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The Arctic is a zone of peace, not the scene of future military operations

Speaking at the International Arctic forum at the end of last year, the President of Iceland Olafur Ragnar Grimsson noted that arising interest to the region from the world powers is solely an achievement of Russia.

Despite his continued attempts to draw attention to environmental problems of the North, first real progress was made only in 2008 when Russia presented its Arctic strategy.
Its principal provisions have not changed in the last two years, noted the Prime Minister of the Russian Federation V.Putin. The Prime Minister is sure that resolution of conflicts and contradictions in the region will be conducted solely on the basis of international law and negotiations. The Arctic is "a zone of peace and cooperation ", and it should remain like that in the future.

According to V.Putin the priority problems of Russia in the region are to preserve traditions and the way of life of the small peoples of the North, to help them to create comfortable living conditions, and to create new spheres of economic growth, to attract Russian and foreign investments. But ecology still remains the main task: the Prime Minister urged in literal sense "to collect all garbage”, gathered in the North in the course of its exploration.
According to western mass-media, V.Putin's speech is a manifestation of "the Kremlin’s readiness to show itself as a dominating northern power". German mass-media noted that the Arctic is of vital importance for Russia, because being located between Europe with its technological superiority and China with its economical superiority, the Arctic becomes the last opportunity of the country to carry out modernization and to preserve its resources of raw materials.

The Historical Perspective Fund has recently published some materials with objective estimation of the resources of the Arctic area, as well as the current situation with the Arctic. We publish them with some abridgements.

The State Duma has just developed a draft law “On the Northern Sea Route” confirming the status of Sevmorput (the Northern Sea Route) as a historically developed national transport communication line in the Arctic zone where the forces of the main Northern fleet of the Russian Federation are based and major defensive industry enterprises of Russia are located. And meanwhile the Arctic with its hard-to-get, but unlimited wealth and buffer position between major world centers, becomes the testing area of territorial, resource and strategic games. The sea border lines drawn there are more and more persistently challenged. The USA, Canada and the Scandinavian countries are planning to "internationalize" the Northern Sea Route and to create a transarctic consortium for its international management...

What is the Arctic?

According to the generally accepted geographical definition the Arctic is a region located to the north of the Arctic Circle (66о33 " northern latitude) the area of which is about 21 million sq. km [1]. The Arctic includes territories, continental shelves and exclusive economic zones of eight Arctic states - Russia, Canada, the USA (Alaska), Norway, Denmark (Greenland and Faeroe Islands), Finland, Sweden and Iceland. Russia has the longest borders in the Arctic.

Russia throughout all its history (from Novgorod democracy and the Arctic campaigns of the coat-dwellers to the pioneers of the North Pole) has always reached out to the North. The result of this centuries-old activity was the development of the circumpolar zone for almost a half (44 %) the arch of the Polar Circle, which is approximately twice more than was explored by Canada. 85 % of the Russian shelf is in the Arctic region.

What is the Arctic region rich in?

According to the US Geological service, potential oil reserves in this region are about 90 billion barrels, gas reserves– 47.3 billion cubic meters, gas condensate reserves - 44 billion barrels. According to estimates Russia has the greatest reserves of hydrocarbons among the Arctic countries. The regions it already owns and claims have more than 250 million barrels of oil and gas, which in oil equivalent is 60.1 % of all Arctic reserves. The Arctic shelf adjoining the territory of Russia may in XXI century become the major source of raw hydrocarbons both for Russia and for the world market. 6 million out of 6.2 million sq. km of Russian continental shelf* are interesting for oil and gas exploration, i.e. almost its whole area, and 4 million sq. km of them are most promising sites.
The Arctic zone contains most of Russian reserves of gold (40 %), chrome and manganese (90 %), platinum metals (47 %), bedrock diamonds (100 %), vermiculite (100 %), coal, nickel, antimony, cobalt, tin, tungsten, mercury, apatite (50 %), and phlogopite (60-90 %). General commercial predictable resources of coals there are estimated at least as 780 billion tons, 599 billion tons of them are power generating coals and more than 81 billion tons are coked ones. About 100 % of diamonds, antimony, apatite, phlogopite, vermiculite, rare and rare-earth metals, 98 % of platinoids, 95 % of gas, 90 % of nickel and cobalt, 60 % of copper and oil are mined there.

