The new Wild West
The Arctic, long considered an almost worthless backwater, is primed to become one of the most important regions in the world as its ice melts over the next few decades.
Unlike every other maritime area in the world, there is no overarching legal treaty governing the Arctic. Instead, the Arctic Council, made up of Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the U.S., oversees and coordinates policy.
But the Arctic Council has no regulatory power. The countries only use the Council to communicate on policy and research and each member state is free to pursue its own policies within their declared Arctic boundaries.
According to a presentation by the Council of Foreign Relations, the Arctic is of primary strategic significance to the five bordering Arctic Ocean states — the U.S. (red), Canada (orange), Russia (grey), Norway (blue), and Denmark (green).
The 1.1 million square miles of open water north of accepted national boundaries — dubbed the Arctic Ocean “doughnut hole” — is considered the high sea and is therefore beyond the Arctic states’ jurisdictions.
As the Arctic ice melts, the area is predicted to become a center of strategic competition and economic activity. Last year, China signed a free trade agreement with Iceland and sent an icebreaker to the region despite having no viable claims in the Arctic.
The region is stocked with valuable oil, gas, mineral, and fishery reserves. The U.S. estimates that a significant proportion of the Earth’s untapped petroleum — including about 15% of the world’s remaining oil, up to 30% of its natural gas deposits, and about 20% of its liquefied natural gas — are stored in the Arctic seabed.
And in terms of preparation, America is lagging behind its potential competitors.
In front is Russia, which symbolically placed a Russian flag on the bottom of the Arctic Ocean near the North Pole in 2007. The country, one-fifth of which lies within the Arctic Circle, has by far the most amount of developed oil fields in the region.
Russia’s increasing advantage
CFR notes that many observers “consider Russia, which is investing tens of billions of dollars in its northern infrastructure, the most dominant player in the Arctic.”
Shipping throughout the Arctic will also take on unprecedented importance as the ice recedes — and the Kremlin has a plan for taking advantage of this changing geography.
Russia wants the Northern Sea Route, where traffic jumped from four vessels in 2010 to 71 in 2013, to eventually rival the Suez Canal as a passage between Europe and Asia. And it could: The Northern Sea Route from Europe to Asia takes only 35 days, compared to a 48-day journey between the continents via the Suez Canal.
‘A new Cold War’
Because of the Arctic’s potential resources and trade impact, countries are stepping up military development in the region.
For years, Norway has been conducting “Operation Cold Response.” This year, the military exercise brought in more than 16,000 troops from 15 participating NATO members.
A U.S. Arctic Roadmap promotes naval security, the development of operational experience in an Arctic environment, and the bolstering of naval readiness and capability. The Navy has accelerated its plan after noting that it is “inadequately prepared to conduct sustained maritime operations in the Arctic.”
Russia, meanwhile, has reinvigorated its process of building its naval operations on its northern coast.
“Russia, the only non-NATO littoral Arctic state, has made a military buildup in the Arctic a strategic priority, restoring Soviet-era airfields and ports and marshaling naval assets,” the CFR presentation explains. “In late 2013, President Vladimir Putin instructed his military leadership to pay particular attention to the Arctic, saying Russia needed ‘every lever for the protection of its security and national interests there.’ He also ordered the creation of a new strategic military command in the Russian Arctic by the end of 2014.”
CFR notes that while most experts dismiss the prospects for armed aggression in the Arctic, “some defence analysts and academics assert that territorial disputes and a competition for resources have primed the Arctic for a new Cold War.”
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