Could this be the start of an Arctic arms race?
No stranger to adventures in the icy wastes, Russia is back in force – pouring money, missiles and men into the region in what is being described as the biggest Arctic military push since the fall of the Soviet Union.
It is causing concern in the US, where new Defence Secretary James Mattis has dubbed Moscow’s Arctic moves “aggressive steps”.
Mattis told his confirmation hearing this month that it was “not to our advantage to leave any part of the world” to others.
That poses a potential dilemma for President Donald Trump, who wants to repair US-Russia ties and team up with Moscow in Syria rather than get sucked into an Arctic arms race.
The build-up is causing jitters elsewhere. Some 300 US Marines landed in Norway this month for a six-month deployment, the first time since World War Two that foreign troops have been allowed to be stationed there.
And with memories of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea still fresh, NATO is watching closely. Six of its members held an exercise in the region in 2015.
Then there are the financial and commercial considerations.
“Even without icebreakers, the Northern Sea Route will become passable throughout the year, due to global warming. It is the shortest path from China and Japan, as well as other major Asian economies, into Europe,” said Viktor Murakhovskiy, Editor-in-Chief of ‘Homeland Arsenal’ magazine.
“So Russia is rebuilding it both in terms of air and maritime navigation as well as military security.”
Whether essential or not, given climate change, nuclear icebreakers are being built to clear channels for military and civilian ships.
The Arctic is estimated to hold more hydrocarbon reserves than Saudi Arabia. The US Geological Survey estimates that The Arctic holds oil and gas reserves equivalent to 412 billion barrels of oil, about 22 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas.
Russia's Gazprom Neft says launches more wells at Arctic oil project https://t.co/JuSYzeYEzs— Reuters Commodities (@ReutersCommods) 20 janvier 2017
Hence an even greater reason for Moscow to make its mark – despite the efforts of environmentalists like Greenpeace activists who attempted to board a Gazprom oil rig in the Arctic in 2013.
Russia is in the Arctic to stay, as was made clear back in 2007 when mini-submarines planted the national flag on the seabed beneath the North Pole.