Talk about the legendary natural resources wealth of the Arctic has been going on for some years now, as the polar cap continues to melt at unprecedented rates. What makes those concerned with the wellbeing of the planet cringe makes others rub their hands in anticipation of future profits. The Arctic race is on.
There are eight countries with legal territorial claims in the Arctic: Russia, the U.S., Canada, Sweden, Norway, Denmark (for Greenland), Iceland, and Finland. Five of these have been building up their military presence in the region in the last few years, as an analysis from Army Technology notes, but there is no indication that they are preparing for conflict.
This might sound markedly strange given the anti-Russian media rhetoric in the West. Yet, according to several defense experts from Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland, this rhetoric is just “media hype” and “fear-mongering”. The reason why the Russian threat is exaggerated is simple enough: Moscow has no interest whatsoever in antagonizing the West – not in the Arctic, not anywhere else.
As one of the experts quoted by Army Technology, Marcus Matthias Keupp, says, Russia has too much to lose if it decides, for some unfathomable reason, to flex its muscles to its Arctic neighbors. Keupp, by the way, is the head of the department of Defence Management at the Military Academy of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.
Yet there is one thing that sets Russia apart, especially from the U.S.: it has made the Arctic an economic development priority. This, of course, makes sense given the size of its Arctic territories, and it also makes sense given its traditional reliance on natural resources for state revenues. Besides, it makes sense in light of climate change, which will create new trade waterways through the North. Related: Keystone XL Still Faces Obstacles Even With Trump’s Approval
To date, Russia has 40 icebreakers and 16 deepwater ports in its Arctic waters. And icebreakers are the difference between winning and losing in this region, or, as Foreign Policy quotes Alaska Senator Dan Sullivan, “The highways of the Arctic are icebreakers. Russia has superhighways, and we have dirt roads with potholes.”
In addition to its presence there, Russia has dedicated an academic program in its Academy of Sciences to the Arctic. And it has been treating the Arctic as a priority area for decades. While some might see this as muscle-flexing, other would probably take the more logical stance that there is just so much Arctic territory in Russia that it has to be put into some use.
The new Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, has called the Arctic “strategic”, pledging to develop an “integrated strategy” for it. Yet so far, the Arctic has not been strategic, it seems, and this means it will take a while, and quite a while, to develop and implement any strategy that comes from the DoD. As far as icebreakers go, for instance, the U.S. has one operational vessel for the Arctic. It also has a second one, but it’s broken. Meanwhile, Russia has 11 in construction, to add to its existing 40. Related: Robots Over Roughnecks: Next Drilling Boom Might Not Add Many Jobs
Can the U.S. curb Russia’s activity in the Arctic? Hardly, since it is staying within its borders, despite an attempt a few years ago to extend these at its European neighbors’ expense. Can it catch up? This seems to be the only useful option. Must it? Maybe. The U.S. has a tiny portion of the Arctic compared to Russia, but it might want to be better placed there, just in case. Because the Arctic nations are not the only ones eyeing the energy, metals, and trade corridor potential of the Arctic.
China has been quietly building a close relationship with Iceland. This year, a Chinese-funded research facility on the island will open doors, marking another milestone in bilateral relations, after China helped Iceland get back on its feet after the 2008 financial crisis.
China is also in the sights of President Trump who seems to consider it a greater threat to the U.S. than Russia. This is one more reason to choose cooperation instead of confrontation in the Arctic. The region is shaping up to be the last big mineral resources pie on Earth, and everyone will want a piece of it. The bigger the fork each stakeholder makes for themselves, the bigger the piece they will be able to eat. In this case, the easier and safer way to make a bigger fork is by joining forces with others hungry for the pie.
By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com
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