ARCTIC AS A CONFLICT ZONE? OPTIONS FOR RUSSIA
Four major issues which can transform Arctic as a conflict zone are: first, the Russian assertion about North Pole as its sphere of influence albeit the assurance given by Moscow that it has no aggressive or expansionist designs in the Arctic region. Second, since the end of the cold war, Russia has conducted combat exercises and revitalized its Soviet era military bases along its Arctic coast thus alarming other stakeholders of the Arctic region. Third, geologists hold the view that the Arctic region has 20 percent of oil and 15 percent of global gas reserves. The scramble for natural and mineral resources in the Arctic region may trigger conflict among big powers who want to exploit the melting of the Arctic ice for establishing their foothold on the roof of the world. Finally, within the Arctic Council, which was established in 1996, there exists friction as Canada and Denmark express their resentment over Moscow’s perceived ‘expansionist’ drive in the Arctic in the backdrop of its annexation of Crimea and support rendered to nationalist Russian groups in Eastern Ukraine. Russia’s perceived expansionist drive by annexing Crimea and its territorial ambitions in Ukraine and other former Soviet republics seem to have granted some ground to feel insecure vis-à-vis Moscow covert territorial ambitions in the Arctic region.
Key Words: Arctic Council, expansionist, conflict, cooperation, global warming, win-win-situation.
Arctic region, commonly known as the North Pole is emerging as a conflict zone because of the melting of Arctic ice and the presence of huge oil and gas reserves. Furthermore, the unfreezing of the Arctic ice will provide a shortest navigation route from Europe to Asia and enable Russia which has the longest Arctic coast to play a dominant role as far as future of the Arctic region is concerned.
Since 2007 when a Russian-led polar expedition traveled through the frozen waters of the Arctic Ocean in a Mir submarine and planted a titanium Russian flag on the sea, Artur Chilingarov, one of the polar explorers proudly declared that “Arctic has always been Russian.” One can view what Arthur said as mere rhetoric but in the last few years, Moscow’s cogent role in the Arctic Sea is alarming. With the intensification of global warming emanating from climate change, the melting of Arctic ice in a fast pace is predicted thus opening opportunities for an all weather navigation and the exploitation of natural resources particularly oil and gas.
Four major issues which can transform Arctic as a conflict zone are: first, the Russian assertion about North Pole as its sphere of influence albeit the assurance given by Moscow that it has no aggressive or expansionist designs in the Arctic region. Second, since the end of the cold war, Russia has conducted combat exercises and revitalized its Soviet era military bases along its Arctic coast thus alarming other stakeholders of the Arctic region. Third, geologists hold the view that the Arctic region has 20 percent of oil and 15 percent of global gas reserves. The scramble for natural and mineral resources in the Arctic region may trigger conflict among big powers who want to exploit the melting of the Arctic ice for establishing their foothold on the roof of the world. Finally, within the Arctic Council , which was established in 1996, there exists friction as Canada and Denmark express their resentment over Moscow’s perceived ‘expansionist’ drive in the Arctic in the backdrop of its annexation of Crimea and support rendered to nationalist Russian groups in Eastern Ukraine. Russia’s perceived expansionist drive by annexing Crimea and its territorial ambitions in Ukraine and other former Soviet republics seem to have granted some ground to feel insecure vis-à-vis Moscow covert territorial ambitions in the Arctic region.
Yet amidst signs of negative conflicts, Arctic region can also be transformed as a model of cooperation because the littoral states can use the vast and enormous reservoir of mineral and marine resources for mutual benefits. The Arctic Council can play a pivotal role in forging areas of cooperation among the members for making use of the melting sea for navigation purposes. By working together, Arctic Council members can prevent militarization of the region and take steps to protect environment and ecology of the North Pole.
