Germany in the High North

Germany is increasing its involvement in the great power competition over the Arctic also at military policy level.

BERLIN/BRUSSELS (Own report) - Germany seeks to enhance its military cooperation with northern European countries and is therefore engaging itself in the power struggle over the Arctic. Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer has held comprehensive consultations with her counterparts in Finland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark in the run-up to Germany's EU Council Presidency, as reported by the Ministry of Defense. These four northern European countries are planning more extensive military activities in the High North, because the melting of the Arctic ice, due to climate change, will provide access to large deposits of raw materials and open up new maritime routes. Experts assume that the Arctic may have entirely ice-free late summers already by 2030. The rivalry for influence in the Arctic region is thus rapidly intensifying. While China is pursuing its "Polar Silk Road" project, the Pentagon and the US Air Force have published their Arctic strategies. Russia is also involved with its extensive northern coastline.

Raw Materials and Maritime Routes

The power competition over the Artic is increasing due to the melting of the Arctic ice, which renders the polar region more accessible to various activities. The volume of the Arctic ice has already decreased by nearly 75 percent over the past century. Because polar temperatures - due to the climate change - are rising faster than the global median, experts assume that the region may have entirely ice-free late summers by 2030.[1] This will allow access to new deposits of raw materials. Already today, around 10 percent of the world's oil and 25 percent of its natural gas is being extracted in the Arctic, the largest portion in Siberia and Alaska. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that nearly 13 percent of the world's undiscovered oil reserves and around 30 percent of its undiscovered natural gas reserves could be located north of the Arctic Circle - the largest reserves being under the sea, however, at a depth of less than 500 meters. The natural gas reserves are mainly concentrated under Russian territorial waters, the Survey assumes.[2] The melting of the Arctic ice will also make new maritime routes navigable, thus opening new options for global trade but also for military activities.

The Northeast Passage

So far, there have hardly been concrete efforts to extract these raw materials. Due to its lack of success, the Shell Group ceased exploration in Alaska. A promising project in the Russian Kara Sea, launched by Rosneft in cooperation with the US company ExxonMobile, had to be discontinued in 2014 due to joint US/EU sanctions against Russia.[3] There are, however, initial developments in the usage of Arctic maritime routes. Since 2014, 20 - 30 freighters have annually navigated through the "Northeast Passage" - the maritime route linking Europe's Norwegian Sea along Russia's northern coastline to the waters of Northeast Asia. Due to the remaining ice and the insufficient infrastructure, the route is not yet profitable for trade. However, given the fact that the distance is shorter than through the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean, it holds promising perspectives for European trade with East Asia.[4] In addition, particularly from China's perspective, this route would make it easier to avoid maritime narrows, such as the Straits of Malacca and the Suez Canal, which the United States could shut in times of conflict.

Arctic Military Strategies

Despite the current comparatively little practical use of the Arctic waterways, power competition over the region has been strongly intensifying throughout the past few years. For its part, China - a non-Arctic riparian, which has declared itself a "near-Arctic state" - is cooperating with Russia in extracting raw materials and striving to include the Arctic region into its "Polar Silk Road," which includes cooperation with Iceland and Greenland.[5] Russia regularly stages maneuvers in the Arctic region, whose purpose is also to practice preventing NATO from closing the "GIUK Gap" - between Greenland, Iceland, United Kingdom - which would deprive the Russian Northern Fleet's access to the Northern Atlantic.[6] The United States and other NATO members, such as Canada, Norway, and Denmark, are also equipping themselves for warfare in the polar region. In June 2019, the Pentagon published its own Arctic Strategy,[7] and in July, the US Air Force followed suit.[8] In addition, the Northern European countries - Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark - are developing close military cooperation for the High North, explicitly aimed at Russia.[9]

"More Intensively Involved with the Region"

The German government is now taking up this cause. As was reported by the Ministry of Defense, Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer had originally "planned a long tour of the Nordic countries, in the run-up to Germany's EU Council Presidency," to promote closer cooperation in military policy.[10] Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the actual trip had to be substituted by video and telephone conferences. Within this context, Kramp-Karrenbauer had not only participated in consultations with her Scandinavian counterparts, but also in online conferences with foreign and military policy think tanks in Helsinki, Stockholm, Oslo as well as in Copenhagen. Germany's Defense Ministry reported that "several major dailies published the minister's signed articles, to spread her message to a broad public." NATO "must become more involved with the region," declared Kramp-Karrenbauer in her video conference with NATO's joint warfare Center in Stavanger, Norway. According to the German Defense Ministry, around 40 Bundeswehr soldiers are on active duty at the facility. For the past year, its commanding officer has been Rear Admiral Jan Christian Kaack, of the German Navy.

Maneuvers with the Bundeswehr

The Bundeswehr has long since been preparing for potential operations in the Arctic. For years, German soldiers have been participating in combat exercises north of the Arctic Circle. ( reported.[11]) The German government speaks of a "mutual exchange of experience," and of "training one's own capabilities under special climatic and geographical conditions."[12] This year, German troops had participated in the "Cold Response 2020" maneuvers in northern Norway, which, of course, had to be discontinued in mid March due to the Covid-19 pandemic. In July, the German Navy participated in the "Dynamic Mongoose 2020" combat maneuvers off the coast of Iceland, exercising also "high intensity submarine warfare." In the case of warfare, this is supposed to contribute to preventing Russian warships from entering the North Atlantic. ( reported.[13]) Thus Germany is participating in the power competition over the Arctic, also at military policy level.


[1] Simona R. Soare: Arctic Stress Test. Great power competition and Euro-Atlantic defence in the High North. EUISS Brief No. 9. 30.04.2020.

[2] Assessment of undiscovered oil and gas in the arctic.

[3] Michael Paul: Arktische Seewege. Zwiespältige Aussichten im Nordpolarmeer. SWP-Studie 14. Berlin, Juli 2020.

[4] Simona R. Soare: Arctic Stress Test. Great power competition and Euro-Atlantic defence in the High North. EUISS Brief No. 9. 30.04.2020.

[5] China's Arctic Policy. The State Council Information Office of the People's Republic of China. January 2018.

[6] See also Die NATO auf U-Boot-Jagd.

[7] Department of Defense Arctic Strategy. June 2019.

[8] The Department of the Air Force Arctic Strategy. July 2020.

[9] Gerard O'Dwyer: Nordic militaries rekindle old alliances, as Russia warms to the region. 22.06.2020.

[10] AKK: "Die Krise als Chance für Europa begreifen". 09.07.2020.

[11] See also Ice-Cold Geopolitics (I) and Ice-Cold Geopolitics (III).

[12] Antwort der Bundesregierung auf die Kleine Anfrage der Abgeordneten Andrej Hunko, Christine Buchholz, Heike Hänsel, weiterer Abgeordneter und der Fraktion Die Linke. Deutscher Bundestag, Drucksache 19/19973. 15.06.2020.

[13] See also Die NATO auf U-Boot-Jagd.