Russia’s Arctic Posture: Defensive or Offensive?

The Russian nuclear submarine Orel arrives in Murmansk, April 11
The Russian nuclear submarine Orel arrives in Murmansk, April 11 (Russian Ministry of Defense)

Many Westerners interpret Russia’s behavior in the Arctic as offensive, going back to 2007, when the country resumed air and naval patrols in the area and planted its flag under the North Pole.

Alexander Sergunin, a professor of international relations at Saint Petersburg State University, argues The Wilson Quarterly that the reality is more nuanced. On balance, he writes, Moscow’s policy is pragmatic. Read more

How Climate Change Will Be the Biggest Geopolitical Crisis of the Century

French troops in Mali, May 2013
French troops in Mali, May 2013 (EMA/Ministère de la Défense)

America is out of the environmental protection businesses; so says the haughty God-Emperor Donald Trump, whose word is apparently law.

Too bad even god-emperors cannot change facts. Too bad, especially, for the billions who are almost certain to be disrupted, displaced and decimated by the looming geopolitical effects of climate change.

That basic truth is denied heartily by many who have incentive to play games for short-term gain. These are old-school industrial concerns, for whom environmental regulation hammers a bottom line; alt-right, alt-truthers, for whom simple science is a threat to their incoherent worldview; and shattered working classes, seeking a simple scapegoat for the complicated story of their economic dissolution and disenfranchisement. Read more

In Alaska, Obama Calls for New Arctic Icebreakers

The American icebreaker Healy operates in the Chukchi Sea, July 10, 2011
The American icebreaker Healy operates in the Chukchi Sea, July 10, 2011 (NASA/Kathryn Hansen)

President Barack Obama was expected to call on Tuesday for new Coast Guard icebreakers in the Arctic, an area where the United States have fallen behind rival Russia.

While Russia operates some forty icebreakers, several of them nuclear-powered, and has six more under construction, the United States only have two. On a visit to Alaska, Obama was due to urge Congress to approve funding for new ships by 2020.

Politico reports that new ships could cost at least $1 billion each and that it would take the American shipbuilding industry — which has long ceased to build icebreakers — ten years to deliver a brand new one.

It might seem that a warming Arctic would require less icebreaking, not more. But as northern waters become more accessible, far more ship traffic will be at risk and their shifting climate conditions make it more likely seas will freeze unpredictably.

As polar caps melt, new shipping routes could significantly shorten the distance between Asia and Europe and reveal previously untapped oil and gas resources. Nearly a quarter of the world’s undiscovered hydrocarbons are believed to lie under the Arctic seabed.

Russia has the largest Arctic territory by far, second to Canada. With an economy heavily dependent on oil and gas exports, it considers the Arctic a national security priority. Russia has stepped up military deployment in the region and invested more than $1 billion in the expansion of Murmansk, its northernmost port.

The United States, by contrast, have largely neglected the region.

Obama’s Alaska trip, the first presidential visit there, underlines that America is finally waking up the Arctic’s growing geopolitical significance.

Ukraine Overshadows American Arctic Council Takeover

American secretary of state John Kerry speaks at an Arctic Council meeting in Iqaluit, Canada, April 24
American secretary of state John Kerry speaks at an Arctic Council meeting in Iqaluit, Canada, April 24 (State Department)

On Friday, Canada handed over the chairmanship of the Arctic Council to the United States in its far northern city of Iqaluit. During its two-year tenure, the physical and geopolitical landscape of the Arctic has changed once again with much focus taken away from the region and put on the tensions between Russia and the West over the war in Ukraine.

Geopolitically, the Arctic remains important. For the United States, the key challenges are bringing the Arctic Council to the fore of international politics and balancing economic ambition and environmental sustainability.

Specifically, America needs to address its long-standing abstention from the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. If the relevant issues of sovereignty can finally be resolved, it would be a significant show of intent by the Americans in respect to not only the Arctic but maritime disputes in general. Failure to do so would see continued exasperation and disunity among the Arctic Council nations.

The United States are also behind in creating concrete policy for the Arctic. Canada used its chairmanship to create a regional oil pollution preparedness and response agreement. The American administrators may expand on this considering Alaska’s proximity to Arctic resources, hopefully sidestepping any environmental landmines along the way.

Finding a voice for the people of the Arctic in the face of development and economic growth will be another tall order if the Canadian effort is anything to go by. According to a recent poll conducted by Canada’s Gordon Foundation, a think tank, only 8 percent of Canadians in the south of the country are aware of the Arctic Council’s existence. This makes for dispiriting reading for the incoming Americans who did not score much better when pressed on the topic. In order for this to be improved, the United States must make a positive impact and bring the work of the body to prominence on the international stage.

The main sticking point is America’s relationship with its traditional geopolitical foe and Arctic neighbor, Russia.

The crisis in Ukraine has been felt far north. Several preparatory meetings for Friday’s summit in Iqaluit were delayed. Only one meeting of senior officials was suspended out of the dozens that do occur during a term. However, the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, who has otherwise attended every one of the Arctic Council’s ministerial-level meeting in the last decade, skipped the handover ceremony in Iqaluit.

Using Ukraine as a reason for not attending may show how Lavrov and the Russian government are treating the other member states of the Arctic Council at present and vice versa. Russia’s relations with Canada and the Nordic countries have frosted over the conflict. America’s opinion of Russian aggression in Ukraine has been firm but overtly passive. Ultimately, it may be in the administration’s best interest not to allow his breakdown in communications to disrupt cooperation with Russia in another part of the world.

