Russia and the Arctic game

Russia and the Arctic game

Emilio Fabio Torsello
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In the coming years, a dangerous game could unfold in the North Sea, centered on energy resources and political interest. Moscow is therefore gearing up its military bases to increase its presence in the area

The Arctic could soon become the world’s new energy Eldorado. The ice, in fact, preserves energy sources that could ensure stability and income for the countries and companies that manage to obtain licenses and permits to exploit these sources. In addition to Canada and Norway, the major player that has for years been staking claims on the area, is Vladimir Putin’s Russia. As early as 2007, a Moscow robot planted a Russian flag on the seabed of the Arctic Ocean, sparking the ire of several countries that considered the gesture an unjustified interference. Yet it was only the first move in a series of "provocations" that were to follow. The latest: the setting up of at least 7 military bases in the area, after giving notice to the Tass press agency. In 2016, ensured the source quoted by the agency, works to intensify the military presence in the area would be increased.

Moscow reopens its military bases

To date, the military bases have been located on the islands of Kotelny (New Siberian Islands), the Alexandra Land archipelago (part of the larger Franz-Joseph Land archipelago), Sredny (Severnaya Zemlya), and the colonies of Rogachevo (Novaya Zemlya), Cape Schmidt and the Wrangel islands (which form part of the autonomous area of Chukotka). "The priority is infrastructure, including that of the administrative offices and staff lodgings: military citadels, landing fields, fighting positions for units that will be operating in the Artic." Here, according to the sources quoted by Tass, "hundreds of Russian soldiers" will arrive. Specifically, Russia is claiming an area extending at least 650 km off the coast that would almost reach the North Pole, including almost 600 potential oilfields and over 150 gas fields, in addition to gold and nickel. "Russia" explains James Henderson, Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, "first of all wishes to access the oil and gas resources. Secondly, Moscow wants to prove to be the most important player in the North Sea route. It’s enough to consider that Russia has the most extensive coastline bordering the Arctic Ocean and wants to make it clear to the world that Russia’s strategic interests are considered very seriously." The issue of the Arctic could therefore become a new war of nerves with Europe and NATO: "Russia" added Henderson "is reopening former Soviet border bases, as a sign of its strength in the area. Certainly, in the future, this could turn into a confrontation with the states bordering the Arctic Ocean. To date, however, this is more a goal than a specific threat."

The Northwest Passage: the route to the center of intersecting interests

In this sense, a key role is also played by the international sanctions against Russia: "The future of Arctic oil" emphasized Henderson "is uncertain, in a world of very low prices. The industry’s costs are high and the sanctions against Russia prohibit the major global oil companies from selling components, assistance and technologies in the Russian Arctic. To date, oil has been extracted from 2 sites and there are no new drilling plans." Overall, the possibility is that the so-called Northwest Passage will become fully operational in the coming years, having a bearing on routes and trade between Europe and Asia. "At the moment," according to Henderson, "this route is operational for only 5 or 6 months per year. But Russia is building a fleet of much larger icebreakers than those currently operating in the field. Certain partnerships with certain Asian countries – above all China – will be added to this, to strengthen the potential of the route to the North."

The up and coming game

The Arctic game is therefore likely to become complicated between now and the next 10 years. The interests at stake - both in terms of energy and geopolitics - are many and concern 2 historic blocks: the East and the West, Russia and NATO countries. "At the moment," concluded Henderson "Russia, Canada and Demark are playing a game focused on the ownership of rights over the Arctic. But this game also includes the United States and Norway, with China in pole position to become involved in issues concerning this area, together – of course – with Sweden and Finland, also being ‘Arctic’ countries."