Tuesday, April 22, 2014
The Arctic melt is uncovering more than just resources and trade routes – it is also opening up a whole new theatre of military operations.
Of all the world’s territorial disputes, the ones in the Arctic – and there are plenty – used to matter the least: the only prize at stake was frozen ocean, and most of the time it was too cold for military forces to operate there anyway. National boundaries were left to blur among the floes.
Suddenly those vague Arctic territories matter. The region is increasingly ice-free and the open ocean means rich fishing, undersea mineral and energy resources and new sea lanes. The Arctic, in other words, has become a valuable commodity.
Best placed to assert ownership are the “Arctic Five”, littoral Arctic Ocean states with well-established territorial claims and regional bases. “Russia and Norway are the two states most active and deliberate in raising their capacity for operating in the Arctic,” says Ernie Regehr, senior fellow in Arctic security at the Simons Foundation – a Canadian think-tank. Canada, Regehr says, made some “dramatic announcements regarding enhanced military capacity in the north”, but these have since run up against financial realities, while the US has been too preoccupied elsewhere to devote much energy to revamping its Arctic presence.
Russia is arguably doing the most: its North Sea Fleet is being restocked and is due to receive a new Mistral-class amphibious assault ship from France; six new $1.1bn (€816m) icebreakers, which, at 170 metres in length, will be the world’s biggest; and later new aircraft carriers. The Norwegians, meanwhile, have procured a new fleet of five Fridtjof Nansen-class frigates, which, together with its six Ula-class submarines, have significantly boosted its naval clout.
Yet it would be misleading to suggest that an Arctic arms race is underway. Bases are being upgraded, ice-breaking fleets expanded and modernised, and Arctic battalions retrained and uparmed. But the sheer remoteness of the Arctic makes conflict almost unthinkable, says Regehr.
“Military preparedness in the Arctic is really only meaningful if it enhances a capacity to contribute effectively to search and rescue, emergency response and support for public safety,” he says, citing a “universal insistence” among the Arctic Five that any competition will remain amicable.
New interest in the Arctic threatens to make it a crowded place, however.The Arctic Council – which already includes Finland, Iceland and Sweden in addition to the Five – voted in May to admit several new observer members, including China, India and Japan. Of these, China has taken the keenest interest: in 2012 its sole icebreaker, Xuelong, completed the first transarctic voyage by a Chinese vessel and a new $200m (€150m) icebreaker is due for delivery in 2014, with additional ships planned, as Beijing seeks to open up the High North as a conduit for Chinese trade.
Regehr is optimistic that these new players can be peacefully accommodated. “The risks are not China or India specifically,” he says. The concern is that more and more ships will be operating in waters which will remain dangerous even as they become navigable. “Human and commercial activity are in a sharply ascending arch; so too are the risks.” — (M)
Five Arctic Flaspoints: Territorial Disputes
1) The Barents Sea: Cold War rivals Norway and Russia settled their decades-old Barents Sea border dispute in 2010. However, the subsequent discovery of huge oil and gas deposits on Norway’s side of the line has left some Russians questioning whether they’re getting their full share.
2) The Bering Strait: China plans to start using the Arctic as a key trade route to cut long-distance transit times. But ships must access the region via the Bering Strait – a narrow chokepoint between Russia and Alaska. A blockade of this chokepoint would be an obvious play should conflict arise between China and another power.
3) Greenland: The retreat of the icecap covering Greenland – an autonomous territory that is part of Denmark – is attracting foreign firms keen to exploit the island’s resources. But commercial pressures are making it a contentious place to operate, while over-exploitation of its fragile environment could stir up trouble between local Inuit people, foreign business and the Danish government.
4) The North Pole: Ever since a Russian submarine planted a national flag on the seabed at the Pole in 2007, ownership of the High North has been a contentious issue. The Pole itself matters much less than the vast hydrocarbon resources thought to lie beneath it. Canada, Denmark, Russia and the US all have overlapping claims based on their conflicting interpretations of the maritime borders.