Canada Expands Arctic Claim to Include North Pole

Fog over Iqaluit, the territorial capital of Nunavut, Canada, September 20
Fog over Iqaluit, the territorial capital of Nunavut, Canada, September 20 (Angela Scappatura)

Canada’s foreign minister John Baird made a startling claim this week: that Canada’s extended continental shelf should include the geographical North Pole.

The news came as an end of the year deadline for the country’s submission to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf loomed large over its policies toward the Arctic and its neighbors.

Canada has good reason to establish its influence in the Arctic, a region that is believed to hold as much as a quarter of the world’s remaining oil and natural gas resources. The country has always maintained a robust stance in the High North which ranks above all other priorities in its foreign policy.

Its claim is not unprecedented. Denmark claimed the Pole in a 2011 regional strategy specifically aimed at the High North while Russia made a more audacious bid by sticking a titanium clad flag at the bottom at the Arctic Ocean four years earlier.

These actions focused the world’s attention on the Arctic which has since been often wrongfully referred to the next frontier in border and resource conflicts. It can be granted that there are significant reserves of oil and gas to be extracted from under the ice and there are certainly countries competing for ownership of said resources. But what many seem to forget is that the Arctic is unlike other regions of the world where power plays and confrontation are all but inevitable. The Arctic Council, which is made up of the eight core Arctic nations plus several observers including China, is one of the most stable intergovernmental organizations in existence today.

Nonetheless, the question of treaty implementation and drilling rights for oil and gas will surely put the Arctic Council to the test. With Canada chairing the body until the United States are due to take over in 2015, and the United Nations commission expected to make a decision by the end of this decade, the region could well see mounting instability yet.

At Arctic Meeting, European Union Left Out in the Cold

Secretary of State John Kerry, flanked by Alaska senator Lisa Murkowski, attends a ministerial meeting of the Arctic Council in Kiruna, Sweden, May 15
Secretary of State John Kerry, flanked by Alaska senator Lisa Murkowski, attends a ministerial meeting of the Arctic Council in Kiruna, Sweden, May 15 (State Department)

The news from Kiruna, Sweden last week was certainly a game changer for the future of the Arctic region.

As the chairmanship of the Arctic Council forum was passed to Canada, China, India, Italy, Japan, Singapore and South Korea were formally accepted into the “cold club” as observer members. A binding oil spill prevention agreement for the Arctic was also signed, highlighting the resources that are said to be found in the area. But the postponing of the accession of the European Union and the entry of China dominated proceedings following the ministerial meetings in the northern Swedish town.

The European Union’s bid to be an observer in the body was previously rejected in 2009 due to a dispute with Canada over its trade in seal products, illegal in Europe. The same issue likely prevented the European Union from entering the Arctic forum this year.

Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, promised that the bloc would “now work expeditiously” with the Canadians “to address the outstanding issue of their concern.” Given that they hold the chairmanship until 2015, however, it is unlikely that the Europeans will make another attempt at getting observer status before then.

It may also be the case that the Arctic states simply want to keep supranational bodies out altogether. Admitting the European Union could leave the door open to other groups, from NATO to the Gulf Cooperation Council, requesting membership which would change the nature of an organization that, at present, is dedicated exclusively to Arctic issues and peoples.

The United States have also voiced their opposition to European Union involvement, even if Denmark, Finland and Sweden are full members. Other European Union member states France, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain and the United Kingdom are already observers. Why introduce the union as a whole into observership of the council?

The situation has gone beyond the European Union trying to get into the Arctic Council for economic purposes or to assist in introducing legislation concerning sustainable development and climate change prevention. It rather seems the European Union is attempting to increase its influence northward in a diplomatic flexing of its muscles. This would be an inappropriate way of intervening in Arctic issues per Canadian minister Leona Aglukkaq’s promise of “developing the North for the people of the North” during her country’s chairmanship.

Russia Considering Opening Arctic to Foreign Oil Majors

Oil exploitation in the Vankor Field in Eastern Siberia, Russia
Oil exploitation in the Vankor Field in Eastern Siberia, Russia (Rosneft)

Russia is considering allowing foreign energy companies to own oil licenses in its Arctic waters. That would be a break from its existing policy of awarding offshore exploration licenses only to domestic conglomerates such as Gazprom and Rosneft.

Russian energy minister Alexander Novak told the Financial Times that the proposal would allow foreign companies not only to operate offshore projects but “have access to production,” or directly “book” Russian reserves instead of having to go through intermediaries.

The development of oil deposits in Russia’s north, including the South Barents basin and South Kara Sea, is critical to maintaining Russian oil production at ten million barrels per day. Novak predicted that between 25 and 30 percent of Russia’s crude oil production would come from offshore products by 2030.

Keeping hydrocarbon production at current levels is an economic as well as a political imperative. Oil and gas exports support some 60 percent of the state’s budget.

The Arctic region already accounts for more than 90 percent of Russian natural gas production while 80 percent of its explored natural gas reserves are situated in the region.

However, without the financial resources and technological skills of Western oil majors, Russia may struggle to fully exploit its vast offshore oil resources in the region. A series of Arctic exploration deals has therefore already been signed between the state-owned Rosneft and ExxonMobil as well as Italy’s Eni.

Gazprom is working with Total of France and Norway’s Statoil in the Shtokman gasfield, east of Novaya Zemlya.

Climate change is expected to improve access for oil and gas drilling in the area. The Arctic could contain some 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and so much as 30 percent of the world’s untapped natural gas resources.