Who controls the Arctic? Russia is flexing its muscles as climate change opens up new possibilities
This article from the Economist dated 14th June 2021 highlights one of the most important geopolitical issues and is well worth reading. It begins:
THE ARCTIC CIRCLE stretches roughly 9,900 miles (16,000km) around the Earth. It is the line north of which there is at least one day each year of total darkness and one of total light. Eight countries have territory within it: America (through Alaska), Canada, Denmark (by virtue of Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia and Sweden. These eight make up the Arctic Council, a scientific-policy club, alongside 13 observer countries, including China, which calls itself a “near-Arctic state” and has plans for a “polar silk road” to make use of Arctic shipping routes and resource-extraction projects. Recently some of these states have jostled for control in the region.
Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, claimed last month that his country controls the Arctic. “It has been absolutely clear for everyone for a long time that this is our territory,” he said. Russian land makes up 53% of the Arctic coastline. Russia has also ramped up its military investment in the region: since 2007 at least 50 Soviet-era military outposts have reopened. But the other Arctic states see things differently. In 2018 NATO sent an aircraft carrier into the Arctic Circle for the first time in 27 years. Last year British and American warships entered the Barents Sea, north of Norway and close to Russia’s key naval bases, for the first time since the 1980s. Next year Norway will carry out its biggest military exercise inside the Arctic Circle since the cold war. What explains this sabre-rattling, and who really controls the Arctic?
Most of the Arctic is ice or water. Increasingly it is the latter: last year ice cover fell close to the lowest on record. The minimum cover in 2020 was almost 1m square miles smaller than the average minimum between 1981 and 2010. “Countries’ interest in this region came about because of climate change,” says Andreas Osthagen, of the Fridtjof Nansen Institute, near Oslo. Melting ice has opened a shipping corridor from the Bering Strait, between Siberia and Alaska, to the Barents Sea. The route remains frozen for up to nine months each year. But in 2020 more than 1,000 cargo ships made the trip—25% more than the previous year. Russia controls the route, which runs through its territorial waters, and charges a fee for passage. But the opening up of the Northern Sea Route is a double-edged sword for Russia. Ice was the bastion that protected its northern coast; its disappearance makes the country more vulnerable. Ahead of a summit in Brussels on June 14th, NATO said that melting ice “could lead to new geopolitical tensions.”
Arctic states are also competing to control the seabed: melting ice has made mineral deposits and oil- and gasfields more accessible. To stake a claim beyond their territorial waters, which stretches 12 nautical miles from shore, countries must prove the seabed is an extension of their continental shelf—part of the same land mass as their territory. The geology is subjective: Canada, Denmark and Russia all claim the Lomonosov Ridge, an underwater mountain range that runs beneath the North Pole. Some countries have gone to extremes to prove their point. In 2007 a Russian submarine planted a titanium trikolor flag on the seabed beneath the pole. In 2013 Canada issued a passport to Father Christmas. Such gestures might seem light-hearted, but alongside the increased military activity they constitute a real effort by governments to stake their claims. For now, Russia has the uppermost hand. But as the ice shrinks, other countries’ interest in the Arctic will only grow.