Dire Straits

Ever since Egypt’s great Pharaonic dynasties and through the successive apogees of Athens, Rome, and Istanbul, the Mediterranean Sea has been at the world’s political center, constantly in the grip of global powers. Thanks to its geographical position, the Mediterranean basin has played a critical role in commercial and cultural exchanges between mighty Asia, old Europe, and the great new world.

However, currently, the world’s geostrategic center is shifting northward, and few of us are paying attention. Due to global warming, a new metaphorical Mediterranean Sea is currently forming to the north. The Arctic Ocean is relentlessly opening its waters to humans, at an even faster pace than was initially forecast by the global scientific community, according to a groundbreaking study by Columbia University. Unlike the Mediterranean, the Arctic is not only a key geostrategic arena, offering trade routes and bordering new shores, but is also a home to enough natural resources to fuel mankind’s growth for 200 years at current rates of consumption. The Arctic is the new Mediterranean; the 21st century is the Arctic Century.

In 1472, when Ivan the Great married Sophia Palaiologina, the destiny of the Grand Duchy of Moscow changed overnight. By marrying the niece of Constantine XI, the last Byzantine Emperor, Moscow became, in the eyes of the Muscovite elite, the “third Rome” – the one and only recipient of the Roman Empire’s heritage. From then on, the Rurik and Romanov dynasties, leaders of the Grand Duchy of Moscow and Tsardom of Russia, had a clear strategic imperative: to “release the potential of the third Rome,” as Catherine the Great put it.

At the time, since the far north was already a de facto part of the Tsardom (albeit unnavigable), Russian tsars then had one priority: conquer new territories to the south and east. Ivan the Terrible conquered Siberia as a whole in the few decades following his grandfather’s death, but since Russia’s maritime power was bottled up in the Baltic and Black Seas, gaining direct access to the Mediterranean became Russia’s great challenge up to the late 20th century, particularly during the Cold War against the NATO alliance.

Yet events are now turning dramatically in Russia’s favor. Arctic ice is melting before our eyes, and if the strategic interests of the Mediterranean are still critical for Russia, a new, much wider door is now open to the Third Rome: the Arctic Ocean. In this regard, in order to understand all the geostrategic consequences of the Arctic’s navigability to their fullest extent, one must consider the return of Vladimir Putin to the Kremlin this May.

Fully back in command, Putin can pursue the road map he initiated in the mid-2000s. Heir to the Rurik and Romanov doctrines and carried over to the present epoch by Soviet communist internationalism, the Putin model is concerned with releasing the potential of the Third Rome by creating an energy hegemony over Europe and securing the top spot on the global list of hydrocarbon-producing countries. The road map breaks down as follows: Russia is to develop its military power using hydrocarbon revenues, open its economy to foreign investment, kill corruption at the intermediary level, and recreate a solid manufacturing base beyond the few government-supported ones that exist at present.

Under this framework, the revenues from oil and natural gas production would fund massive infrastructure and military investments and, in return, these investments would continue to strengthen Russia’s hold on the hydrocarbons. In other words, the stronger the military, the more secure the oil and gas revenues – to the tune of dozens of trillions of dollars.

Similar to Antarctica, which is home to 200 billion barrels of oil and 100 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, the Arctic is home to a huge amount of energy and mineral resources. However, given that the most promising resource fields are the northernmost ones – near the North Pole in the Barents, Kara, and Laptev Seas – the political framework under which the Arctic’s neighbors compete for these resources, the Arctic Council, is much too weak to ensure any purely diplomatic territorial division in the long run. Analysts know that diplomatic talks are necessary to secure Russia’s interests in the region. It is taken for granted by the Russians that Gazprom, Lukoil, and Rosneft will not be able develop the region without the backing of a strong, modern military.

With this in mind, the prospects for international cooperation in the Arctic rely on the future of Russian military strategy in the area. Even before his May inauguration, Prime Minister Putin announced the Russian Arctic Army, a fully comprehensive air, ground, and maritime force built thanks to a comprehensive 10-year defense investment program revolving around hard infrastructure, equipment procurement, and technological investments ranging up to a staggering $100 billion per year. The RAA is to become fully operative by 2020.

Because of this political tour de force, one can easily understand why the current lack of international cooperation between the West and the East in the Arctic is destined to persist. This is why, given that Moscow owns the largest amount of Arctic land and resources, Moscow is now willing to project power and “release the potential of the Third Rome” through the far north seas. The Russia of 2012 is undoubtedly a far cry from 1991 or 1998 Russia. Convinced that a peaceful and lawfully regulated exploitation of Arctic natural resources is increasingly less plausible, Western Arctic littoral states have implemented strategies to curb the Russians’ appetite in the north. In other words, the East-West arms race is on the verge of raging once again.

