russian territory.
China begins an aggressive push to fill Russia’s seat on the Arctic Council, arguing that Chinese control of Siberia makes China the largest Arctic power and the natural successor to Russia on the council. China abrogates Russia’s fisheries agreement with Norway on fishing quotes in the Barents Sea. Chinese fishing fleets begin operations across the region. Finally, China focuses increasing attention on acquiring Greenland’s rare earth minerals.
Scenario 3: Arctic Middle Kingdom (decelerated climate change, Russian collapse, and Chinese dominance)
Scenario 3’s first difference from the above scenarios is in the direction of climate change. Here, advances in renewable energy and breakthroughs in nuclear fusion allow much of the world to move away from a reliance on hydrocarbons. Climate change begins to slow and could eventually be reversed over the long term, with implications for thicker Arctic ice cover. Norway shuts down offshore oil and gas extraction in the Barents Sea, with implications for its sovereign wealth fund. Access to Arctic mineral deposits is still possible in the short to medium term. Demand for rare earth deposits in Greenland and the Arctic seabed continues to grow. In the long run, however, access to Arctic minerals is expected to become problematic as northern glaciers refreeze. The West remains concerned about short-term illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing11To learn more about illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, see the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s website: https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/insight/understanding-illegal-unreported-and-unregulated-fishing. in Arctic and sub-Arctic waters, particularly from Chinese vessels. In the long run, that problem should take care of itself as Arctic waters refreeze. There is still a need for negotiated fishing quotas to protect northern fish stocks from depletion in the interim.
As in Hot Sauce (scenario 2), Russia collapses, but for different reasons and with different implications for Chinese behavior. Though oil, gas, and coal markets have not completely collapsed, Russia loses a tremendous amount of revenue as a result of falling oil and gas prices. The war in Ukraine becomes a frozen conflict, and Western sanctions against Russia remain in place. The absence of Western technology, investment, and scientific collaboration further degrades Russian military capabilities and Russians’ standard of living drops precipitously. Popular unrest continues to grow across Russian territory.
Russia’s military and state apparatus eventually collapses, leading to large ungoverned spaces across Russia’s eleven time zones. Russian warlords and oligarchs attempt to fill the void. Some warlords with previous ties to the Russian military, such as the Wagner Group’s leaders, have access to Russian weaponry and little concern for international norms. They adopt ethno-nationalist, anti-Western narratives. In other locales, particularly in Russia’s oil-and-gas-rich northwest, oligarchs attempt to solidify their rule via economic incentives, corporate security forces, and the cooptation of Russia’s northern fleet.12Polina Ivanova, Christopher Miller, and Max Seddon, “‘Stream’ and ‘Torch’: The Gazprom-Backed Militias Fighting in Ukraine,” Financial Times, June 2, 2023. The oligarchs are open to renewed economic ties with the West but reject Western pressure for free and fair elections. Clashes erupt among various factions and proto-states over who will control Russian military and economic assets, leading to further economic deprivation and human rights abuses.
Western intelligence can account for most of Russia’s strategic nuclear force but acknowledges that some weapons are controlled by ethno-nationalists. No one knows the fate of Russia’s tactical nuclear arsenal with any fidelity. A tactical weapon is detonated during fighting among rival factions in Chechnya, and another among groups seeking to control pipelines from the Yamal Peninsula. Russian refugees pour into the Nordic-Baltic states to avoid the chaos. Roughly one million refugees cross into Finland, five hundred thousand into the Baltic states, three hundred thousand into Sweden, and one hundred thousand into Norway.
As in Hot Sauce (scenario 2), China steps into the void and annexes central and eastern Russian territory ranging from the Pacific Ocean to the Ob River, or more than half of Russian territory. It does not attempt to control the Yamal region, however, given the decreasing value of oil and gas and China’s ability to get what it wants through other means. On the latter point, China supports Russian warlords and oligarchs in the northwest who are willing to become informal vassals. The West protests China’s violation of another nation’s territorial integrity. The West is unwilling to intervene militarily or economically, however, given China’s power, its economic links to Western economies, and the logistical challenges associated with intervening in central and eastern Russia.
China now calls itself an Arctic nation and begins fortifying the northeastern Siberian coast, putting Chinese conventional forces within striking distance of Alaska. Chinese “settlers” begin moving north and west into sparsely populated Russian territory. China demands a seat on the Arctic Council and inclusion in Arctic governance decisions. Some Russian leaders support China’s claim to an Arctic Council seat, though oligarchs in the Yamal region assert that they should be the ones to inherit Russia’s Arctic Council seat.
