In more ways than one, the Arctic and its surrounding area is heating up. On Thursday, Norway’s military chief announced plans to beef up its forces to counter Russia’s growing presence in the region in a move that has amped up tensions in a relationship which is already strained.
The recent announcement comes less than two weeks after Russia’s Northern Fleet wrapped up a large scale exercise in the Arctic. The military exercise saw the participation of almost 50 warships, 10 aircraft and hundreds of service members. Naturally, such a large scale exercise made the Scandinavians a little nervous and led them into thinking that this was going to be just the start of new things to come from their frosty neighbor.
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Earlier this August, Russia had submitted a bid to the UN in which it claimed vast territories in the Arctic. Russia believes that it has the right to exercise its sovereignty over 1.2m sq km of sea shelf which extends more than 350 nautical miles from the shore.
Along with the US, Canada, Denmark and Norway, Russia has been trying to assert its jurisdiction over parts of the frozen region which is believed to boast around a quarters of the planet’s untapped oil and gas.
The rapid shrinking of polar ice is opening new exploration opportunities and Russia intends to make the place its own and is making the ground ready for it.
A similar proposal was submitted by Moscow in 2002 but was sent back for ‘lack of evidence.’
This time around though, the ministry is confident that the resubmitted bid provides ample scientific data collected from years of research in the Arctic to back its claims.
Back in 2007, Russia upped the ante by dropping a canister containing the Russian flag on to the ocean floor from a small submarine at the North Pole.
The most important constituent of Russia’s plans in the region is to reopen the bases from the Cold War era, deployment of surface-to-air missiles that are designed to sustain the freezing temperatures in the arctic and also a future implementation of drones designed specifically for the region.
And although other stakeholders are also keen on matching Russian exploits in the region, the fact that they have so far been unable to keep in touch with the latest advances in technology that are tailored for survival in the Arctic, Russia has an open playground to play on.
Boasting 41 icebreakers as compared to America’s two, Russia is also planning on opening ten new search and rescue stations. And the fact that US along with its allies is already finding it hard to deal with Russia, its headache amplifies with Russian activities almost everywhere in the south of the Arctic Circle as well.
However, talks of a conflict heating up because of the Arctic are premature to say the least.
According to Lawson Brigham, a professor of Arctic policy at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the Russians have every right to protect the region and he does not feel that Moscow is using it as a leverage to take over.
Since 1996, along with other Arctic states, Russia has been a member of the Arctic Council, a forum that deals with the economic and climate issues the states face and the region’s indigenous population. In all fairness, Russia has acted very decently during its time in the council and has made a lot of moves to prevent oil pollution while helping promote scientific cooperation.
“One of our priorities in the Arctic is to keep balance between the economic activity and the preservation of the unique environment, respect for the culture, and traditional way of life of indigenous peoples,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said last week at a meeting between Arctic Council members in Russia. “And, of course, we have consistently advocated the strengthening of cooperation with member states of the Arctic Council in all directions.”
Moreover, there is a feeling among the member states of the Arctic Council that Russia’s recent military buildup is not necessary a threat. In all honesty, seeing Russia wanting to invest in the area makes all the right sense because it has a right to strengthen a large Arctic population and long coastline that falls under its jurisdiction.
However, one can also forgive Norway for trying to shore up its defenses around the Arctic. The defense forces would be spending more than $21 billion for the next 20 years if they want to stand a chance of matching Russia’s supremacy in the region.
The country’s Defense Minister, Ine Eriksen Søreide is of the view that today, the West faces a different Russia and says that developments in the Arctic region should not be taken lightly and even though there are some people who do not see it that way, a time will come when they will be concerned the same way Norway is right now.
However, as things stand, one can argue that Søreide’s claims are a little farfetched largely due to the fact that there isn’t much to fight for in the Arctic. For most part of the year, region is basically frozen solid which means that trade is not going to increase significantly through Arctic waters.
Resources are a prime agenda item but most of the resources do not even fall in international waters but in territorial waters and exclusive economic zones which according to international law, it is a region that falls within 200 nautical miles of a country’s shores which allows a country to enjoy exclusive rights to economic resources.
Following Beijing’s policy on South China Sea
Another point of view could be that the Arctic might not remain conflict-free for long. Not necessarily because of the Russian adventures in the region but because of Russian involvement in other places.
“Things are going downhill in our relationship with Russia, and there’s no reason to suspect the Arctic will be immune,” said Tom Fedyszyn, professor of national security affairs at the US Naval War College.
It is clear that Russia could be preparing for an anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategy in the arctic as it looks to increase its military presence in the region clad with the latest technology tailored for the region’s harsh environment. This is the same doctrine that China has used in its island reclamation process in the South China Sea where US is already being denied complete access to a place it feels itself entitled to. Now that US has been unable to expand its presence in the Western Pacific, it also has to go through the same thing in the Arctic region.
For now, Russia is just looking to fortifying its real estate in the Arctic. Short term aggression may not be the policy Moscow intends to pursue in the region but the fact that it is focused on a long-term defense and military presence, cannot be ruled out either.