By Michael A. Moore
A year ago, Russia ruled the Arctic, celebrating the growing acceptance of its Northern Sea Route by European and Chinese shippers, partnering with global oil majors to develop vast untapped subsea riches, and becoming the de-facto leader of the eight nations that touch the Arctic. Then mass protests in Kiev became a revolution, and the world began to view Russia in a different light. The resulting sanctions against Russia initially failed to impact its Arctic operations and its relations with its Arctic neighbors. During the summer, however, the U.S., European Union and Canada tightened sanctions against Russia.
Complex geopolitical dynamics contributed to the overthrow of Ukraine’s President as well as the steadily deteriorating relations between Russia and the West. These dynamics are rapidly influencing the politics of the Arctic and are casting long shadows from the cold war over the region’s golden future.
While NATO contemplates increasing military presence in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin becomes increasingly defiant, solidifying the exhaustive stalemate. “The Russians have always listed an expansion of NATO onto its doorstep as one of their core security threats,” said Rob Huebert, Associate Director at the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary. “Due to the geopolitical realities of the differences between Russia and Western countries, friction points will arise – and the biggest friction point is NATO expansion up to the Russian border. “NATO expansion could lead to a Russian pushback, and Canada is not well equipped,” Mr. Huebert said. “As the Arctic is more and more integrated, you’re going to see other events spilling into it.”
The cooperative march of Arctic development between Russia, Canada, and the U.S. was moving full speed ahead a year ago. Today, that march has stalled and long-abandoned Cold War Arctic military strategies are being dusted off and updated. Just a year ago, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), a U.S.-Canada effort to defend North American air space against Russian bombers during the Cold War, issued a press release praising NORAD-Russia military exercises. That warm relationship turned frosty earlier this year when NORAD Commander, U.S. Army Gen. Charles H. Jacoby Jr, told the U.S. Congress that “threats to national security are becoming more diffuse and less attributable. While we stand constant vigil against asymmetric network threat activities, Russian actions in the Ukraine demonstrate that symmetric threats remain,” he said.
This past spring, plans for Russian participation in joint Arctic military exercises were suspended by Prime Minister Harper and U.S. Defense Department officials “due to the situation in Ukraine,” according to NORAD spokesman Sgt. Charles Marsh. In April, Norway’s military spy chief disclosed the Scandinavian nation had taken delivery of a $250 million spy ship equipped with sensors and other technology to snoop on Russia’s activities in the Arctic beginning in 2016.
Russia’s response to the stepped-up sanctions and NORAD’s cold shoulder has been to dramatically increase its own military presence in the Arctic. September news reports in the Moscow Times describe new military bases built in the Arctic and aimed at “restoring the once-formidable Soviet military presence in the highly contested and resource-rich Arctic. “On Wrangel Island and Cape Schmidt, block-modules have been unloaded for the construction of military camps,” Col. Alexander Gordeyev, spokesman for the Eastern Military District, recently told RIA Novosti. “The complex is being erected in the form of a star, The locations named by Gordeyev are deep in the Arctic Circle in the Chukchi Sea, close to Alaska.
“Meanwhile, Russia’s Murmansk-based Northern Fleet is being reinforced with Russia’s newest nuclear attack submarines — the Yasen class,” Mr. Gordeyev said. “The first Yasen – Severodvinsk – joined the Northern Fleet in June. With three additional vessels slated to follow … This will leave Russia with a formidable underwater force to complement the already hard-hitting capabilities of the Northern Fleet.”
All this Cold-War-style macho posturing on Russia’s part is understandable but should not be cause for alarm, according to Michael Byers, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the of British Columbia, and is the author of International Law and the Arctic published by Cambridge University Press.
“There is still a lot of cooperation between the two countries behind the scenes,” said Mr. Byers. “Russia today is more integrated in the world economy. Ukraine is not as much of a crisis as the media would have us believe. Russia depends on exports of its oil and gas to Europe. The sanctions only work if they cut off a meaningful economic relationship.
The best example of the impact of the sanctions on the Russian oil industry is Exxon’s forced withdrawal from its joint drilling venture with Rosneft of a deep underwater prospect in the Kara Sea just before the rig struck oil. Sanctions are expected to result in reduced trade between Western providers of drilling technology and Russian clients as Putin steps up development of Russia’s long-neglected oil services and equipment sector. However, Mr. Byers suggested “The sanctions targeted at the Exxon-Rosneft relationship will not be in place very long,” he said. “What we will have to accept is Russia’s influence in the Crimea.”
There may be some easing ahead in the standoff over the Ukraine. “EU sanctions have to be reviewed at the end of this month (October),” said Paul Sprague, the Canada/U.S. Desk Manager at Russia Consulting Group in Moscow. “Russia’s economy is suffering, inflation is up, the ruble and oil prices are down. “However, Putin’s approval rating is at an all-time high because of Crimea,” he said. “Russians love Putin; you have to understand Russian history, the country has always had a strong, dominant leader. When Putin takes off his shirt and shows his physical prowess, Russia people see he is alive and well and strong. Russians can’t imagine anyone else in his job.
Mr. Sprague said multinationals such as Exxon, BP and Shell understand their investments and relations with Russian companies are long term. They look on what is happening now as a storm that will pass in six or twelve months.”
Russia takes an equally long view of its Arctic operations as well, including being a strong proponent of international law and treaties governing the Arctic. “Russia benefits enormously from international law in the Arctic,” said Mr. Byers. “The Arctic gives Russia the largest exclusive economic zone of any country in the world. It has a huge portion of the Arctic Ocean under its jurisdiction. “Russia and Canada are not all that different when it concerns the Arctic,” he said. “Both countries’ leaders want to develop the natural resources of vast, uncontested territories and continental shelves. Along the fringes of those shelves, they seek the maximum extent of their country’s rights under international law. “In this former Cold War frontier we have an agreed set of rules,” Mr. Byers said. “That has a huge payoff.”