Caitlyn Antrim is executive director of the Rule of Law Committee for the Oceans.
Resume: Russian geopolitics of the 21st century will be different from the days of empire and conflict of the nineteenth and twentieth. The increased accessibility of the Arctic, with its energy and mineral resources, new fisheries, shortened sea routes and shipping along the rivers between the Arctic coast and the Eurasian heartland, is both enabling and propelling Russia to become a major maritime state.
An expanded treatment of this subject appears in the quarterly Naval War College Review, vol. 63, no. 3 (Summer 2010).
When the Russian flag was placed on the ocean floor at the North Pole in the summer of 2007 and the Arctic ice cover receded to the lowest extent ever recorded, Western media sought story lines that would grab the public’s attention. Headlines such as “Arctic Meltdown,” “A New Cold War,” and “Arctic Land Grab” focused on Russian activities in the Arctic and fed a sense of competition, conflict, and crisis in the West. Articles about Russian claims to the Arctic seabed and control of new sea-lanes, interpreted through the old and timeworn geopolitics of the 20th century, have heightened fears of conflict.
These story lines were effective because they built upon geopolitical beliefs that have been held for over a century, from the final years of the Russian Empire through the Soviet era and into the early years of the Russian Federation. For all that time, the core of Western geopolitical thought had held that there is a natural conflict between the Eurasian heartland and the Western maritime nations. In this analysis, the Arctic has played an essential, yet unrecognized, role as the northern wall in the strategy to enclose and contain the world’s largest land power. In the later twentieth century, however, with scant attention by the West, changes in Arctic technology, economics, climate, and law undermined the theories of 20th century geostrategists.
These changes are ensuring that the geopolitics of the 21st century will be different from the days of empire and conflict of the nineteenth and twentieth. The increased accessibility of the Arctic, with its energy and mineral resources, new fisheries, shortened sea routes and shipping along the rivers between the Arctic coast and the Eurasian heartland, is both enabling and propelling Russia to become a major maritime state. As the Arctic becomes increasingly accessible, Russia will no longer be susceptible to geographic isolation or encirclement. At the same time, these changes will lead Russia to become more closely integrated into global commercial and financial networks, to welcome foreign business partners, and to participate in international agreements and organizations that harmonize international shipping, safety, security, and environmental regulations.
THE ARCTIC IN THE 20TH-CENTURY GEOPOLITICS
The 20th century began with Alfred Thayer Mahan’s geopolitical study The Problem of Asia. In it, Mahan addressed the competition between the Russian Empire and the colonial and trading powers whose interests lay along the periphery of the Asian continent, from the Near East to China.
Mahan saw Russia as a land power that was limited in its ability to bring its strength to bear across the “debatable lands” that separated Russia from the Western powers in Asia, particularly the British Empire and the United States, that could maintain their dominance along the Asian coast through sea power and maritime trade. Maintenance of Western dominance in southern Asia depended upon Russia’s inability to mount a naval front from the south in addition to its potential land approach from the north. To challenge the West, Russia needed either free access to the sea from its own ports or an overland route to other ports, a possibility that gave rise to the “Great Game” of the nineteenth century and the armed and political conflicts in twentieth-century Afghanistan and Iran.
In assessing Russia’s access to the sea, Mahan emphasized the geographical limitations on Russian sea power. From St. Petersburg, Russian ships had to pass through the Baltic Sea, facing the sea power of the Nordic states in the Gulf of Finland and the Danish straits. From the Crimea on the Black Sea, ships had to pass through the Dardanelles and either the Strait of Gibraltar or the Suez Canal. Ocean access from the Far Eastern port of Vladivostok was possible, but its distance from the economic, political, and military center of Russia and the growing maritime challenge of Japan made that outpost only a limited threat to Western interests in Asia.
