September 15, 2015
In the analysis of the battle for the Arctic the merger of business and politics is evident like nowhere else, often overlooked and accepted as a given
Translated by Kristina Rus
In mid-summer of this year, the American oil company “Royal Dutch Shell” has received permission from the regulatory authorities in the US to start drilling in the promising “Burger” area on the shelf of the Chukchi sea, located between the coasts of Russia and the USA. No, don’t you think that the arrogant Americans are drilling in Russian territorial waters — formally, the oil and gas exploration is being conducted in their exclusive economic zone that is not more than 200 nautical miles (about 370 kilometers) from the American coast of Alaska.
The promising oil “hamburger” is located within the U.S. exclusive economic zone, but outside its territorial waters (which end 22 kilometers from the coast).
It is this difference, which clearly separates the exclusive right of the country to its waters, and additional rights that relate to the exploitation of marine resources in the sea, the seabed and in the subsoil thereof, that allowed the Russian spy ship “Kurils” in the beginning of September 2015 to approach the Shell exploration platform and carry out inspection in the immediate vicinity.
Interestingly, such actions of the Russian side have not simply passed as news on local TV channels, but were rewarded with an immediate reaction of the press secretary of the Pentagon Jeff Davis, who hastened to declare that:
“The U.S. recognizes the right of sovereign states to the free passage and orientation in international waters”.
What is behind this formal, but very swift and unexpected statement of the main defense department of the USA?
First, behind a verbal screen of stating the obvious facts (“yes, we can!”) there is an underlined reference to the “sanctity” of internationally accepted norms and rules of interaction in the territorial and exclusive waters. Apparently, this stems from the fact that the USA is playing catch-up in the Arctic, the “weak link”, critically interested in observing all the formalities of international law. It is in the Persian Gulf or the Mediterranean sea, near the coast of Libya or Syria, they can rattle their muscles with carrier battle groups, achieving goals with brute force, but it doesn’t work in the Arctic — well, the Navy is not adapted to perform any large-scale missions in the Arctic ocean, except the very limited purposes of the coast guard 22 kilometers from the coast of Alaska. But for the purposes of control and protection of the exclusive economic zone on their own shelf in the Arctic they do not need the aircraft carriers but icebreakers.
The United States is critically behind in the Arctic not only from Russia but also from their own “poor stepdaughter”, Canada. In January 2015, Canada announced a program to built 5 Arctic icebreakers, the first of which will enter service in 2018. And the dispute between Canada and the United States regarding the delimitation of the seabed and continental shelf in the Beaufort sea, is now much more acute than the contradictions of the USA and Russia in the Chukchi sea.
But with a real effort of the U.S. in the Arctic not all is rosy and smooth. Two old American “Polar”icebreakers, built in the 1970-ies, have almost exhausted their usefulness, and are used both in the Arctic and Antarctic. But to provide the Shell projects on the “Burger,” American oil companies must rent the icebreaker from the tiny Finland, and already in October the ice condition becomes unbearable for its modest means.
In view thereof, at an international conference on cooperation in the Arctic, which opened on September 1, 2015 in the city of Anchorage, Alaska, U.S. President Barack Obama announced that the U.S. will rapidly expand the program of building its own icebreaking fleet, the flagship of which, the heavy diesel icebreaker of a new type, should enter into operation in 2020, three to five years earlier than planned. On this program the United States is ready to allocate $1.2 billion dollars and there is even a possibility of buying an icebreaker abroad [$3.7 billion was received in taxes from Shell by the US in 2014 – tr.].
By the way, the infamous Sarah Palin, a prominent figure in the Republican party, candidate for vice-president at the 2008 election, and ex-governor of Alaska, made a pre-election dig at democrat Obama: “Russia is marking our underwater resources and assigns them to itself. What does America do? We are not even present at the negotiating table within the framework of the Convention on the law of the sea… America is just sitting idly by!”
A serious battle for the Arctic is shaping up for the 2020’s: Russia, Canada, USA, Denmark and Norway see in their Arctic waters the last pantry of the untouched natural resources. And, of course, each of these countries considers a maximum number of square kilometers of the Arctic seabed their own. Therefore, the approach of the Russian “Kurils” close to the drilling platform of “Royal Dutch Shell” shows Americans the simple truth: so far, Russia is objectively stronger than the United States in the Arctic. And does not want to voluntarily give up anything it rightfully owns.
“We don’t need a piece of foreign seabed, but will not give up any of ours”.