Russia: Arktika’s exit arouses a new battle over the exploitation of the Arctic

Translated by Claudia Oppong Peprah, proofread by Claire Tholozan

The nuclear-powered Russian icebreaker “Arktika” which has just returned to St. Peterburg harbor on September 17th departed again on September 22nd 2020 to rejoin its future home port, Murmansk. The voyage will enable it to test its potential under extreme conditions one last time.

The impressive LK-60Ya class vessel measures 173,3 meters in length and is capable of breaking ice sheets three meters thick. Intended for the transportation of hydrocarbons, it is supposed to allow Moscow’s deliveries to South-East Asia to be facilitated.

The exit of the Russian flagship, which had to be postponed several times, restarts the discussions on the struggle for influence in the Arctic, but also on the damages caused in the Far North by global warming. Climatic warming in that particular region could take place twice as fast as elsewhere on the planet. This would happen in Moscow’s favor. With the ice melting, a new trading route could become accessible, connecting Murmansk to the gate of the Bering Sea.

Unlimited resources, objects of desire

For several years now, the Arctic has been the object of a struggle for influence. In fact, several countries are fighting for the appropriation of resources. In the front row are polar powers such as Canada, Russia, the USA, Norway, and Denmark, but also atypical players like Europe and China. With good reason, the abundance of the seabed awakes covetous motives as 18% of the worldwide petrol and gas resources can be found there. However, the extreme climatic conditions do not make it a profitable resource at the moment as the exploitation is deemed too expensive.

The exit of the “Arktika”, the most powerful vessel in the world, allows Russia to confirm its technological advance and to establish its leading role in terms of development and economical, energetical, and strategic exploitation of the Arctic. Its presence in the region goes back to 1957 and includes seven years of military presence. As of 2013, seven military bases have been built or modernized there. According to Alexandre Taithe from the business paper Les Échos, “Moscow’s remilitarization of the Arctic could be interpreted as an intention to protect its Arctic resources in case the Siberian fields run short.”

The Arctic Counsel in its role as peace-keeper concerning territorial revendications

At present, “90% of the Arctic Ocean’s resources are owned by the five bordering states, since they extended their EEZ to 350 miles”, and they are therefore an Arctic internal matter. The remaining 10% continue to be regulated by international law. Today, only a few appropriation conflicts remain but their settlement depends on the willingness of the eight member states of the Arctic Counsel to compromise: the USA, Denmark, Canada, Norway, Russia, Finland, Sweden, and Iceland. And this is not always an easy task. Thus, in 2016, Russia put forward a request before the UN demanding the continental shelf of the Arctic to be extended. A request which has recently been backed by geological studies carried out on the Mendeleev Ridge. 

For the time being, Russia retains a large advance in the commercial exploitation of the Arctic and is expected to extend it even further with the construction of two new nuclear-powered icebreakers of the same type: Ural and Sibir. In contrast, the USA and Canada for instance, cannot keep pace. As explained by Hervé Baudu, they “are struggling to find the financial means and the political ambitions to develop a fleet of icebreakers on top of their excessive navy squad”. Moscow can rest assured, the competitors are not able to follow suit in this domain, for the moment. 

Cover picture: Hanko “Ледокол “Арктика”, 2016 г”

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