Russias Arctic War Games Up the Ante on Unsettled North Pole Claims Tensions

Nuclear-capable missiles streaking across Arctic skies last week not only showcased Russias nuclear deterrent but also signaled to geostrategic rivals that Moscows bid to control vast swathes of Arctic turf is underpinned by a formidable arsenal.

Code-named “Thunder 2019” and directed personally by Russian President Vladimir Putin from the Defense Ministrys headquarters, the drills involved five submarines, 15 surface warships, 105 aircraft, 12,000 troops, and 213 missile launchers.

Under Putin, Moscow has rushed to re-open abandoned Soviet military air and radar bases on remote Arctic islands, and to build new ones, all to buttress Russias claim to around half a million square miles of the Arctic.

Russian naval vessel launching a KALIBR missile at an unknown location, released on Oct. 17, 2019. (Russian Ministry of Defense via Reuters)

“Russia argues that the Lomonosov Ridge is an extension of the Russian Federation and so it claims the North Pole as its own, in a bid to control the North Pole,” said Dr. Leszek Sykulski, author and geopolitics expert who served as a national security analyst for Polands president, the late Lech Kaczynski.

“Russia not only claims the right to full control the so-called Northern Sea Route, which is a route going from eastern China, via the Bering Strait, along the northern coast of Eurasia, or the northern coast of the Russian Federation,” Sykulski told The Epoch Times, “but Russia also lays claim to resources, to hydrocarbons and to valuable non-ferrous metals under the seabed of the Arctic Ocean.”

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic holds 13 percent (90 billion barrels) of the worlds undiscovered conventional oil and 30 percent of its undiscovered conventional natural gas.

“This shows the resource potential is huge, absolutely massive, and that its worth fighting for,” Sykulski said. “And there are other resources there that fuel modern economies, like manganese, nickel, copper, gold, and silver.”

In August 2007, in a bold display of territorial demarcation and to signal to the world that theyre not about to let a golden opportunity pass them by without a fight, Russian authorities famously planted a titanium flag on the seabed of the North Pole by means of a robotic arm attached to a mini-submarine.

Then in 2015, Russia filed its Arctic claim to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, under the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which lets countries claim an area of the worlds oceans as part of its extended continental shelf.

Denmark, as a proxy for Greenland, which it controls, has an overlapping claim to Russias. Canada is the most recent nation to throw its hat in the ring and fight for the North Pole.

“Canada is a proud ocean nation,” said Jonathan Wilkinson, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, on the occasion of a 2,100-page submission (pdf) to the UN Commission in May. “The filing of the Arctic Ocean continental shelf submission is a major milestone in delivering on the governments priority to define the outer limits of Canadas continental shelf. Today, we are taking a major step forward in ensuring Canadas Arctic sovereignty.”

Segments comprising the outer limits of Canadas continental shelf in the Arctic Ocean, as proposed by the Government of Canada in a submission to the UN in May 2019. (Government of Canada)

“There is no friendship between nations here,” Sykulski said of the growing tension around competing claims in the Arctic. “Theres just an absolute race, no longer just civil and technological, but an actual arms race in the Arctic.”

Defensive War Games

Russian officials said the “Thunder 2019” war games were defensive in nature and didnt target any specific countries, though experts pointed out the format of the drill included scenarios suggestive of clashes over territory.

Dmitry Stefanovich, a military analyst with the Moscow-based Russian International Affairs Council think tank, told CBS News that “according to the script of the drill, theres escalation along the borders, and it could involve deployment of short- and intermediate-range missiles.”

A Russian soldier stands in front of an RS-24 Yars mobile intercontinental ballistic missile system at the Alabino training ground on April 5, 2017. (Sergei Bobylev/Russian Defense Ministry Press Office)

Putin announced on Oct. 11 that Russia would resume the development of short- and intermediate-range missiles, which were banned for decades under the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) pact, which the US has quit.

Some claim the name “Thunder-2019” is meant to evoke association with “Global Thunder,” a set of military drills run by the US and its allies and which the U.S. Strategic Command describes as “an annual homeland defense exercise focusing on the single, unyielding priority of defending the homeland from attack.”

North Pole Front and Center

Observers of the geopolitical chess game around the North Pole and those attuned to signals that the Arctic backstory may be shifting more squarely into the spotlight might consider two back-to-back press releases from TASS, Russias state news agency, issued just as the nuclear war games were wrapping up.

The first, published on the day “Thunder 2019” concluded, said Russia wants to cooperate peacefully with other countries in settling Arctic claims. The second, issued the following day, said the Defense Ministry had completed a battery of tests that proves Russias exclusive claim to control the North Pole is valid.

The Oct. 18 release cited Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov, who told a session of the Russian governments Maritime Collegium in St. Petersburg that the tests support Russias claim to the Lomonosov Ridge.