Since Russian northern borders are the longest along the North Pole as compared to other Arctic countries, its strategic, security, economic and political interests in that region are quite obvious. Russian foreign policy under President Vladimir Putin consider Arctic region a major challenge and an opportunity to reassert Moscow’s global role. The options for Russia to deal with the emerging conflicts in the Arctic region needs to be examined from two angles. First, to make sure that the Arctic is not dominated by the Western powers and second, Russia controls the sea lanes which will be open for navigation as a shortest route from Europe to Asia after the projected melting of Arctic ice by the year 2030. Already, there is increased navigation during summer along the Arctic coast because in the summer of 2014, 71 ships crossed the north-east passage of Arctic as compared to 46 ships in 2012 . One can also expect major stakeholders in the North Pole trying to interpret Law of the Seas Convention of 1982 in order to reassert their claims over their territorial waters and continental shelf. How their efforts will yield positive results are yet to be seen. With these facts in mind, one can expect large-scale activities in the Arctic region ranging from establishing naval, military bases, exploitation of mineral and natural resources, industrialization and urbanization in the vast coast which is still frozen most of the times of the year but its pace of melting is quite fast. Then, there are also non-Arctic countries like Japan, China, Germany and France having their strategic, economic and commercial interests growing because of the melting of the Arctic ice. To what extent, the littoral states of the Arctic Sea will view the ambitions of non-Arctic countries is yet to be determined.
This paper will examine the emerging conflicts in Arctic and options for Russia by raising and responding to following questions:
The Arctic Landscape and Global Warming
The North Pole commonly described as the Arctic region like Antarctica is an almost frozen piece of land but is fast melting because of global warming and environmental degradation. Located in the North Pole, “the Arctic Ocean proper is divided into two deep basins, the Canadian and the Eurasian, separated by the submerged Lomonsov Ridge, which runs from the Laptiev Sea to Ellesmere Island crossing the North Pole. The Eurasian Basin reaches a depth of 4,200 meters and is further divided by the Gakkel Ridge into the Greenland, the Svalbard archipelago and Russia’s Taimyr Peninsula. The Canadian Basin reaches depth of 3,500 meters and is also divided into sub-basins by the Alpha Ride.” Since centuries, Arctic is not navigable but geographical explorers in the last 500 years managed to reach the far north of the Arctic Ocean and found Eskimos living in that frozen region of the world.
Therefore, “for centuries, North Pole remained inaccessible but with the modernization, science and technology Arctic was colonized. Hence, “the Arctic has seen significant economic activity since the end of the nineteenth century, and played an important military-strategic role in the global wars of the twentieth century. In the second half of twentieth century, there was rapid growth in economic activity and population size. Over the same time period the Arctic climate was warming at a rate significantly faster than that of the rest of the globe. From the middle of twentieth century, summer sea ice extent fell by nearly 8% per decade, with comparable declines in ice volume and thickness. Yet economic and demographic developments have been driven more by political than environmental considerations and the High North remains sparsely populated rarely visited and barely governed.” While human beings played with the nature by excessive industrialization, urbanization and modernization of means communication and transportation, lust for resources and power resulted into deforestation and the melting of glaciers. One wonders where the waters of the melting of Arctic and Antarctic regions will go. Certainly, the future of numerous islands on the Pacific and Indian Oceans are at stake and the rise in sea levels will not only eliminate such islands but will also threaten many coastal towns and cities. The outbreak of wars and the use of lethal weapons also caused irreparable damage done to environment. Furthermore, the burning of forests as a result of wars also seriously pose a damage to global environment and the future of the earth. When the Iraqi forces were defeated during the Gulf war over Kuwait in the spring of 1991, while retreating back to Iraq they burned several hundred oil fields causing a lethal damage to the environment. Likewise, hundreds of nuclear tests conducted since 1945 till 1990s also caused enormous damage to global environment. Burning of jungles during wars also led to environmental degradation along with deforestation as a result of fall in the quantum of rain and snow.
Global warming and hole in the ozone layer alarmed not only scientists but also those who termed earth as highly vulnerable to periodic earthquakes, cyclones and floods. Arctic, as the roof of the world, poses a fundamental challenge of 20th century. Therefore, “with global warming rapidly melting Arctic sea ice and glaciers making valuable stores of energy and minerals more accessible, voices of doom are warning of inevitable competition and potential conflict, a new “Great Game” among the five Arctic coastal nations.” It means, with the melting of Arctic ice, the region, which for centuries remained out of human competition is now exposed to serious conflicts thus jeopardizing the use of enormous mineral, mineral, natural and marine resources.
