Throughout the cold war, the U.S. and Russia put a great emphasis on the Arctic, deploying military units and strategic ballistic missiles there. As global warming melts away the ice of the Arctic, Russia is looking up to its north again ... but not for its strategic military importance.
The Arctic is considered of strategic importance because missiles would have to travel shorter distance to reach the two countries if fired from there. In Body of Secrets, James Bradford quotes former Air Force Chief General Henry H. (Hap) Arnold, who said: "Study your globe … and you will see the most direct routes [between the United States and Russia] are not across the Atlantic or Pacific, but through the Arctic." If a third world war were to break out, Arnold cautioned, "Its strategic center will be the North Pole." The Arctic was also the perfect place for both sides to engage in a war of electronic eavesdropping. Today, the scenario has switched from the fight for ideology and survival to the fight for ownerships of the natural resources that are available in the Arctic sea-bed, resources that every nation is eager to exploit.
The Arctic accounts for approximately 11% of Russia's GDP and 22% of its exports, reported Alexander Bedritsky, Russia's presidential advisor for climate. Russia claims ownerships over vast areas in the Arctic, noting they are legally entitled to exploit the resources within these areas, as they are part of their continental shell. In recent years, Russia has taken active measures in order to boost its presence in the Arctic. Russia's former President Dmitri Medvedev adopted in 2008 the "The Foundations of The Russian Federation's State Policy in the Arctic until 2020 And Beyond." The documents revealed Russia's interests in the Arctic which they consider to be the center for Russia's development in the future. The document notes that "In the sphere of military security, defense, and safekeeping of the state borders of the Russian Federation located in the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation; the upkeep of a favorable operational regime in the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation, including the maintenance of the required combat potential of military groupings under the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, other troops, military formations and agencies in this region." Katarzyna Zysk explains that Russia has plans to create "a comprehensive security system by 2015, including early warning, prevention, and crisis management capabilities. "
Russia's leadership wants Russia to increase its export of oil and gas, with Putin calling to become the world leading export of natural resources. A few years earlier, a Russian flag was planted on the seabed of the Arctic by Artur Chillingarov, claiming ownership of the sea beds and its resources. This move was highly controversial and sparked criticism from Arctic nations, notably Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Harper dismissed Russia's action and stated that Canada will not shy away from defending its rightful claims. Canada's then-Foreign Affairs Minister Peter McKay was famously quoted as saying: "This isn't the 15th century you can't go around the world and just plant flags and say 'We're claiming this territory.'" Russia's flag planting was merely symbolic and under international law holds no weight or legal bidding but emphasized a growing concern over the race for the Arctic's resources.
As the ice melts and the Arctic Ocean becomes accessible for shipping, the issue of transit fees will play a critical role. One of the main areas of contentions of shipping through the Arctic Ocean are Russia's "rights" under the Law of Sea Treaty (LOST). Article 234 stipulates that: "Coastal States have the right to adopt and enforce non-discriminatory laws and regulations for the prevention, reduction and control of marine pollution from vessels in ice-covered areas within the limits of the exclusive economic zone." Russia has been adopting regulations which require a ship that wishes to enter the Northern Sea route or sail through Russia's exclusive economic zone to submit the following: an application for guiding and a set fee to use the route — often referred to as the ice-breaker fee. The fees that Russian requires are expensive and they are required year round, even throughout summer seasons when ice-breakers are not necessarily required. The U.S. has strongly opposed Russia's regulation as they believe that ships sailing through international waters should not be required to pay any fees or to adhere to any state's regulations or rules.
Another area of contention between the U.S. and Russia is the maritime border in the Bering and Chukchi Seas. The area hasn't been demarcated since the U.S. bought Alaska from Russia in 1867. There was a treaty regarding the demarcation of Alaska's coast between the U.S. and former USSR that the U.S. ratified. However, Russia has yet to ratify it and sees it as unfair, claiming that it deprives Russia of 15,000 square miles. This particular region is very rich with natural resources hence why Russia contests the previous demarcation.
Throughout the Arctic regions, multiple disputes exists between the nations that make up the Arctic council. These disputes can only be resolved through bilateral agreements between the nations involved. However, as the supply of natural resources decline worldwide, every square mile of territory in the arctic is vital. This reality will complicate matters for nations involved. As a result, Arctic nations are bolstering their military presence in the Area.
The race for the arctic has also huge implications for Russia's premiere Gas Company, Gazprom. Russia is reported to hold approximately 53% of the Arctic total hydrocarbon resources. Two fields in particular are of key interest for Russia: Bovanenkovo and Shtokman.
The Bovanenkovo gas field is estimated to have 170 trillion cubic feet of gas. When fully operational it's expected to produce 2.7 to 4.1 trillion cubic feet of gas a year, 1/6 of Russia's current gas output. In October 2011, Gazprom announced plans to accelerate development at the field, investing billions of dollars on infrastructure, pipelines, roads, and living accommodation for workers.
The Shtokman gas field "rivals" the size of the Bovanenkovo gas field, and is expected to yield 2.5 trillion cubic feet of gas per year. It's located offshore which makes exploration dangerous and trickier. This means that any platform would be at risk of collision with icebergs, as Russian scientists have warned. The startup date of production was scheduled for 2013 but was pushed to 2016 due to these concerns.
Gazprom is eager to develop those fields and the infrastructure needed for their exploration and transportation of natural resources. Russia has been facing growing competition from the Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan pipeline which runs from the Caspian Sea through Turkey and feeds off Europe. Russia had over the years used gas as a political tool, however, with the new pipeline Russia's threats are no longer as impactful as they were in previous decades. Although Russia might possess vast and unrivalled amounts of natural resources it remains plagued by widespread corruption and poor resource management, hindering the potential of these resources.
Russia's interest in the Arctic will only continue to grow throughout the 21st century and beyond. As ice continue to melt and new natural resource fields become accessible, Russia will find itself in a prime position to pursue its role as a dominant supplier for the natural gas market. On the other side of the Arctic, most experts agree that the U.S. will become an exporter of natural gas in the coming decades thanks to fracking and new fields recently discovered. While the second part of the 20th century was defined by an arms race between the two world powers; the 21st century is poised to be an energy race between these two powers.
For more information about Natural Resources and the Energy race, check out Michael Klare's The Race For What's Left.