5) The Northwest Passage: Melting sea ice has opened up the fabled Northwest Passage, which runs along northern Canada and links the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. But while Canada claims sovereignty over the route, citing its proximity to the Canadian coast, other Arctic claimants – plus China – say the Passage is in international waters. As more ships ply the route, Canada must choose whether to enforce its claim or bow to pressure...
Wednesday, April 2, 2014
In mid-March, around the same time that Russia annexed Crimea, Russian officials announced another territorial coup: 52,000 square kilometers in the Sea of Okhotsk, a splotch of Pacific Ocean known as the "Peanut Hole" and believed to be rich in oil and gas. A UN commission had recognized the maritime territory as part of Russia's continental shelf, Russia's minister of natural resources and environment proudly announced, and the decision would only advance the territorial claims in the Arctic that Russia had pending before the same committee.After a decade and a half of painstaking petitioning, the Peanut Hole was Russia's…Russian officials were getting a bit ahead of themselves. Technically, the UN commission had approved Russia's recommendations on the outer limits of its continental shelf—and only when Russia acts on these suggestions is its control of the Sea of Okhotsk "final and binding." Still, these technicalities shouldn't obscure the larger point: Russia isn't only pursuing its territorial ambitions in Ukraine and other former Soviet states. It's particularly active in the Arctic Circle, and, until recently, these efforts engendered international cooperation, not conflict.But the Crimean crisis has complicated matters.
Take Hillary Clinton's call last week for Canada and the United States to form a "united front" in response to Russia "aggressively reopening military bases” in the Arctic. Or the difficulties U.S. officials are having in designing sanctions against Russia that won't harm Western oil companies like Exxon Mobil, which are engaged in oil-and-gas exploration with their Russian counterparts in parts of the Russian Arctic.In a dispatch from "beneath the Arctic ocean" this week, The Wall Street Journal reported on a U.S. navy exercise, scheduled before the crisis in Ukraine, that included a simulated attack on a Russian submarine. The U.S. has now canceled a joint naval exercise with Russia in the region and put various other partnerships there on hold.This week, the Council on Foreign Relations published a very helpful guide on the jostling among countries to capitalize on the shipping routes and energy resources that could be unlocked as the Arctic melts. The main players are the countries with Arctic Ocean coastlines: Canada, Denmark (Greenland), Norway, Russia, the United States (Alaska)—and, to a lesser extent, Finland, Iceland, and Sweden. These nations have generally agreed to work together to resolve territorial and environmental issues. But some sovereignty disputes persist, including American opposition to Russia's claims to parts of the Northern Sea Route above Siberia.
Here's CFR's infographic on where the Arctic's shipping and natural-resource potential is, and where the "Arctic Five" are most at odds with each other (you can even layer summer sea ice onto the map!):"Few countries have been as keen to invest in the Arctic as Russia, whose economy and federal budget rely heavily on hydrocarbons," CFR writes. "Of the nearly sixty large oil and natural-gas fields discovered in the Arctic, there are forty-three in Russia, eleven in Canada, six in Alaska, and one in Norway, according to a 2009 U.S. Department of Energy report."
"Russia, the only non-NATO littoral Arctic state, has made a military buildup in the Arctic a strategic priority, restoring Soviet-era airfields and ports and marshaling naval assets," the guide adds. "In late 2013, President Vladimir Putin instructed his military leadership to pay particular attention to the Arctic, saying Russia needed 'every lever for the protection of its security and national interests there.' He also ordered the creation of a new strategic military command in the Russian Arctic by the end of 2014."
Ultimately, the remarkable international cooperation we've seen in the North Pole may continue even amid the standoff in Ukraine. This week, for instance, government officials from the eight members of the Arctic Council, including Russia and the United States, went ahead with a summit in Canada. "The Russians have been quite cooperative in the Arctic during the past decade," international-law professor Michael Byers told The Canadian Press, "probably because they realize how expensive it would be to take another approach, especially one involving militarization….."