Region: Arctic
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Valery Konyshev

Doctor of Political Science, professor at Saint Petersburg state university, RIAC expert

Alexandr Sergunin

PhD in Political Science, Professor at the Faculty of International Relations, Saint Petersburg State University, RIAC expert

Many experts believe that this century will prove to be the ‘Arctic Age’. How valid are these prophesies? What factors will affect the trends in the Arctic geo-economic and geo-political environment long-term?

Many experts believe that this century will prove to be the ‘Arctic Age’. How valid are these prophesies? What factors will affect the trends in the Arctic geo-economic and geo-political environment long-term?

It has always been fashionable to make projections about the next hundred years at the turn of a century. For example, the 21st century was heralded as that of an informational revolution, of biotechnologies, nanotechnologies, a ‘post-industrial’ age, etc.

A variety of the world’s regions have also claimed a leadership role in this century. For example, a lot has been written and said about the determinant role of the Asia-Pacific region in mankind’s progress in foreseeable future. More ‘localised’ versions have also been voiced. There have been persistent attempts to make the BRICS countries the world’s economic driver.

However, the early 2000s witnessed an increasingly potent point of view that the Arctic Region will underpin the vector of world economic and geopolitical development in the next century.

Why is the Arctic Region important for mankind?


The ‘Arctic Age’ proponents put forward the following arguments.

Firstly, the Arctic Region holds immense energy resources which, according to many experts, will drive mankind’s future. According to some estimates, the Arctic has 90 million barrels of oil, 47.3 trillion cubic meters of gas and 44 billion barrels of gas condensate. According to international estimates, this amounts to nearly 25% of hydrocarbon unproven reserves [1]. Over 60% of the Arctic oil and gas reserves are in the territories Russia owns or has claims to according to international law. In absolute figures, this equals 375 bln barrels of oil compared with Saudi Arabia’s oil reserves of 261 bln barrels [2]. An insignificant part of the Arctic reserves have been prospected so far [3], so it essential to make timely investment in prospecting new deposits. Potential coal reserves in Russia’s Arctic region accounting for nearly half of the country’s coal resources equal 780 bln tonnes with 81 bln tonnes of this figure - coking coals.

Secondly, the Arctic Region is rich in rare and rare-earth metals, minerals, ores and other raw materials of strategic importance. For example, Russia’s Arctic Zone (RAZ) boasts over half of Russia’s apatite concentrate reserves (Over 90% reserves are in the Kola Peninsular, the Taimyr Peninsular, in Yakutia and Chukotka), nickel and cobalt (85% reserves are in Norilsk and the rest – in the Kola Peninsular).

The Arctic also has copper (about 60% reserves are in Norilsk and the Kola Peninsular), tungsten (over 50% reserves are in the North of Yakutia and Chukotka), rare-earth elements (over 95% are in Taimyr, the Kola Peninsular and the North of Yakutia). It also boasts platinum group elements (over 98% - in Norilsk and the Kola Peninsular), tin (over 75% proven reserves and 50% predicted – in the Severnoye-Yanskoye deposit), mercury (with the main proven reserves in Chukotka and big deposits in Taimyr), gold, silver (90% of the reserves found in the North with the bigger part - in Chukotka, Taimyr and the Kola Peninsular), diamonds with Russia number one in the world in terms of proven resources (over 99% in Yakutia, the Archangelsk Oblast and Taimyr).

There are also manganese reserves (the most important deposits are in Novaya Zemlya), chrome (with the most important deposits in Yamal and the Kola Peninsula with the most important ones found in the latter) and titanium (major deposits in the Kola Peninsula).

Thirdly, the Arctic Region boasts immense biological resources of global importance. The Arctic seas are the habitat of numerous unique animals and fishes including the polar bear, the polar fox, the narwhal, the killer whale, the walrus and the white whale. Over 150 fish species live in the Arctic and sub-Arctic waters, including the important ones for fisheries - the cod, the herring, the haddock and the flounder. The RAZ fisheries account for nearly 15% of the fish catch and sea food production in Russia.