According to Kenneth Chang “The decline of ice will continue to affect life in the Arctic. It will open up shipping lanes and the possibility of oil drilling. The extent of Arctic Sea ice, which retreats in summers, didn’t hit a record low in 2014. But it was the six lowest since satellite measurements begin in 1979 and the scientists noted that the eight smallest extents have occurred in the last eight years.” Greenpeace and other environmental organizations are seriously concerned over the new phase of lust and greed of countries trying to exploit the resources of Arctic region at the expense of adhering to environmental standards. Furthermore, “the melting of the summer sea ice has also opened up trade routes between Arctic and Europe via the top of the world. 71 cargo ships plied the north-east passage last summer up from 45 in 2012.” To what extent, the predictable melting of North Pole will open opportunities for cooperation and areas of conflict will be determined on the basis of how the littoral states deal with such issues in the days to come and how the international and regional environmental organizations respond to such issues.
Dynamics of Conflict and Cooperation in the Arctic Region
The melting of the North Pole is a process which will take years but the indications are that if there is lack of consensus among the members of the Arctic Council, in that case, they will not be able to cope with geographical, political, security and economic implications of the melting of the North Pole. While global warming emanating from decades of environmental pollution tends to play havoc with the lives of millions of people in different parts of the world, the melting of glaciers and rise in the sea levels can have catastrophic implications. As rightly said by the experts on the Arctic region that, “the Arctic is certainly changing and is doing so rapidly. There is not a prior reason to assume that this change will lead to conflict and confrontation, nor is there any reason to be complacent.” But, the geographical, environmental and ecological transformation of the Arctic region must not unleash new threats and insecurities because of two main reasons. First, the indigenous people living in the North Pole will be a victim of big power scramble and second, a life time opportunity to make the best use of the resources of the Arctic will be lost for a long period of time. Hence, before it is too late, there is still time for the members of the Arctic Council to take steps for cooperative, instead of conflicting policies so that the fate of a region which has so far escaped from armed conflicts is saved.
While the gradual melting of Arctic will open opportunities for shorter sea routes from Europe to Asia bypassing the Suez Canal and the Indian Ocean, it will also expose the North Pole to the opening of a new ‘great game.’ Yet, one can expect the members of the Arctic Council and other potential players in the Arctic region to think in terms of cooperation rather than plunging the region into a perpetual state of conflict, chaos and disorder. Christian Le Miere and Jeffrey Mazo in a book, Arctic Opening Insecurity and Opportunity examine the changing dynamics of Arctic by arguing that,
The changing Arctic should be viewed as a sphere of potential cooperation rather than one of competition. There are potential economic benefits from international exploitation of the Arctic, although the riches are not as great as often claimed. However, the region currently lacks the security architecture that would facilitate this cooperative dynamic. The military increases in the region that are currently occurring can largely be explained as Russia simply rejuvenating the decrepit Northern Fleet and Arctic littoral countries attempting to prevent the creation of a large ungoverned space.
The Arctic Council provides a hope for the peaceful use of the resources of North Pole. Certainly, the Arctic Council “can be a forum for cooperation and momentum toward a responsible approach to the region’s issues. In fact, Arctic states of North America, Europe and Russia, working with indigenous peoples and number of non-Arctic states, already have taken steps to ensure just the opposite: that the Arctic remains a zone of cooperation, peace and stable sustainable development.” In order to examine issues encompassing the Arctic region, in February 2013, 40 leading Arctic scholars, government officials, including leaders and representatives of indigenous people met in Washington DC under the auspices of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Dartmouth College, the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the University of Arctic to examine issues facing the region viz. Arctic energy, health, commercial shipping, security and governance and to make recommendations for action for the Arctic Council. Institutional arrangements to cope with present and future challenges in the Arctic region will be highly useful provided the major stakeholders are positive in their approach and take plausible steps for fostering cooperation instead of promoting conflicts. Think tanks, research centers and institutes working on the Arctic region must share their research so as to have a purposeful and meaningful impact on the policies of those powers who are also the major stakeholders in that region. The melting of the Arctic ice has no doubt opened new areas of research so as to explore new opportunities for cooperation and examine issues which can be a source of negative conflicts.
