Bottom Line: The recent detention of Greenpeace activists in the Arctic display Russian fears of losing absolute control over Arctic waters and specifically over the Northern Sea Route that makes a convenient shortcut from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
Analysis: Almost half of the entire Arctic is laid claim to by Russia—and a lot of this territory is likely to have major oil and gas deposits. We are decades away from even being able to drill in the northern most Arctic territory that will likely be disputed by Russia, Canada, Greenland and the US. But that ice IS melting, so it’s only a matter of time. Though these are technically international waters, Russia is patrolling the area with great vigilance. An old military base on the New Siberian Islands has been recommissioned, and a flotilla of some 30 ships has been deployed, including four icebreakers and a nuclear cruiser—all with the aim of securing the Northern Sea Route.
In the meantime, the Greenpeace activists on board the Arctic Sunrise detained on 19 September were protesting Gazprom’s drilling in the southeastern part of the Barents Sea (the Pechora Sea), and this is nowhere near the Northern Sea Route and lies in undisputed Russian territory, but it was a prime opportunity to demonstrate Moscow’s relentlessness in the Arctic for all to see.
Recommendation: The ice caps are melting, and Russia’s vigilance in the Arctic tells us one thing in particular: The future is the Northern Sea Route, the shortest route from the Atlantic to the Pacific north of Siberia. As the ice here continues to melt, this route will become a major commercial throughway, and Russia is demonstrating in advance that it will not let anyone undermine this gem.