Climate change is rapidly transforming the world. It is causing harm to some nations and benefitting others. It has also forced many nations to re-evaluate their respective national interests.
This could not be more true for the higher latitude nations bordering the Arctic, colloquially referred to as the Arctic States. Many in the past have put claim to the Arctic but have never attempted to enforce it due to the inhospitable nature of the land.
But with the advent of climate change and the melting of the Arctic ice, it has made it much more accessible for states to exploit the resources and create new trade routes that will bypass already existing ones. One such nation among the Arctic States which is the most likely to enforce her Hegemony is Russia.
Over the years, Russia has sent symbolic messages to the world indicating her desire to claim the Arctic. Such as, in 2007, a Russian scientific expedition hoisted a titanium Russian flag on the Seafloor of the North Pole. Some Russian politicians even proposed re-naming the Arctic Ocean as the “Russian Ocean”. Furthermore, other than symbolic messages, Russia has begun to actively assert her claim and dominion.
This can be seen in the re-activation of former Soviet Era bases in the Arctic and the initiation of naval patrols in the region. Then in 2014, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement renewing the Russian claim to the Lomonosov, Mendelev, and Alpha ridges that run across the majority of the Arctic. Russia claims that these ridges are part of her continental shelf, therefore it makes Arctic Russia’s sovereign exclusive economic zone.
The issue arises in the fact that as these ridges are running across the majority of the Arctic, thus Russia is infringing on the claims of other Arctic nations. The most vocal of which are Canada and Denmark, which have straightaway rejected the legitimacy of the Russian claims. Both the states have even considered taking the matter to the international community. Despite this opposition, Moscow is determined to ensure its claim.
In the same year as the statement of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Russia demonstrated its military capabilities in the Vostok exercises. Based upon the number from the Russian Ministry of Defence, about one hundred and fifty thousand personnel, as well as thousands of jets and tanks took place in the military exercise. These estimates are backed by the figures provided by NATO observation.
And for a more permanent military presence, Russia has constructed at least six new military bases in her Arctic territories. Already, Russia has deployed the S-400 Surface-to-air-missile defense system to her Arctic base of Novaya Zemlya. The Russian Vice Admiral and Commander of the Russian Northern fleet “Alexander Moiseev” said in late 2019 in an interview with the Russian news agency Krasnaya Zvezda, “This means our North will be protected from all kinds of Air attacks. Be it from aviation, cruise-missile, or ballistic missile.” He then added, “This will create an air defense shield over the Russian part of the Arctic.”
The reason for Russia’s Arctic ambitions is very simple. The Arctic holds one of the largest reserves of Hydrocarbons and with the melting of the Arctic Ice, it is becoming easier for ships to traverse the Arctic Ocean.
This intern makes it far more economically practical for trade between Europe and Asia to take an Arctic route and bypass already existing longer trade routes. And historically, the nations which have had hegemony over trade have ultimately been able to dictate their terms to others.
America, on the other hand, lags far behind Russia in the race for the Arctic. America doesn’t even have an Arctic policy and while American policymakers are still debating over the validity of Climate change, the gap between America and Russia is increasing in terms of influence over the Arctic.
It becomes clear by the fact that Russia possesses a fleet of 40 Ice Breaker ships, with 11 heavy class Ice Breakers under construction. America, on the other hand, has only two icebreaker class ships. The construction of an average heavy class ice breaker takes about 5-10 years, and so even if America wanted to catch up, it is too late.
Ultimately there are two likely outcomes. One is that the Russian endeavour could backfire for Russia and trigger a new arms race in the northern hemisphere. Though it seems to be relatively unlikely, as even though Russia is flexing her military might, it is unlikely she would push the other Arctic nations too far out of their comfort zones. The second and more likely scenario is that a deal may be struck via the organization known as the Arctic-Council.
All members of the Arctic-Council are relatively mature nations, and other than a few exceptions abide by the rules and guidelines of already existing treaties. In the coming years the race for the Arctic will be interesting.
Also Read: Is The US Loosing Hegemony In The Pacific?