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Arctic: Security and Co-operation

Volume 813: debated on Monday 28 June 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of security concerns about Russian military build-up in the Arctic; and what progress was made at the meeting of the Arctic Ministerial Council in Reykjavik in May to ensure co-operation on Arctic issues.

My Lords, the integrated review states that the UK’s primary Arctic objective is to maintain high co-operation and low tension, as an Arctic Council observer. We welcome the commitment to maintaining peace, stability and constructive co-operation made by all Arctic states in Reykjavik in May. Russia, as an Arctic nation, has significant presence in the region. However, we are concerned by Russia’s expanding Arctic military footprint.

My Lords, the NATO Secretary-General recently said that Russia is trying to control the traffic travelling through the new sea lanes in the Arctic as they are opened up by melting ice. He also said that NATO should assert its rights to freedom of navigation in the area. In the light of the events last week in the Black Sea, what steps are the Government taking to assert the right of freedom of navigation in the Arctic? Does the fact that Russia now chairs the Arctic Council for the next two years help or hinder co-operation on Arctic issues?

My Lords, my noble friend is quite right that we have seen increased levels of activity, and it is right that we work with key partners to ensure that a peaceful, stable and well-governed Arctic underpins all our policy. That is a priority for the UK Government, and we support the legal frameworks in the Arctic and the Arctic Council. I assure my noble friend that we are working with NATO and other partners to respond to events in the Arctic, as it is in everyone’s interest to keep the Arctic peaceful and co-operative. Of course, recent events have demonstrated the need to stand up for the laws underpinned by UNCLOS.

My Lords, few institutions exist to manage the new security risks of civilian and military activity in the Arctic. The Arctic Council and other effective forums either forbid or do not touch on security, and since 2014 the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable has excluded Russia. Major Arctic players are nuclear powers and adversaries, with multiple facilities and nuclear armaments there. Russian and European Governments have called for the creation of a new dialogue among Defence Ministers, and Presidents Putin and Biden discussed how they can ensure that the Arctic remains a region of co-operation, not conflict. Where do our Government stand on the need for inclusive discussions on security, and what are we doing, if anything, to advance that?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that it is important to retain dialogue with all key partners and key players involved in the Arctic, and as an observer at the Arctic Council we have strongly claimed and talked of the importance of convening all Arctic states inclusively for retaining a peaceful, stable and well-governed Arctic. We attend the Arctic Council ministerial meeting and we are looking to work constructively with Russia under its stewardship, particularly as we look at wider issues beyond security in the lead-up to COP 26. However, I hear what the noble Lord says, and I can assure him that we are working with key international partners to ensure that the Arctic remains a peaceful and stable part of the world.

My Lords, can I press the Minister a little further? Last week, the leaders of France and Germany were calling for the European Union to engage more closely with Russia. Do Her Majesty’s Government believe that, in the context of the Arctic, we should be working more closely with Russia, or do we need to view Russian build-up in the Arctic with suspicion?

My Lords, as I have already said, we are concerned by the recent increase in activity by Russia in the Arctic region. However, I assure the noble Baroness that we look forward to working with all Arctic states, including Russia, particularly on important issues such as environmental protection and sustainable development, during the Russian chairmanship of the Arctic Council during 2021 to 2023. However, security remains a concern, and we will continue to work with partners in defence and in NATO.

My Lords, the Government are to be commended for the robust stance taken last week in sanctioning HMS “Defender” to passage, perfectly legitimately, through the international separation zone waters past Crimea, and for us not to succumb to Russian bullying and lying. Does the Minister agree that we should be acting in a similarly robust way in the north, allowing our warships to operate in international waters in the Arctic and the Barents Sea and not allowing Russia to claim such waters as their private seas by default—which will be doubly important as the north-eastern passage to the Far East becomes more accessible? I feel that the Minister’s answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay of St Johns, was not sufficiently robust on that matter.

I assure the noble and gallant Lord that we recognise that—if I may be robust—the actions that we took in the waters that we believe to be the territorial waters of Ukraine demonstrated how we stand very firm in ensuring the right to sea passage, ensuring that the traffic separation schemes that operate are equally recognised. Equally, we will continue to exercise the right of innocent passage in accordance with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea wherever that may take place. As the noble and gallant Lord will be aware, that is enshrined in Article 19 of that law and we will seek to uphold it. Our recent activities in Ukrainian territorial waters show the robustness of our approach in this regard.

My Lords, modelling has shown that the Arctic sea ice could well disappear by the summer of 2035; certainly, the sea lanes will be completely different from what we currently have. Where most of us see a disaster, global powers see that as an opportunity to secure security, political and commercial interests. Can the Minister say exactly what our policy now is, looking back at the 2018 UK Policy Towards the Arctic paper, which said that we should be exploring commercial opportunities too? How does that rest with the recent Arctic Council ministerial meeting?

The noble Lord is quite right to point towards the 2018 Arctic policy framework. We remain very committed to its core principles of respect, co-operation and leadership. Equally, however, as I have already alluded to, with temperatures rising three times as fast in the Arctic, we also believe that it is important that we focus on the Arctic, as we will at COP 26, to ensure not only that the Arctic remains a peaceful, stable and well-governed part of the world but that we also seek to tackle the important issues of climate and shared biodiversity. The current statistics are quite concerning, with sea level temperatures in the Arctic rising three times as fast as those in the rest of the world. As a near neighbour, we need to be interested and engaged.

My Lords, I welcome what the Minister just said about climate. The NATO Secretary-General identified climate change as a crisis multiplier, referring not least to the Russian attempt to define the northern sea route as an historically shaped national transportation corridor. There is a clear intention not just to take control of the route but of course to exploit the Arctic, with plans for huge oil extraction, which will only add to the problems of climate change. Can the Minister reinforce the pressure on all states with an interest in the Arctic not to worsen the climate crisis that we are facing by exploiting oil reserves that previously have been unexploitable?

My Lords, I agree with the points made by the noble Lord, and we will be working with key partners to ensure that the very areas that he just highlighted remain a key part of our focus in the build-up and planning for COP 26 when we discuss issues in and around the Arctic region.

My Lords, it was good to see the recent defence Command Paper commit the UK to funding the next generation of nuclear submarines, which will give the Royal Navy vital capability in this region into the latter half of the century. Is the Minister in a position to confirm, as reportedly set out in recent RN planning papers, that these submarines are expected to incorporate the Atlantis hybrid underwater capability concept, based on a crewed mother ship in tandem with remote autonomous uncrewed platforms?

My Lords, I will ask my colleagues from the Ministry of Defence to write specifically to the noble Lord on that question.

My Lords, I was deeply privileged to be on board HMS “Trenchant” as she broke up through the ice in the Arctic in 2019, an event that marked the return of the Royal Navy to underwater operations under the ice after an absence of some 10 years. Given that only last week the Russian Navy launched its latest submarine, increasing its inventory in the area, can my noble friend simply reassure me that we will now maintain this under-the-ice capability?

My Lords, my noble friend speaks with great insight and experience of this matter, and I can give him that assurance. We are of course very proud of the Royal Navy’s sub-surface capabilities, which is why the defence Command Paper emphasises our commitment and ambition in this area. My noble friend will know better than me from his previous experience that the sensitivities of submarine operations mean that I cannot go further. However, I hope my reassurance satisfies him with regard to our commitment in this important area.