Russia and the Arctic

The dramatic flag-planting ceremony that Sagalevich and Chilingarov conducted at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean in August 2007 seemed to express everything about Russia, or rather its foreign policy, which its critics most detest. From their viewpoint, Moscow should have been trying to abate international tension over the Arctic region, like any responsible government, but instead had carried out a reckless and provocative gesture that unnecessarily inflamed disagreements and controversies. The exercise, in other words, was viewed as being characteristic of a reckless and brutal country, one that would think little of using military force to make its claim in the Arctic, or in any other part of the world where it thinks its national interests are at stake.

During the summer of 2008, events in parts of the former Soviet Union reinforced this impression of a Russian government that has, in the words of one of its critics, 'a contemptuous disregard for Western norms' and even less concern for 'the suffering of civilians'.1 In the early hours of 8 August, Russian tanks rolled southwards through the Roki Tunnel, storming their way not just through South Ossetia but well beyond, moving deep into the republic of Georgia. Within a matter of hours, Moscow's aircraft and artillery had started to pound several places, reportedly dropping cluster bombs in the very centre of the city of Gori and forcing tens of thousands of people to flee their homes.2 Reports also filtered through that they had targeted a crucial

011 pipeline, supplying Western Europe, and that Russian soldiers had been responsible for all manner of atrocities and outrages against innocent Georgian civilians.

By the time President Medvedev halted military operations on

12 August, Russia's image abroad, like parts of Georgia and South Ossetia, had been badly battered. In Oslo, for example, some politicians openly expressed fears that Norway was vulnerable to a Russian onslaught on a comparable scale. The leader of the conservative party,

Erna Solberg, saw the campaign as evidence of aspirations that could eventually pose a threat to Norwegian territory in the Arctic, while a member of Parliament, Per Ove Width, did 'not exclude the possibility of a direct attack on Norway' by a country 'that uses force first, diplomacy later'.3 And a representative of the right-leaning progress party also told one newspaper that a conflict between Norway and Russia could develop as a result of disputes over fishing rights or the exploitation of oil and gas reserves.

Of course, the truth about what really happened in Georgia was much more complicated than it was often portrayed and perceived to be. Within a few months, Georgia's claims that it was acting defensively against unprovoked Russian aggression had been called into serious question by the accounts given by independent military observers.4 And in the same way, accusations that the Russian government is particularly likely to cause trouble in the Arctic are just as ungrounded. Although incidents like the flag-planting ceremony can and already have fuelled international mistrust, thereby creating an atmosphere in which war could break out, it would not be in Russia's national interest to even risk conflict in the Arctic unless it really had to.

Russia does have a strong interest in the Arctic and has good reasons to carve out as much territory as it can from disputed areas and from the frozen area of high seas that lies in the far north. This is why it has long regarded the Arctic as a region of national concern. The Soviet scholar, Lakhtine, noted that Russian leaders had staked a claim there as early as 1821, when the Czar had issued a ukase (an imperial order) over the waters of the Bering Sea.5 The strength of this interest partly reflects the fact that 20 per cent of the country lies above the Arctic Circle, which is home to almost 2 million Russian citizens, and it has six major rivers that feed the Arctic Ocean, while the seven other Arctic countries have just one or two. And if the North Pole is subdivided into 18 different segments that are then apportioned to each adjacent country on the basis of how much Arctic territory they own, then roughly eight of these segments would be assigned to Russia. But Canada would have only four and Denmark two, while Norway, Sweden, and the United States would merit just one each.

Russia is certainly watching developments in the Arctic closely because of the likely presence of oil and gas in the region. Speaking at a security council meeting in Moscow in September 2008, for example, President Medvedev emphasized the importance of the region's hydrocarbons: 'According to estimates by experts', he pointed out, 'the Arctic shelf may have about one quarter of the world's shelf hydrocarbon reserves, and the use of these reserves is a guarantee of Russia's overall energy security.' This means that the region 'has a strategic significance for our country' and 'resolving long-term tasks of developing the state, and its competitiveness on the global market, is directly tied to its development'. Medvedev urged speedy passage of a law to determine Russia's southern Arctic zone and added that the 'marking of the external border of the continental shelf is a long-term goal'. He continued by arguing that 'our first and main task is to turn the Arctic into a resource base for Russia in the twenty-first century (and) using these resources will guarantee energy security for Russia as a whole'.6

But although this makes the region very important and interesting to Moscow, it is not likely to be the cause of conflict. The most important single reason is that any new discoveries of oil or gas in the Arctic's High North, or even within Russia's existing national borders, would completely fail to solve the dilemmas that confront its energy industry. On the contrary, using force would make these dilemmas even more difficult to solve by scaring off foreign investors.

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