Fourthly. The Northern Sea Route and the so-called Northwest Passage along the northern coasts of Russia and Canada are critical transport routes not only for the two countries but for other states and regions. The passage from East Asia to Europe and North America along these routes is by far shorter and safer (I. e. pirate-free) then via the Suez Canal. Some countries have demonstrated a growing interest in organising and developing cross-polar flights, especially between North America and Asia.

Fifthly, the Arctic Region affects the environment across the entire world – the climate, the World Ocean’s level, etc. The proponents of the ‘Arctic Age’ concept maintain, that the global climate change, specifically the global warming causing the Arctic ice thaw, makes the natural resources and transport communications more accessible for operation. In their opinion, Arctic tourism – a relatively new-for-the-region business - will grow and become increasingly profitable in foreseeable future with some Western countries, Norway in the first place, aggressively expanding it already today.

The age of Arctic conflicts?


The champions of the ‘Arctic Age’ doctrine, alluding to the Arctic Region’s mounting economic and strategic importance, predict aggravating competition in the region among the following participants - five ‘formal’ Arctic states (Russia, Canada, the USA, Norway and Denmark), the subarctic countries (Iceland, Sweden and Finland) and ‘out-of-the regionals’ (China, Japan, South Korea, India and the UK).

Two opposing scenarios of Arctic-related dispute settlement are proposed – a pessimistic and an optimistic ones. Under the former one, the Arctic “five’ will fight hard for their rights in the region. Specifically, they will push for a speedy delimitation of the continental shelf and the sea space to formalise control over the Arctic natural resources with Russia and Canada seeking to establish exclusive control over the Northern Sea route and the Northwest Passage. This scenario of the Arctic developments is sure to lead to the region’s re-militarisation to enable the players to protect or further their respective economic interests. Even a military conflict cannot be ruled out in a remote future involving both the ‘regionals’ and the ‘out-of-regionals’.

The optimistic scenario is based on the assumption that common sense will prevail among the organisations and countries with a vested interest in developing the Arctic and they will resolve emerging issues not by force but through negotiations, international arbitration, etc. This group of experts tends to believe that the Arctic natural resources and communications are global commons, so all participants - states, international organisations and private companies with economic, financial and technological resources – should be allowed to develop the region.

This point of view is, as a rule, substantiated by the need to take care of the Arctic ‘fragile nature’ – something that can be achieved solely through the efforts of the entire humankind.

There are multiple in-between long-term projections of the Arctic Region’s development between these two opposing viewpoints. Let us sort out the arguments of the ‘Arctic Age’ proponents and the probability of the two above totally opposing scenarios of the region’s development.

Can projections of the Arctic Region’s development be made?

Two approaches may be applied to making futurological projections for a hundred years ahead. Firstly, one can compare projections which claim, as a rule, to describe developments or processes that may occur in future. However, such projections can hardly be very precise. They may be scientifically substantiated provided only that the objective laws underpinning the development of the studied object are identified. Then one can, by extrapolation, assume what the object will be like in a remote future. However, the Arctic Region is a rather new – in social, economic and geopolitical terms - region with its formation not yet completed. So, one cannot say that sustainable laws of the region’s development have already taken shape thus making truly scientific long-term projections impossible so far.

A more feasible approach seems to be analysis of the factors underlying the region’s current development which will continue to affect the regional situation in a remote future. And it is critical to distinguish between the substantial and the non-substantial, i. e. between the sustainable factors and the temporary processes and phenomena. However, one should bear in mind that even if we manage to identify, more or less precisely, the long-term factors, all assessments of the Arctic’s future development (even more so, for a hundred years ahead) will be purely of a probabilistic nature.

The point is that science and technology as well human society as a whole do not always progress by evolution but by leaps. Something that seemed essential just yesterday driving mankind’s development, loses its importance today - and even more so tomorrow – becoming insignificant, with factors whose emergence was not easy - and often impossible - to project coming to the forefront. It was impossible to conceive a hundred years ago, that the progress of aviation, naval navigation, nuclear, drilling, pipeline and other technologies will enable to exploit the Arctic resources even to a relatively limited extent we are witnessing today. Given the impressive progress of science and technology, it is impracticable to forecast mankind’s potentialities to develop the Arctic in a hundred years.

