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Photo: pro-arctic.ru/PrtSc

Ice Cake

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AUSTIN, TEXAS – April 8, 2019

The Arctic is becoming not only a testing ground for advanced technologies and ambitious projects but also an arena of military confrontation.

On April 9-10, St. Petersburg will host the V International Arctic Forum "The Arctic: Territory of Dialogue" with the participation of the Presidents of Russia, Iceland, Finland, and the Prime Ministers of Norway and Sweden.

Foreign Ministers of Denmark, Iceland, and Norway, and high-ranking officials from "many non-regional countries of Europe and Asia,” as well as international organizations will also take part in the meeting.

The main theme of the forum is "The Arctic is an ocean of opportunities." The main attention will be paid to ensuring sustainable socio-economic development of the region, preserving the unique Arctic ecosystems, improving the quality of life and strengthening international cooperation for these purposes.

The international legal status of the Arctic has long been a subject of dispute, mainly between the US, Canada, Russia, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland.

And the reasons for these disagreements are obvious.

As soon as scientists began to fix the thickness of the Arctic ice, they immediately began to talk about the fact that nature itself opens the gates to people in this treasury. From an economic point of view, the Arctic is not just an area for capital investment in conditions of instability in financial markets, but also a tool for solving serious economic and industrial problems. If we consider that only five states participate in the development of the Arctic within their own borders, and oil and gas reserves, according to the US Geological Survey, are estimated at 22 % of the world’s, it is easy to imagine that the cost of crude oil, petroleum products, and gas for each state can be hundreds of billions of dollars.

At the same time, of the five Arctic States, more than half of all unexplored oil and gas reserves are owned by Russia. Moreover, the prospects for the practical use of these riches are not hypothetical, but practical. Even today, Russia is able to quickly begin exploration and offshore mining. Other Arctic powers, including the United States, lag far behind in this area.

Given the complexity of resource extraction in the Arctic and the prospect of exhaustion of easily recoverable oil as such in 10–20 years, it is necessary to start developing the Arctic now. Full and safe mining and transportation of resources from the Arctic for processing must first be ensured. This requires not only creating a special fleet but also ensuring the security of the "Arctic economic zone" from any encroachment. In this regard, tensions, including military ones, are constantly growing in the Arctic today.

And in this area, Russia has advanced the farthest. In 2014, Russian scientists found evidence to support Russia's bid to join the Arctic shelf to the North Pole.

In 2015, Russia corrected its bid to expand its borders in the Arctic by joining the Lomonosov underwater ridge. Denmark and Norway also applied.

The United States is categorically against such an approach and believes that, despite the position of Russia, the Arctic should remain free and open international territory.

"Now the Northern Sea Route is open more often, and there are resources and commercial interests in it ... This creates competition. Russia, since it (the Northern Sea Route) passes closest to its borders, has increased (defense potential), opened a number of airfields in the region, and has placed advanced radar systems. They began periodically moving various defense systems there to increase control over the region, "said General Curtis Scaparrotti, commander of the European command of the US Armed Forces, at the Senate hearing.

Ice Cake

"As a result, we have updated our plans. We had to change the deployment of some of our forces, operational trends so that we could provide deterrence. We send a signal that the Arctic is important to us," he added.

The Northern Sea Route is the main Arctic shipping route of Russia, the shortest water route between the Far East and the European part of the country. The route connects the ports of the Arctic and the major rivers of the Northern region.

Earlier, the commander of the US Navy, Admiral James Foggo, said that the US would not allow Russia and China to dominate the Arctic and control the Northern Sea Route, noting that this region should be used equally by all countries of the Arctic Council, and no one has the right to claim it. British Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson noted that his country plans to increase its military presence in the Arctic "in order to protect NATO’s northern flank from Russia."

At the same time, if you compare the importance of the Arctic for Russia and the United States from an economic point of view, the polar region plays a much smaller economic role in ensuring the US state interests.

Russia has always been more active in the Arctic than the United States. And there are a number of geographic, economic and cultural reasons. The country has more northern territories than the US, which partly explains why economic activity in the Arctic takes up a much larger share of the country's national economy.

Thus, in Russia, the Arctic regions bring up to 20% of GDP, the Arctic regions occupy about half of its entire territory, and the Northern Sea Route is a key route providing access for the Russian Navy to the World Ocean and transportation of resources extracted in the region. On the contrary, the United States has the smallest area of water sector in the Arctic Ocean. The icebreaking fleet of American has only three heavy diesel-electric vessels (Russia has 38, of which 7 are nuclear). The only Arctic state of Alaska is experiencing a budget deficit and occupies one of the last places in the country in terms of GDP. The economic development of the state is tied mainly to the extraction of oil and gas. However, in recent years, amid falling oil prices, there has been a sharp decline in the interest of oil companies in the US Arctic shelf.

Russia has also advanced further than any other country in the development of Arctic oil and gas resources. In 2012, Russia opened the world's first ice-resistant oil drilling platform Prirazlomnaya in the Pechora Sea. In 2019, Russia also opened three new Arctic pipelines. The US, by contrast, has not built a single Arctic pipeline since 1977.

However, this does not mean that the US has no interests in the Arctic region. And these interests are not only economic but strategic. In this regard, ensuring military strategic superiority and the possibility of free and operational maneuvering of the navy is a priority for the US in the Arctic.

The decrease in the thickness of the ice for the first time in several decades has allowed US warships to “enter” the Arctic. In particular, the voyage of an American warship into the Arctic waters is planned for this summer. The Wall Street Journal has reported on it, referring to the words of the US Navy Minister Richard Spencer that the mission would be the first operation of the US Navy in the Arctic and would be designed to respond to the "excessive claims of some countries." However, a high-ranking military official said that while there is no specific plan, it is only being developed, and the vessel for such an operation has not yet been determined.