Four years after the publication of Mahan’s work on Asia, Halford Mackinder laid the foundation for East-West geopolitics in the twentieth century. In a presentation to the Royal Geographical Society titled The Geographical Pivot of History, Mackinder identified the southwest region of the Russian empire as the historic crossroads of power between East Asia and Western Europe. He viewed the steppes and plains of this region as an avenue by which a central land power, with internal lines of communication, could come to dominate the crescent from the coasts of China and South Asia westward through the Balkans and up to the English Channel.
Mackinder saw technological change, in the form of the railroad, as increasing the power of the heartland and amplifying the historic role of the steppes of Central Asia as the route by which invading peoples had moved from Asia into Europe. He presented this region, with its wealth of agricultural production and industrial raw materials combined with the power of movement provided by the railroad, as the pivot around which the conflict between the heartland and the crescent of maritime states revolved.
Containment of Russia and its Eurasian heartland became the geostrategic focus of the second half of the century. Mackinder’s vision was refined in the early 1940s by Yale University professor Nicolas Spykman. Spykman died in 1943, but his ideas of enclosure and containment were to be put into practice in the postwar era in response to Soviet expansion of control over Eastern Europe and its short-lived alliance with communist China. Spykman, like Mahan and Mackinder before him, failed to address Russia’s access to the Arctic. The significance of this omission is hinted at by the crucial role the port of Murmansk played as the eastern terminus for supplies from the West in World War II, as well as by the establishment of the Soviet navy’s Northern Fleet on the Barents Sea in 1933 and the growing importance of sea routes linking ports along the Eurasian Arctic coast to the major ports of Murmansk and Vladivostok.
Even as late as 1997, Zbigniew Brzezinski (who had been American President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser in the 1970s) presented a view of an enclosable Russia bounded by Europe in the west, by former Soviet republics to the southwest, and by India, China and Japan to the south and east. Although he updated the geopolitical situation to reflect the breakup of the Soviet Union, his geostrategic approach remained one of enclosure and containment, with new relationships being established with the former Soviet republics and client states by the United States and NATO. Once again, the inaccessibility of the Arctic, the “fourth wall” of enclosure, was assumed but not addressed – and so the twentieth century was closing with the same blind spot that had been introduced a hundred years before.
At the end of the twentieth century, the strategy of enclosure and containment, which rested on the belief that geography and political power could permanently enclose Russia, appeared to have endured. But change was coming to the Arctic and the geopolitical wall to the north was beginning to crumble.
THE ARCTIC SEAS AND HEARTLAND
Russia’s Arctic encompasses the northern seas, islands, continental shelf, and the coastal lands of the Eurasian continent. The Arctic coast of Russia spans from its border with Norway on the Kola Peninsula eastward to the Bering Strait. The seas along the coast run eastward from the Barents Sea in the west to the Kara Sea, the Laptev Sea, the East Siberian Sea, and the Chukchi Sea. Of these seas, only the Barents is largely ice-free throughout the year, a result of the Gulf Stream returning from the Atlantic Ocean and into the Arctic. Russia’s broad continental shelf extends northward far beyond the 200 nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The coastline along the Arctic stretches almost 40,000 kilometers (including the coastlines of the northern islands). The Russian Arctic coast drains a watershed of 13 million square kilometers, equal to about three-quarters of the total land area of Russia and an area larger than any country on earth save Russia itself.
Most of the attention paid to the potential benefits of Arctic warming and retreat of the polar ice pack has focused on the economic potential of offshore oil and gas deposits and the savings of time and fuel made possible by new trans-Arctic shipping routes. These benefits are significant, but for Russia there are other significant interests related to the increased accessibility of the Arctic Ocean, including securing a newly opened Arctic frontier and increasing access to the Siberian rivers that reach throughout the interior of the country. Russia’s perception of its Arctic interests can be grouped into four categories: security, ocean and coastal resources, northern transportation infrastructure and regional economic development in the Arctic watershed.
