The US Council on Foreign Relations authoritatively projects that in the XXI century the rivalry over Arctic mineral riches will escalate into a new type of a Cold War, which promises to be a conflict profoundly different from the one that marked the XX century's bipolarity epoch. Indeed, it is impossible to overlook the fact that calls for the internationalization of Russia's Northern maritime route emerged as a recurrent foreign-policy theme both in the West and in the East since the dawn of the XXI century.
In the XX century the interests of Russia's Arctic neighbors – the US, Canada, Denmark, and Norway – were as a general rule confined to the Arctic Ocean coast, but that changed immediately with the discovery of gigantic reserves of energy and metals in the region. At the moment, the cohort of players eager to join the competition over the Arctic shelf comprises a far greater and steadily growing number of countries along with powerful transnational corporations.
The proportions of the Arctic mineral reserves are by all means impressive. The region estimatedly contains 25% of the world's hydrocarbons, mostly in the form of natural gas. Russia's portion of the Arctic is known to hold at least 560 billion barrels of crude which is 2.5 the total in Saudi Arabia. Moreover, the lures of the Arctic region include deposits of diamonds, gold, platinum, manganese, nickel, titanium, coal, etc. which are mostly found on the territory of Russia. Importantly, the Northern maritime route is the avenue opening access to all of the above.
The list of countries currently eying the Arctic reserves includes the US, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Canada, Iceland, plus Japan, South Korea, and China. It attests to the Asian tigers' interest in the remote northern region that the three countries are busily building their own icebreaker fleets. China is to launch its own icebreaker in 2013 but already explores the Arctic region with the help of the Xuelong (Snow Dragon) one which it bought from Ukraine.
In the meantime, the American continent and Europe appear to be sliding towards what can become the first serious conflict over the Arctic region due to a dispute over Hans Island which is simultaneously claimed by Denmark and Canada. The tiny island happens to be located in the center of the north-western channel linking the Arctic and the Pacific Oceans, and the history of the discord has already counted around three decades. The game – an otherwise nominal rivalry during which the two countries took turns installing their flags on the contested knoll – occasionally echoed with strong government-level statements and exposed the parties involved to real risks. Denmark started with dispatching patrol boats to the island and officially voicing a protest against the visit paid to it by the Canadian defense minister, and later put together a plan calling for the establishment of a national Arctic military command in 2011-2014, the deployment of a military base in the northern part of Greenland, and the creation of an Arctic rapid reaction force. Canada responded with military exercises in its northern coastal zone and announced that it would set up an Arctic navy of 8 vessels of an appropriate class, while the US quietly sent over 24,000 servicemen to Alaska.
The US can demand a share of the Arctic as the country owning Alaska, but the legal component of the bid is weak considering that Washington never penned the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. It should be taken into account that, if the Arctic region is to be carved up, the US will formally be entitled to its modest sector with which the hyper-ambitious global superpower evidently may not content. As a result, Washington churns out proposals for internationalizing the Arctic resources and feeding them to international business grands such as Shell whose appetites run high despite the threat posed to Alaska's fragile environment by the intensifying oil race the company is provoking.
Greenpeace activists who days ago climbed aboard a Shell icebreaker and locked themselves to it in a protest against the company's exploratory drilling in the Arctic cite completely reasonable objections against economic incursions into the region. The circumstances that cannot be ignored are (1) the weather unpredictability in the area; (2) the region's extremely low temperatures; and (3) the long distances from shores to deposits due to which – if spills occur – mitigation would meet with extraordinary difficulties in the short summertime period and be completely impossible in winter.
The purpose behind the row staged by Greenpeace was to bring about the realization that transnational companies and a number of countries pursue narrow corporate interests in the Arctic at the expense of the international community as a whole. It is also true that stiff competition between those who hope to eat into the riches of the Arctic region is prone with frightening conflicts, but it must be noted at this point that consensus among the contenders is reached with remarkable easiness on one particular issue – namely, the internationalization of the Northern Maritime Route.