What are the threats of climate change?

Melting ice in the Arctic

Since reasoning on the Arctic’s future is based, in most cases, on expected global warming it is essential to investigate this phenomenon first. It is noteworthy, that the warming processes have been under way on the planet for three hundred years. The global climate change observed is linked to rising concentrations of greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide, methane and N2O in the atmosphere. According to scholars, this started in the mid-18th century with the advent of industrialisation accompanied by hydrocarbon incineration and contraction of forests – natural sinks of atmospheric carbon dioxide. An accelerated warming witnessed in the recent decades is also caused by man’s activities. The rate of warming in the Arctic is double that of the world average. According to the Russian Geographical Society and the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) the areas of pack ice and permafrost in the Arctic currently shrink at about 1% annually.

The Arctic ice area has contracted by 8% since 1978 while the temperature of the permafrost upper layer went up by 3°. If the warming trend continues, scholars expect that, by 2099, the temperature will go up by 6.4°, the sea level will rise by 0.59 cm and the ocean will be completely ice-free in summer. According to researchers, ice thawing will not lead to global-scale technogenic disasters in foreseeable future, but it will dramatically impact global weather formation.

However, the Russian researchers at the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute make more conservative projections based on the latest observations – they prefer to discuss the ‘instability point’ in the high Arctic latitudes climate. The warming is not entirely unequivocal, for 2008 witnessed emergence of a cooling trend in the atmosphere, the ocean and the ice cover. So, there are significant fluctuations of average temperatures in the Arctic various areas. It is a known fact, that thawing and increases of sea ice are cyclic against the overall shrinkage, however, of ice-covered areas. Ice growth was observed in 1900-1919 and 1938-1968 with its shrinkage in 1918-1938 and since 1968 till today.

The cyclic nature of these processes is indicative of their common natural causes. However, the cycle hypothesis does not contradict the theory that the current climate changes are caused by man. According to IPCC data, the existence of cycles is undeniable, but they have been superimposed over the last 10- 20 years by short-term increases of the anthropogenic greenhouse effect [4]. Anyway, it is essential to take into account the impact of projected warming on Russia, for a significant part of its territory is in the Arctic area where maximal warming is projected.

This impact will be both positive and negative. On the one hand, the climate softening will enable to extend to the north the areas where man can live comfortably, to cut electricity costs during heating periods, to increase cargo traffic in the Arctic seas and to facilitate economic development of the Arctic continental shelf.

Arctic fauna

On the other hand, the warming will lead to replacement of certain biological species by others with an ambivalent effect on both the plants and wild animals. It will also have an adverse effect on the life of the Northern native people while permafrost thawing may have a significant negative impact on the buildings, structures and utility systems. The Arctic region is highly vulnerable against such impact due the extreme nature and weather conditions, the ecosystems’ fragility, the Polar Regions remoteness from major economic and political centres and a poorly developed transport and other infrastructure. Some regions, like Central Asia, will witness more frequent draughts, while others, like Western Siberia, will suffer more floods. Overall, Russia faces rather high risks in terms of the adverse impact of climate change on its nature, agriculture, water resources, power generation and demographic situation [5].

Even if we assume that scholars’ projections of increasing accessibility of the Far North areas for economic activity in the coming hundred years due to climate warming are correct, this does not necessarily mean that competition for the Arctic natural resources will inevitably aggravate and may even result in a large-scale military conflict.

The fact is that, even given the warming, oil and gas production in high latitudes will remain an extremely risky and expensive exercise. The disappearance of the polar ice cap in summer projected by scholars does not mean that there will be none in summer and autumn. Oil and gas production and transport in such an unstable environment is a big challenge. Moreover, safe technologies for deep water drilling and production of hydrocarbons - even more so in the harsh climatic conditions – are not developed yet with Norway demonstrating the best progress in this area. Overall, it makes much more sense for transnational and Russian oil and gas companies to invest in deposit development in the ‘warm parts of the world’ – Latin America and Africa – as well as the continental part of Russia’s Arctic than in production of these raw materials in the Arctic continental shelf.

