After the infamous blockage of the Suez Canal by the container ship Ever Given that occurred in late March, the Northern Sea Route stretching along Russia’s northern coastline became one of the most attractive options for the delivery of goods from Asia to Europe. In this context, melting glaciers in the Arctic are making the Northern Sea Route even more and more attractive as now icebreakers are actually capable of ensuring year-round navigation along this route. This fact attracts the attention of the United States, Canada, the Nordic countries, as well as an increasing number of Asian players, turning the Northern Sea Route into the main competitor of the Suez Canal. Moreover, the alternative route can make the delivery of goods both faster and cheaper. On average, a cargo vessel can reach Rotterdam after departing from northern ports of China and passing the Suez Canal in 48 days, but the Russian LNG tanker Christophe de Margerie managed to reach South Korea after departing from Norway in just 15 days, which is three times faster.
As a matter of fact, China has a real interest in the potential capabilities of the Northern Sea Route, which was first announce back in 2009, as it perceives the route as a viable alternative to the Maritime Silk Road across the Indian Ocean. In 2013, China’s sole icebreaker Snow Dragon tested the Northern Sea Route by traveling from Murmansk to Shanghai. Now Beijing has taken the effort to develop the so-called Polar Silk Road, as it builds a fleet of ships with icebreaking capabilities, ordering ice class tankers and a brand new icebreaker that is to be built by South Korea.
To participate more actively in the development of the the Northern Sea Route, China advised Russia to create an Ocean Development Bank that would finance joint economic and scientific projects in the Arctic. Currently, China has already identified the structures that are to be engaged in the implementation of this project: the Dalian Shipping Company along with the Harbin Engineering University, with the latter receiving a massive grant that would facilitate its studies of the Arctic.
Although China does not have any territories in the Arctic, Beijing has already announced its intentions to work together with Arctic states to make the creation of a maritime economic corridor between China and Europe through the Arctic Ocean possible. By encouraging Chinese enterprises that participate in the development of the infrastructure needed for this route to become viable, China has also begun to pay special attention to matters of navigation safety in this region. Together with the Arctic states, Beijing intends to facilitate the production of oil, gas, and mineral resources in the Arctic through advancing technological innovation, while also paying attention to such spheres as fishing and tourism. The principal partner of China on this path is, of course, Russia, which is actively developing the Northern Sea Route.
However, in addition to the great potential of the Northern Sea Route, the Arctic still has a lot to offer to the humankind, as it holds unexplored and potentially inexhaustible reserves of minerals hidden beneath the melting ice. The discovered reserves of the Arctic alone, according to the UN, hold more than 100 billion tons of oil and over 50 trillion cubic meters of gas. Most of them belong to Russia, which makes Washington increasingly jealous and nervous.
Yet another crucial dimension of the Arctic breakthrough is the military component. Lately, the US has been busy carrying on its attempts to scare the rest of the world by spreading unfounded allegations about Russia, and more recently, China. CNN sources in the Pentagon would repeatedly voice their concerns that the new Russian bases and weapons can allegedly be used by Moscow not just to protect its sovereign borders, but to establish actual control over all regions of the Arctic.
On April 5, during a regular briefing, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said that the United States is paying special attention to Russia’s activity in the Arctic and announced that Washington has every intention to defend its national interests in this region. However, Kirby failed to specify what are those interests that the United States intends to defend in the Russian part of the Arctic? Meanwhile, we must not forget that it is not Russia, but the United States that deploys its military units closer and closer to the borders of the Russian Federation, in spite of the agreements that a number of US presidents reached with Gorbachev and Yeltsin on the non-expansion of NATO to the East. Everyone knows that Russia hasn’t surrounded the US with a ring of military bases, it’s the other way around, and there’s more than 40 thousand US and NATO servicemen stationed near Russia’s borders. In addition, does Moscow give Washington instructions on how it should act in any of its states? So why do some representatives of the ruling American elite in the delirium of alleged omnipotence allow themselves to make any comments about how Russia should behave in its part of the Arctic?
It goes without saying that such comments are absolutely unacceptable. However, given that five of the eight Arctic countries are members of NATO, while two more Arctic states, namely Sweden and Finland, are being dragged into the alliance, the risk of a military clashes in the region is growing. The National Interest recently noted that there is a “competition of great powers” in the Arctic, including Russia, the United States and China. However, the same publication admits that today the United States does not have an icebreaker fleet at its disposal, while Russia has a total of 53 icebreakers of different classes, with six more vessels nearing completion and twelve more being in the pipeline, with a number of them belonging to a unique super-heavy class.
Under the influence of their worst nightmares, the United States and its NATO allies have recently become actively engaged in the militarization of the Arctic. Over the past year alone, as stated by the chief of US naval operations Michael Gilday, the Pentagon has concluded two dozen exercises and operations in the Arctic and intends to launch new ones. For instance, last winter it held joint exercise of the United States and Canadian forces dubbed Arctic Edge 2020. The stated purpose of this exercise was to determine the ability of the armed forces to conduct operations in extremely cold weather conditions. Last year, a large-scale exercise dubbed Cold Response was conducted by NATO states in Norway. The purpose of the latter was yet again to practice high-intensity combat operations in harsh winter conditions, as well as to test the significant potential of amphibious forces. At the same time, NATO military exercises in the Barents Sea last spring failed due to the cold weather.
Commenting on the “concerns of the United States” about the alleged increase in Russian activities in the Arctic, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on April 9 that Moscow is concerned about the use of the Arctic to deter Russia and the desire of the North Atlantic Alliance to militarize the region.
“Speaking about potential sources of mounting tensions in the region, it would be logical to consider the United States and its allies’ military activities in the Arctic that go hand-in-hand with belligerent rhetoric. In fact, NATO and NATO member states, including non-Arctic countries, are carrying out provocations there and are doing so on an increasingly regular basis. They have carried out several such operations in the Arctic Ocean lately in close proximity to Russia. This desire to militarise the Arctic and use the region for implementing the notorious policy of containing Russia causes legitimate concerns.” she stressed.
Of course, the United States has no chance of catch up to Russia in the Arctic in the foreseeable future. But their increased escalation of tension can lead to disastrous consequences not only for the United States, but also for all of humanity.
Valery Kulikov, political expert, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.