Security and the northern seas. Russia’s Northern Fleet has been based on the Kola Peninsula, on the southwest shore of the Barents Sea, since 1933. The fleet is now the largest and most powerful component of the Russian navy. From its bases, the fleet’s ballistic-missile submarines deploy securely under the Arctic ice. While a major conflict with NATO could keep the Northern Fleet bottled up in the Arctic, at other times Russian warships operating from Murmansk have free access to the world ocean. The Northern Fleet is also well situated to deploy year-round to the Atlantic Ocean, and to escort commercial shipping to or from ports in northwest Russia.
While Western geostrategists had a blind spot with regard to the fourth wall of Russia’s enclosure, the potential for change was apparent to others even before World War II. In a 1938 article in Foreign Affairs, H. P. Smolka offered a prescient outlook for Russia in the Arctic. He addressed the basing of the Northern Fleet on the Kola Peninsula and examined the role of the newly formed Central Administration of the Northern Sea Route (NSR) as the development agency for the Russian Arctic coast in Asia, going so far as to compare the Administration to the British East India Company. Smolka identified the military benefit of northern development by addressing Mahan’s points about Russia’s lack of access to the high seas. He argued that the fleet based in Murmansk would gain access to the open ocean: “Russia would thus be bottled up on three sides: west, south and east. But in the North – and there only – there is an independent, continuous and all-Russian coastline, unassailable by anyone.”
Ocean and coastal resources. Russia has long been a major producer of oil and gas from land-based resources. Recently the resources of the Arctic continental shelf have been attracting increased attention. Deposits in the Barents Sea are already being developed, with other known deposits in both the Barents and the Kara Seas being eyed for future exploitation. Still more energy resources are awaiting discovery. In 208, the U.S.
Geological Survey estimated that over 60 percent of undiscovered Arctic oil and gas is located is located in Russian territory – equivalent to about 412 billion barrels of oil. All but a very small percentage of these resources are on shore or within the Russian EEZ. The area of greatest potential is in the Kara Sea basin, with smaller, yet still respectable, prospects in the Laptev and East Siberian seas.
The retreat of polar ice is opening vast expanses of coastline and offshore waters to access and exploitation. This raises the issue of managing access and regulating exploitation of offshore resources. Russia’s Coastal Border Guard is responsible for monitoring maritime activities along the coast and in the EEZ and for enforcing national maritime laws and regulations. It is a small service with assets that include conventional frigates and corvettes assigned to the Pacific and Black Sea fleets, several fisheries and EEZ patrol vessels, and lighter vessels intended for near-coast operations. Only a handful of the ships are designed for Arctic conditions or ice operations. It appears that Russia’s ability to patrol and monitor its increasingly accessible Arctic EEZ has not kept pace with the receding summer ice.
The Northern Sea Route. The Northern Sea Route (NSR) comprises a set of sea routes that cross the Arctic Ocean from Nova Zemlya to the Bering Strait. It serves as both a set of regional sea-lanes and a trans-Arctic passage. There is a natural divide at the Taymyr Peninsula that separates the Kara Sea to the west from the Laptev Sea to the east. This is the northernmost point of Asia and the last point to open during the summer ice melt. Passage is constrained by the Vilkitskiy Strait, which separates the mainland from the island of Severnaya Zemlya. Shallow depth and retention of ice at this location late into the summer limit the transit of ships between east and west by size and season of the year. Regional routes continue to operate even when transit along the full length of the Northeast Passage is prevented by the freezing of the narrow straits along the way.
The NSR provides access to regional ports such as Novy Port, near the mouth of the Ob River; Dikson, Dudinka, and Igarka (ports on the Yenisei River that serve as loading points for Siberian mineral and timber resources); and Tiksi, at the mouth of the Lena River. These ports also support coastal shipping during the summer season, when ice cover is at its minimum.
