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 answers questions from reporters in London, England, January 22
American secretary of state John Kerry answers questions from reporters in London, England, January 22 (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. Read more

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

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. Read more

Russia Considering Opening Arctic to Foreign Oil Majors

Russian oil tankers
Russian oil tankers (Gazprom)

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. Read more