Russia in the Arctic: Economic Interests Trump Military Ambitions
A recent mission by a Russian nuclear submarine to the floor of the Arctic Ocean has threatened to reignite the media narrative that regional disputes over the right to unlock the economic potential of the Arctic could result in military confrontation. But it is their mutual economic interests that mean that the five Arctic coastal states are motivated to pursue legal and diplomatic avenues to achieve their aspirations, and have no desire to jeopardise the status quo.
During the Russian operation, known as Arktika-2012, geological material was collected from one of the two underwater mountain ranges that extend from the Russian landmass towards the North Pole. Russia wants to prove that the Lomonosov and Mendeleev ridges are extensions of Russia's continental shelf and part of the Eurasian plate, which, according to the current legal framework, would allow Russia exclusive rights to any potential future resources under the seabed. The details of the project were intended to remain secret, but in November 2012 several news stories about the submarine appeared, citing a Russian defence ministry source.
Despite efforts to build good regional relations among Arctic countries, Russia's neighbours do have concerns about its increasing military presence in the Arctic and its sometimes assertive, anti-Western rhetoric. However, considered in the wider context of Russia's post-Cold War military re-development, its Arctic positioning is not as confrontational as it may seem.
The Arctic is a key part of Russia's reassertion of what it sees as its rightful place in international affairs, and it has far greater territory, presence and capability in the Arctic than its neighbours. Rich in hydrocarbons, the region was highlighted in Moscow's Arctic policy of 2008 as the country's primary source of energy for the twenty-first century: approximately 15% of the country's GDP and 25% of its exports come from there, while 80% of the gas in the Arctic lies within Russia's exclusive economic zone (EEZ). There are major on-shore gas installations, and plans to further develop off-shore drilling, though these have met with some logistical difficulties with international partners. Along with hydrocarbons, maritime transport is a major economic development priority. The Northern Sea Route, the new shipping route most likely to become commercially viable in the coming decades as the summer ice recedes, and promises to connect Europe and Asia, runs through Russia's territorial waters or EEZ. However, the lack of infrastructure along the route will hold back the development of commercial shipping.
The planting of a titanium Russian flag on the floor of the Arctic Ocean during a previous mission, Arktika-2007, created a powerful image, but it had no legal significance. It did, however, pique international interest in the Arctic and encouraged a media narrative about competition over the region's territory and resources.
The objective of Russia's latest mission, Arktika-2012, was to prove that its landmass extends to the North Pole by drilling into the sea floor to collect rock samples for scientific analysis. In September, the Kalitka, a Losharik-class nuclear-powered auxiliary submarine, was used to guide the Kapitan Dranitsyn and Dickson ice breakers in drilling three boreholes at two different sites on the Mendeleev ridge, collecting over 500kg of rock samples.
This was the first known mission for the Kalitka. Equipped with space-station-grade air and water regeneration systems, the submarine can remain submerged for months. During this operation, it remained 2.5-3 kilometres below the surface for 20 days. (Though the battery-powered civilian Mir stations used in the Arktika-2007 expedition can also operate at such depths, they can only stay submerged for 72 hours.) It was mounted to the underside of a larger nuclear-powered auxiliary submarine (the Orenburg, a redesigned Kalmar or Delta III stretch) to transport it to the drilling site and was supported by the larger boat during the operation.
Continental-shelf claims and maritime borders
In collecting the geological samples, Russia was responding to a request by the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) that it submit supporting evidence for its claim to a broad continental shelf that extends beyond its landmass under the Arctic Ocean.
The five Arctic coastal states - Russia, Canada, the United States, Norway and Denmark - in 2008 issued a joint statement, known as the Ilulissat Declaration, committing to settling territorial claims diplomatically, using existing legal mechanisms. The primary legal body for maritime border delimitation in the Arctic is the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which rules that maritime countries' EEZs extend 200 nautical miles from their shore. The CLCS covers continental-shelf claims beyond that zone, up to a maximum of 350nm.
Should it be determined that the claimed portion of the ocean floor has the same geological makeup as the Russian continental landmass, then the CLCS will rule that it is an extension of Russia's continental shelf, granting Russia sovereign rights to resources under the seabed up to 350nm from its shoreline. In a submission to CLCS in 2001, Russia claimed the Lomonosov and Mendeleev ridges, as well as the seabed below the North Pole. If this claim is verified, Russia's continental shelf would be extended by 1.2 million square kilometres, and give Russia exclusive rights to the resources below the seabed. Russia's Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment tested the samples and found that they did match the make-up of its landmass. Its next submission to CLCS will likely be ready by the end of 2013, to be submitted in 2014. (The CLCS's ruling will be final and binding.)
Following Russia's lead, all Arctic countries are preparing to submit claims to the CLCS: Norway's is already complete, while the United States is going ahead with its preparations even though it has not yet ratified UNCLOS and is, therefore, not a party to its adjudication. There is considerable support for acceding to UNCLOS within the US State Department and Department of Defense, and the claim is being put together in anticipation of eventual ratification.
Further sources of friction between Arctic nations on the issue of maritime border delimitation include bilateral disagreements between the US and Canada, and between Denmark and Canada, and a trilateral dispute between Russia, Canada and Denmark. The 2,000km-long Lomonosov ridge, meanwhile, is particularly contentious: Canada claims that the ridge is an underwater extension of Ellesmere Island, while Denmark argues that it is an extension of Greenland's landmass. The US, in turn, has stated that Lomonosov is an oceanic ridge and thus cannot be an extension of any country's continental shelf.
However, joint efforts to map the seabed in more detail are under way. In 2011, the US and Canada concluded a five-year mapping operation of their continental shelf, and Canada and Denmark conducted a seismic exploration in 2007. In September 2012, Russian President Vladimir Putin called for the creation of a joint scientific council with Canada to allow potentially overlapping continental-shelf claims to be discussed, and Canada responded positively. In addition to the joint surveys, scientists and officials from Arctic nations have met annually since 2007 to discuss issues related to their continental shelves, which may overlap.
Of the known oil and gas deposits in the region, 97% lie within the Arctic states' EEZs, meaning there is not much competition between states for access to them. Most of these deposits may not be recoverable in the near term, due to the difficulties of hydrocarbon extraction in remote, harsh and ecologically sensitive environments. But in making maximal continental-shelf claims, Arctic states are hedging that there may be new discoveries or technological developments that will make these deposits more accessible in future. The area that the Russian Federation is claiming is not thought to be rich in hydrocarbons, but does include the North Pole, which has symbolic value.
Cooperation likely to produce best results
Though the CLCS will rule on the extent of the continental shelf in the Arctic, it will not draw the boundaries within the area designated as continental shelf. It is for the countries concerned to come to an agreement on the division of that continental shelf, and the outer boundaries of their national claims, as Russia and Norway did over their Barents Sea border in 2010. However, the CLCS requires that conflicting claims be resolved before it makes its recommendation on the boundary between international oceanic space and national jurisdiction.
Differences of opinion among Arctic states over the extent of their shelves could be resolved by discussing CLCS claims before they are submitted, reaching mutually agreeable findings and submitting parallel or joint applications. Each country submits its data to the CLCS confidentially, and its meetings are held in private. UNCLOS scholars believe that Russia has been in communication with Canada and possibly Denmark on the division of their respective claims to the Lomonosov ridge, but there is no information in the public domain about these negotiations. Potential joint submissions are likewise not being prepared openly.
Military activity in the Arctic
Apart from its economic potential, the strategic importance of the Arctic is not lost on any regional state and all of them have increased the number and complexity of their military exercises there.
After a long period of stagnation, Russia is devoting considerable resources to rebuilding and streamlining its military forces. Military exercises have increased for all of the Russian military, including the Northern Fleet, which is based on Russia's northwest coast, inside the Arctic Circle, and is the main locus of its sea-based nuclear deterrent. Its air assets include long-range bombers and maritime reconnaissance aircraft. On the ground, its capabilities include naval infantry and an army brigade on the Kola Peninsula. In 2009, Russia announced its plans to develop further specialised forces to protect its Arctic territory.
Russia expressed its unease about the further militarisation of the region in 2009, when Norway moved its armed forces' headquarters to Reitan, in the north of the country. It considered Cold Response - a 15-country exercise that took place in northern Norway and Sweden in March 2012 and involved 16,300 troops - a provocation, and reacted with an exercise involving its 200th motor rifle brigade from Murmansk, including T-80 tanks with gas-turbine engines suited for the Arctic climate. However, Russia has also undertaken joint exercises with both Norway and the US. Confidence-building measures such as these, as well as forums to openly address security matters, have been considered constructive.
Moscow's 2008 Arctic policy placed its emphasis not on a military build-up but on maritime law enforcement duties. It also focused on enforcing shipping and fishing regulations, and providing search-and-rescue capabilities. Russia's northern border includes almost 40,000km of coastline, which is becoming more exposed as summer sea ice retreats and economic activity increases. Though Russia has a coastal border guard, only a few of its ships are suitable for Arctic operations, and its ability to monitor its coast and EEZ, and enforce regulations, is limited. As with other Arctic countries, meeting its constabulary requirements is a more immediate and pressing challenge than rebuilding military structures to tackle comparatively notional security threats.
Mutual economic interest
Despite the signs of heightened military activity in the region, the greatest stabilising factor in the region is mutual economic interest, and the points of friction around border delimitation and military activity are unlikely to override this. Russia, in particular, is eager to open up the Northern Sea Route for trade purposes, as it perceives great potential for commerce along its otherwise remote northern coast and the possibility of imposing transit fees for shipping through the route. Russia's relations with NATO and the US will have a major impact on levels of cooperation or mistrust in the Arctic. Rebuilding its decaying infrastructure and managing the Northern Sea Route that can connect Europe and Asia will advance Russia's strategic goals in the region more effectively than an unnecessary military build-up.