Has the United States already lost the ‘fight’ for the Arctic to Russia?

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Over the last decade, the Arctic region has become one of the key regions to generate tensions between the US and Russia.

On June 27, Pentagon chief James Mattis said his country must “bring its Arctic game to a new level.” The statement was heavily reported both in the international media and in the Russian media – having been understood with some concern about a possible strategic confrontation between the Americans and Russia in their respective territories.


American agony

In fact, after the collapse of the USSR and the end of the Cold War, the Arctic became one of the regions that escaped the Pentagon’s gaze and ended up being overwhelmingly dominated by the Russians, who succeeded in developing a series of projects there.

For example, the US today does not have any deep-sea icebreakers. At the same time, Russia is in fact the only country that has a fleet of nuclear icebreakers, units that are indispensable for clearing the Far North.

In addition, the Russian Navy is constantly developing new designs – such as the Lider ship (to be built between 2023 and 2025) and the next-generation Arktika, Ural and Sibir icebreakers (to be put into service between 2019 and 2021). And we must not forget such initiatives such as the “White Swans”, the Russian Tu-160 aircraft, to the area, in order to ensure the best possible defense.

All this makes the Pentagon extremely concerned about the advance of Russia in the region. Experts in the subject evaluate that on average the American delay in this field is at least 10%. The major problems of the US military in this regard are the absence of adequate ships, little military training adapted to the Arctic climate, and lack of equipment for the soldiers.

Other actors on stage

Of course, it is not by chance that the Arctic is generating so much repercussion in international politics: it has strategic value because it has huge reserves of natural resources and is a viable and cheaper alternative to the existing trade routes. In this respect, Russia is already actively engaged in the creation of the North Sea Route, which promises great progress, while Washington, with its nervousness, has already proposed to convert it into a world heritage site.

But of course Moscow and Washington are not the only actors who have pretensions in the Far North. Among others, there are Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden, these being the member countries of the so-called Arctic Council.

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The point is that in the last decade Russia has taken several steps that have resurrected territorial disputes in the region . This certainly did not please any of these states and led them to complain about their piece of the pie as well.

Namely, in 2001 the country submitted to the respective UN entity a request regarding its continental shelf in the Arctic Ocean. The motivation for this is the following: if recognized by international organizations, such a platform grants a country the right to own an exclusive economic zone of up to 200 nautical miles, including the possibilities of exploitation of the resources. This factor, however, is not easy to prove, especially for purely geological reasons, so discrepancies did not take long to emerge.

It is noteworthy that at the time, in 2001, Russia failed to promote recognition of its request at the United Nations. In 2015, after scientific research, the country returned to present a more in-depth document, but with the same idea.

According to experts, the result will come out no sooner than next year, because it intertwines with other requests of the same type, such as Danish or Canadian. Not surprisingly, because of the depths of the North Sea, there is at least 83 billion tons of fuel, not to mention the reserves not yet found, which must be many. So, if Russia has its request approved, it will already have at least 5 billion tons, which is critical for the country’s economy.

Is there a real risk of armed conflict?

If we focus on the purely military rather than the economic aspect of the Arctic, several analysts assume that there is even a risk of armed conflict in the area, especially between the Russians and the Americans. Are such concerns fair?

For now, it seems like an exaggeration. The United States, given its backwardness which will be difficult to overcome, will hardly dare to wage any serious conflict in the Far North. Russia, as they have said several times, defends its essentially defensive character of its military policy in these areas, with the aim of protecting the territories it has exploited over the centuries.

Meanwhile, Russia’s cooperation with China , including in the Arctic regions, is becoming ever closer. For some experts, the same trajectory could be applied between former rivals in the area, ie the Arctic States, as increasing environmental risk and natural challenges must be something that unites these powers.

However, it is difficult to say whether countries will be able to sacrifice their political and economic appetites for the good of all. To this day, it seems that in this battle each one fights for itself.

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