The total cost of mineral raw materials in underground resources of the Arctic region of Russia, according to estimates, exceeds USD 30 bln and energy carriers account for about two third of that sum. The total cost of the explored reserves is USD 1.5-2 bln. That means a low degree of reserves exploration and development, and does not allow full realization of the potential of the macroregion.

The Arctic marine environment is a habitat of a number of unique animal species, the most rare of which is the polar bear, the narwhal, the walrus and the white whale. More than 150 types of fishes live in the Arctic and subarctic waters, including the cod and the American flounder, very important for the fishing industry. Fishery complex of the Arctic zone accounts for 15 % of the total catch of marine bioresources and fish production in the Russian Federation.

Global warming and the Arctic region

Recent studies have shown that the area of glaciers is continuously shrinking because of global warming. According to the experts from the Meteorological Department of Great Britain, beginning from the fifties of the previous century and until now the ice cover area of the Arctic Ocean has decreased by 20 %, and average ice thickness in winter has decreased by 40 % since 1970. In their opinion, the "ice cap" on the North Pole may absolutely disappear in 80 years. According to the data obtained by American researchers, every 10 years glaciers area decreases by 8 %. If this tendency remains, there might be no ice at all in the Arctic region by summer 2060.

One of the consequences of the climate change in the Western Arctic is an increase of the number of icebergs which are almost absent in the Barents sea nowadays. That means that it will be necessary to create a special system of iceberg tracking when we start development of hydrocarbon deposits on the Russian Arctic shelf.
Possible increase of average air temperature by 3-4оC by 2050 will lead to 12-15 % reduction of the permafrost area. The southern border of Russia will shift by 150-200 km to the northeast. The depth summer frost retreat will grow by 20-30 %. It may cause numerous deformations of buildings and structures: oil and gas pipelines, hydroelectric power stations, cities and settlements, automobile roads and railways, airfields and ports. It will generally affect durability of buildings, and by 2015 they will have to be repaired twice sooner, than today. According to estimates, more than a quarter of residential five-storey buildings built in the 50-70s in Yakutsk, Vorkuta and Tiksi, may become unserviceable in the nearest 10-20 years. Later, for example, in Vorkuta, their share will grow up to 80 %.

Research shows that the Arctic may have a profound effect on climate warming. Siberian peat bogs that were formed about 11 thousand years ago, after the end of Ice age, are bleeding methane which is preserved by permafrost or deposited in it as methane hydrates (in solid ice-like form), and will get into the atmosphere during thawing. Joint research carries out by Tomsk and Oxford universities showed that methane emission has accelerated in the last few years. Of course, complete release of the bound methane may take hundreds of years, but hotbed effect caused by methane is 21 times greater, than the effect caused by carbon dioxide. Thus, methane from Siberian bogs will have the same effect on warming, as 10-25 % of the total amount of carbon dioxide emitted in the atmosphere today by the world power industry.

The positive aspect of global warming will be opening of new sea transport routes, expansion of fishery areas, easier access to ocean oil and gas deposits, improved conditions for agriculture in some regions. All that means that climate change will considerably increase strategic and economic importance of the Arctic region.

Problems of the Arctic borders

So far the external borders of the Arctic zone of the Russian Federation are not clearly defined, because the sea borders earlier existing in the region are no longer recognized by many states and international organizations. In 20s of the previous century five countries - the USSR, Norway, Denmark, the USA and Canada - divided the Arctic region into separate sectors with a tacit consent of the others. Each of the five "transpolar" countries having a claim on the ocean waters simply continued its borders along the meridians to the North Pole. It is natural that Russia thus got about a third of the whole Arctic shelf area. But in recent years many countries began to see such decision as unfair, particularly in the context of predicted polar seas freeing from ice, opportunity to expand international navigation and to start hydrocarbons extraction in the Arctic Ocean.

