When Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer told the media last week that “the damn thing melted,” he wasn’t talking about an ice cream cone. As the Arctic faces unprecedented levels of open water, Spencer and other naval leaders recently testified to Congress about the U.S. Navy’s strategy, which is changing as quickly as the Arctic itself.
In this text, Arctic Yearbook managing editor Heather Exner-Pirot interviews George Soroka, lecturer at Harvard University and author of “The Political Economy of Russia’s Reimagined Arctic,” to better understand Russia’s motivations in its Arctic. These include not only economic ambitions focused on resource development, but also a resumption of its great-power status in the international system, buoyed by its demonstration of pre-eminence in the Arctic region.
Heather Exner-Pirot: There’s been a lot of speculation in the media and elsewhere about Russia’s motivations in the Arctic. They’re often described as nefarious. How would you describe them?
George Soroka: In general, I think Russia’s motivations in the Arctic are what Russia tells us they are, even if we are not always ready to believe them. Moscow has three main priorities in the region and they are all interrelated: (1) fostering Russia’s socio-economic development by exploiting the Arctic’s natural resources and the Northern Sea Route; (2) stemming demographic decline in its peripheral territories and better integrating them with the federal center; and (3) projecting power in the High North, where Russia continues to regard itself as the pre-eminent state actor.
Today, the global community is devoting unprecedented attention to the Arctic. Most people are primarily concerned with the effects of climate change, as the media often attributes the frequency of recent natural disasters to the significant warming of the Arctic. Meanwhile, businessmen are exploring new profit-making avenues through the extraction of the region’s rich natural resources, along with the development of the Northern Sea Route. Military officials are spending time and resources estimating emerging threats to regional security, while seeking appropriate ways to prevent them. Politicians of both Arctic and non-Arctic states are eager to participate in its exploration, weighing the pros and cons of their further involvement in Arctic affairs, as well as the expected gains and losses from cooperation or confrontation with other states. Finally, the residents of the Far North humbly are hoping that the new international spotlight their home has acquired will not negatively impact their lives.
Oil companies have eyed the Arctic for years. With an estimated 90 billion barrels of oil lying north of the Arctic Circle, the circumpolar north is arguably the last corner of the globe that is still almost entirely unexplored.
As drilling technology advances, conventional oil reserves become harder to find, and climate change contributes to melting sea ice, the Arctic has moved up on the list of priorities in oil company board rooms.
That had companies moving north – Royal Dutch Shell off the coast of Alaska, Statoil in the Norwegian Arctic, and ExxonMobil in conjunction with Russia’s Rosneft in the Russian far north.
The promise of new shipping routes and access to natural resources continues to attract external players to the Arctic. While states such as Singapore have successfully acquired permanent observer status in the Arctic Council (AC), the European Union (EU) has historically been far less successful in contributing to or securing a voice in Arctic governance. This problem is eroding away, however. All Brussels has to do is play to its strengths and continue focusing on ‘small target’ goals that can be achieved through existing political structures.