A new book from Russia’s high-profile experts reveals the opportunities and threats the world might face in its endeavor to explore the Arctic. 

Photo: Alamy / Legion Media

Polar misconceptions

Russian researchers Igor Zonn and Sergey Zhiltsov, the authors of the new book “The Arctic Rush: to Capture and Drill,” focus on sea regionalism, a research area that is highly popular in the West but remains somewhat disregarded in Russia.

They take the reader through a labyrinth of problems that has emerged around the Arctic region. The experts focus on such crucial issues as determination of the Russian Arctic zone, promotion of the Northern Sea Route and the outlook for the development of offshore oil and gas deposits. They also outline the problems of the international legal status of the Arctic territories. 

They dwell on the imminent militarization of the region and the protection of its vulnerable marine environment.

A common theme throughout the book is the assumption that one of the key components that will determine the development of all activities in the Arctic will be the aspiration to access its oil and gas reserves.

Russia in the Arctic

The biggest part of the book analyses “Russia’s ambition and the reality of its policy in the Arctic.” The authors provide a detailed description of the circumstances characteristic of Russia’s Arctic policy.

In their opinion, Russia’s planting its flag on the bottom of the Arctic Ocean became a kind of catalyst of the Arctic race, which many countries of the world have joined since then.

They note that the lack of scientific and technological potential for exploiting Arctic resources amid intense competition puts Russia in a situation where any populist measures can only undermine the state and harm the national interests.

The authors believe that the fight for the Arctic will eventually come down to competition between technologies.

“The countries that are the first to come up with new technological solutions will be awarded the prize in the race for hydrocarbons,” the book says.

The authors also pay particular attention to the development of the Northern Sea Route, which appears to be a critical issue for Russia.

They give a detailed history of the route and provide accident statistics. Further, they analyze the key economic and international issues that need to be addressed in order to turn it into an operating transport route.

The United States in the Arctic

Zonn and Zhiltsov also focus on the United States’ policy toward determination of the international legal status of the Arctic territories.

They note Washington’s interest in internationalizing the Arctic beyond the 200-mile zone of the Arctic countries.

The authors attribute this interest to the high level of hydrocarbon production technologies, as well as to Washington’s deep-sea drilling experience.

Their assertion that the Arctic Council is a conductor of internationalization, and that the United States hopes to enlist support from China, Japan, India and South Korea in exploiting Arctic resources, appears to be disputable.

I believe that Washington is primarily interested in preventing the formation of an internal Arctic coalition that would threaten U.S. positions on many controversial issues.

The legal dilemma

Determination of the international legal status of the Arctic is probably the most problematic issue that has been fiercely debated over the last few decades.

On the one hand, for many years many countries never disputed the sectoral division of the Arctic, whereas the areas of the Arctic Ocean that remain covered in ice for most of the year were considered special state territories.

On the other hand, the authors note that the sectoral borders cannot enjoy the same status as state borders, because the maritime space of the Arctic Ocean beyond the areas of national jurisdiction of the Arctic states are treated as the high sea, with all ensuing freedoms. 

Zonn and Zhiltsov emphasize that “the Arctic is subject to general international law, the principle source of which is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea adopted in 1982.”

What we see here is a dangerous confusion of concepts: general international law primarily incorporates the rules of common law and traditional international legal customs, while contractual and conventional rules are secondary. It is wrong, therefore, to assume that the 1982 UN Convention is the only legal regulator of activities in the Arctic.

Militarization of the Arctic: real and imaginary threats

The authors also dwell on such a paradoxical trend as the constant expansion of international cooperation in the Arctic, which is accompanied by a growth of the naval, air and space-rocket potentials of the Arctic states.

Zonn and Zhiltsov believe that these military preparations indicate that the Arctic states are preparing for potential conflicts over the resources of the region (energy, water and biological) and new transportation opportunities.

The authors maintain that “the North Sea, the Barents Sea, the Lomonosov Ridge and Spitsbergen may eventually become a theater of military operations.”

These concerns seem exaggerated. Although military preparations are, indeed, becoming more active and Russia has every reason to resist NATO becoming involved in resolving Arctic issues, efforts to build up military potential in the region have a very different objective.

The climate change that is causing the Arctic ice cap to melt has the potential to engage more states in maritime activities in the region.

State border protection, navigation management, efforts to combat illegal fishing, protection of oil and gas fields will, therefore increasingly depend on powerful navies and border services.

Conflicts between the Arctic nations over resources are highly unlikely, whereas protection against unfounded claims by other countries may become increasingly relevant.

The review was publihed on the website of Russia International Affairs Council (RIAC), a non-profit membership organization, aimed at strengthening peace, friendship and solidarity between the peoples, preventing international conflicts and promoting crises settlement.