The UN Convention on marine law signed in 1982 became the grounds to start conversations on redivision of the Arctic Ocean. According to article 76 of the document, the rights of the five above-mentioned states the territories of which are partially located inside the Polar circle, apply only to their economic zones (200 nautical miles from the coast, or about 370 km). Only within that area these states are allowed to explore and develop mineral reserves. According to the Convention none of the countries owns the North Pole and the seas around it. Special UN commission on shelf (International Seabed Authority) deals with issues related to the Polar Regions. The UN Convention on marine law also declared seas and oceans subsoil outside the 200-mile zone as general heritage of the mankind, so any state has the right to apply for development of a part of the Arctic shelf.
Leading world powers - Japan, Germany, the USA – are getting ready for redivision prepare of the Arctic area, 1.2 million sq. km of which belong to Russia. Only in 1998 the USA, Norway and Germany organized 10 marine scientific expeditions in the area. Norway even secretly drilled the sea-bottom. China opened a research station on Spitsbergen and twice sent its ice breaker Snow Dragon to the northern seas. India also wants to take part in the development of the Barents sea deposits. US nuclear submarines have been studying the Arctic sea-bottom for several years.

Claims for participation in ocean bottom exploration are from time to time also made by other northern countries: Iceland, because the northern extremity of its island Grimsi is on border of the Polar circle; Sweden, because many geographical discoveries in the Arctic region were made by the Vikings (!), and Finland.

The UN convention on marine law provides that a country ratifying that document may apply for additional parts of the shelf 10 years after its ratification. Norway ratified the Convention in 1996, Russia – in 1997, Canada – in 2003, Denmark – in 2004. All those countries are developing projects to expand their economic zones in the Arctic region.
However there are some pitfalls in this seemingly simple scheme. For example, if the continental shelf belonging to any country is stretched over the 200-mile zone, the country has a priority right for underwater minerals exploration and mining. As a matter of fact, such applicant state may get this right officially only 10 years after its application to the respective UN commission. The Arctic countries decided to take advantage of the situation.
It is commonly known that there is underwater mountain ridge - Lomonosov ridge stretching from Canada to Russia through the North Pole. In fact, it is a transarctic bridge 1.8 thousand km long and 200 km wide. If it is proved that the ridge is an extension of the continental shelf of Russia, its economic zone may be extended, but not further than 350 miles from the border of its territorial waters. In 2001 Russia submitted its claim to the UN Commission to expand its exclusive economic zone by 1.2 million sq. km. The UN commission, in its turn, asked to produce additional evidence showing that Lomonosov ridge belongs to the Russian continental shelf.

Experts from other countries are trying to prove that the ridge is separated from the continent by a powerful Northern break and so it is not an extension of the Siberian continental platform and that Russia cannot have a claim for it.
In May, 2008, in Greenland there was an international conference devoted to establishment of new division principles of the Arctic with the participation of the US, Russian, Norwegian, Danish and Canadian representatives. Even though such principles were not defined at that meeting, participants declared that they intend to divide considerable polar areas among themselves.

Disputable areas on sea borders appeared immediately after adoption of the Marine Law Convention. The struggle for natural resources of the Arctic region has just begun.

The Northern Sea Route

The Northern Sea Route opened in the mid-thirties of the last century became a result of centuries-old development of the northern outskirts of Russia. Nowadays this route is an international transport corridor and the only inter-regional way to deliver goods to the Arctic areas of the Russian Far North. The NSR is also a connecting link for cultural exchange between the peoples living in the Arctic region, and plays an important role in economical development and integration.