Scenario 4: The Empty Freezer (reversed climate change, Russian collapse, Chinese withdrawal)
This is the most benign of the four scenarios. As in Middle Kingdom (scenario 3), climate change begins to slow and could eventually be reversed over the long term. Though oil, gas, and coal markets have not completely collapsed, Russia loses a tremendous amount of revenue as a result of falling oil and gas prices. The war in Ukraine becomes a frozen conflict by 2024 and Western sanctions against Russia remain in place. Large portions of the Russian military collapse from overextension, desertions, and the absence of Western technology. Russians’ standard of living drops precipitously. Popular unrest continues to grow across Russian territory, eventually leading to state collapse in the late 2020s.
This scenario posits a different successor regime in Russia. The Vladimir Putin regime is replaced by an informal council of oligarchs. They solidify their rule in a new Russian “corporatocracy” comprised of oligarchs, coopted military leaders, and figurehead political leaders.13C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1956); Jeffrey Sachs, The Price of Civilization (New York: Random House, 2011). Their aim is economic enrichment rather than ideological or nationalistic movements. The new Russian council withdraws Russian forces from Ukraine in 2030 and is open to renewed economic ties with the West. Oligarchs reject free and fair elections, however, which would presumably threaten their shadow rule.
Russia continues to extract hydrocarbons from existing wells in the Yamal Peninsula through 2035, though shrinking profits from declining global demand will make long-term extraction unprofitable. Economic constraints lead to dramatic drawdowns in the Russian military, to include Russian strategic nuclear forces and their Northern Fleet. With a decline in oil and gas extraction, and an absence of Russian military forces, the European High North becomes a relatively pristine tourist destination.
As in Arctic Tsar (scenario 1), China recedes from the Arctic, though for very different reasons. The global transition to renewables and the eventual refreezing of the Arctic cause China to lose interest in the region as a source of resources or a shipping route. Beijing sees no need to occupy eastern Russia, and indeed has no opportunity to do so easily, as Russian oligarchs have reestablished a semblance of stability within Russian territory. Chinese attempts at predatory loans and investments across the Arctic decline because Western countries improve investment screening and Russian oligarchs have turned to Europe as a closer and less threatening market. China focuses its attention on maintaining domestic political stability and communist party rule, and increasing China’s influence in the South China Sea.
Security implications and recommendations
As the scenarios demonstrate, the way the three driving forces (Russia, China, and climate change) combine will affect future Arctic security. Each scenario poses distinct challenges for Western officials.
- Arctic Tsar (scenario 1) describes a neo-Cold War in the Arctic, with an empowered Russia confronting a West that is divided politically and facing significant challenges from climate change. China plays a minor role in the scenario.
- Hot Sauce (scenario 2) suggests a world facing the multifaceted threat of accelerated climate change; a formerly unified Russia replaced by a set of chaotic, weaponized, potentially anti-Western Russian ministates; waves of refugees into the Nordic-Baltic region; and an emboldened China claiming large areas of Russian territory, including the Yamal Peninsula, and demanding status as a new Arctic state.
- In Arctic Middle Kingdom (scenario 3), climate change is decelerating. Russia collapses into turmoil and violence, but with pockets of stability controlled by relatively nonthreatening oligarchs. China claims the eastern half of Russian territory, with implications for the United States but less so for Europe.
- Empty Freezer (scenario 4) also posits a world of decelerating climate change. Russia collapses but is replaced by a council of oligarchs that wants stability and trade relations rather than military confrontation. China loses interest in the Arctic.
Scenario planning exercises suggest plausible futures without assigning a likelihood to any particular one. This brief thus makes no attempt at assigning a probability to one scenario or another. Instead, the scenarios suggest several indicators to watch to predict which future we might be headed toward.
- Climate change is perhaps the most straightforward of our driving forces. Indicators here are well known, including global temperature trends, atmospheric greenhouse gas concentration, Arctic sea-ice volumes, and the degree of permafrost melt, to name just a few.
- Understanding Russia’s future requires tracking at least two sets of indicators. One deals with support for the Putin regime and might include public opinion, military satisfaction with the regime’s policies, regime control of the internal security services and information environment, and productivity of the Russian economy. Second, knowing what might come after the Putin regime is more difficult to predict, but could turn on the reactions of and anticipatory moves by political competitors, oligarchs, the Russian military, private military groups, and regional officials during the Putin regime’s collapse. Oligarchs asserting control of national industries and backing that up with private security services would suggest they intend to have a role in future Russian governance. Collusion among them would suggest they intend to work together. Growing strength of Russian warlords, either controlling former military units or private militias, would suggest they intend to seize power locally, if not at the provincial or national level.
- Indicators of Chinese intent might include investment patterns in Arctic projects, a growing physical presence in Arctic waters, the preparation of expeditionary forces aimed north and west, and the preparation of diplomatic initiatives to convince the global community of the legitimacy of Chinese behavior.
All this begs the question of what to do between now and any one of these alternative futures. Three tasks confront Western officials.
