By Rajan Kumar
Access to warm water sea has always been one of the critical components of Russia’s foreign policy. But the Arctic being a frozen sea, it was not considered vital for navigational and commercial purposes. It did not figure prominently in Russia’s economic strategies earlier. At best, its significance was territorial and geopolitical. That seems to have changed now owing primarily to two reasons: the disappearing ice caps of the Arctic thanks to global warming; and, the increasing significance of the Northern Sea Route (NSR).
The Arctic is emerging as one of the critical navigation routes to connect East and Southeast Asia with Europe and the Americas. The RT, a Russian television network, quoting Dmitry Kobylkin, the Russian Minister of National Resources and Environment, reported that the “cargo shipping in Russia’s northernmost territorial waters will exceed 80 million tons as soon as 2024”. The NSR, which transits through the Barents Sea, Kara Sea, Laptev Sea, can become the shortest route for goods from the East and Southeast Asia to Europe, cutting down the distance by nearly 40 per cent. With the Chinese emphasis on connectivity, Russia has a ready investor for its projects in the Arctic. It is a win-win situation for the “sanctioned” Russia and “trade-hungry” China.
Navigational control is just one feature of Moscow’s interests in the region. Kobylkin believes that “One ruble invested unto the Arctic projects would attract 15 rubles.” This underlines the significance of the Arctic in the renewed Russian strategy. It plans to invest roughly $163 billion by 2030 in constructing infrastructure for the LNG, the Northern Sea Route, condensed oil, tourism, coal, ship-building and environment.
Extracting resources and transporting them was not commercially viable just a few years ago. But with the new technology such as the Liquified Natural Gas (LNG), it has become feasible. Russia set up its Novatek LNG station in Yamal peninsula which was funded by Saudi Aramco. China and Europe are also investing in Russian projects.
Once the economic and navigational interests are recognised, the military cannot be far away. Russia has created several military bases in the Arctic which are equipped with sophisticated radars and anti-aircraft missile systems. Recently, it announced the inauguration of Northern Clover base which can station 250 military personnel. Operating a station where the temperate dips below 50 degrees requires complex technology and not many countries have such skills. Russia uses nuclear ice-breaker ships, a technology yet to be employed by other countries. This base is closer to the state of Alaska in the US than it is to Moscow. Putin is believed to have paid special attention to the Arctic strategy since 2014. Initiatives by Russia to harness commercial resources and establish military bases have alarmed other littoral states. United States (US), Canada, Norway and Denmark have raised objections to the militarisation of the Arctic.
The new concern is the ongoing legal and geopolitical tussle over claims and counter-claims by the Arctic states. The territorial claims over the Arctic and the North Pole are based on a legal interpretation of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and the extension of the continental shelf. Moscow claims that the NSR, the route for maritime transport, is situated within its EEZ, and therefore, any vessel transporting through this route should take prior permission and pay the transit fees. Ships are required to take a permit 45 days in advance and host a Russian pilot to ensure the non-military nature of transport. Given its geography, history and the extended coastline, Russia has a genuine claim over the Arctic, and the issue of navigation needs to be resolved multilaterally.
This Russian interpretation of the NSR as its EEZ emanates from Article 234 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which allows its use for environmental purposes. This interpretation, however, is disputed by the US and some other countries which consider the NSR as a part of the international strait where every state has a right of free navigation. The growing rift and the emerging new cold war between Russia and the West compound this matter further.
The Trump administration is developing its own Arctic strategy to counter Russian initiatives. But given the low level of resource commitment and other pressing priorities at the Mexican border, not much can be expected from her. President Trump has already rejected the environmental obligations accepted by the Obama administration. The Arctic issue requires a multilateral solution as no state can solve this problem unilaterally.
The Arctic Council, a forum of Arctic states, is concerned primarily with the developmental and environmental issues. The military dimension does not fall within its domain. It meets regularly to discuss ecological issues. The fact that the US objects to the Paris Climate Change resolutions, the task of this Council becomes more difficult.
India is an observer of this Council. It accepted the sovereignty claims of the members states in its bid to obtain the observer status. This has been criticised by some experts who believe that India should have pushed for the treatment of this region as part of the “global commons” like Antarctica.
Amidst the scramble for influence, the issue of environment and climate change has taken a backseat. The global warming and the consequent melting of ice have dangerous implications for all the coastal countries including India. India is yet to develop a coherent strategy for the Arctic. It set up its first research station, Himadri, for Arctic research in 2008. Scientists believe that there is a correlation between the melting of Arctic ice and the change in the Monsoon. India needs to be concerned about this issue.
For Russia, the melting ice caps, a demand for connectivity between Europe and Asia and the untapped resources have provided a unique opportunity in the Arctic. To be fair, it has expressed its willingness to cooperate with the other littoral states to protect its environment and engage in sustainable development through the Arctic Council. The establishment of military bases, however, is likely to fuel rivalry in the region. The US will bolster its military infrastructure very soon. There seems to be no immediate solution to the issues of navigation, de-militarisation and global warming.
(The author is Associate Professor in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. The views are personal.)