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Monday, 30 January 2023
North America’s Arctic Vulnerable to Russia?

North America’s Arctic Vulnerable to Russia?

2022-10-31

 

As the Arctic continues to warm, the region’s unique qualities are becoming more pronounced. The Arctic is warming at a faster rate than other regions, and the effects are being felt more acutely in this part of the world. The Arctic has seen anomalous melting in the spring and summer which is impacting the region’s indigenous peoples and cultures and creating new opportunities for shipping and resource exploration.

With the Arctic set to be the focus of the upcoming G-20 summit, this is an opportune moment to ask whether the Arctic is being viewed as a place of strategic interest by one nation in particular – Russia. Russia’s Arctic policy has focused on the country’s northernmost region, which it calls the “Circum-Arctic.”

This region is not only the site of several key Russian national infrastructure projects and military bases, but also contains significant natural resources. In the past, Russia has demonstrated an interest in exploiting these resources, including the Arctic’s oil and gas reserves, diamonds, and timber.

As the Arctic continues to warm, this region is becoming more accessible, making it a high priority for other countries as well.

Why is the Arctic of interest to Russia?

Russia’s northernmost region, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, is the country’s most valuable natural resource possession. This 2.8 million-acre federal wildlife preserve is being exploited for its oil, gas, and uranium deposits. In addition to its ecological value, this region contains a wealth of indigenous cultural artifacts and historical resources.

With rising temperatures, however, the refuge is experiencing growing season lengthier than in historical averages. This means the Arctic is becoming more accessible to the outside world, posing new risks to sensitive environments and indigenous communities.

Why is the Arctic of interest to other countries?

As the climate changes, marine and coastal environments will be affected more than terrestrial environments. The Arctic is crucial to understanding how this will impact different regions of the globe.

Man-made climate change is increasing the amount of water in the Arctic while decreasing its volume (see “Arctic Climate Impact Assessment”). As the sea-ice cover continues to shrink in the region, more of the Northern Hemisphere will be vulnerable to the impacts of marine and coastal environments.

These changes will have major implications for global navigation, trade, and energy security.

Oil and Gas

The region is believed to contain significant oil and gas reserves. While some of these resources are known to be located offshore in the waters of Greenland, most of the Arctic is located on the continental Shelf, where drilling is more complicated and expensive.

In the past, Russia has shown interest in these resources, and in exploiting its Arctic energy reserves. In fact, one of the first things Russia did after annexing the country’s northernmost region was to approve offshore drilling in the Arctic.

The Northern Sea Route and the Pechora-Barents Sea are being explored for offshore oil and gas drilling. Russia’s state-owned energy company, Gazprom, and other firms are looking into possible Arctic oil and gas fields.

Diamonds

The Arctic is increasingly becoming a focus for mining interests, particularly in Canada and Russia. Companies are exploring the possibility of mining diamonds in the Arctic as rising temperatures expand the area’s growing season.

In 2014, the Yamal liquefied natural gas project in Russia’s Arctic coast became the first mining project in the world to be licenced after the temperature in the region rose above the freezing mark.

Inuit in Canada have also shown an interest in mining in the Arctic, particularly in the Northwest Territories, where they currently have exclusive rights to collect diamonds.

 
 

Fishing (scientific and commercial)

In addition to its ecological and cultural significance, the Arctic is also key to understanding future commercial fisheries in the North Atlantic and North Pacific Oceans.

The region’s marine environment is changing rapidly, with widespread melting of sea ice and shifting of the ocean water masses.

These changes have a direct impact on ocean currents and, consequently, marine life.

A prime example of this can be seen in Alaska’s Bristol Bay, which is at the center of a dispute between the United States and Russia.

Minerals

The Arctic contains significant mineral deposits that have yet to be fully explored. While the region is thought to hold large quantities of diamonds, oil, and natural gas, it also contains significant amounts of copper, gold, iron, and zinc.

As the Arctic warms and its waters become more accessible, it will be more likely for these resources to be exploited.

Shipping and Infrastructure

The Northwest Passage and Northern Sea Route are two of the world’s most important waterways. These waterways connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, serving as vital trade routes for many nations.

The Arctic’s waterways are being explored more and more for potential shipping lanes and strategic infrastructure projects.

In the past decade, both Russia and Canada have heavily promoted their Arctic maritime Arctic shipping routes and Arctic archipelagos.

Human and Environmental Impact

The Arctic is also experiencing an increase in human activity as the climate warms. The region’s indigenous peoples and cultures are being impacted by this change and are expressing concern.

The Inuit Circumpolar Council, a Canadian organization, estimates that 500,000 people in Canada’s Arctic live off a traditional diet of seal and sea mammal products. As the sea ice melts, these people are having a harder time hunting and gathering these critical resources.

Conclusion

The Arctic is undergoing a transformation, with changes that are often abrupt and of global significance. The region’s indigenous peoples and cultures are feeling these changes the most.

International efforts are needed to ensure the lasting and equitable benefits of this change for the Arctic’s indigenous communities, who have the right to determine their own futures.

Based on the Arctic’s unique characteristics, it is important to ask whether Russia is viewing the region as a strategic interest. While Russia is not the only country with territorial claims in the Arctic, it has made the greatest effort to develop and defend those claims.

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