Competing for the Arctic: How Russia, the United States and Other Countries Plan to Use the Frozen North

With wars raging in the Middle East and economic fluctuations occurring on a global scale, it is often easy to overlook the regions of our globe that are sparsely populated, difficult to access and not seen as immediately important for either tactical or economic purposes. Several countries, however, have trained their eyes on the Arctic, one of the most remote parts of the planet, as a future area of intense activity. 8 countries in the world hold sovereign territory in the Arctic, those being the United States, Russia, Norway, Denmark (Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Sweden and Canada. These are also the 8 member states of the Arctic Council. Many other countries have also shown an eager interest in oceanic resources that do not fall under the territory claims of other nations. But just what are the aims of these countries in the Arctic, and how will the opening of the frozen north proceed?


A view of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Arctic regions such as this are now being looked at as a potential source of new fossil fuel reserves.

Let us begin with the United States, the current chair nation of the Arctic Council. According to the official statement of Arctic policy provided by the United States State Department, American goals in the regions north of the Arctic Circle are largely scientific in nature, with conservation of existing ecosystems, study of the region and preservation of wildlife listed as official objectives. However, amid these lofty goals are some that are familiar as parts of a practical approach to any large, resource-rich area of land. Environmentally sustainable resource gathering is listed as a long-term aim of US policy in the region. This goal has, in recent years, stirred up some trouble in the United States. Pushes made to open both waters off of Alaska and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil exploration have been repeatedly rejected on the basis that drilling could damage fragile ecosystems and environments in the far north. Also listed as an objective of the State Department is the proper handling of Arctic territory with regards to US military and national security interests.


Russia, the other superpower with large claims in the Arctic, has outlined similar policies, though it has taken a more aggressive route on the exploitation of natural resources and particularly on military matters. Russian bases in the Arctic have been important military installations since the days of the old Soviet Union, particularly for naval operations. In recent months, Russia has increased its military presence in the region and begun the construction of new bases that allow for a more significant military force in the Laptev and Barents Seas. As part of its efforts to compete effectively with the United States and other world powers in the north, Russia has also developed a new class of nuclear-powered icebreaker capable of more easily reaching iced-in areas of the Arctic Ocean. Russia, like the United States, officially states that it is dedicated to ecological conservation in the region, but that effective resource management can strike a balance between this concern and the extraction of oil and natural gas.


The reason for the marked expansion into the Arctic by both Russia and the United States is that, as the far north gradually warms, massive oil reserves that have been inaccessible up to this point are beginning to become available. According to a report released by the USGS in 2008 detailing potential energy reserves north of the Arctic Circle, as many as 90 billion barrels of crude oil and 1,670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas may be laying in wait under the ice of the northern ocean. As oil wells in areas that have already been exploited begin to run dry, these energy resources will become the target of more and more competition.


Aside from the superpowers, other countries with Arctic territory and even some without are attempting to find ways to profit from these oil and natural gas reserves. China, for example, which has no Arctic territorial claims, recently completed the first of five scheduled oil rigs capable of drilling under the Barents Sea. China, instead of exploiting resources directly, has sought roles in assisting other countries with extraction of their oil and natural gas. Opportunities such as this may become common for countries with heavy manufacturing capabilities as the Arctic continues to become more open.


Other countries, however, have taken a different approach. Norway, for example, details a policy more based around population growth and development in its Arctic region than the specific extraction of resources. This is, perhaps, the better long term view of the potential of the Arctic as it becomes more accessible. More usable land allows countries with excessive populations the opportunity to expand while also creating opportunities for new business sectors beyond the world of energy and mining. Like the superpowers, however, Norway has stated that the goal of militarily securing its far northern borders is an essential part of its policy for Arctic progress.


As the Arctic powers of the world continue their expansion into the northern regions, there are three basic common elements to their goals there: resource exploitation, military strength and ecological conservation as permitted by the first two goals. The Arctic, long thought of as an area to which only a handful of scientific expeditions ventured, is opening to modern nations seeking its rich stores of oil and natural gas. While military forces are growing in these regions, it is unlikely that any sort of combat will ensue over available resources, as the region is already laid out according to clearly defined territorial claims.  Rather, the competition for these resources will take on an economic and technological form. In order for these resources to be of any use to competing countries, they must be extracted, a process for which new infrastructure and even new technologies must be developed. Projects such as China’s Arctic drilling platforms and Russia’s nuclear icebreaker, rather than military actions, seem likely to define the current climate of Arctic exploration and competition.





Image Credit:

By Troyer, William ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons



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