Moreover, conventionally produced gas has a newly emerged unexpected competitor – shale gas with its deposits discovered in many countries, even Poland, considered a resource-poor country, and its production costs are much lower than those of natural gas. Experts believe, that the shale gas revolution unfolding in the world - especially in the USA - will inevitably undermine Russia’s monopoly position in the gas market and reduce, in foreseeable future, the interest in the Arctic gas deposits.

NATO countries bound by mutual defence obligations – or Russia and China with their own mutual defence commitments - resort to localised military.

On the whole, the unreasonably high oil and gas prices prevailing in the world markets today make many energy consumers unable and/or unwilling to pay such amounts and turn to alternative energy sources. For example, coal-rich China, the USA and some European countries aggressively develop technologies of more efficient and environmentally ‘clean’ energy generation from this raw material. In spite of the Fukushima nuclear disaster and a decision by Japan and some European countries to shut down their NPPs in foreseeable future, the world is witnessing a nuclear energy ‘boom’. And lastly, the RIAC web-site features an article by V. Likhachev on future world energy who maintains that renewable energy resources will play an increasingly important role while the oil and gas share in the global energy ‘budget’ will, at the same time, decline. All this again casts doubt upon a projected fatal dependence of mankind on the Arctic oil and gas.

One may get an impression that the ‘five’ Arctic countries seeking delimitation of the Arctic continental shelf want to establish their strategic control over the potentially raw-material-rich territories – i.e. to have ‘something to fall back on’ or for the rainy day – rather than to promptly start development of these fields. The latter option, as mentioned above, is unprofitable today and, moreover, these countries do not have appropriate resources or technologies.

It is doubtful that the Northern Sea Route and the Northwest Passage will have a dramatic crowding out effect on the southern cargo traffic routes. Firstly, the Arctic transport routes are not convenient for all world regions but only for connections between East Asia, on the one hand, and Northern and Western Europe as well as North America, on the other hand.

Secondly, the unstable ice environment due to the polar cap thawing may be full of unpleasant surprises for maritime traffic in the high latitudes (drift ice and icebergs).

Thirdly, special ice-class tankers will be needed for Arctic navigation and there are very few of them now. The leading carriers will need substantial time, money and human resources to add such tankers to their fleets.

And lastly, the fourth. A multitude of technical bottlenecks need to be addressed in telecommunications and navigation areas in order to ensure intense marine traffic. The Arctic satellite navigation is poorly developed today - the satellite systems fail to provide uninterrupted and reliable monitoring of the ice environment needed for a safe passage of tankers and other ships and operation of oil and gas platforms. Geomagnetic storms make telecommunications system operation north of 70°latitude more challenging. Moreover, these telecommunication systems cannot cover the entire Sub-Arctic area. However, Russia’s position here is better, for its GLONASS system enables to provide communication farther north as its satellites orbit the earth at 64°8’ inclination compared with the 55° for GPS. As a consequence, the Russian telecommunication systems are the only ones today capable of efficient performance in the Arctic.

One should not overestimate a conflict-generating potential of the race to exploit the northern routes. Clearly, Russia will not welcome a loss of its current monopoly to provide ice breaker escort to international ships along the Northern Sea Route and the revenues it generates. As the ice thaws, international carriers will be able to do without such an escort and the marine shipping traffic will occur outside Russia’s territorial waters (12 nautical miles off the coast line).

However, even after the ice retreats, foreign ships will need Russian navigation support and port services as well as its rescue aid in emergencies. Incidentally, Russia is setting up search and rescue facilities along the Northern Sea Route. One has to bear in mind that most marine shipping traffic will occur within the 200-mile zone of Russia’s exclusive economic zone and this will give the country certain leverage to control the cargo traffic.

Will there be a war for the Arctic?

