Moscow acting in the Arctic the way Beijing is in the South China Sea, French analyst says

A Russian military base in the Arctic (Image: Youtube)

A Russian military base in the Arctic (Image: Youtube) 

2017/02/16 - 12:27 • Analysis & Opinion, Russia

Moscow is now acting in the Arctic the way Beijing is in the South China Sea, a Russian move that challenges the US and the West even more than Chinese actions, French commentator Jean-Michel Bezat writes in Le Monde; and Washington in the minds of many needs “to show the Kremlin ‘an Arctic fist.’”

In an article published four days ago, Bezat says that the retreat of the Arctic Sea’s ice cover has awakened “predatory instincts” especially among Russians who see the region not only as a source of wealth but as a place to reassert Russia’s lost greatness by projecting power.

Vladimir Putin announced a new Russian Arctic strategy shortly before he invaded Ukraine, Bezat continues, a move that many at the time saw as a logical development but that now looks more like aggression. He adds that many US conservatives are alarmed “Trump isn’t doing anything” despite his tough talk about Beijing’s moves in the South China Sea.

The Arctic Trefoil, a newly-built Russian military base on Alexandra Land island near the North Pole (Image: delphi.lv)

The Arctic Trefoil, a newly-built Russian military base on Alexandra Land island near the North Pole (Image: delphi.lv)

Last week, for example, the French commentator writes, US Senator Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) published an article in which he suggested that the Kremlin is moving fast in the high north in order to present Washington with a fait accompli in much the same way that Beijing has elsewhere.

Today, Anton Mardasov of the Svobodnaya pressa portal discusses this issue and its importance given that in the view of some, including Canadian professor Robert Hubert,

the Arctic has the potential to become “’a new Middle East’” and thus a place of conflict between the great powers.

Western analysts are concerned by Russia’s efforts to claim its rights to the surface area, the continental shelf, and the natural resources of both and also by its moves to “militarize its territory in the region,” Mardasov says, worries that are only exacerbated by Moscow’s announcement last week that it will officially file its claims with the UN under the terms of the Law of the Sea Treaty, something the US has not ratified.

Vladimir Batyuk, a specialist on the arctic at the Moscow Institute for the USA and Canada, points out that

the last two US presidents have each articulated an Arctic policy in response to Russia’s moves but that there are big doubts that the US has the capacity to do so, given that it has only two aging diesel-powered icebreakers and only one of those is in service.

A Gazprom oil production platform in the Arctic. Severe climatic conditions and remoteness drive up the cost of Russian oil. (Image: Gazprom)

A Gazprom oil production platform in the Arctic. Severe climatic conditions and remoteness drive up the cost of Russian oil. (Image: Gazprom)

That compares with a Russian fleet of six atomic-powered icebreakers and more than a dozen diesel-powered ones. Moreover, he continues, Russia has other advantages and is using them: a longer coastline in the Arctic and recent moves to restore and expand military facilities in the high north.

Few Russian or Western analysts believe there is going to be a military clash in the Arctic anytime soon, Batyuk says, but he adds there is a “but” in such conclusions. If oil and gas fields there open up, there could be a real fight over access to them, especially if prices go up and control of them makes the region more important for the US than it now is.

The Moscow researcher points out that Trump said “practically nothing” about the Arctic in his election campaign, largely because Alaska “is not the most important state” in American elections. As a result, the Arctic doesn’t have for the US president the same importance that it has for the leaders of Canada, Norway or Denmark.

“But sooner or later the new administration will have to develop an approach to the Arctic problem,” Batyuk says, likely by this summer.

Russian icebreakers stuck in the ice of the East Siberian Sea. January 2017. (Image: Alexander Samsonychev / The Siberian Times)

Russian icebreakers stuck in the ice of the East Siberian Sea. January 2017. (Image: Alexander Samsonychev / The Siberian Times)

A second Moscow commentator, Aleksandr Khramchikhin of the Moscow Institute for Political and Military Analysis says that “Le Monde’s comparison of Russian actions in the Arctic with Chinese moves in the South China Sea is completely incorrect,” as China has moved to take things that belong to others while Russia has simply reclaimed its own.

