Russian expansion in Arctic could lead to new cold war
By Joe Friedrichsen | Echo
In the foreground of the white-stained landscape, grey outlines of several Russian warships knife through the frigid blue of the Arctic waters. Part of a larger military buildup around the Arctic, these units are en route to a tiny, newly annexed island called Yaya, located in the desolate, icy waste of the Laptev Sea.
In response to NATO’s renewed interest in the region, RIA Novosti, a Russian state-owned news agency, reported that former Soviet bases are being reactivated to increase Russia’s claim on the Arctic and the region’s highly touted oil and natural gas potential.
Russia’s prime minister Dmitry Medvedev said in 2008 that the use of Arctic resources was central to the country’s energy security. He also stressed the importance of exploring and industrializing the rich, untapped region.
According to The Moscow Times, optimistic estimates place the undiscovered reserves of petroleum and natural gas in the Arctic at 13 and 30 percent of the world’s total, respectively.
In 2013, Moscow announced its navy would make the Arctic a priority region for 2014.
Due to economic sanctions imposed on Moscow by the U.S. and EU over Russia’s interference in the Ukraine conflict, some analysts say sanctions could threaten Russia’s energy future because of its over-reliance on revenues from natural gas and petroleum.
Russia’s oil and gas revenues account for more than 50 percent of its federal budget revenues, according to a 2014 report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Analysts believe Western sanctions primarily aim to hamper Russia’s efforts to develop oil and offshore Arctic deposits. Such sanctions hurt Russian energy companies, such as Gazprom Neft and Rosneft, who lack the technologies for offshore drilling in freezing waters. This led Gazprom to partner with Shell (an Anglo-Dutch company) and Rosneft with Exxonmobil and Statoil (American and Norwegian companies, respectively) on their Arctic projects.
For Russia, oil and gas extraction in the Arctic will require the creation of cost-effective technological solutions. Alexander Mandel, adviser to the director general of Gazprom Neft, said Russia can’t rely solely on foreign companies to provide it with equipment. That reliance on Western technology to develop and extract Arctic oil and gas deposits, combined with Western sanctions, gives Russia a strong incentive to localize oil production. Russia can decrease its dependence on the West by developing solutions to these issues. Mandel also noted the creation of standard offshore platforms and ships to accomplish such a goal will take about five years to develop.
That being said, the question remains: what is the significance of Russia’s militarization of its Arctic territory? What could it mean for the U.S., Canada, Norway and other countries with stakes in the region?
Lately, Russia has been busy positioning its chess pieces in and around its Arctic frontier. The Moscow Times reported that Russia is forming two motorized Arctic brigades of 6,000 troops, supported by snowmobiles and hovercraft in Murmansk and Yamal-Nenets, by 2017.
Russia also plans to house MiG-31 interceptor jets full-time at a reconstructed Arctic airfield at Tinsk, in northernmost Sakha Republic, according to RIA Novosti.
In addition, radar and ground guidance systems will soon be placed in Franz Josef Land, Wrangel Island and Cape Schmidt near the East Siberian Sea, reported The Guardian.
Although these moves may seem unsettling, Russia isn’t doing anything unusual here. In many ways, these moves are just extensions of existing Russian government policy. Back in April, President Vladimir Putin established a new state body responsible for national Arctic governance and created an Arctic military command.
Despite these actions, Russia’s recent seizure of Crimea and its aggressive expansionist tendencies are cause for great worry for the West. Putin—whose approval ratings are sky-high thanks to a tightly controlled state-run media—is likely to continue reducing Russia’s dependence on the West to free itself from influence and lessen effects of future sanctions. After doubling down on its oil and gas revenue reliance, a self-sufficient Russia could use its near-impunity to grab more resource-rich Arctic territory. For the U.S. and other Arctic-bordering countries, such a move could certainly spur an urgent Arctic arms race.
Should this happen, it seems quite possible with Putin’s expansionist ambitions that another, much colder war between the West and Russia rests on the horizon—one that could turn hot at a moment’s notice.