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How to Read the Arctic: Structural Theory and the Balance of Arctic Powers

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Since 2007, Arctic sea ice has undergone a rapid melt that is increasingly making the region available to political and economic activities that were previously prohibited. The retreating ice has exposed a potential treasure trove of 21st century wealth, as well as new sources of potential danger, that Arctic states, and in particular the Russian Federation, are only now beginning to address in earnest. This paper explores a structural realist explanation of the newly emerging balance of power in the melting Arctic. It is argued that the global international structure is undergoing a shift from unipolarity to multipolarity and that as this occurs, the 'greatest Arctic power', Russia, is now pursuing the means to preponderantly shape the Arctic balance. Russia is doing so for five principal reasons: immense energy and natural resources; globally significant maritime transport routes; increased territorial sovereignty and control; a perceived need to reverse strategic vulnerabilities that have emerged since the Cold War's end; and finally, an attempt to press advantages against an 'absentee' America. In sum, the combination of interests and capabilities will all but ensure that Russia emerges as the preponderant Great Power in the Arctic. Yet, here structural theory and balance of power analyses do little to explain the consequences of the climatic change that has opened the Arctic to these processes. As such, the very value that the region is expected to bestow may yet turn to be a future and damning incarnation of the 'tragedy of great power politics.'
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