Media reports state that last month’s blockade of the Suez Canal cost the world’s economy 54 billion dollars. Such developments have brought again to life the story of the necessity to invest in the Arctic trade routes. Frédéric Lasserre in his paper “Simulations of shipping along Arctic routes: comparison, analysis, and economic perspectives” states that 26 analyses have been made on the profitability of the focus transfer of goods transport to the north. Allegedly, none of them definitely showed a secure of profit, but the author emphasizes that the route along the coast of the Russian Federation is the most potent. This opens up many other security and geostrategic topics.
Despite the harsh climate and serious challenges, the Arctic has been known to be used as a transit route since ancient times, with the earliest documented transit through The Northwest Passage (NWP) dating back to 1906. While past Transarctic voyages have been few, the melting of the ice sheet, more recently, has led to a sharp increase in shipping with accompanying concerns for maritime safety and a fragile ecosystem. Between 1980 and 2018, the minimum range of Arctic ice dropped sharply from 7.7 to 4.71 million square kilometers.
The International Maritime Organization (IMO) seeks to establish clear and verifiable standards based upon objectives of minimizing risks to cargo, crew and the environment. Standards imply properly built, operated, and maintained ships. The basic international regulations related to the Arctic are the International Code for Ships Operating in Polar Waters (Polar Code 2014/2015), the International Safety Code of the Use of Ships Carrying Gases or Other Low-Flashpoint Fuels (IGF Code – IMO 2015a), and Shipbuilding Standards for Cargo Ships and Oil Tankers (IMO 2009a).
The Arctic Council, formally established in 1996, deals with the issues of economic development of the Arctic, preservation of the environment, and the protection of the position of indigenous peoples. As stated on the official website of this international organization: “The Arctic Council is a leading intergovernmental forum that promotes cooperation, coordination and interaction between Arctic states, indigenous peoples of the Arctic and other Arctic populations, on common Arctic issues, especially on sustainable development and environmental issues in the Arctic.”
According to the Arctic Council report, the number of ships navigating Arctic waters is continuously increasing, recording a growth of 25% in the period of 2013-2019. The number of kilometers traversed in the same period increased as well by as much as 75%, from 6.1 million km to 10.7 million km. When only cargo ships are observed, that number is increased by as much as 160%.
The Strategic Importance of the Arctic
AFP quoted a statement by a senior Russian official Nikolai Korchunov as saying: “No one in the Arctic is preparing for an armed conflict. However, there are signs of growing tensions and military escalation that could take us back decades to the days of the Cold War.” This statement is not accidental, having in mind the geographical proximity of the United States of America and the Russian Federation in that part of the world, which was a key factor in the militarization of the area during the Cold War. During the Cold War, the Arctic was used to position missile systems, with the possibility of executing a nuclear attack. Today, the Arctic is seen as a potential key trade route of global importance with the aspiration to obtain the status of the Suez Canal, the Strait of Hormuz, the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles, the Strait of Malacca, the Panama Canal, and other similar locations.
Such ambitions were also expressed by the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, who pointed out on several occasions that the region has the potential of becoming the “New Suez”. Although the data on 32 million tons of goods transported along that route represents a significant increase, this does not mean that other sea routes will lose their importance. If we take into account that larger maritime activities in the Arctic entail additional security positioning of world powers, then the question is whether the Arctic only brings benefits to Russia, as some believe, or necessitates huge accompanying costs in the field of security.
A significant part of the American system that serves to deter a potential Russian nuclear attack is located in the Arctic. This system is based on long-range bombers and submarine forces. To protect these forces, once from the Soviet Union, and now from the potential Russian treat, the development of additional capacities necessary for the protection of the original forces was required. On the other hand, such circumstances require Russia to set aside a large part of its defense budget to protect its interests in the Arctic field. As much as it has been pointed out that Russia is opening up space for more significant action in the polar zone with global warming, numerous challenges occur as well, difficult to fully respond to. The north of the country, still partly protected by snow and ice, will not be as such in the future. Russia’s winter will not be one of the important factors in the natural protection of this country, as it has been in history, so additional investments in the army must be considered to compensate for the previous natural protection. Russia’s military spending, as a share of gross domestic product (GDP) – was 3.9 percent in 2019. That is more than in 2010 but significantly lower than the peak of 5.5 percent that it reached in 2016. The reduction from 5.5% to 3.9% of defense spending also speaks to the effects of various sanctions imposed upon Russia in those years. During the same period, military spending in the United States increased by nearly 100 billion dollars.