Military conflicts for the Arctic division and/or re-division are unlikely. As noted above, important interests of various states – including those with big military potential - are at play in the region. However, a clash of these interests will not necessarily deteriorate into armed conflict(s). Conflicts are easier settled by peaceful means. Evidently, if the USA, Canada, Denmark or Norway - NATO countries bound by mutual defence obligations – or Russia and China with their own mutual defence commitments - resort to localised military actions, this may escalate a conflict into a large-scale armed one or even a war. The same holds true in case such actions are taken against any of the above actors. And this is in nobody’s interest. Moreover, engagement in military activities in the Arctic (especially on shore and the sea surface) poses great challenges due to the remoteness of the Arctic theatre of hostilities from the main territories of the potential adversaries, the poorly developed civil and military infrastructures and the harsh climatic conditions. The outcomes of such conflicts are hard to predict. And finally, the hostilities’ impact on the

Arctic fragile nature may be altogether disastrous.

Therefore, one cannot rule out that the Arctic ‘five’ will step up their military preparations in the region with a view to modernise their fleets, their air and the ground forces (mainly the border and ranger units), to protect their economic interests as well as to demonstrate force, should bilateral or multilateral conflicts in the Arctic Region aggravate. However, military force is unlikely to be used, for even a most insignificant armed conflict may lead to dangerous and unpredictable outcomes.

Prospects for cooperation

On the other hand, the potential for Arctic international cooperation is unlimited. The polar and non-polar countries may be expected to enhance cooperation primarily in the following areas:

  • environmental protection and monitoring;
  • large-scale studies of the Arctic climate change, the status of Arctic wild animals and plants, social, economic and demographic trends in the Far North;
  • preservation of the unique way of life and culture of the people of the North;
  • search and rescue operations;
  • combating oil spills and other technogenic disasters, etc.
The road to the rig in the Arctic

We have ample grounds to hope for further strengthening of the international legal regimes and sub-regional institutions in the Arctic, for they may definitely be the most efficient instruments of dispute resolution in the region. We are hopeful that even the countries unwilling to be bound by international legal commitments preferring unilateral actions (The USA) or seeking to use international organisations not so much to strengthen peace and stability in the Arctic, but rather to further their expansion in the region (China, Japan and South Korea) realise the importance of these regimes and institutions and the need to advance and improve them.

The Arctic Council may be expected to become, with a passage of time, the most recognised organisation in the region capable to make a true impact on the situation taking shape in the Arctic. It seems the Council will eventually strike a balance between the powers and representation of the ‘formal’ Arctic sates and the ‘out-of-regionals’. The latter want their status at the AC to be raised and are ready to enhance their participation in its activities.

Overall, in spite of erroneous prophecies on the advent of the ‘Arctic age’ and numerous horror stories about a clash of civilisations and a forthcoming sharing and re-division of the Arctic, the coming age will, admittedly, be by no means a simple one for the region. On the one hand, numerous conflict ‘knots’ driven both by natural and anthropogenic factors, are emerging there. On the other hand, the Arctic is a rapidly developing region fraught not only with problems but offering a variety of opportunities. It is a kind of testing ground which, contingent on reasonable and prudent use, could enable to design new models and mechanisms of international cooperation.

1. Smith M., Giles K. Russia and the Arctic: «The Last Dash North». Advanced Research and Assessment Group. Russia Series 07/26. Defense Academy of the United Kingdom, 2007. P. 1.

2. Ibid. P. 1.

3. Истомин А., Павлов К., Селин В. Экономика арктической зоны России // Общество и экономика. 2008. № 7. С. 158–172.

4. Anisimov O., Vaughan D., Callaghan T. et al. Polar Regions (Arctic and Antarctic) // Parry M.L., Canziani O.F., Palutikof J.P., van der Linden P.J., Hanson C.E. (eds.) Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007. P. 653–685.

5. Катцов В.М., Мелешко В.П., Чичерин С.С. Изменение климата и национальная безопасность Российской Федерации // Право и безопасность. 2007. Июль. № 1–2 (22–23).

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