The Arctic: A Polar Crossroad for Ecology, Natural Resources, Security and Economics
Paper in English
Interview with Elena Stetsko, PhD, Associate Professor in World Politics at the International Affairs Faculty, Saint Petersburg State University. Elena Stetsko was a guest speaker at the Moscow Conference organised by the Russian International Affairs Council in October 2016. The two-day conference gathered world specialists and leaders to discuss international cooperation in the Arctic region, the borders of which remained a bone of contention.
Is the Arctic debate a relevant issue in today’s international relations?
Pretty much so. Many experts consider that the 21st century will be the century of the Arctic. Whilst we should not forget about other aspects in international development, the Arctic region is the focus of several main factors, namely natural resources, the Transpolar Sea Route (TSR or Northern Sea Route), militarization and last but not least ecology issues requiring special attention about sustainable development of the entire region.
Could you tell us which factor is the most important?
It is not an easy task to draw a scale as all carry specific importance. For instance, 25% of potential reserves in hydrocarbons are concentrated in the Arctic. Since reserves in the world are drying out, even if we take into account shale gas and oil, the region is becoming a major source of hydrocarbons for future generations. Beside gas and oil extracted from the Arctic Shelf, the land is rich in coal and shelters rare metal of strategic importance, as well as apatetite concentrate and large stocks of platinum, gold, silver, titanium, etc.
By itself, the Northern Sea Route is turning the Arctic region into a zone of political and economic interests for many countries in the world. The journey from Asia to Europe and North America is much shorter and safer than through the Suez Channel and the Ormuz Detroit. Especially nowadays with high level of sea piracy and political instability in the Middle East. Besides, the ongoing global warming will soon prevent the sea from freezing along the coasts and will allow for around-the-year navigation without ice-breakers. Such a perspective is quite attractive. That's why the Northern Sea Route is one of the most important question discussed in various Arctic-related forums, by experts and politicians from the circumpolar and other interested countries.
Finally, the security and militarization factor. Last year, the Russian President endorsed changes in the Russian Naval Doctrine. The main focus was on Atlantic and Arctic. Forecasts by the Russian Ministry of Defense, foresee that Arctic troops will be fully operational by the end of 2018 and military bases are being built on Alexander and Kotelny islands.
Are there plans to build more military bases?
Yes, construction of bases will extend to Wrangel island, Cape Schmidt, in Chukotka and in the Kuril Islands. Those bases are of necessity to protect strategic interests of Russia in the Russian Arctic. The US is also conducting regular military drills in the region, where four Arctic countries (Norway, Canada, Denmark and the US) are NATO-member. On the one hand, NATO has always claimed that it had no interest in militarizing the Arctic. Yet, the presence of nuclear fleet and military bases in the polar zone at a time worsening relations between Russia and the West, have risen the importance of the security issue. Hence, prevention of an armed conflict is crucial.
You have mentioned the ecology factor. How high is the question on the Arctic agenda?
Ecology definitely cannot be overlooked in the process of exploring Arctic. The biological resources of the region cannot fall out of sight. There is a wide variety of animals and fishes, most of which have commercial importance, and many other are protected.
The Polar Code will enter into force on January 1st, 2017 and this step represents a massive achievement. Let's remember that the decision to draft it was taken by the International Maritime Organization back in 1996. The main objective of this document is to define the general rules for guaranteeing secure passage and avoiding pollution of polar waters. Those rules will be applying to ships built after January 1st, 2017 and for ships built before that date, they will have one year to make necessary changes to comply to the requirements of the Polar Code.
The ecological component is at the crossroad of all problems we mentioned and therefore, is a constructive basis for international cooperation. All in all, all those factors are strategic and long-term topics on the international agenda.
How is this cooperation translated in practical terms?
The development of the Arctic region is technically highly complex, very expensive and requires collective efforts of many countries. To achieve this objective, the international community has set up various bodies. The Arctic Council is the most important of all and comprises of the 8 regional countries as members and 12 countries as observers. Besides, 6 NGOs defending the interests of the original communities have a status of permanent participant. It was the first time that local communities were given a special status in international organizations. So, they could not only represent themselves but actively defend their rights.
How effective are the Arctic Council and other special bodies?
There is no straight answer to your question. All depends upon expectations and those are regularly reviewed in line with new political challenges. The Arctic Council has recently celebrated its 20 years and greatly differs from all other international organizations. First, it is a forum for discussion. It is not a union of states created after the signature of an international treaty. I think that the Council offers a good example of how countries can solve complex and disputed issues. On the one hand, they represent their Arctic territories and defend their national interests in those lands. On the other hand, they have to consider ecological and economic questions pertaining to the region as a whole.
Somehow, the Arctic Council is a world pilot project on how to agree on present, and most importantly, future developments of a region where the existence and survival of human beings is very difficult. Well, the Arctic is not a place for quick benefits. It is a place requiring long-term investments and cooperation programs including a wide range of geographical, climatic, ecological and cultural elements.
So, which concrete results has the Arctic Council achieved over the past 20 years?
There has been quite a lot of achievements indeed, and I would divide them into two broad categories. First, organizational achievements. The very structure of the Council allows for a quick reaction system to external threats, foresees the possibility to create permanent or temporary groups of experts on specific topics, and has opened observatory status to countries and organizations alike. Second, the Council retains high-level expertise and has the capacity to sign legally binding agreements. For instance, at the 2013 meeting in Kiruna, parties signed The Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic. In 2011, country-members to the Arctic Council signed at Nuuk ministerial meeting the Agreement on Cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic.