Beyond providing a national route connecting northern ports and linked by rivers to the interior of the country, the NSR is of interest to global shipping firms as an alternative to the longer southern routes between the Far East and Europe. The journey from Yokohama to Rotterdam can be reduced by about 4,000 miles by way of the NSR. Even at lower speeds in a northern passage, the shortened distance results in a quicker voyage and decreased fuel consumption, with substantial financial savings to the shipper. At present, the Arctic shipping season is of unpredictable duration that depends on variable climate patterns. Sea and ice conditions require ships designed specifically for passage through the icy waters. The NSR will not appeal to major shipping firms as a regular route until more experience is gained and the route is upgraded with modern aids to navigation, port facilities, and search-and-rescue capabilities. Over time, those developments, with or without further retreat of the polar ice, will make the Northeast Passage a more attractive route for international shipping.
The NSR depends upon powerful icebreakers to open routes though the ice and to escort shipping, even in the summer. Six nuclear icebreakers, four of the heavy Arktika class and two of the shallow-draft Taymyr class, maintain the NSR. In addition, major commercial enterprises have begun acquiring their own icebreaking cargo ships. In 2009, the fleet operated by Norilsk Nickel MMC accounted for nearly a million tons of shipping from Dudinka across the Kara Sea and on to the Kola Peninsula. Norilsk’s success has been followed by the introduction of similar vessels for unescorted transport of oil and natural gas in the Arctic.
The Arctic watershed. Russia’s Arctic watershed comprises the Eurasian heartland and the northern coastal lands and accounts for about two-thirds of the land area of Russia. This watershed is richly endowed with natural resources. The southern part of western Siberia is a highly productive agricultural area. The region is rich in oil and coal, and the Ob and Yenisei rivers provide abundant hydroelectric power. Large deposits of iron and bauxite provide the raw materials for steel and aluminum production. The central Siberian plateau in the north is home to Norilsk Nickel, the world’s largest producer of nickel and palladium. The Lena River provides access to productive gold and diamond mines. The watershed is also home to the largest forest in the world, stretching across Siberia from the northwest to the southeast.
Vast distances, rugged terrain, frozen soil and severe climate have precluded the construction of highways and railroads in the north and northeast, but the major river systems – particularly the Ob, Yenisei, and Lena – reach throughout the watershed, from the Ural Mountains in the west, Mongolia and Kazakhstan in the south, and the mountains bordering the Pacific Ocean in the east. In the past, this potential has been blocked for all but a couple months each year during the summer thaws.
The climate of the Eurasian coast is one of the most extreme and inhospitable in the world, with winter temperatures reaching minus 40 degrees centigrade and ice on the sea as thick as two meters. The climate takes a severe toll on port facilities, producing extreme fluctuations in river depth and flow during the summer melting season. Resupply to sustain human habitation during the long and frigid winters is expensive. Costs that were borne as security expenses during the Cold War now have to be justified on commercial grounds. As a result, many old facilities have deteriorated or been abandoned over the past two decades and need to be rebuilt from scratch. Maintenance of facilities in the region has been complicated by seasonal warming, which causes melting and refreezing of the permafrost that makes soil structurally unstable for construction. Only the most profitable commercial operations have provided sufficient economic incentives to maintain facilities along the rivers, such as at Dudinka (which services Norilsk Nickel).
ARCTIC CHANGE AND CHANGING GEOPOLITICS
Over the past several years, change in the Arctic has been the source of both excitement and alarm. The opening of Canada’s Northwest Passage and Russia's Northern Sea Route led to predictions of shortened trade routes – saving thousands of miles and many days at sea – between Europe and the Far East. Forecasts of large – if as-yet undiscovered – oil and gas reserves have given rise to concerns over sovereignty, security and sustainability throughout the region. Changes in the Arctic may be addressed in four categories: technical, economic, climatic and legal.
Technological changes in the Arctic. Technology to conquer the Arctic ice made gradual but consistent advances throughout the 20th century. Reinforced bows and hulls gave way to steel ships with hulls specially designed to break through the ice. Atomic reactors were introduced to provide the power and endurance for icebreakers to patrol the length of Russia’s Arctic coast. The introduction of the azimuth pod and dual-acting hull designs led to the construction of commercial cargo ships and tankers able to operate without icebreaker assistance. These advances were followed by new technologies for development of oil and gas deposits in deep water and polar conditions.