A major issue which is a source of friction in the Arctic region is territorial claims made by some of the members of the Arctic Council. For instance, on December 15, Denmark stated that “under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) some 900,000 square kilometers of the Arctic Ocean north of Greenland belongs to it. Claims under UNCLOS have to be made within ten years of ratification and the Convention became law in Denmark on December 16, 2004. But its claim conflict with those of Russian, which has filed its own case under the UNCLOS. Canada plans to assert sovereignty over part of the polar continental shelf.” Denmark’s claim will test whether Russia is willing to stick to the rules of the Arctic. It is based on a provision of the law of the sea which says countries may control an area of seabed if they can show it as an extension of their continental shelf. Nevertheless, “the Arctic coastal states are pursing claims for territorial shelf extension beyond 200 miles for exclusive access to additional oil and gas reserves, but they have agreed their differences will be settled under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and through diplomatic channel.” As remarked by Jochen Bittner, “East vs. West in the Arctic Circle” that “the area around the pole is not yet divided up among its adjacent states. Its waters and potentially rich natural resources are claimed by Russia, as well as by three NATO members: America, Denmark (via Greenland) and Canada. Many of these claims overlap.” So long, territorial claims of some of the members of the Arctic Council are peaceful, one can expect plausible solutions but if non-peaceful methods are used to enforce their claims, the outcome may be disastrous for the entire Arctic region.
Therefore it is not wrong to argue that, “the risk of conflict over the ownership of contested territories is likely to grow. Five of the Arctic states have asserted exclusive drilling rights to boundary areas also claimed by one of the others and control over the polar region itself remains contentious.” The U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel warned that “in an area with the potential for tapping what may be as much as quarter of the planet’s undiscovered oil and gas a flood of interest in energy exploitation has the potential to heighten tensions over other issues.” “With the demand for oil at an all-time high and existing fields incapable of satisfying global needs the major energy firms are bound to pursue every conceivable source of supply. It is essential then, that tough constrained be placed on Arctic drilling operations and that steps be taken to reduce tensions in the area.” Although, presently, oil prices have slumped and there is more supply than demand, but one can expect rise in the prices of oil and its demand if world economy grows at a faster pace. Therefore, “most of the Arctic states have also asserted their right to defend their offshore territories hence their ability to fight in these areas. Russia, for example, recently announced plans to establish what it calls a cutting edge military infrastructure in the Arctic.” Again, it is better if the forum of Arctic Council is used by Canada, Denmark and Russia having territorial claims over the North Pole instead of approaching UNCLOS of legal complications which may impede a peaceful resolution of contentious issues.
Russia and the Scramble for the Arctic
Russia’s age old dream and ambition to get a wide access to warm waters may be accomplished if the Arctic sea melts in coming years. Furthermore, with the melting of the Arctic sea, Russia will also benefit from vast quantity of oil and gas reserves along with marine resources and its Arctic ports will earn enormous amount of money as a fee for navigation from foreign ships traveling to North and East Asia. With around 50% of the Arctic coast controlled by Russia, Moscow is certainly emerging as a major player in the perceived new ‘great game.’ Russia’s policy towards Arctic was vividly examined by Ekatherina Klimenko in the following words:
Russian policy shifted noticeably in 2008. While Russia did not abandon its plans of military modernization in the Arctic, it did change the narrative of its policy to focus on building cooperation. Although the 2008 Foundations of the Arctic Policy document was created under the Security Council and underlines the importance of restoring Russia’s military power, it also provides a balanced view of the Arctic region by defining the area as a zone of cooperation.
