Exactly 65 years ago, the world’s first nuclear icebreaker, the ‘Lenin’, was launched in the USSR. With this event, Moscow loudly announced its ambitions to develop the northern seas.
Though the Arctic has remained on the periphery of world leaders’ attention for a long time, due to global warming the region is now becoming something akin to another ‘Klondike’ for natural resources.
The erstwhile Russian Empire claimed its rights to this region at the beginning of the last century, but, given the current circumstances, not all Arctic nations are ready to cede leadership to Moscow in developing the Arctic Ocean.
Consequently, the region is increasingly becoming the focus of potential tensions in international relations. On December 5, 1957, the first nuclear-powered surface vessel in world history and the Soviet Union’s first atomic icebreaker, the ‘Lenin’, was launched.
It was transferred to the USSR’s Naval Ministry two years later and was created to serve the Northern Sea Route (NSR).
Russia declared its rights to the Arctic region back in 1916, a stance that Moscow did not abandon during the 20th century. However, in recent years, developing the Arctic has once again become a priority in Russian politics, which should not be surprising.
The total area of Russian territory located in the Arctic zone adds up to 3 million km2 (including 2.2 million km2 of land), amounting to 18% of Russia’s entire territory. About 2.4 million people live there.
For a country the size of Russia, this is not much – less than 2% of the population – but these 2.4 million people represent 40% of the Arctic’s total population.
Another aspect is also fundamentally important – a lot of natural resources are concentrated on the Arctic Shelf, an offshore area that itself has a unique geographical location.
Scientists estimate that the shelf contains up to a quarter of Russia’s oil reserves and almost half of its gas. This breaks down to 49% in the Barents Sea, 35% in the Kara Sea, and 15% in the Okhotsk Sea.
Russia, Norway, Denmark, Canada, and the US can lay direct claim to parts of the Arctic shelf. However, according to current international legislation on this issue, the Arctic countries have no special rights to the Arctic – even due to their geographical location.
According to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea of 1982 (Russia ratified the document in 1997), a country’s full sovereign territorial rights only extend 12 miles into coastal waters, while its economic zone, where it has the right to extract minerals, stretches out to 200 miles.
At the same time, Article 77 of the same convention states that countries can exercise their sovereign rights (for example, to extract minerals) throughout their continental shelf.
However, the root of the discussions is economic. In recent years, centuries-old Arctic ice has been melting, opening access to resources and other economic benefits.
The main thing that Russia is focusing on is the opportunities that are emerging to use the Northern Sea Route more actively. Due to climatic change, glaciers have begun to melt rapidly, leaving more and more days per year on which the transport artery is available.
If global warming cannot be curbed, the Arctic Ocean will be free from ice in the current century, according to some estimates.
Despite certain negative environmental consequences, this opens up new economic opportunities for using the Northern Sea Route, the advantages of which are obvious.
The distance from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok is slightly more than 14,000 km, whereas goods would have to be transported over 23,000 km if routed through the Suez Canal. Accordingly, the speed of shipping goods between Asia and Europe can increase.
Russia’s desire for the Northern Sea Route to become a leading international sea route is understandable. The use of this transport corridor will bring benefits to all of Europe – the route between the EU and Asia will be almost halved.
At the same time, researchers from the HSE believe that, in addition to the economic benefits that will come from opening the NSR, the liberation of the Arctic from ice will also bring serious risks to Russia.
First of all, this is because the natural buffer between Russia and the US provided by the ice mass will disappear, and this may increase the rivalry between Moscow, Washington, and Beijing in the region, while contributing to its general militarization.
Over the past few years, the US (the Defense Department, Air Force, and Army) has been publishing new military Arctic strategies, which involve increasing the American military presence in the Arctic.
This approach on the part of the USA cannot but threaten Russian economic interests in the region, according to the authors of a HSE report titled ‘Russia’s Arctic Policy.
International Aspects’. Moreover, the militarization of oceans will clearly not facilitate international cooperation in this region.
In addition, the potential the Arctic presents is beginning to be appreciated by other countries (for example, China), which want to revise the existing system under which the Arctic is governed by neighboring states.
As a result, scientists expect international competition to only increase here.
Now, in addition to the Arctic countries, the region is receiving more and more attention from Asian countries – China, India, Singapore, Japan, and South Korea.
Firstly, they are interested in the development of Arctic routes. Secondly, they are striving to demonstrate their contribution by actively participating as observers in various Arctic events.
In this regard, Russian experts are sure there is difficult diplomatic work ahead if Russia is to harmonize relations with all countries interested in participating in Arctic projects.
RT. com / ABC Flash Point News 2022.