Moscow Ready to Cooperate with Northern Rim Nations in High North

28 10 2010

Bochkarev_Danila Comment by Dr. Danila Bochkarev

Climate change is a key factor shaping the contours of international security and policy-making. This is particularly the case in the High North, where the retreating ice cap is likely to create a wide range of new opportunities and challenges.

Melting ice cover facilitates the exploitation of mineral resources and opens up access to fish stocks and new shipping routes in particular, which promise shorter distances for trade between Europe and East Asia. On the other hand, the shrinking of the Arctic’s ice cap, while increasing the region’s geopolitical and geo-economic importance significantly exacerbates its environmental fragility and threatens the traditional way of life of indigenous populations.

The melting of polar ice, resulting insignificantly raised sea levels, would have grave global environmental, economic, and human security ramifications, affecting well-being of around 800 million people around the world.
 
Moscow is by far the major regional player in the Arctic. With significant deposits of mineral resources and fish stocks, Russia’s key economic interests are linked to the High North – the Arctic is home to 1.5 % of the country’s population, but accounts for 11 % of its GDP and 22 % of its national exports.

The Northern Sea Route (NSR), a trans-Arctic maritime corridor, plays an important role in Russian transportation strategy, reducing the route from Europe to Asia by at least one-third of its length. It is expected that by 2020 the NSR cargo transportation capacity will surpass 40 million tons per year.

The Arctic is also important for Russia’s security equation serving as a base for the country’s most important Northern Fleet.
 
At present, Moscow has the world’s best polar capacity with an important flotilla of nuclear ice-breakers, including the world’s largest, the Arkticka class “Fifty Years of Victory”. Russian scientists and engineers have collected an extensive geological and geographic knowledge of the region and built an important transport and industrial infrastructure in the High North. However, Russian polar infrastructure remains in dire need of modernization.
 
Russia’s political leadership has always paid close attention to the Arctic. Already in 1910, the Russian Imperial Navy was sent to explore and map the NSR. In 1926 Moscow declared as Soviet territory any landmass inside the triangle between the North Pole, the Bering Strait and the Kola Peninsula; in 1935 the USSR joined the Spizbergen (Svabald) Treaty of 1920.

In 1997 Russia ratified the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and since then has always been committed to the existing legal and institutional (such as the Arctic Council) framework and an ‘orderly settlement of possible overlapping claims’.
 
With the longest Arctic border, Moscow stakes significant claims to the continental shelf and, if accepted, would provide it with roughly 45 per cent of the Arctic’s seabed. Understandably, the region plays an important part in Russian political discourse.

In September 2010, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin opened the International Arctic Forum in Moscow. He underlined the importance of the High North for Russia and made a case for improving cooperation with other Arctic nations. Mr. Putin confirmed that while ‘we are taking care of a steady and balanced development of the Russian north, we are working to strengthen our ties with our neighbours in our common Arctic home’. Vladimir Putin’s speech is an important sign of Russia’s desire for multilateralism in the Arctic.
 
Positive and pragmatic relations with neighbouring countries and the settlement of territorial disputes are necessary for the successful extension of Russia’s continental shelf.

The approaching submission deadline speeds up the Russian “diplomatic offensive” – in September Russia and Norway successfully resolved their disagreements drawing a delimitation line in the Barents Sea and agreeing on joint development of the formerly disputed area. It also forces Moscow to form closer ties with Ottawa on issues such as Arctic governance and sovereignty over maritime routes; namely the North-West Passage (NWP) in Canada and the Northern Sea Route (NSR) in Russia.

Despite some disagreements, the US and Russia also successfully cooperate within the Arctic Council. Washington has still not ratified the UNCLOS. Nevertheless, the US-Russia demarcation line was set twenty years ago by the USA–USSR Maritime Boundary Agreement (1990), serving as confirmation of the earlier US- Russia Convention of 1867.
 
Although there are significant differences among Arctic and non-Arctic players, the good cooperation record shows that speculation about a new Cold War in the Arctic are thoroughly overestimated. These issues can be resolved in the context of the existing legal and institutional framework, and do not require the introduction of new governance mechanisms.
 
Dr. Danila Bochkarev is a Fellow with EastWest Institute’s Global security team. The views expressed here are those of the author and are not necessarily shared by the organisation, its board of directors or other staff.

Source: Barents Observer

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