Furthermore, according to the same author, “during the latter part of the 2000s and early 2010s Russia was actively searching for new partners to develop energy projects in the Arctic. Gazprom negotiated with a number of foreign companies on the possibility of jointly developing the vast resources in the Arctic seas.” About the 2008 policy document of Russia concerning its Arctic policy, Elina Wilson in her article, “Russia’s Northern Policy: Balancing an Open and Closed North” argues that, “the 2008 policy document on Foundations of Russian Federation State Policy in the Arctic through 2020 and Beyond, marked the re-emergence of North as separate policy field. The policy itself is wide ranging and similar to many ways to the northern policy documents of the Arctic states. It emphasizes soft issues, such an environment and human security and highlights common interests such as coastal Arctic states. The document also underlines the importance of the Arctic resource base (onshore and offshore) and of Arctic shipping routes for Russia’s future economic development.” Under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, the Russian military and security establishment feels confident to transform its age-old vision of gaining supremacy on its northern waters into a reality. But, Russia’s re-renewed tension with the West on the issue of Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea caused a deep sense of concern and insecurity among the members of Arctic Council about Moscow’s perceived expansionist designs. Sanctions imposed on Russia by the West on its intervention in Ukraine and depleting oil prices however tend to put a question mark about the capacity of Russia to play an assertive role in the Arctic region.
In September 2015, Russia made a formal claim to a vast stretch of Arctic territory before the UN committee dealing with overseas sea boundaries. Russia’s bid was a re-submission of an earlier claim which was rejected by the UN in 2002 for insufficient evidence that the continental shelf abutting its landmass extends far into the Arctic Ocean and therefore allows it to claim an exclusive economic zone over the part of the ocean. In early 2015, Russia conducted large military exercises there (Arctic Sea), and many Soviet era bases have been reactivated under the newly formed Arctic Joint Strategic Command. It is rightly argued that, “as the largest Arctic state, Russia has the potential to use the region for diplomatic gain and influence alongside and because of the obvious economic benefits. Competition for influence clearly exists in the form of the U.S. and Canada but these countries either lack an extensive Arctic presence (the former) or the willingness to open up trade routes to develop economic leverage. The Nordic countries are dwarfed by Russian struggle to compete for international or even regional influence. Russia by contrast can use the Arctic both to increase its influence on global shipping lanes and to encourage closer ties with the Nordic countries, thereby greatly fracturing the European/NATO alliance in the North.” According to Michael T. Klare,
The Russians have explored drilling options in several offshore areas of the Arctic. In the Pechora Sea, above north western Siberia, the Russian energy giant Gazporon has installed its Pfiraziownaya platform, the one protesting Greenpeace activists attempted to board. Further east, in the Kara Sea the state owned Rosneft is collaborating with Exxon Mobil to develop several promising deposits; Rosnef has also teamed up with Statoil of Norway and Eni of Italy to investigate prospects in the Barents Sea. But Russia is hardly alone in seeking to exploit the Arctic. Norway also derives considerable income from gas and oil exports and is under pressure to develop reserves in the Barents Sea to compensate for the decline of its existing fields in the North and Norwegian Seas.
The same author further substantiate his argument about Russia’s quest to exploit oil and gas reserves in the Arctic region by stating that, “Russia which recently seized a Greenpeace ship and is prosecuting 30 of the group’s activists for attempting to scale an oil platform, the temptation to exploit the Arctic Ocean is specially powerful. Russia’s economy is heavily dependent on exports of oil and gas, and the government relies on these sales for much of its income. Until recently, the Russians could draw on reservoirs in Western Siberia but now, they are counting on Arctic supplies to maintain current production levels. Dmitri Medysdev, the then Russian President claimed in 2008 that, “our first and main task is to turn the Arctic in the Russia’s resource base of 21st century.” Russia has access to four other seas and oceans through the extensive coastlines: the Baltic, Caspian and Black Seas and the Bering Sea/Sea of Okhotskf/Pacific Ocean only the letter of which allows Russia access to the open ocean without having to pass through other countries territorial waters.” Furthermore, Russian activity in the Arctic has also increased. In August 2007, Moscow renewed long-range aviation patrols to the Atlantic and the Pacific, and over the Arctic oceans.” What matters in the prevailing scramble for the Arctic is the image of Russia as an expansionist state particularly after the annexation of Crimea and support to Russian nationalist forces in Ukraine. Will Russia present a benign instead of an aggressive/expansionist power as far as the Arctic region is concerned?