The climate change being a media staple these days, the push for the internationalization – as well as the oil companies' keen interest in the Arctic and the searches for options that would lead to a change of the status of the Russian internal straits – are in part motivated by the expectations of climate change that would make the majority of maritime links between the Arctic and the Pacific Oceans permanently ice-free. Curiously, the forecasts issued by the marine and river transit agency of Russia's Ministry of Transportation, and those offered by the Russian Arctic and Antarctic Institute indicate that, by 2025, the temperatures in the Arctic will decrease by half of a degree or more rather than rise. Consequently, the icy areas will not contract but further spread over some 1.2 – 1.6 million km squared of marine surface. The projection fits into a wider pattern of large-scale climate change which shows that at the moment the Earth is passing the so-called fourth thermal peak, with an imminent natural cooling ahead. Research data, however, seems to leave the Western governments in various ways pressuring Russia unperturbed as the ecological and minority groups they lavishly sponsor urge the UN to probe into the alleged abuses and infringements on the rights of stateless northern indigenous peoples by Russian energy, timber, and freight companies. In a parallel process, the Western media portray Russia as a country unable to exploit its Arctic territories and maritime routes with due regard for environmental safety.
Russia faces considerable economic and political risks in connection with the situation and should be careful not to give in to pressure. The control over the Arctic shelf is of key importance to the country due to both the mineral resources underneath and the strategic role of the Arctic Ocean which can be used to launch missiles targeting Russia or to intercept Russian missiles. The former Soviet Union took to the Arctic exploration at the earliest phase of its existence, in 1922-1923, sent expeditions to chart the northern maritime routes, and persistently cultivated them as an integrated transit network with all the necessary support infrastructures. Returns on investments in the Northern maritime route have never been a problem. Some 130 convoys passed via the avenue during World War II. Subsequently, the USSR maintained in the Arctic zone the powerful Northern Navy, parks of nuclear-driven icebreakers and nuclear submarines along with a system of research bases, industrial facilities, and a fleet of freight liners.
The Soviet spending on the Northern maritime route and pertinent infrastructures shrank by a factor of 12 under M. Gorbachev, causing the transit volumes to plummet and the population – to migrate south. With problems mounting, Russia frequently suggested to its Arctic peers tighter coordination in the region and invited investments in the Northern maritime route (for example, the approach was announced at an international conference in Oslo in November, 1999).
Moscow unveiled a concept of the East-West transit corridor at a meeting of the Barents Euro-Arctic Council in Norway, the plan being to upgrade the Northern maritime route to an international transit lane with convincing competitive advantages over rival southern avenues. No doubt, all of the potential partners could benefit from implementing the project, the reasons being as follows.
1. The project offers the advantage of scale. Given proper infrastructural investments, the Northern maritime route can serve to efficiently connect the epicenters of global economic development located in North America, West Europe, and South East Asia.
2. The project has a significant security dimension. The rival southern routes are confronted with various threats ranging from the Somalian piracy to terrorism, while Russia's Northern maritime route boasts nearly absolute immunity to similar challenges.
3. The route tariffs may translate into appreciable cost benefits for freight carriers. It did not evade watchers that the Suez Canal Authority Chairman promptly volunteered deep discounts when the theme of the Northern maritime route started to grab the headlines, though the realism of his pledge appeared questionable – for example, the Suez insurance costs jumped roughly by a factor of 10 on piracy concerns
4. Traversing the Northern maritime route takes relatively little time. For instance, freight would reach Shanghai from Russia's Murmansk via the Arctic in 22 days in contrast to the 42 days needed if the Suez Canal is part of the route.
5. In terms of distance, the Northern maritime route provides the shortest link between the Far East and Europe. The northern route from Shanghai to Hamburg, for example, is around 6,400 km shorter than the rival southern one.
6. Shorter distances clearly mean much-welcome fuel savings.
7. Russia's seaports are in every sense well-equipped to function as critical transit hubs. Sited in the north of the European part of Russia, Murmansk is a de facto gate to the Arctic, and the seaport at the Far-Eastern Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky with its bay staying ice-free all year is an excellent outlet of the Asia Pacific region.
8. Russia's icebreaker fleet enjoys a reputation of the world's best and will be an ever more valuable asset if the widely discussed global warming eventually proves to be a myth.