- The first step would be for officials from the relevant Western countries to assess how each future affects their interests. For example, Russian behavior in Arctic Tsar poses a significant threat to the Nordic-Baltic states, whereas Russian successor-states could represent potential economic opportunities in Empty Freezer. China poses a risk to the United States in Middle Kingdom, and to both the Nordic states and the United States in Hot Sauce. The point is that the four scenarios affect countries differently.
- The next step would be to decide upon strategic goals. Scenario planning methodology suggests developing a “strategy for all seasons,” essentially an overarching strategy that can work regardless of the future world in which one finds oneself. The strategy can then be tailored to a more specific scenario as dictated by unfolding events. The key prerequisite for making a strategy for all seasons is arriving at a commonly desired end state among Western nations. In today’s world, that common goal seems to be a stable Arctic that is free from conflict and coercion and that allows for sustainable, environmentally responsible development.14For a review of Arctic security strategies, see David Auerswald, All Security Is Local: Arctic Defense Policies and Domain Awareness, Atlantic Council, March 30, 2022, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/in-depth-research-reports/report/all-security-is-local-arctic-defense-policies-and-domain-awareness/. Future common goals are obviously subject to change and might depend on the specific scenario in play at the time.
- On the assumption that Western goals remain unchanged, however, the next question would be to identify the broad actions that are applicable for all four scenarios. On climate change, that might include planning for infrastructure resilience in northern latitudes (especially important for the United States, Canada, Norway, Sweden, and Finland) and the possible loss of state revenue from oil and gas extraction (Norway and the United States). If Russia collapses, prudent actions might include plans for dealing with emerging warlords, accounting for loose nuclear weapons, helping protect civilian nuclear power facilities, preparing contingency plans for large influxes of refugees into Europe, and perhaps encouraging (or at least not discouraging) oligarchs to assert themselves in a new Russia. If Russia becomes even more threatening, the West will need to decide whether to contain or try to roll back Russian expansion into its near abroad, similar to early Cold War debates, or even attempt to engineer regime change. On China, planned actions could focus on developing a common diplomatic and security posture should China exert overt or indirect control over portions of Russian territory, and whether to acknowledge future Chinese claims of Arctic status.
Scenario planning can help strategists think through the realm of the possible by identifying key factors, so-called driving forces, that might have large impacts on future behavior. In this way, strategists get advance warning of the future challenges they need to plan against. The aforementioned December 2022 exercise suggested three sources of challenges: climate change, Russia, and China. Of their eight possible combinations, four seemed implausible. Of the remaining four, Arctic Tsar is the most familiar: a bilateral confrontation between Russia and the West in a warming planet. Empty Freezer describes a world where neither Russia nor China is a threat and climate change is controllable. Hot Sauce and Middle Kingdom pose novel security challenges. Hot Sauce combines global warming with a fragmented, dangerous set of Russian ministates and an uber-expansionist China. Middle Kingdom involves a fluid situation inside a fragmented Russia and an expansionist China but with controlled climate change. The next step is to design a strategy to handle these various possible futures. That cannot happen, however, until Western officials assess how the scenarios affect their interests. Once that occurs, Western nations can decide on national and alliance goals, and then begin crafting strategies. Identifying the relevant driving forces is the first step in this process. In this case, future Arctic security will be greatly influenced by the convergence of climate change, Russia, and China.
David Auerswald is a nonresident senior fellow at the Transatlantic Security Initiative in the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. He is also professor of security studies at the US National War College in Washington, DC. He has published articles and chapters on a variety of national security and foreign policy topics. His most recent work has focused on the geopolitics of the Arctic and includes “A U.S. Security Strategy for the Arctic,” “NATO in the Arctic: Keep Its Role Limited, for Now,” “Now Is Not the Time for a FONOP in the Arctic,” and “China’s Multifaceted Arctic Strategy” in War on the Rocks; “Civilian Control of the Military,” a chapter in Research Handbook on NATO; “Some Assembly Required: Explaining Variations in Legislative Oversight over the Armed Forces” in Foreign Policy Analysis; “Arctic Narratives and Geopolitical Competition,” a chapter in Handbook on Geopolitics and Security in the Arctic, edited by Joachim Weber; and “The High North,” a chapter in Charting a Course: Strategic Choices for a New Administration from National Defense University Press. He has also published five books, with the two most recent being Congress and Civil-Military Relations, edited with Colton Campbell, and NATO in Afghanistan: Fighting Together, Fighting Alone, co-authored with Stephen Saideman.
Auerswald previously served on the faculty of George Washington University’s Department of Political Science and the Elliott School of International Affairs. He has worked as a congressional staff member on three occasions. Auerswald received his PhD and MA in political science from the University of California San Diego, and undergraduate degrees in political science and English literature from Brown University. The views in this issue brief are those of the author and not the National War College or any other part of the US government.
The Transatlantic Security Initiative, in the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, shapes and influences the debate on the greatest security challenges facing the North Atlantic Alliance and its key partners.
Report Feb 2, 2023
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