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If It Melts, They Will Come
The Treasure of the Arctic and How Ukraine Plays into Russia's Strategy
As a kid looking at world maps, I would often think to myself that Russia and the U.S. were ‘millions’ of miles apart. With time and education, I understood that the world is not flat and the two countries are basically neighbors.
Roughly 13,000 years ago during the Pleistocene ice age, humans were able to traverse across the Bering Sea from Asia into North America. Today, we are beginning to see another opportunity forming near the Arctic, this time due to the melting of the polar ice caps.
The image above shows the declining size of the ice caps, and while this will have negative consequences to coastal cities, ecosystems, and humans, it also opens the door for new traveling routes across the Arctic ocean. This article focuses on what nations are planning to do in the region and particularly focuses on Russia’s objectives.
“Increased ice melt in the Arctic will open up shorter transit routes to Asia, provide easier access to proven substantial reserves of unexploited natural resources, and see a continued increase in tourism and visitor numbers. While offering economic benefits to the region, there will be a greater risk of accidents and environmental disasters such as oil spills, which will require close cooperation with all Arctic states and Arctic communities to ensure safety at sea.” - The UK’s Defence Contribution in the High North
As much as we would all love to see the ice caps preserved, governments have been prepping and bolstering their capabilities for greater travel and movement across the region for some time now, as can be seen in the infographic below.
Why? Well, like the quote from earlier said, there are “proven substantial reserves of unexploited natural resources,” and a lot more resources than most would think.
The United States Geological Survey (USGS) released the very first assessment of Arctic oil and gas resources in 2008, revealing that the Arctic holds 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil reserves and 30% of the world’s undiscovered natural gas reserves, of which Russia holds more than half. While many argue that Russia cannot keep up with the financial costs of war in Ukraine, it is no secret that Putin views the Arctic as a pile of untapped cash. Commodity prices are high and the Arctic represents a vast treasure trove of commodities.
Another point mentioned was the “shorter transit routes to Asia.”
Typically, shipping to Japan from Rotterdam would use the Suez Canal and take about 30 days, whereas a route from New York would use the Panama Canal and take about 25 days. But if the Europe-Asia trip used the Northern Sea Route along the northern coast of Russia, the trip would last 18 days and the distance would shrink from around 11,500 nautical miles to 6,900 nautical miles. For the U.S.-Asia trip through the Northwest Passage, it would take 21 days, rather than 25.
Controlling these routes brings significant advantages to countries and corporations looking for a competitive edge.
Going back to Russia, we saw the build-up of Russian troops around the Ukraine-Russia border as early as March and April of 2021, almost an entire year prior to the actual invasion.
We see a similar scenario unfolding in front of our very own eyes in Finland as it considers NATO membership, begins lessening its energy reliance off of Russia, and ultimately signal its decision to side with the ‘Western’ members of the Arctic Council.
With Russian troops gathering around the borders of Finland, we see people in Finland moving farming equipment near the Russian border and banning all Russian overland freight transport with trucks carrying Russian license plates.
We see Prince Haakon of Norway visiting Kirkenes, the town that borders Russia, trying to calm relations between the two sides while the Norwegian authorities quietly arrest Russian spies within Norway.
At this year’s Arctic Council meetings in March, all member nations (everyone but Russia) boycotted the meetings in response to the Russian invasion. In response, Russia's ambassador-at-large to the Arctic Council unconvincingly stated that “Russia firmly believes that there is no potential for conflict in the Arctic.”
In stark contrast, Klaus Dodds, a geopolitician at Britain's Royal Holloway University who studies Arctic relations, stated that “the Arctic is facing its biggest crisis in 35 years,” while Russia prepares for its final year (2023) holding chairmanship of the Arctic Council.
As can be seen, the Arctic is getting very noisy. It could be that Russia’s strategy all along has been to use Ukraine as a distraction and to create a situation that effectively prohibits the U.S. and NATO from responding to Russia’s land grabs and military build-ups in the North. The focus on Ukraine and the fear of a direct confrontation allows Russia to take many steps in other locations without any response.
Welcome to a divided world…
"A house divided against itself cannot stand" - Abraham Lincoln