Moreover, although Moscow has strengthened its military presence in the north in response to Western moves, Russia does not have sufficient forces there to represent a threat to anyone. Most of its forces are concentrated in the western Arctic, and Moscow simply doesn’t have enough money to counter the American submarine fleet that routinely sails there.

Khramchikhin agrees with Batyuk that the US doesn’t have the same interest in the Arctic that its allies do, adding that if Washington tries to project power on its own in that region, it will find itself in conflict not only with Russia but with its allies, the Canadians and the Scandinavians.

Although Mardasov and his colleagues don’t mention it, Russia has its own problems: They are of a financial type. The Barents Observer reports today that the Russian navy is now going to have to pay the operators of the icebreakers who make way for its ships, something that it hadn’t been forced to do in the past.


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Edited by: A. N.

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  • Mephisto
  • Alex George

    Sure there are lots of resources in the arctic, but how is Russia gong to develop them? That requires money, and Russia doesn’t have enough to develop its resources further south, let alone in the deep cold.

    Ukraine won’t really care what Russia does in the Arctic, any more than it cares what China does in the East.

    • туфтуф

      Russia and China are ascending powers and despite propaganda, anything can be expected from them. Both countries use a variety of means to attain their goals (prisoners working for free, for example) and there needs to be a war in order to stop them. But who will attack them? No one has the guts.

      • Alex George

        China is an ascending power; Russia is not. Despite Kremlin propaganda, little can be expected of Russia – it does not have the resources, either human or material.

        there does not need to be a war to stop anyone, and the country which lacks the guts is Russia. Its aggressive empire-building has been stopped dead in Ukraine.

        And no Britain didn’t announce anything of the sort, nor did it behave in the manner you describe. Nor is anyone motivated by fear of Russia. As usual, you are simply ignorant.

  • Randolph Carter

    I don’t believe oil and gas in the Arctic will cause controversy, given the mineral resources.

    There are polymetallic nodules lying on the ocean bed, just waiting to be picked up. These resources, also called manganese nodules, contain varying amounts of manganese, cobalt, copper and nickel. They vary greatly in abundance, in some cases touching one another and covering more than 70% of the sea floor. The total amount of polymetallic nodules on the sea floor was estimated at 500 billion tons by Alan A. Archer of the London Geological Museum in 1981.

    The icebreaker Novorossiysk, the third and the last Project 21900M vessel, has completed its loading operation at the Murmansk marine commercial port in north Russia and is preparing to set off for its debut Arctic voyage, the port’s press office reported on Jan. 31. This would augment an additional six nuclear powered icebreakers already in service with the Russians, with at least a dozen other diesel icebreakers in service. By contrast, the US Coast Guard currently only has two diesel icebreakers in addition to some ice-capable tug boats and tenders.

    So, in answer to your question Alex, they already are developing these resources. There is also Scandium – a silvery-white metal that is sometimes classified as a rare earth element, and it is often found near other rare earth elements and uranium. Commercially, the aircraft industry is interested in scandium, as it is similar to titanium, the metal out of which most airplane bodies are constructed. Scandium has a high melting point and is resistant to
    corrosion like titanium, but it is significantly lighter.

    You’re right about Ukraine though – they have more worries than exotic metals, like staying warm and not being a target for Russian forces in Avdiivka or Donetsk.

    • Alex George

      Russia will be wanting more than just icebreakers in order to exploit any of those resources.

      • Randolph Carter

        Good point – I’m not sure how they would bring them up, since the nodules can range from a few grams to several kilograms. Perhaps some sort of submarine harvester could be developed, but I don’t know of anyone who is harvesting them. Treasure hunters use a vacuum device, but it blows away sediment rather than vacuuming it up. Interesting question…here’s the Wikipedia link:

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manganese_nodule

        • Alex George

          Not only an interesting question, but requiring a great deal of money.