“The Russian Defense Ministry has carried out additional bathymetric and gravimetric studies and acoustic profiling. I believe that the findings will be an exhaustive argument in favor of our request at the commissions session in February 2020,” Borisov said, referring to a planned meeting next year of the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, which is expected to review and possibly adjudicate competing claims.

But the UN Commission only rules on the scientific validity of geological data in support of claims to demarcate the outer limits of a given countrys continental shelf. It does not define borders, which would need to be settled between interested countries through diplomacy or other means.

“International law is of secondary significance when things come down to a ruthless rivalry between superpowers,” Sykulski said. “So far, legal attempts to divide the Arctic in an orderly way into sectors of influence have failed. It is certain that in the Arctic, what we will witness—and what we can see already happening—is that the capacity to use force will be decisive.”

The Doves vs the Hawks

Not everyone is as hawkish as Sykulski.

Michael Byers, Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia and author of two books on international disputes and law in the Arctic, told the Barents Observer that the process of divvying up the region is likely to drag on for years or even decades.

Andreas Osthagen, a researcher at Norways Fridtjof Nansens Institute, told High North News that the claims to the North Pole are more symbolic than rapacious, because resource-wise, “there is very little to fight over.”

Osthagen believes countries wrangling over the North Pole are in reality far more interested in tapping resources closer to their coastlines, which are easier and cheaper to extract, and so the claim-driven rivalry is likely to stay in a deep-freeze for years to come.

“There is nothing to suggest this is a pressing issue,” Osthagen said. “Without the presence of resources, there is not a big impetus to care about the delimitation of the North Pole.”

Russian officials, too, struck a congenial tone in their Oct. 17 press release.

On the day “Thunder-2019” concluded, Russias Senior Arctic Official Nikolai Korchunov told a press conference that his countrys intention was to advance cooperation within a framework known as the Arctic Council, a high-level intergovernmental forum that seeks to promote coordination and interaction among the Arctic States.

“The Russian Federation has been consistently advocating for implementing the Sustainable Development Goals, advancing cooperation within the framework of the Arctic Council as the key organization determining the trajectories and details of international cooperation in this sphere,” Korchunov said.

Arctic Council as Security Broker?

Eight countries that have Arctic territories—namely the United States, Canada, Russia, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and Iceland—are designated as the Arctic Councils permanent Member States.

Asked about Russias military initiatives in the region, a representative of the Arctic Council replied to The Epoch Times with a statement:

“The Arctic Councils mandate, as articulated in its founding document, the Ottawa Declaration, explicitly excludes military security,” explained Kristina Bär, the Councils Communications Officer. “Thus, I hope for your understanding that the Arctic Council is not in a position to comment on questions related to military initiatives.”

Bär added that at a ministerial meeting of the Arctic Council, held in Rovaniemi, Finland, on May 7, “the Foreign Ministers of all eight Arctic States reaffirmed their commitment to maintain peace, stability and constructive cooperation in the Arctic.”

A joint statement released at the meeting stressed the need for ongoing scientific research, sustainable development, environmental conservation, and recognition of the rights and roles of indigenous peoples.

Steeped in the language of cooperation, the statement makes no mention of conflict, military or otherwise, or its resolution, save for “emphasizing the role of Arctic States in providing leadership in addressing new opportunities and challenges in the Arctic.”

Sykulski, however, is not convinced that the frozen terrain of the Arctic will not be the setting for a hot conflict.

“When it comes to US-Russia relations, many influential US think tanks and associations of experts are literally sounding the alarm that the US is losing the battle for control of the Arctic. Russia is not only intensively developing its Arctic naval forces but also ground troop formations specialized in operating in the Arctic theater.”

Russian servicemen of the Northern Fleets Arctic mechanised infantry brigade participate in a military drill on riding reindeer and dog sleds near the settlement of Lovozero outside Murmansk, Russia, on Jan. 23, 2017. (Lev Fedoseyev/Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation via REUTERS)

Sykulski added that Russia is also rapidly growing its fleet of nuclear-powered ice breakers and is busy developing underwater drones, which he says could be used not just for research, but also for military purposes.

Two nuclear-powered icebreakers Russia and Yamal are seen moored at Rosatomflot, the operator of Russias atomic icebreaker fleet, at a base at the Arctic port of Murmansk, Russia, on Dec. 11, 2011. (Andrei Poronin/Reuters)

“The European Union basically has no Arctic strategy to speak of,” Sykulski said. “The European Union is essentially sleeping through this crucial phase when there is still time to actively take part in the contest for Arctic resources. And its worth noting that were not just talking about hydrocarbons, non-ferrous metals, but also supplies of potable water, and this last resource is one over which therRead More – Source

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