With the end of Cold War, the importance of Arctic as a source of military threat and zone of international confrontation had markedly declined. The region became increasingly perceived to be a platform for cooperation, where common interests related to preservation of environment and cultures of northern peoples and sustainable development of the Arctic territories, dominate. The scale of military activity in most Arctic states had also declined markedly.
In 1996, the USA, Norway, and Russia (later joined by the UK) formed the Arctic Military Cooperation (AMEC) program, whose main purpose was the utilization of nuclear submarines based in the northwest Arctic zone of Russia. This program has become a symbol of a significant shift in the perception “theater” of military operations: a general concern for environmental protection and human security.
However, since the mid 2000’s. the logic of interaction in the Arctic has begun to change. Global warming; potentially opening up access to mineral and hydrocarbon reserves; biological resources; and new shipping routes in the polar region has caused a new “cooling off ” in international relations. Arctic states seriously defend their sovereign rights, interests, and national security. Since 2005 almost all of these states have announced their intentions in protecting their prospective rights and interests in this part of the world; including the strengthening of military forces.
After the end of the Cold War the US, unlike other Arctic states, actually retained their military presence in the Arctic, and in the early 21st century began to build it up. In 2009 Washington, USA considered this direction for the Arctic through the prism of its global interests and global security. Russia followed this path; however, the “activation of Russia’s activities ” in the Arctic (primarily in the implementation of energy, oil and gas projects of the Arctic shelf, as well as the intention to protect its national interests in the field of armaments in the polar region) is perceived by Washington as “aggressive Russian expansion”.
Similarly was the application of Russia, sq.m.km. the restoration of military bases on Novosibirsk Islands and on Wrangle; a series of exercises to protect maritime communication, the development of infrastructure (the daily work of the Russian Armed Forces in the Arctic) active use of Navy for scientific and other research in this part of the world.
At a time when Arctic states are keen to cooperate in solving problems arising in the region in the light of unprecedented changes taking place, the US and Canada are deploying an anti-missile defense system on the Arctic coast, increasing their military presence, trying to turn the Arctic region into a “theater” of military operations. In addition, the US, with the support of the EU, is trying to create conditions of limiting Russia’s economic activities on the Arctic shelf. In total, these actions pose a threat to security in the Russian Arctic zone and cause Moscow to react accordingly.
In April 2014 at the Security Council meeting, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the creation of a unified system in the Arctic for the deployment of surface ships and submarines of a new generation to strengthen the borders and to form a new government body to implement Russia’s policy in this region. This decision was naturally ill received by Washington who accused the Kremlin of territorial ambitions and build-up of military forces in the region.
Russia’s desire to retain its leading role in the Arctic, the rights to sea areas, part of the Continental shelf and natural resources, is facing serious opposition from Western powers. The year before joining the presidency of the Arctic Council, the US imposed economic sanctions against Russia, including a ban on helping Russia develop oil and gas fields. Energy companies included in different sanction lists were Russia’s largest defense companies: Rosneft, Novotek, Transneft, Gazprom, Gazpromneft, Lukoil, and Surgutneftegaz.
Almost immediately the EU was sanctioned by the US, for a closure for Russian energy companies, as well as services necessary for deepwater exploration and production, work in the Arctic and shale oil fields, including drilling and well testing services and their geophysical research.
Adopted by the US Congress at the end of July 2017 and approved by President Trump on August 2 , a law ” On Countering America’s Opponents through Sanctions ” No. 115-44″, the part that concerns Russia (the Counteraction to Russian Influence in Europe and Eurasia 2017) , the range of deep water and Arctic Offshore projects, as well as oil and gas projects by which foreign companies were prohibited from supplying equipment and technologies, was adjusted.
Thus, the imposed sanctions against Russia interfere with cooperation in the Arctic, limiting the timing of implication of strategic projects for exploration and production of hydrocarbons on the Russian Arctic shelf, creating threats and risks for leading Russian companies. The targeting of sanctions demonstrates real rivalry between states in this region in developing its resources. The US and European countries are not interested in strengthening Russia’s position in the Arctic region.
Another factor that aggravates the situation in the Arctic is Russia’s bid for continental shelf of more than 1.2 mil km, which include the Lomonosov Ridge, the Mendeleev Rise, and the Chukchi Plateau. This initiative has caused concern in the US since Alaska is located next to the Chukchi Plateau, which would close America’s way to the Arctic in the future. Obviously, this is why an option is not ruled out under which the US will exert pressure on the UN Commission to block the Russian application and continue attempts to withdraw the Arctic shelf from the UN Convention. The third challenge for Russia may be attempting to “internationalize” the Northern Sea Route, which several Arctic states want to achieve, especially the US, believing it should have international status.
For many centuries Russia has mastered the vast expanses of the Far North. Entire generations of navigators-pioneers explored the waters here, and the Russian State built infrastructure and ships for navigation in the harsh conditions of the Arctic Ocean. The Northern Sea Route is the historically formed national transport communication route of Russia, connecting the European part of Russia with the Far East. Consequently, Russia has all the advantages in the operation of the NSR.
So, Russia’s practical steps in this part of the world have prompted a wide international interest in the Arctic and sparked a number of discussions about possible scenarios for the further development of the region – from inevitable confrontations in the course of the “resource race” to multilateral coordinated governance. The probability of negative developments in the region, not necessarily in the form of an open military clash, is usually associated with the existence of spheres of conflict in the economic and geopolitical interests and is seen as a return to classical power politics.
A number of experts draw attention to the danger of “overflow” of conflicts that arise outside the region to the Arctic. As for the potential off-Arctic resources, the worsening of relations between Russia and the West in regard to Ukraine, or the hypothetical aggravation of competition between US and China may be due to the intention of the latter to radically strengthen its position in the Arctic.
Thus, a combination of economic needs, new opportunities, unresolved sovereignty and flow of conflicts from other places, constantly make the Arctic a zone of “strategic concern”. Despite the confrontational economic alliance of the US and EU countries against Russia, Russian policy in the Arctic region is constructive. In the competition for the development of the northern territories, Russia plays the role of peacemaker, calling for a peaceful resolution of all disagreements through bilateral and multilateral negotiation based on the norm of international law. The Arctic is a territory of cooperation, not a zone of conflict.
DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy and position of Regional Rapport.