However, it is not the first year that the need for urgent development of the Arctic in Washington has been discussed. Moreover, the US Government Accountability Office in October 2018 even made a report on the most optimal development of the polar territories.

True, the US military and economists from US GAO have serious differences in views on the development of the Arctic. The GAO believes that the US Navy has no special requirements for the reinforcement of existing ships or building new ice-class vessels, that will save the US billions of dollars that were previously earmarked for the construction of the icebreaker fleet. The military, on the contrary, is confident that there is nothing to do in the Arctic without ice-class vessels. Admiral Paul Zukunft, commander of the US Coast Guard, believes that the new ice-class ships should be equipped with missile weapons as well.

According to the National Snow and Ice Center, cited by the WSJ, in 2018 there was a third ice melting since the late 1970s, which gives a unique chance to the US to develop the Arctic zone and previously inaccessible oil and gas deposits.

Meanwhile, global warming can really facilitate access to resources in the Arctic, but only in the summer, when an American warship is planned to go. For the rest of the year, there is actually nothing to do without icebreakers in the north.

At the moment, Russia not only has the largest icebreaking fleet but is also the only country with a fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers, without which almost any difficult expedition in the Central Arctic region is impossible.

In 2018, Donald Trump signed the military budget, which provides for the construction of six new heavy icebreakers. However, what kind of ice class these ships will be, whether they will be armed, and when their construction will begin is unknown.

The Arctic is becoming a real headache for the US also because Russia's economic and military successes in the region and the lack of its own nuclear icebreaking fleet (and ice class ships in principle) are overlapped by another factor — the Chinese interest in the Arctic.

Washington is well aware of all the above circumstances and understands the need to take urgent measures to rectify the situation, including the development of weapons exclusively for use in conditions of extremely low temperatures. However, due to the lack of a clear understanding of priorities and being in the conditions of a tough internal political split, Washington has no real mechanisms for changing the situation—neither legal, nor economic, nor political.

For example, in the field of international law, the prospects for the US to extend its jurisdiction to the extended continental shelf (ie, to areas of the shelf beyond 200 nautical miles from the shore) remain unclear. The 2009 directive determined that the establishment of the boundaries of the seabed, on which the state will have sovereign rights to extract marine resources, is a key direction in ensuring the country's energy and environmental security. The most effective and internationally recognized instrument for securing the rights to the extended shelf, according to the document, is provided for by the 1982 UN Convention on the law of the sea, which the US has not yet ratified. The successive presidential administrations have been seeking to ratify the Convention over the past twenty-plus years, but have rested against some of the senators, mainly representing the Republican Party. In their opinion, the ratification of the Convention is not in the US’s national interest. The main protests are caused by the provisions of the agreement, according to which the state is obliged to make contributions to the UN International Seabed Authority for the development of oil and gas on the extended continental shelf. Thus, at present, the US does not have the main legal instrument, as it is not a party to the UN Convention.

Ice Cake

From a military point of view, the US navy, as well as the army and Marine Corps are not adapted for permanent deployment in the Arctic latitudes and do not have a long stay experience in permafrost conditions. The experience of all types of troops from the US armed forces, obtained in the Middle East, for obvious reasons, in the case of the Arctic, cannot be used. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has repeatedly spoken about the lag and inability of the United States to pursue its own interests in the Arctic. By a strange coincidence, almost immediately after these statements, he was forced to resign.

But if the United States is in a bad situation with the Arctic fleet, then there are quite a few possibilities of air support and maintenance of year-round military bases in northern latitudes. At least financial ones. In particular, according to the WSJ, the military base on Adak Island, part of the Aleutian Archipelago, where the nearest American coast to the Russian border is just over 300 kilometers, will resume its work in the near future.

The Adak military base operated from 1942 to 1997. There is a landing strip on the island, but there are also opportunities for port development to receive warships. The WSJ quotes the US Navy Minister Richard Spencer that this base has unique prospects for development, namely for the transfer of warships there. In addition to an increase in the military contingent, Boeing P-8 Poseidon anti-submarine patrol aircraft can be deployed on the island.

This island can undoubtedly become an important transit point for the US Navy and Aviation. However, there are two problems. The US has very little experience in creating and maintaining military bases in northern latitudes. The second is that Adak is still located considerably south of the Arctic waters and allows you to control only a small part of the north-western passage and the Northern Sea Route. But American experts point out that Adak may become the center of opposition in the north, not so much Russia as China.

Ice Cake

Why are we talking about China? What threat does it pose if it is not an Arctic state? China is trying to be active in the Arctic region. Because China is interested in the functioning of the Northern Sea Route, which is provided by the Russian means of navigation, pilotage, icebreaking fleet. At present, China’s export-import operations are mainly carried out by sea routes that go through the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca. These are regions tightly controlled by the US, Japan, and their allies. China is not satisfied with this and it is considering the possibility of organizing alternative routes.

China’s interest in the Northern Sea Route is also due to the fact that it is several thousand kilometers shorter than the traditional route to Europe via the Suez Canal. This reduces the time of delivery of goods and their cost. In addition, China is called potentially the main consumer of Russian Arctic products - crude oil and natural gas.

Taking into account the above, in view of the lack of real instruments of influence, in the current conditions Washington can only frighten China and Russia with economic sanctions. This will certainly give some effect, but will not solve the problem. After all, even if the Pentagon immediately starts developing weapons exclusively for use in extremely low temperatures, it will be extremely difficult to catch up with Russia.

By the most conservative estimates, Russia is ahead of the US in the Arctic in both technology and military presence by 7-10 years. By the time America gathers strength, China can also enter the zone of economic interests as its partner, and the US is no longer able to defeat two serious rivals at once.

Author: USA Really