Will Russian control of the Arctic lead to a new cold war?

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A photo taken on July 24, 2014 shows Greenpeace activists hanging a banner in front of a Shell gas station in Santiago, Chile to protest against Shell's oil search in the Artic region, and also to demand that Lego remove Shell logos from their toys. (Photo: AFP-Martin Bernetti)

By: Fatima Tormos

Published Saturday, October 11, 2014

After World War II, the major world powers consolidated their strategies to control natural resources. They pursued a number of policies to exploit these resources from which they derive their geopolitical power. For example, the United States established military bases in the oil-rich Arab Gulf states, spreading its influence in the Gulf which it still wields until this day and no other country seriously competes with the US in this region. But the Middle East does not have a monopoly over oil and gas reserves. In the northernmost part of the planet, where the temperature is equal to that of the Gulf but in the negative, there are enormous resources as well. The difference, however, is that the dominant geopolitical power in the Arctic is Russia.

It is true that the Arctic Circle is known for its glaciers and terrifyingly cold weather but the flames of the struggle over it are burning.

The Arctic region is 27 million square kilometers and consists of parts of Eurasia, North America, nearly all the Arctic Ocean except for the Norwegian coastal islands and the two sections of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans close to it.

Interest in the Arctic increased dramatically in the last decade and revived one of the struggles of the Cold War. Even if we put aside the significance of controlling the region for geopolitical reasons, a direct reason for the growing interest in the Arctic region is the fact that the Arctic Ocean contains about 20 percent of the untapped but recoverable world reserves of oil and gas according to a famous report by the US Geological Survey issued in 2008.

This includes 90 billion barrels of oil and 1.67 trillion cubic feet of liquefied natural gas, most of it found at less than half a kilometer. This means that extracting this gas is not complicated, especially as the ice continues to melt at increasing rates due to global warming, Since 1981, the Arctic has been losing more than 46,000 square kilometers of its ice sheet annually.

The Arctic is not only rich in oil resources, but also in diamonds, gold, tin, magnesium, nickel, lead and platinum.

In light of these facts, conflicting strategic interests among the five countries surrounding the area – Russia, the United States, Canada, Norway and Denmark – are on the rise.

Due to this conflict, which is relatively subdued by the low temperatures but not frozen, the Artic Council was formed. It includes in addition to the five aforementioned countries, three other states, namely, Finland, Iceland and Sweden. This Council, established in 1996, is considered a major international organization that provides the framework for discussing the problems of the Arctic region. Among the Council’s main tasks are addressing environmental problems, developing cooperation and providing economic, cultural and social support to the people of the region. Although those in charge of the Council stress that the interests of its member states will be maintained in a spirit of friendship and diplomatic coordination, confrontations become fierce in more than one area, especially with the growing ambition of other countries like China, which will join the Council along with other countries as observer states.

Elements of this conflict began to emerge in 2007 when Russia organized an expedition (Arktika 2007 Expedition) to convince international public opinion of its right to control part of the underwater mountain range called the Lomonosov Ridge (1.2 square kilometers). The preliminary results of an analysis of geological materials confirmed that this mountain range is a continuation of Russia’s Siberian continental shelf.

Now Russia, the US, Canada, Norway and Denmark seek to control this underwater ridge that spans 1,800 kilometers (1,120 miles) across the pole under the Arctic Sea.

Russia is consolidating its military presence in a region where most people of the planet cannot live but Russian expeditions continue. In 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin asked the defense ministry to focus on building an infrastructure and military centers in the Arctic stressing that this region is key to Russian national and strategic interests. In addition, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin announced that expanding Russia’s presence in the Arctic region is a matter of national security. In the meantime Western officials have discussed since 2009 or 2010 in Washington, Brussels, Ottawa and other capitals, plans to increase military activity in the Arctic Circle under the guise of economic ambitions.

The Arctic region currently provides nearly 11 percent of Russia’s national income. It is from here that 22 percent of all Russian exports originate. Ninety percent of nickel and cobalt, 60 percent of copper and 96 percent of platinum are extracted from this region. Besides, industrial deposits of gold, tin and diamond were discovered in the continental shelf.

