Russia and the prospect of an international Race for the Arctic

Posted in Russia , United States , Energy Security | 27-Dec-10 | Author: Giovanni Valvo

The Russian government will soon adopt a program for strategic development of the Arctic for the period to 2020. The program which includes development of infrastructure and Russian presence on the Svalbard Archipelago was sent for the government's consideration in October and will be the basis for the development of all of Russia's Arctic region. Moscow has three priorities in the Arctic: to create good living conditions for local people while paying special attention towards the traditions of the indigenous peoples, to support new ways to create economic growth and attract Russian and foreign investments to the region and to develop the scientific ecological infrastructure of the area. Development of the Northern Sea Route and construction of new nuclear and diesel icebreakers will be amongst the focus points in Russia's work to achieve its goals in the Arctic.

According to experts' estimates the Arctic region holds about 13 percent of the world's undiscovered oil resources and 30 percent of the world's undiscovered natural gas resources. Not surprisingly, the Arctic is becoming an area of great international interest for science, economics, politics and an international race for the region is actually emerging. Although Russia seems to be ahead after it planted its country's flag on the North Pole's seabed in 2007, Norway, Denmark, Canada and the United States also claim rights to this region.

According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea states have exclusive economic rights up to 200 miles from their shores, but they can claim even more if they can demonstrate that their continental shelf extends beyond this limit. For instance, Russia, Canada and Denmark are claiming the Lomonosov Ridge, arguing that it is in each case their continental shelf. The Lomonosov Ridge, which has the size of Germany, France and Italy combined, runs some 1.800 kilometers across the Arctic Ocean, stretching from Siberia over the North Pole to Canada's Ellesmere Island. By arguing that the ridge is an extension of its territory, Russia seeks to add some 1.2 million square kilometers to its lands beyond the Arctic Circle, that currently account 80 per cent of national production of gas and 60 per cent of the oil one, being as well Russia's main source of rare and precious metals. By 2030, the Greater Russian Arctic could be an empire of 4 million square kilometers with reserves equal to 30 million tons of oil and 130 billion cubic meters of gas.

Nevertheless, the military consequences of a Russian expansion in the Arctic region could even exceed the economic ones, since control of the North Pole would enormously strengthen the combat power of Russia's Northern Fleet, whose home base is currently in the Kola Peninsula. Moreover, even playing down the importance of naval power, it's impossible to deny advantages due to the air supremacy of the Arctic. As emphasized by Russian-American geo-strategist Alexander de Seversky (who looked at the world as drawn on an azimuthal equidistant projection centred on the North Pole), through the air space of the Arctic Ocean pass the shortest routes between places in Eurasia and North America and thus the power who succeeds in acquiring complete air dominance in this "area of decision" is consequently destined to achieve global military superiority. Not accidentally, the Arctic was ironically one of the hottest battlefields of the Cold War.

Now the Soviet-American conflict is over and even the Soviet Union is just a recollection of the past century, but the principles of geopolitics make Russian-American rivalry a constant factor in international relations, at least until Russian will be a transcontinental and Arctic power. This is why the international community should coordinate its efforts to avoid that a race for the Arctic could turn into a new arms race between Russia and the United States, that remain, despite media attentions to the economic rise of China and India, the two greatest military powers and thus the ones that better than any other can assure world peace and security.

Published in: