Several countries have territorial claims to portions of the Arctic, but Russia — one of the largest claimants — is far ahead of everyone else as it races to develop the region’s natural resources.
As Arctic ice receded due to warming temperatures, sea lanes that have historically been difficult or impossible to transit even with icebreakers are beginning to open up, and as they do, they are likely to reveal vast deposits of oil and natural gas.
Russia already had a large fleet of icebreakers but Moscow has been investing in new ones for a number of years. Meanwhile, the U.S., Canada, and other countries with claims on the Arctic have been nowhere nearly as aggressive in building their own fleets. As such, Russia has a huge advantage and head start in its quest to cash in on the expected economic benefits the Arctic will offer.
In particular, Russia currently has a fleet of 40 icebreakers, including nuclear-powered vessels. The latter can cut through much thicker ice and do not need refueling in a part of the world that is not easily accessible. The U.S., meanwhile, has only two. What’s more, they are costly (about $1 billion each) and take a decade, on average, to build.
As the European Council on Foreign Relations notes:
The melting of the Arctic ice will have not only environmental impacts but geopolitical implications too. It will likely reveal enormous oil and gas reserves. And the Northern Sea Route now emerging is a transport corridor with huge commercial and military potential, shortening the route from Asia to Europe by 35-40% in comparison with the route via the Indian Ocean and the Suez Canal.
Few investors are currently looking for new resources very far north but as the ice melts, more and more energy companies are considering their options. Meanwhile, just this summer Venta Maersk became the first commercial container ship to complete a successful trip from Vladivostok to St Petersburg along the Northern Sea Route. Earlier in the year, Russian gas company Novatek shipped a cargo of LNG to China, taking just 19 days instead of the usual 35 that the Suez route takes. Navigable seas mean that Russia can export its own LNG much more easily and thus unlock supplies from its remote Siberian fields. This in itself is an immense economic opportunity for Moscow.
So clearly, Russia’s economic potential is vast. But countries other than those with territorial claims in the Arctic want in as well, and one of them — China — has the economic and growing military clout to become a player.
Analysis: Obviously, China has no territorial claims in the Arctic but Beijing — and other countries — argue that the Arctic is part of the Global Commons and therefore traditional territorial claims don’t apply.
Beijing declared it would make China a “polar superpower” in 2014, and earlier this year Chinese leaders issued an “Arctic Policy” which states China will pursue interests in the region. It is already building a fleet of icebreakers. Beijing has vowed to build a “polar silk road.”
Meanwhile, the Arctic is ‘managed’ by a series of treaties, the most important of which is the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The treaty goes into great detail on delimiting territorial seas, economic zones, and the right of transit passage. The region is also managed by an Arctic Council made up of countries and indigenous peoples, though the council’s mandate excludes specifically excludes military security. UNCLOS is open to interpretation and already there are border disputes.
As to military security, Russia has also invested heavily in rebuilding and reopening a series of military bases and airfields in the Arctic. And while some have opined that Moscow isn’t interested in an arms race in the region, all indicators point to Russia not simply staking outsized claims in the Arctic but also backing them up with force.
The military presence and build-up are important for strategic purposes as well. Command of those sea lanes gives Russian warships and submarines of the Northern Fleet. With new, longer range land-attack cruise missiles and ICBMs, dominating the Arctic gives Russia a new avenue of attack that cannot easily be countered.