It’s curious that some people do not fully grasp the fact that the Arctic is so much more than a barren frozen desert or the proverbial homeland of Santa Claus. According to American geological experts, under its impending vastness the Arctic region hides up to 30% of world’s undiscovered gas reserves along with 13% of undiscovered oil reserves. Further still, there’s all sorts of treasures to be found underneath the permafrost: gold, zinc, nickel, platinum and all sorts of other minerals the total worth of which is estimated to reach trillions of dollars. In the future, the number of states willing to stake a claim in the Arctic is going to increase steadily, as resources of the continental America and Eurasia will eventually get depleted.
Additionally, we must not forget that over the past three decades global warming has led to the melting of icebergs across the Arctic, as this region heats up twice as fast in comparison to the rest of the world. This, in turn, opens up new opportunities for the establishment of the northern transport route through the Arctic that used to be icebound in the past. This will transform the Northern Sea Route through Russia’s territorial waters into a viable alternative to the Suez Canal and reduce the total travel time between Europe and Asia by approximately 20 days.
As of now, there’s eight major contenders for the Arctic, as all of those have territories north of the Arctic Circle. Those are Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States.
It goes without saying that they have a lot to gain from establishing control over the territories that are twice the size of the US and Canada combined. So is there any wonder that while the rest of the world sees global warming as an encroaching disaster, those eight nations stand to benefit from it, as there’s countless potentially lucrative deals in untapped natural resources.
At this day and age this region of the world provides unlimited potential for ensuring steady economic development to any state engaged in developing it. This has become particularly true for Russia, as the Arctic has become the foundation stone of its energy independence, as the Arctic hydrocarbon production amounted to 17% of Russia’s oil output and up to 90% of its natural gas output back in 2017. And it’s safe to say that the importance of this region for Moscow will only increase.
For many years, the Northern Sea Route was impassable for conventional ships that would often find their demise in the tight grip of deadly icebergs. However, as Russia carries on developing a fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers along with fueling hubs for tankers, including those of the Arctic LNG class, the things are about to be changed. Russia’s economists predict an increase in freight traffic along the Northern Sea Route from 10.7 million tons shipped in 2017 up to 80 million tons to be shipped along this route in 2024.
It was reported last September that a Danish-flagged cargo ship successfully passed through the Russian Arctic in a trial voyage showing that melting sea ice could potentially open a new trade route from Europe to east Asia. Its example was followed by BSAH Rhone that has also passed along the Northern Sea Route in two and a half weeks time, following in the wake of a Russian icebreaker.
The Northern Sea Route passes through Russia’s territorial waters, giving it the authority to set the rules. Just recently, Russia has changed the requirements for foreign warships navigating through its Arctic regions, as they are now compelled to give prior notification to the Russian Defense Ministry.
With the largest number of icebreakers and 300 billion dollars in 73 projects either completed, in motion or proposed, Russia is the clear leader in Arctic infrastructure development.
In spite of its willingness to cooperate peacefully with foreign players in the joint peaceful exploration of the Arctic, Moscow has nonetheless stated in its recent naval doctrine that the Arctic is a region of rapidly increasing rivalry, hence Russia’s national interests in this region are to be well defended. And it’s hardly surprising, since when a country invests time and resources in one of its regions it will naturally want to ensure its strong military presence in this region. That is why Russia has been expanding its bases across Arctic islands, thereby increasing its combat capability. These steps are also associated with the growing importance of the Northern Sea Route, as the Russian armed forces are to be in charge of all search and rescue operations along the sea route. The agreement signed by the Arctic Council, an international body created for the ease of cooperation between the Arctic states, speaks in favor of Russia’s strategy. This document puts responsibility to conduct search and rescue operations on each of the signatories in certain regions of the Arctic, and here Russia bears most of the load on its shoulders.
Unsurprisingly, China is to become Russia’s most important partner in the Arctic. The two major shareholders of Yamal LNG are China’s state-owned CNPC and the Chinese Silk Road Fund, as Beijing has been importing a lot of gas from this plant. China also imports Norwegian LNG, but its interest in the Northern Sea Route is explained not only by the need for resources, but also by the desire to secure access to the alternative sea route. China’s trade turnover with the European Union reached approximately 572 billion euros in 2017, of which about 60% is being shipped by sea freight. By 2025, the total volume of bilateral trade is to exceed 650 billion euros, which means that the importance of the Northern Sea Route will only keep increasing.
As it’s been pointed out by Counter Punch, last January China released its Arctic strategy where it pointed that it was going to work more closely with Moscow in particular to create an Arctic maritime counterpart to its OBOR project — a ‘Polar Silk Road’. Both the Kremlin and Beijing have repeatedly stated that their ambitions are primarily commercial and environmental, not military. It couldn’t be plainer that Russia and China want the Arctic to be a profitable mercantile trade route, while continuing exploration for oil, gas and mineral deposits.
However, in spite of the overall willingness of these two rising global powers to cooperate peacefully with other states, Russia, China and the US could well find themselves embroiled in another Cold War over the Arctic. These three superpowers have started a race to gain influence and control in this frozen region of the world, as some 35 trillion dollars worth of untapped oil and natural gas, valuable minerals, including gold, silver, diamond, copper, titanium, graphite, uranium and invaluable rare earth elements are at stake, that could soon be within reach as the ice recedes.
Therefore, in the recent years a number of states tried to initiate a dispute over the possession of the Arctic, while none of them have legal grounds to assert territorial claims in this region of the world. Predictably, NATO has been providing bellicose rhetorics to support those opportunist international players. In particular, Prior to the 2018 NATO summit, Chatham House research fellow, Mathieu Boulegue urged the organization to develop a stronger military presence in the Arctic.
Of course, whenever there’s some dubious affairs for one to get himself engaged in, the UK is always leading the charge in a desperate bid to show Washington that it could still be of value to American elites. For instance, last June the Sun carried the headline of “Britain will send RAF Typhoon fighter jets to Iceland in bid to tackle Russian aggression.”
Then, Britain’s defence minister, Gavin Williamson would insist there must be a military build-up by the UK in the Arctic, while describing the region as London’s “own back yard.” He was backed immediately by the defence committee of the UK parliament that would state that “NATO’s renewed focus on the North Atlantic is welcome and the government should be congratulated on the leadership the UK has shown on this issue.” (sic!)
It curious that Gavin Williamson has never specified what “interests” the United Kingdom could have been protecting in the Arctic region, where it has no territory. And that’s hardly surprising in the light of the brilliant intellectual prowess the UK defense ministry demonstrated to the world last November, when it described Russia as a much greater threat to the kingdom than international terrorism!
Under international law, which is governed by the United Nations, each country can claim up to 200 nautical miles off its coast — what’s known as an “exclusive economic zone.” So far, Norway and Iceland are the only two countries that have submitted claims that have been approved by the United Nations. But it’s when countries’ claims overlap that the problems arise. Russia, Denmark and Canada have submitted overlapping claims that are still waiting for approval.
As Arctic’s melting permafrost unearths new treasure for international players to dig into, the desirability of this region will carry on increasing in the eyes of major international players. Which means that we have troubled waters ahead of us.
Grete Mautner is an independent researcher and journalist from Germany, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”