Economic change. In the later decades of the 20th century, rising energy demands in Western Europe led to partnerships linking resource production in the Soviet Union with markets in Europe that broke the economic isolation that had followed World War II. The collapse of the Soviet Union further increased European access to Russian energy resources. There was acceptance that Russian resources not only diversified energy sources but opened investment opportunities for the West. The pronouncement by the U.S. Geological Survey that perhaps a quarter of the world’s undiscovered hydrocarbon resources are to be found in the Arctic further increased interest in the potential contribution of resources of the Russian Arctic to European markets and to markets in east Asia and the Americas.
Climate change. The increased accessibility of the Arctic in recent years has resulted from cumulative changes in climate over the past three decades. Over that time, winter ice cover has declined by nearly 10 percent. Summertime observations in 2007 revealed the area of ice cover reduced by one third from its 1979-2000 average.
These changes are projected to continue for decades to come. In its 2008 report to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Russia’s Hydrometeorological Service projected by 2040 a winter temperature increase along the Arctic coast of about 4 degrees centigrade and 2 to 3 degrees in the summer. Such increases will moderate the severity of winters and lengthen ice-free periods on rivers and coasts. Over several decades, this will change plant life in the region, with forests moving further north and extended growing periods in the south. Most significantly, climate change and global warming will increase the accessibility of the heartland of Russia and connect it to the rest of the world.
Changes in the legal regime. In 1926, the Soviet Union proposed a sectoral division of the Arctic with lines drawn from the North Pole to the eastern and western extremes of its northern coast, but because of the inaccessibility of the Arctic, the proposal had little impact. It was not until the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea considered the limits of national jurisdiction at sea that global agreement on national jurisdiction at sea was reached. The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) codified new rules to establish the extent of coastal states' offshore jurisdiction. Russia joined the convention in 1997 and accepted the Convention's definition of its sovereignty in the Arctic, including a 12-nautical-mile territorial sea and a 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) off its coast and islands in the Arctic Ocean.
The Convention also provided a complex definition of the continental shelf that held out the prospect of encompassing much of the seabed that had been claimed under the 1926 sectoral claim.
In anticipation of additional discoveries of resources on the sea floor, priority was given to securing recognition of jurisdictional claims beneath the Arctic seas. In 2001, Russia submitted a proposed outer boundary to its continental shelf to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf based upon the Convention’s geographic and geologic guidelines. The Commission found the data Russia submitted with its proposal insufficient to support a ruling. Russia is now gathering additional data and will resubmit its proposal taking the new data into account.
STATE POLICY AND ARCTIC GEOSTRATEGY
Russia's evolution from a land power to a maritime state will be based as much on governmental planning as on technological, economic, climate and legal change. Russia's recent security, development, ocean and transportation policies all include plans for the development of the Arctic. The Russian Federation’s Security Council in September 2008 stated that the Arctic should become Russia’s main strategic resource base and directed that military units, particularly the border guard, be prepared to defend state interests in the Arctic. The region's oil and gas potential has already been demonstrated.
Production from Norilsk has made Russia the world’s largest producer of nickel and palladium, as well as a major producer of copper, cobalt and platinum. There is also potential for additional mineral development in the Central Siberian Plateau and from inland areas that already produce coal, iron, aluminum, gold and diamonds.
Since 2000, Russia has made revitalization of the NSR a national priority. Detailed recommendations for construction of new ice breakers and refurbishment of coastal and river ports are included in the Ministry of Transportation’s program “Transportation Strategy to 2030.” Three new nuclear-powered ice breakers are to be built to replace aging vessels to ensure that the icebreaker fleet will continue to support year-round operation of the NSR. New diesel-powered icebreakers are planned to service ports and offshore energy facilities and smaller ice-hardened service vessels are planned for port service and for search-and-rescue operations. Revitalization of the Northern Sea Route is to be accompanied by development of the major rivers as transportation arteries to the interior. In this way, Russia's Arctic activities will have economic development impacts that extend throughout the Arctic watershed. In addition to inland minerals, river development will open access to the timber resources of the world’s largest forest. It will also support increased trade in agricultural and industrial goods from the southern areas of the Arctic watershed.