Certainly, the perception about Russian ambition to control the Arctic may be different from the reality because of two main reasons: first, the regime of Vladimir Putin, although considered tough is certainly not pursuing the Soviet approach of outright aggression in a region which is also shared by other powerful countries. Second, Moscow has never out rightly claimed the Arctic region, but has made it clear that it will not surrender its territorial limits. The reopening of Soviet era naval bases along Russia’s Arctic coast doesn’t mean that Russia want to embark on a militaristic policy. In its essence, perception about Russian designs in the Arctic are different from the reality.
Arctic as a Model of Cooperation?
It will be a gross exaggeration to subscribe to the notion that the North Pole will be another conflict zone in the years to come. While, in view of disagreement between Russia on the one hand and other members of the Arctic Council namely Canada and Denmark on the other hand, the Arctic region may experience a low intensity conflict, one needs to be optimistic about making sure that the resources of Arctic are used as an opportunity for cooperation.
It is rightly suggested by Michael T. Klare that, “one way to impose formal restrains would be to devise and adopt an Arctic Treaty modeled on the Antarctic Treaty of 1958. It could also impose environmental protection and provide for the safe passage of civilian vessels through Arctic waters.” Members of Arctic Council must share the responsibility of making the best use of the resources of the region so as to protect the natural environment and facilitating proper navigation of ships once the sea melts is the Arctic Sea is used for the shortest trade and transport route from Europe to Asia.
Four options may be considered by the stakeholders of the Arctic region for ensuring peace and stability. First, Russia must dispel notions prevailing among some members of the Arctic Council that it has aggressive and expansionist designs in the region. While one can understand Moscow’s position on the Arctic in view of historical policy of certain Western powers and Japan to contain Russia and prevent its access to open Sea, it is time that the Russian leadership under President Vladimir Putin must move forward instead of getting bogged down in the past. Second, the Western members of the Arctic Council, who also happen to be the members of NATO, must not create the impression that Russia is being isolated, encircles by hostile states or excluded. A policy made on mutual accommodation and prudence will go a long way in ensuring peace and stability in the Arctic region and ensures win-win situation for all the stakeholders in the Arctic region.
Third, in view of enormous natural resources in the Arctic and the possible friction in the region, the Arctic Council needs to adopt Trust and Confidence-Building Measures so that the major stakeholders of the Arctic region are able to work together instead of pursuing an approach marred with mistrust, ill-will and suspicion against each other. When Arctic Sea will be open for navigation, instead of monopolizing sea routes, the littoral states must follow International Law and ensure free navigation to the users of the waters of Arctic Sea. Practical application of Trust and Confidence Building Measures modeled on Helsinki Final accords of August 31, 1975 will go a long way in ensuring Arctic as a Zone of Peace and tranquility. Finally, the members of Arctic Council must work together to protect indigenous people and environment of the region. Since global warming has unleashed the process of the melting of the Arctic Sea, it is essential that heavy industrialization and urbanization should be prevented and ecology free policies be adopted in order to protect marine resources and air. Lust for money and grabbing resources at the expense of local people must be avoided.
Knowing that Russia is a major player in the Arctic region, no headway for purposeful and meaningful cooperation in North Pole can take place without the involvement of Moscow. But Russia must also understand that the win-win situation in the Arctic region is only possible when the members of Arctic Council reject any move which aims at domination, expansion and militarization of the region. Arctic council needs to be made more effective before more contentious issues emerge involving Russia on the one side and other members of the Council on the other.
Elina Wilson Rowe, “Russia’s Northern Policy: Balancing an ‘Open’ and ‘Closed’ North,” Russian Analytical Digest No. 96, 12 May, 2011, p. 2. www.laender-analysen.de/russland/red/pdf/Russian_Analytical _Digest_96.pdf accessed on May 21, 2016.