Just days before a major Arctic conference this month in St Petersburg, where president Vladimir Putin was to host four regional leaders under the banner “Arctic: Territory of Dialogue”, Russian warships were on manoeuvres in the frigid northern waters. On the waves of the Barents Sea, a frigate from the Northern Fleet fired rockets to shoot down cruise missiles launched from one of its own anti-submarine warships. It was a show of strength not missed by Putin’s guests. The Barents, whose waters lap Norway’s coast, marks the western boundary of the Northern Sea Route (NSR), a stretch of water encircling the North Pole that has for thousands of years remained mainly ice-bound, but whose rapid thaw has ushered in one of the world’s biggest emerging geopolitical flashpoints. Fuelled by climate change that is rapidly shrinking the northern ice cap, the NSR has become an arena of growing competition. Its potential as a preferential shipping route between Europe and Asia could change glob...

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