At the same time the subpolar zone today is lagging behind in construction of major highways and road junctions, and all kinds of vehicles are morally and physically outdated. There is also a shortage of equipment that can work in extreme conditions. Aviation is also in decline. The Arctic transport system of the Northern sea way created during several decades and including seaports, waterways, hydrometeorological and hydrographic stations, is economically and technically lagging behind the modern level.
For many long years the NSR served for cargo transportation for the Arctic region of Russia, cargo export from Europe to Japan, China and back, serving several industrial areas of the Soviet mining non-ferrous, rare-earth metals, highly-valued minerals and hydrocarbons (northern areas of the European part of Russia, Western Siberian oil and gas complex, Norilsk industrial hub, industrial complexes of the northeast of Russia). But economic reforms of the 90s made this transport system fall to decay, and volume of cargo transportation along the Northern Sea Route dropped to a minimum.
In 1991 Russia opened the NSR for steering of foreign vessels with certain restrictions, because the major part of the Northern Sea Route water area is under the jurisdiction of the Russian Federation. Noncommercial partnership coordinating the use of the Northern Sea Route and uniting 33 organizations was created in 2001.

Up to the present time navigation in the Arctic has been complicated by long freeze-up, but the climate warming may change the situation. According to many scientists, shipping along the Northern sea route will become year-round in another 40-50 years. And some believe that traffic along it without ice steering will be possible by 2020-2025. Since this route is much shorter than other Euroasian transport corridors (for example, the distance from Petersburg to Vladivostok along the Northern Sea Route is 14.28 thousand km, through the Suez canal – 23.20 thousand km and round the Cape of Good Hope – 29.4 thousand km.), the importance of the NSR may considerably grow.

Nevertheless, in the last few years it was impossible to restore the former volume of traffic along the NSR, because in the period from 1987 to 1999 it saw almost 4.5 times decrease - from 6.6 million to 1.5 million tons. However by 2020 it is planned to be increased up to 50 million tons. In the long term the traffic volume of export liquefied gas from the Yamal peninsula will reach 20 million tons a year by 2015-2020, the volume of gas condensate from the Ob and the Yenisei will reach 13 million tons, and the volume of oil from deposits of Timano-Pechora basin will reach 25-30 million tons. Traffic volumes of mineral fertilizers, nickel and wood will grow also. Moreover, as a result of exploration of the natural resources of the North the volume of cars and the equipment traffic will also keep growing. Of course, such growth of cargo traffic is possible only with necessary capital investments.

The weakest point of the Northern Sea Route is the state of icebreaking and Arctic transport fleet and northern ports of Russia. 7 nuclear and 4 diesel ice breakers belonging to AtomFlot company, a part of Rosatom system, are working today in the region. And according to experts, in the area between Murmansk and Dudinka there should be 3 universal modern nuclear ice breakers, 4 diesel transport line ice breakers, 3 diesel supplier ice breakers, 2 auxiliary diesel steam-ships for Norilsk nickel and 4 port ice breakers in Arkhangelsk and Dickson. But launching of the first modern ice breaker is planned for 2015, and only by 2020 their number will grow to three. All Arctic ports of Russia, except for Dudinka, require modernization.

Using the Northern Sea Route a foreign shipper can expedite cargo delivery by 15 days and save up to USD 500,000 on each trip. Compensation of Russian ice breakers for steering one vessel may exceed USD 100,000. But foreign carriers are not in a hurry to go along this route: the risks are too high, and insurance companies do not agree to make contracts with those willing to use the advantage of the northern route.

The world today has different views on the future status of the Northern Sea Route. Russia thinks it is its own transport communication line. The USA, Canada and Scandinavian countries propose to "internationalize" the Northern Sea Route, and to establish an international transarctic consortium for its management, pushing Russia aside from the NSR management and development of its operation and tariff policies. Hence are the demands “to open borders” in the Arctic region or to divide it so that at least some parts of the Northern Sea Route, in not all of it was outside Russian borders. The main argument of the supporters of similar projects is that arteries of universal importance cannot be a "prerogative" of just one country.

