Arctic Circle Melts: Which Geopolitical Consequences?

Theoretical Basis of the Geopolitical Thought & Practice of the Western World

In the Rimland Theory, the renowned American political scientist Nickolas Spykman introduces the Inner Crescent Theory. The theory’s introduction forms the basis of America’s geopolitical thought and in extension the practice of the Western World. The Inner Crescent Theory is a worthy mention in this article owing to the importance of the contents contained therein. However, such mention will be brief as this article’s main intention does not lie in making a detailed reference to the previously mentioned theory. Instead, the objective is to understand it through perceiving the world as a competitive environment between land and sea forces.

Sir Halford John Mackinder was Nickolas Spykman’s mentor. Sir Halford helped shape his perception. In his work The Geographical Pivot of History Mackinder discusses the importance of the World-Island, which comprises the interlinked continents of Africa, Europe, and Asia. These are the most populous and richest land combinations possible. He also traces the Pivot Area, which consists of the territories of the earth’s centre. His idea is that the alliance between the two would lead to domination resulting from abundant population as well as natural resources. Mackinder published his book Democratic Ideals and Reality in 1919. His perceptions can aptly be summarized as follows: “whoever rules East Europe commands the Heartland; whoever rules the Heartland commands the World-Island; whoever rules the World-Island commands the World.

In his essay “The Geography of the Peace” (1944) Spykman revised Mackinder’s work. He sought to correct Mackinder’s geopolitical perceptions regarding the primary geopolitical importance of the Pivot Area. Instead, he shifted focus to those states that formed a circle around the Central Earth, also known as the “Heartland” or Russia. These are the countries surrounded by the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans and also the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. An alliance of the states found in that common area would effectively strangle the Heartland’s land forces and deny them access to both the land and sea trade routes.

Maritime isolation, viewed as a disadvantage can be reversed into an advantage by controlling the sea trade routes. The US, UK, and Japan as maritime powers have been utilizing this advantage to the present. Control of the Crescent of Containment is more significant in geopolitical terms than a grip on the Heartland. Failure to control the former, allows the land forces to decisively turn the global balance of power in their favor.

Climate Change & Ice Melting

The Rimland Theory has for a long time persisted with much prevail even as it is in support of the plan by the West to impose a chokehold on the USSR and subsequently to its heir, the Russian Federation. An interesting dynamic has since occurred that Spykman could not have foreseen in 1944: ice melting in the Arctic Circle has opened up the possibility of a northern sea trade passage. Such an opening will effectively weaken the level of importance that the Crescent carries.

The melting ice introduces a significant shift in power dynamics strengthening the RF over its rivals. Such melting eases the extraction of energy resources in the AC. Moscow gets into position to gain maritime advantage in addition to the immense land power that it already has. One could suggest that EU and UN member states turn to green growth does not only pertain to the need to channel capital into a new investment area in an effort to protect the environment from the long term deleterious effects of fossil fuel consumption. Climate change moves centre stage in geopolitical competition.

Opening of the northern sea passage weakens maritime trade through the Suez Canal. This is the desire of both Russia and China, but also India, within the framework of the Polar Silk Road (PSR) project. The PSR project is seen as a less costly alternative for merchant shipping from East to West. Implementation of the PSR has been met with US hostility. Washington has taken both diplomatic and military steps to frustrate its development. The EU, on the other hand, has not taken any aggressive stance. Brussels is rather defensive in its approach. China tends to become the most significant trade partner of the Union. (It is now closely trailing in second place behind the US). After US President Donald J. Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP) negotiations (2017) this trend became more accentuated.

Both positive and negative attributes accrue from every phenomenon. It would be wrong to assume that only either of the two should be expected. Predictions thus become difficult to make. A most appropriate example: as the EU turns increasingly to Renewable Energy Sources (RES) thereby diminishing the importance of Russian natural gas imports, Gazprom’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline is coming to fruition. Nord Stream 2 pipeline will establish an energy link between Russia and Germany which will, in turn, weaken the Western Bloc’s attempt to secure alternative routes mainly through the EASTMED and TAP pipelines.

A developing phenomenon is in the making whose consequences will climax in the next twenty to thirty years: Russian acquisition of the Crimean, Syrian, and Libyan ports has cracked the Crescent. However, the opening of the northern passage would create a different dynamic as the Russian merchant fleet develops, with ports and shipbuilding industry within Russian territory.

With the ice melting, Russian access to the Arctic’s mineral wealth is expected to further increase:  a phenomenon already witnessed in Stalin’s era. Yet Russia is in a unique position of strength over the Arctic Circle contestant countries due to its technological know-how in icebreaking technology and pumping of mineral wealth from soils with such characteristics. In addition to maintaining its military superiority over the US, Russia is also renovating its ports on the icy northern shores of Arkhangelsk and Kronstadt.

The EU and the UN on Climate Change and the Dilemmas of the States

The Paris Climate Agreement, of which the US is a member state, aims at a global temperature reduction by two degrees Celsius in comparison to the pre-industrial levels. Reducing pollution by 55 per cent by the year 2030 is an objective of the UN encapsulated within this framework. Additionally, 2050 is the year within which the UN hopes to achieve the first climate-neutral world race that would have zero greenhouse gas emissions and would also disassociate growth from the use of resources.

Despite the effort being made to achieve the goals, the EU report on the participation of RES in total energy consumption for 2019, reveals that the Union is just 0.3% behind the 20% goal. Greece and Cyprus have managed to achieve the national goal they set but are slightly behind the goal set by the EU. It is necessary to mention at this point, that the up-to-date studies regarding the results of the development of RES are not sufficient to determine whether the rate of environmental recovery – and therefore the reversal of the ice melting trend – is higher than its rate of environmental deterioration.

Achieving the Arctic Route remains a big dream. Its operation will, no doubt weaken the significance of North African ports and the Eastern Mediterranean as the initial reception points through the Suez Canal. This will make Russia a remarkable global power with the ability to dynamically project power at sea.

In conclusion, the adaptation of a state’s international alliances must take such tendencies into account, but it does not cease to be shaped based on the respective nation’s advantages. A sober study of the unfolding trend is necessary even as we see its co-existence with compensatory trends. The melting of the ice will strengthen the Russian naval force at the expense of the US bringing a relative balance in this area. At the same time, the RES weakens Russia’s “Natural Gas” superpower weapon as an exportable product to the EU.


*Elias Hadjikoumis is Foreign, Security & Defence Policy Expert and a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).