The creation of an Arctic Economic Council has played a specific role in the participation model of all actors interested in the Arctic. The unique status of this organization and the wide potential to attract participants, makes it like a club of discussion on convergent interests of the business community, state authorities and civil society. Those interests range include those within the framework of the Arctic Council, but expands to interests beyond the scope of competence of the Council.
According to you, does the current situation on the international scene influence the activity the Arctic Council?
Of course. The economic crisis and the political instability impacts upon the activity of all international institutions. The Arctic Council takes stock of the situation. Security questions in the Arctic region are increasingly discussed. Positioning on projects such as the Northern Sea Route becomes more polarized. Yet, all in all, cooperation has not halted within Arctic organizations.
As we know, the current relations between the US and Russia are strained in many different fields. What can we expect from their cooperation in the Arctic region?
Moscow and Washington have maintained their cooperation in the Arctic Council. I cannot say that there is serious confrontation at the present. So far, we have lived through all geopolitical swerves without major shocks in the Arctic region. There has been no armed violence there although regular drills take place. I would call them a demonstration of force.
American interests in the Arctic focus on extraction of hydrocarbons and other minerals, as well as industrial fishing. For the US naval strategy, it is fundamental to guarantee free seafaring, which means modifying the status of the Northern Sea Route eventually. Finally, the US are actively lobbying for the interests of some country-observers and creating alliances with them. All in all, the work at the Arctic Council is similar to a world in miniature. That's what the Arctic diplomacy is all about.
Can international organizations take part to the development of the Arctic region?
Many organizations are active, whether they are inter-governmental or non-governmental. To mention a few: the Northern Forum, the Barents Euro-Arctic Council and the Standing Committee of Parliamentarians of the Arctic Region. Most of them were created before the Arctic Council. The interest and the needs for countries to cooperate has grown gradually along with the creation of various forums and institutions. The efficiency of those organizations vary from one to the other, but they all take part to the global discussion on Arctic. I should also mention a non-profit organization called The Arctic Circle. It is a new dialogue platform for all countries and organizations interested in the development of the Arctic.
Non-governmental organizations with an observatory status at the Council deserve special mention as they lead the ecological agenda and carry out scientific researches.
Which Arctic projects do you consider as the most interesting and promising?
There is no one-single major project for the future development of Arctic because all are important and tackle problems of today’s world. Whilst those issues are permanently discussed, many are far from being solved. I am here talking for instance about the preservation of nature and sustainable development, which will always remain major issues.
One of the key tasks is to determine the status of the Northern Sea Route; a crucial element for Russia. There is currently no agreement on the legal status of the Arctic ocean as the US has not ratified the UN convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS, 1982). Equally, there are problems with the legal status of the North Sea Route and the Northwest passage. If this convention is denounced, there will be a limitation of Russia’s rights in oceans and in the integration of the North Sea Route. Ii is worth mentioning here that many countries who have an observer status at the Arctic Council, especially China and Japan, have positioned themselves in favor of the integration of the North Sea Route. Indeed, this project matches their long-term interests in the Arctic. So far, the US insist on the principle of free seafaring.
If we talk about major economic projects, well the implementation of many of them is seriously hampered by sanctions put on Russia. Consequently, Russia is shifting its attention on cooperation with Asian countries, BRICS partners and bilateral cooperation with EU countries that are members of the Council.
Within the BRICS countries, China is clearly Russia’s main partner. For instance, the Gazprom project in Yamal to produce liquefied natural gas (LNG) is a joint venture with China National Petroleum Company (CNPC). Rosneft has a cooperation agreement with China on three locations of the Arctic shelf. Chinese investors have also announced their readiness to contribute to the construction of a new port in Arkhangelsk and of a train line linking the White Sea, Komi region and the Ural region (BelKomUr). Researchers of both countries have intensified their scientific relationship. In 2012, the first Sino-Russian forum on Arctic cooperation was organized in Qingdao. Scholars from Petersburg State University, Moscow State University (MGIMO) and from the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration were present along with their colleagues from the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, the China National Petroleum Company and other Chinese universities and institutions.
In 2011, Gazprom signed four agreements with Indian companies (GAIL, Indian Oil Corporation Limited, Gujarat State Petroleum Company - GSPC, and Petronet LNG Limited - Petronet) to supply India with LNG. Currently, the cooperation between Rosneft and the Indian OVL is being finalized after the signature in May 2016 of a memorandum of understanding on work in the Arctic shelf. Brazil also has shown interest in Arctic cooperation and has asked to be granted observer status at the Arctic Council. Their interests are focused on shipping, fishing and tourism.
As for Japan, they are more interested in the Northern Sea Route and the processing of natural resources in the Arctic basin. By 2017, 10 icebreakers should be built to transport the LNG in the framework of the Yamal project. The Japanese Mitsui OSK will be amongst the LNG shipping companies.
So there are many projects related to the Arctic development. What can we expect if they are indeed carried out?
It is a challenge to extract natural resources in such environment. So is the preservation of natural and cultural heritage of the region. Success depends largely upon the entire humanity and not only upon circumpolar countries. In all its aspects, Arctic cooperation could serve as a model of global ruling in the distant future, be they humanitarian and ecological cooperation amongst NGOs, regional and border cooperation or within the Arctic Council itself.
Interview done by Maria Liamtseva, within the cooperation agreement with Gorchakov Fund for Public Diplomacy
transpolar sea route; arctic