In the USA the position of Russia concerning the Northern sea way causes open discontent. American expert community with the support of the political elite insists on necessity to achieve maximum "internationalization" of the Northern Sea Route, which for the USA will mean the right of free use of that transport corridor.

Transpolar air bridge, the shortest way between North America and Asia, also crosses the Arctic region and the territory of Russia. Its development is the aim of topical project “Circumpolar Airlines”. Transpolar "North-south" routes, as the shortest ones connecting the USA and Canada with the countries of South East Asia and China through Yakutia are of certain interest for the international aviation community. It is clear that safety of flights over the Arctic territories require considerable investments into airports infrastructure development. Development of international transit corridors – the Northern sea route and the air bridge between North America and South East Asia – may turn Russia into one of leading operators of international traffic flows, which will bring additional income to the country budget.

Military security in the Arctic region

All kinds of activity in the Arctic region are tightly bound with military security interests of Russia. This region is of particular strategic military and importance for defense purposes. Here the forces of the main, Northern fleet of the Russian Federation are based, here is its operational area and here Russian major defense industry enterprises are located. Almost 20 thousand km of the state border of the Russian Federation pass across the Arctic Ocean. This is the most open strip of the state border in respect of direct control and the front line of the state defense system. Its protection and protection involves particular difficulties.
In the present the geopolitical and strategic role of the North has increased owing to global changes of the world politics. The Arctic playing a buffer role between major world centers - the USA, Western Europe, Russia, Japan and China, becomes a testing grounds for territorial, resource and military strategy games.

This is why NATO member states keep improving the ability of their military divisions to operate in northern latitudes. Their main goal was to exercise joint actions in order to improve combat training and the level of coordination in air operations. 13 countries of the alliance took part in the maneuvers, including Poland, Romania and the Czech Republic. The flights crossed the North Sea. The USA is developing new military equipment adapted for severe Arctic conditions. The Department of advance research and development of the US Defense Ministry, supervising defense funding, declared a tender for technologies for continuous operations in high latitudes, which would secure the American army superiority in the circumpolar areas. It is a question of arms, navigating equipment and technical know-how, which could extend the US army potential in a "revolutionary” way.
S.Borgerson, a member of the International Relations Committee (USA) urges the American government to adopt a role of arbitrator in territorial disputes in the Arctic. “Now there are no strict management rules of that economically and strategically important region and if Washington does not adopt the role of a leader in diplomatic settlement, the Arctic may come to an armed conflict.”

Canada is planning to build a deep-water port in the Arctic, which will serve as a base of its military ships, and a training military center.

In 1987 the USSR urged the world community to consider the Arctic as a “zone of peace”. Later on because of the collapse of the Soviet Union and reconciliation with the USA the armed forces of Russia practically left the Arctic sea coasts. A separate arctic group protecting and defending the sea coast, was disbanded, air defense artillery was withdrawn. Only symbolical observation posts remained instead of frontier stations.
But under the present conditions Russia needs to develop and introduce a new reliable system to control the situation in the region, which would include radio engineering, naval, aviation, army forces and means, and to carry out the effective boundary control in the check points in order to ensure reliable protection of its borders, internal seas, its exclusive economic zone, its continental shelf and natural resources of the Arctic region.

Russia understands the importance of the Arctic quite well

Russian Arctic region is a region of particular geostrategic interests of the state and long-term economic interests of the society, first of all from the point of view of exploration and rational use of its natural resources and maintenance of global ecological equilibrium. In order to form a complete incentives system ensuring rapid development of the Arctic zone it is necessary to develop and adopt a special law establishing the principles of state policy and mechanisms of its realization in the Arctic region.


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Author: Карновский Юрий Зиновьевич

Publication date : 01 January 1970 07:25

Source: The world and we