The Russian Federation attempted on taking advantage of the change in focus of the United States after 2001 when the terrorist attacks in New York took place. In 2007, Russia made a stand that it would no longer allow its weaknesses to be used for the endangerment of its interests. Since then, they have begun to use the forces they have built in the Arctic as a means of projecting power against the West. Thus Norway, Denmark, the Baltic countries, Great Britain, as well as two neutral powers – Finland and Sweden, are bearing witness to an increase in the number of naval and air incursions by Russian planes and vessels. In response, the United States and NATO allies began to amplify their military activity in the region. The second U.S. fleet is now operating in the Arctic belt. Unlike earlier times, the People’s Republic of China is also becoming increasingly interested in the Arctic region. The rapid development of China’s economy is forcing the country to increasingly rely upon resources outside of its territory.
Natural resources and the control of maritime routes
According to the analysis of the United States Geological Institute, the projected oil reserves in the Arctic region amount to 90 billion barrels, natural gas is represented by 47 trillion cubic meters, and flammable ice by 44 billion barrels, which makes 30% of officially unconfirmed world natural gas reserves and 13% of oil reserves. Moreover, the depth of water in more than half of the continental shelf of the Arctic Ocean does not exceed 50m, which favors energy development and exploitation.
According to two Chinese experts, Haoguang Liang and Yaojun Zhang in their work “Arctic Shipping Routes: A New Balance Strategy for the Maritime Silk Road”, China should work on strengthening ties with the Arctic for fear that a possible cut in that trade route would be disastrous for Chinese economy. The same analysis states that the trade exchange between China and Europe will be facilitated by the opening of the “Silk Road on Ice”, in which the “Russian strategy” should be followed in the selection of routes for the transport of goods.
In the report to the U.S. Congress in February this year states, among other things, that: “The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) and the Coast Guard are paying increased attention to the Arctic in their planning and operations.” The Coast Guard has two polar icebreaker operational units and it has received funds to procure the first of at least three planned polar icebreakers. Senator Dan Sullivan said that about 100 fifth-generation F-22 and F-35 planes will be stationed in Alaska.
“We cannot shy away from the fact that the security landscape in the Arctic is becoming increasingly difficult,” said Ine Eriksen Soreide, Norway’s foreign minister, at a conference organized by the Atlantic Council in March this year. “We do not see Russia as a direct threat to Norway, but we see more and more signals towards NATO, and thus Norway as a member of NATO.”
For centuries, the world’s largest fleets have wanted their ships to cruise in the Arctic to reduce the distance between the Atlantic and the Pacific ocean: the 6,100 nautical miles northwest route from Seattle to Oslo is a third shorter than the Panama Canal, and the 6,500 nautical miles north from Yokohama to Rotterdam, is almost half as short as the one across Suez. In addition to the aforementioned oil reserves, the Arctic is rich in gold, diamonds, tin, lead, zinc, nickel, iron, uranium and other natural resources that play a crucial role in high-tech industries. As supplies of these vital elements in other regions decline, the Arctic will become a measuring point for world powers in order to ensure unhindered access behind them.
At the same time, it is clear to the Pentagon officials that tensions elsewhere could quickly spill over to the far north. “We need to be able to link some positions and think ahead about what we could expect from Russia in the region,” stated Jennifer Walsh, a senior Defense Department official, for Defense News.
Maritime border issues, even between NATO members, have not been fully resolved. Canada refers to the agreement between the Russian Empire and Great Britain from 1825 for the establishment of an exclusive economic zone in which they intend to extract oil and natural gas, which is not completely acceptable for the United States. Russia, on the other hand, is rebuilding its submarine bases Murmansk, Arkhangelsk, Dickson, Nordvik, Providenia and Pevek, while China has received the right, from the Government of the Kingdom of Norway, to establish a permanent base of Huangha in the Svalbard archipelago.
Russia is likely to continue its Cold War “protected water” strategy to reduce the possibility of disrupting its submarine operations. However, in the event of a further deterioration of US-Russian relations, tensions in the Arctic may increase when the US begins to test unrestricted access to Arctic waterways along the Russian coast. Even if disputes in the Arctic are resolved by peaceful means, geopolitical conflicts in the region will continue, caused by global competition. The various positions of strategic importance are closely linked, so that relations from the Baltic can be mapped further north to the Arctic.