Arctic-driven economic development will not come without costs. It will bring agricultural runoff, waste from industrial processes and timber processing, and increased pollution associated with human habitation. The environment will suffer unless anti-pollution measures and sustainable land use practices are implemented in parallel with new development. Recognizing these costs, Russia's official policy toward development in the Arctic stresses a sustainable approach. In 2006, Russia presented its view of sustainable development to the Arctic Council. This policy is being further expanded by the Ministry for Regional Development.
Russia also has international responsibilities to protect water quality and the marine environment. UNCLOS includes commitments to address land-based sources of pollution through adoption and enforcement of national legislation. The development of the NSR will be accompanied by dangers of vessel-source pollution, both from normal operation and from catastrophic accident. UNCLOS details responsibility for combating pollution from vessels and it provides coastal states with expanded authority to apply and enforce non-discriminatory and science-based standards in ice-covered areas of their EEZs to protect the marine environment. Moreover, Russia has announced a commitment to regulating use of the NSR, and its maritime policy formally embraces “compliance with generally accepted norms of international law and international treaties of the Russian Federation in the implementation of maritime activities.”
Russian foreign policy seeks to establish the Arctic as a zone of peace and cooperation. this policy has been implemented in bilateral boundary agreements with the United States and Norway, in the Ilulissat Agreement among the Arctic coastal states, in support of UNCLOS and through the Arctic Council, the International Maritime Organization and other international organizations and agreements.
As maritime trade increases, Russia will have increasing interest in sustaining freedom of navigation on a global stage and in maintaining safety and security in its offshore waters. Russia can further its geopolitical interests in the Arctic by pursuing a strategy that builds its capability as a maritime state by participating in an Arctic Maritime Partnership that includes common rules and guidelines for Arctic security, science, domain awareness and ocean resource management and environmental protection and conservation. This partnership could support mutually beneficial maritime collaborations to enhance the likelihood that the Arctic geographical pivot will be an area of peaceful cooperation rather than simply a shifting of conflict from the south and west of Eurasia to its north. Elements of such a partnership include:
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The old geostrategy of enclosure and containment of Russia is gone for good. In a new geopolitical vision for the 21st century, Russia takes its place not as an isolated heartland but as a maritime state that draws its strength from its arctic coast and vast arctic watershed. By midcentury, the northern sea route is likely to be a regular shipping route, beginning with seasonal service based on ice-class vessels and expanding as climate and ice conditions allow.
The opening of the Arctic over the course of the 21st century will give Russia the opportunity to develop and grow as a maritime power, first in the Arctic and eventually wherever its merchant fleet carries Russian goods and returns with foreign products. This transformation of the threatening “heartland” of Mackinder and Spykman into one of the first line maritime states will require concerted effort to bring the new maritime Russia into collaborations and partnerships with other oceangoing states. Commitment to the rule of law, shared Arctic domain awareness, joint security and safety operations, and collaboration in developing policies for the future can maintain the Arctic as a region of peace even while the coastal states maintain naval and law enforcement capabilities in the region.
This new “geographical pivot” of the 21st century will not be without conflict, but with commitment to international law and respect for the rights of the coastal and distant states, the conflicts can be political rather than military. Unlike the “Great Game” of Asian geopolitics of the nineteenth century and the heartland-versus-rimland contest of the twentieth, the groundwork has been laid through the Law of the Sea Convention, the Ilulissat Declaration and the Arctic Council to assure peaceful development of the Arctic sea routes and recognize coastal-state rights to manage, develop, and protect the living and mineral resources in and under the Arctic coastal seas. To achieve the most beneficial outcome, the Arctic region, and relations among the Arctic states, should emphasize collaboration over confrontation and approach maritime policy through an Arctic Maritime Partnership.