Frozen competition: the future of the Arctic

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin arrived unannounced in Longyearbyen, the world’s northernmost city and located in the Norwegian province of Svalbard in the Arctic Circle.  The problem with that is Mr. Rogozin (along with many other Russian officials and businessmen) has been sanctioned by the EU, US and Norway since 2014, when Russia decided to annex Crimea. These sanctions bar visits to these countries and forbid use of Western banks. But he did it anyway:

But Rogozin wasn’t going merely to troll the Norwegians (although he accomplished that too), rather he was on his way to visit Russia’s new North Pole Station. Rogozin heads the new Russian government commission overseeing projects in the Arctic. And they plan on spending upwards of $4 billion developing Russian energy and mineral resources between now and 2020.

Should we be panicking? Panic is a strong word, but perhaps suspicious is more appropriate.  When I did my undergrad, one of my professors made a comment about the U.S.’s geopolitical standing in the world after World War II, when we came out on top and forged the new global order: “Today there are few countries that make us dance around like a three-year-old without a bathroom on a bus. One of those countries happens to be Russia.”

The Arctic, or “High North,” is considered to be one of the last “great frontiers” for human development, particularly in the realm of mineral and energy extraction (i.e. oil and natural gas).  It is also a potential shipping route that can be a shortcut between Asian and European markets. In any case, because of global warming, a melting Arctic presents many strategic issues and implications which stem from economic opportunities.

I can try to get into explaining this map, but to be honest, it's sort of confusing. But all the red and pink shades means there's fossil fuels that are potentially extractable. But the ice has to melt first.

I can try to get into explaining this map, but to be honest, it’s sort of confusing. But all the red and pink shades means there’s fossil fuels that are potentially extractable. But the ice has to melt first.

Developing offshore oil and natural gas fields here is just one example of the multidimensional challenge the Arctic presents.  The U.S., Canada, Norway, Russia will all want a piece of the pie. And they will want to defend that piece of their pie.  Before the recent confrontation over Ukraine and Crimea grabbed headlines, the Russian government announced in September 2013 that they would be rebuilding a naval base and an airbase in the Arctic and begin patrols there.  The last time Russia had a functional military base in the Arctic was during the Cold War.  This would give Russia the ability to put air power over most of the Arctic, and possibly deny Arctic countries their right to their respective territories. In 2007, they trolled the world and planted the Russian Tricolor at the bottom of the ocean at the North Pole, officially staking their claim and making the case that Russia’s continental shelf extends well into the Arctic. Estimates vary, but the consensus is that the Arctic carries roughly 1/5 of the world’s undiscovered hydrocarbons (~90 billion barrels of oil and ~1.76 trillion cubic feet of natural gas), and you can be sure the Russians will want to access some, if not all, of it.

Depending on where you’re sailing from, shipping goods via the Arctic instead of through the Suez and Panama Canals can cut the travel time back significantly. Currently there are 3 sea routes in the Arctic.  The Northwest Passage, the Transpolar Passage, and the Northern Sea Route.  These routes are not consistently open to maritime traffic, but even seasonally they can provide economic benefits.  The Transpolar Passage is only navigable with ice-breakers or submarines, while the other two are only navigable in the summer – and inconsistently at that.  When they become economically significant in comparison to the present alternatives is anybody’s guess.

It is difficult for many Americans to grasp since Alaska is geographically separated from the rest of the U.S., but we are indeed an Arctic nation. U.S. interests in the Arctic are also partially a legacy of World War II. For the last seven decades the United States Navy has underwritten the international free trade system by enforcing freedom of navigation and safety of shipping lanes. Remember, 90% of the world’s trade travels by water. As a new body of water slowly becomes more navigable, will the U.S. take it upon itself to project power there to enforce international norms? Well, in order to project power in the Arctic we will have to get there first, and you can’t escort ships without icebreakers (Russia has more than two-dozen, and the U.S. only has one). We must also ensure that we can operate well with countries who have territorial claims to the Arctic, not just militarily, but also for a wide variety of missions such as search-and-rescue (some of which are allies like Canada, Norway and Denmark). A role for NATO in the Arctic must also be considered, as many countries in the High North are also NATO allies, and how can NATO get involved without antagonizing Russia?

Does China get a seat at the table in this Arctic conversation, even though they’re not geographically in the Arctic? After all, they have investments in Iceland and Greenland, and are pouring money into just about every country you can think of. What if they offer to help fund Arctic coastal infrastructure, ports, airfields, and sea routes? And if China is trying to vie for some influence in the Arctic, you could be sure that Japan will try to do the same. Other shipping nations like Singapore and Indonesia will probably want their voices heard too. Significant obstacles remain, but the more the ice melts, and stays melted, the more important the Arctic will become on the geopolitical chessboard. For a more in-depth analysis of the challenges a thawing Arctic presents, check out this guide/explainer from the Council on Foreign Relations.



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