Besides natural resources, Moscow is trying to assert a type of military control that has political ramifications, and one of its facets is the new cold war and the guarantee of national security. According to the commander-in-chief of the Russian navy, Admiral Viktor Chirkov: “The theater of military operations in the Arctic has geographical and strategic military significance. The forces and the ships of the Northern and Pacific fleet and air defense forces play a key role in ensuring Russia’s military security.”

It is possible to understand the extent of Russian interests from assessing its need to develop energy resources to reviving a shipping route through the ice.

In recent years, interest in navigating the Arctic Ocean has been on the rise as experts believe that by 2030, it will be completely suitable for navigation in the summer due to its melting icecap. In September 2009, two German cargo ships passed through the Northern Sea Route near the Russian northern coast crossing from South Korea to Europe without the help of icebreakers.

Usually merchant ships sail from Asia to Europe across the southern straits and the Suez Canal. This route is 11,000 nautical miles. Using the Northern Sea Route decreases the distance by about 5,000 kilometers.

Profits are so immense in this region, China wants a piece of the action to strengthen its commercial lines. In 2012, the first Chinese ship crossed the Arctic Ocean and China is expected to advance its ambitions by developing a commercial fleet specialized in sailing the Arctic Sea.

Despite all the conflicting interests, the Russian presence in the Arctic remains unique. The Guardian newspaper reported from a British diplomatic source recently that “Putin wants Russia to be strong and the West’s need for oil and gas supplies is the strategic key (to achieve this). Besides, he no longer cares about Western grievances.”

Putin himself has confirmed this on more than one occasion. He told a meeting of his Security Council in the Kremlin: “Over decades, step by step, Russia has built up, strengthened its positions in the Arctic. Our goal is not only to regain them, but also to qualitatively strengthen them.” He also emphasized the need to consolidate Russia’s military presence in order to protect the security of the country.

Surely this conflict will not be resolved by the Russians alone or through military means exclusively. In the context of cooperation between concerned countries, Russia and Norway signed a maritime border agreement in the Barents Sea and the Arctic Ocean. Canada, which is considered one of the most active nations in this regard, insists that the Lomonosov range begins in the American continent. Early last year, its minister of foreign affairs, John Baird, said that Ottawa is planning to submit regional claims in the Arctic Circle to annex the area. Despite its lack of scientific evidence to support its claims, Baird stressed that “in the coming months and years, Canada will be able to clarify its demands in the Arctic.”

Denmark, for its part, put forward the claim that this mountain range is an extension of the Greenland Island which is considered Danish territory.

The US did not sign the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea on the grounds that it gives too much authority to the UN. That is why it does not have the right to submit a formal application to the UN commission despite the growing voices in the Senate arguing that failing to sign the convention benefits the Russians ultimately.

The UN convention is the only way to settle disputes over exploitation rights and navigation routes in international waters. Russia and 152 other nations ratified it. According to the Convention, “any state can demand its rights in the seabed up to a distance of 200 nautical miles away from its exclusive economic zone if it can prove that the seabed is a natural extension of its continental shelf.” The US, however, is not standing idly by when it comes to these territorial claims in the Arctic. It recently deployed 27,000 soldiers and experts in Alaska to expand its understanding of the Arctic environment and consolidate its presence there.

It should be noted that the US will take over the rotating presidency of the Arctic Council next year which will give it a leading role in this regard.

What will Washington do in the next phase? A sense of anticipation dominates the international scene around the fate of one of the last untapped rich regions that could also represent a potential source of conflict. Despite all the complications of international politics, two issues can be ascertained. One, the Russians have the most interests and capabilities in the Arctic, at least so far, according to experts across the spectrum.

Two, environmental concerns in this region are on the bottom of the priorities list although the Arctic ecosystem is “key to regulating the global climate,” in the words of Greenpeace Arctic campaign leader Gustavo Ampugnani.

The future of the global economy is subject to conditions in the Arctic

Some observers and experts believe that the future of the global economy, in its current form, is subject to conditions in the Arctic region. As the ice melts at increasing rates, opportunities for economic exploitation increase. Since 1979, the area lost 40 percent of its ice cap which opened up two maritime routes, one is the Northern Sea Route and the second is the Northwest Passage. In addition to commercial gains, energy companies began exploiting the resources and the two major players are the Russian companies Gazprom and Rosneft, which are active in the Kara and Pechora Seas.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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