The Russian Bear dominates the Arctic

To continue its dominance on the Arctic, the Russian Bear needs the help of foreign markets, investors and technologies.

Russia’s Arctic coastline stretches over 6,600 km and 11 time zones [GALLO/GETTY]

Vancouver, Canada – In the 1990 film The Hunt for Red October, Marko Ramius, the rogue captain of a Soviet nuclear missile submarine, evades the US and Soviet navies by maneuvering deftly through a narrow and winding – but precisely charted – mid-Atlantic trench.

In real life, the Soviet navy’s charting efforts extended to the heart of the NATO-controlled Canadian Arctic. Soviet-era charts on board the Akademik Ioffe, an ice-strengthened ship owned by the Russian Academy of Sciences and chartered by a Canadian eco-cruise company, show many more depth soundings in the Northwest Passage than do comparable Canadian charts.

Cold War dominance

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union dominated the Arctic. By 1989, its Northern Fleet – based north of the Arctic Circle on the Kola Peninsula – included more than 120 nuclear submarines.

Russia’s Arctic coastline stretches over 6,600 km and 11 time zones. The Kola Peninsula remains heavily militarised, with dozens of operational submarines maintaining a second-strike capability that Moscow deems essential to its “Great Power” status.

The Northern Sea Route between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans has long been considered essential also, and powerful icebreakers were built to shepherd other ships through. During the Second World War, up to 34 “lend-lease” vessels owned by the United States and crewed by Soviets carried supplies from North America through the Bering Strait and along the top of Siberia, in order to avoid German submarines in the North Atlantic.

During the Cold War, Joseph Stalin banished millions of political prisoners into the Gulag where they were used as slave labour to build roads, canals and mines. Russians, including in two cities of more than 300,000 inhabitants each, comprise more than half of the four million people currently living in the Arctic.

The Soviet government has long used Arctic exploits to stoke nationalist pride. In 1934, the SS Chelyuskin was crushed by ice in the Northern Sea Route. Before it sank, the crewmembers cleared an airstrip on the ice from which they were rescued. The pilots who flew the mission were the first people designated “Heroes of the Soviet Union”.

The Arctic is still used to stir nationalist sentiments. In 2007, Artur Chilingarov descended 4,000 metres below the sea-ice in a submersible to plant a titanium Russian flag at the North Pole. Chilingarov is a distinguished Arctic scientist, but he was also the deputy chairman of the Russian Duma in the midst of an election campaign. One of the other scientists involved in the flag plant later admitted that it was nothing more than a “publicity stunt”.

Oil and gas riches

It was oil and gas that rescued Russia from its economic collapse in the 1990s. Today, hydrocarbons account for roughly 40 per cent of its GDP. But production levels in Western Siberia are falling, making the development of more northerly reserves a national imperative.

The Bovanenkovo field on the Yamal Peninsula contains 4.9 trillion cubic metres of natural gas, while the Shtokman field offshore in the Barents Sea holds another 3.8 trillion cubic metres. And the two fields exceed the total proven reserves of the US.

France’s Total and Norway’s Statoil have been brought in to help develop these fields through joint-venture agreements, because the Russian government has recognised the need for Western capital, technology and – in the case of Norway – Arctic offshore expertise.

Getting the resources to market will require improved transportation links. Much of the natural gas will be shipped west through the newly opened Nord Stream pipeline, which runs for 1,222 km along the bottom of the Baltic Sea between Russia and Germany.

Northern Sea route

Liquefied natural gas and other resources will be shipped east to Asia via the Northern Sea Route, which because of climate change is now seasonally ice-free. In 2007, Russia launched the world’s largest nuclear powered icebreaker, the 50 Lyet Pobyedi (“50 Years of Victory”). With two reactors that together produce 75,000 horsepower, it can break through 2.5 metres of ice while travelling at speed. The ship is mostly used to clear paths for cargo vessels.

In November 2010, Norilsk Nickel, Russia’s largest mining company, reported that one of its ships had completed a round trip from Dudinka, in northwest Russia, to Shanghai, China. The 18,000-km trip took 41 days, compared to the 38,000 km and 84 days that it would have taken by way of the Suez Canal.

In August 2011, the Vladimir Tikhonov, a 280 metre-long supertanker carrying natural gas condensate from Murmansk to Thailand, became the largest vessel to complete the Northern Sea Route. It was able to do so because ice conditions now allow ships to sail north of the New Siberia Islands, thereby bypassing the shallow waters between those islands and the mainland.

The Russian government is intent on transforming the Northern Sea Route into a commercially viable alternative to the Suez Canal and the Strait of Malacca.

In September 2011, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said: “The shortest route between Europe’s largest markets and the Asia-Pacific region lie across the Arctic. This route is almost a third shorter than the traditional southern one. I want to stress the importance of the Northern Sea Route as an international transport artery that will rival traditional trade lanes in service fees, security and quality. States and private companies who chose the Arctic trade routes will undoubtedly reap economic advantages.”

There’s just one small problem: the US opposes Russia’s claim that portions of the Northern Sea Route constitute Russian internal waters where foreign ships require permission to enter.

Yet the US has never physically challenged Russia’s claim. When the US Coastguard icebreaker Northwind approached the Vil’Kitskii Straits in 1965, the Soviet government threated to “go all the way” if the ship continued onward. The US government responded by ordering the Northwind to turn round – and has kept its ships away ever since. As a result, the dispute has gradually diminished into an implied agreement-to-disagree.

Reasons for optimism

There are other reasons for optimism with respect to Russia’s Arctic relations. According to WikiLeaks, in 2010, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper told NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen “there is no likelihood of Arctic states going to war”. Harper also said, “Canada has a good working relationship with Russia with respect to the Arctic, and a NATO presence could backfire by exacerbating tensions.”

Last year, Russia and Norway concluded a boundary treaty for the Barents Sea, where the two countries had previously disputed 175,000 sq km of oil-and-gas rich seabed. Along with the other Arctic countries, they also signed a multilateral search-and-rescue treaty, the first legal instrument negotiated within the framework of the Arctic Council.

The Arctic Council itself was little more than a series of regular inter-governmental meetings, until last year when it was transformed into a fully-fledged international organisation – with Russian support.

Russia has been behaving so well that, just last month, it was admitted to the WTO.

The Russian Bear still dominates the Arctic. But in the 21st century, it can only do so with the help of foreign markets, investors and technologies. Which is why Putin said, in September 2010: “It is well known that, if you stand alone, you cannot survive in the Arctic. It is very important to maintain the Arctic as region of peace and co-operation”.

The other Arctic countries have come to similar conclusions. They know that a bear is less dangerous when it’s well fed.

Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. He is the author of Who Owns the Arctic?

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.