For much of the last 20 years, when someone mentioned the Arctic in Washington, Alaskan oil or the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System were the most likely topics of conversation. Indeed, Alaska has always been a heavily guarded and militarized region, as well as one ripe for oil exploration. In the protection of the interests of the Western Arctic state, US maritime and air capabilities stationed in Alaska and in Greenland, Iceland, and Norway have sufficed. If need be, the US Navy can mobilize nuclear attack submarines that routinely patrol the Western Arctic up to the North Pole. Since they can break the ice from below, they can serve as a full air-sea response to Russian aggression near the pole. As NATO members enjoying good diplomatic relations with one another, the Western Arctic littoral states have tended to naturally join forces to delay an inevitably Russian-dominated Arctic. In the past five years, Denmark, Norway, and Canada have launched several joint or national armament programs aimed at ensuring their own “Arctic sovereignty.” A report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a Stockholm-based think tank, shows that these military build-ups take the form of new equipment procurement and the creation or expansion of specialized Arctic military components. The United States can already project massive power in the region, and the new armament programs launched by other neighboring states similarly tend to be of an offensive nature.

Canada’s 80 F-18 hornets that currently patrol the Arctic, for example, are scheduled to be replaced around 2020 by 65 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters and six unmanned aerial vehicles. The Ranger Corps will be expanded and both satellites and ground-based radars will be deployed to improve allied situational awareness. In terms of naval capabilities, Ottawa already has a massive force stationed on the Nunavut shores (15 major warships, 11 unarmed icebreakers, and four submarines), and plans to add three new armed icebreakers. Overall, the Harper government has planned to invest more in quality than in quantity, mostly because Canada is but one part of the larger NATO Arctic strategy.

In Denmark, the homeland of NATO’s current secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Greenland’s central geostrategic position has long been acknowledged. The status of Greenlandic-Danish relations regarding Greenland’s economic autonomy vis-à-vis Greenlandic natural resources had to be defined in a durable way, a process that has taken a long time. The referendum that granted Greenland additional autonomy took place only in 2008, and the Danish military “Strategi for Arktis” was adopted last August. The strategy tends to rely on American involvement in the region, as the Danish presence is limited. Given that the US military is present in Thule (Greenland) and in Flyingdales (Svalbård) and that Denmark is not yet reaping the financial benefits of its Arctic resources, the Danish Royal Army’s emphasis on remaining within the NATO framework makes practical sense.

Just like Canada, Norway’s defense strategy is heavily targeted against Russia. It focuses on the Barents Sea and around the Svalbård archipelagos because of a 40-year territorial dispute with the former USSR. The Barents Sea is known to be home to 3.7 billion barrels of oil-equivalents and 3.8 billion cubic meters of natural gas reserves, according to several private, public, and academic estimations. Yet in the Barents Sea, Russia has chosen to negotiate with Norway in order to start hydrocarbon exploration as soon as possible. The first field, “Havis” – estimated at up to 300 million barrels – is to be exploited by Norwegian state oil company Statoil after a first hit last January, a discovery which was made possible thanks to the Barents Sea maritime delimitation treaty signed in September 2010.

This Russian preference for negotiation with Norway may seem surprising, but it is actually the result of simple logic: If Russia could allow Norway to explore the Barents Sea by settling the territorial issue, Russia could start exploring, too. With exploration by both Norway and Russia underway, Oslo handed over the extra Barents Sea security enforcement responsibility to NATO, which can operate in the “Russian Arctic” from bases located in Svalbård and Stavanger in southern Norway. But while the Barents Sea dispute is largely resolved, it bears heavily on an even more important issue for Moscow: the Polarnet project.

Between 1968 and 2010, global warming shrank the polar ice caps by 40 percent, and the pace is increasing. As of 2010, a 62 mile-wide strip of the Arctic Ocean along the Canadian and Alaskan shores is free of ice year-round. Still, even if the Arctic is now technically navigable, Arctic maritime routes will require massive regional planning programs before they become a center of intercontinental commerce. Search-and-rescue stations, harbors, tanker terminals, and mid-size cities must be set up all along the Arctic shores to make the routes fully operable and secure. But all of these installations first require the accretion of an affordable and reliable proprietary communication network. This is the raison d’être of the three Arctic fiber-optics projects developed individually by Russia (Polarnet Project), Canada (Arctic Fiber), and the United States (Arctic Link).

Next August, the immersion of the first of these submarine optical fibers, the Canadian Arctic Fiber, will begin, though it will not be fully operation until November 2014. Laid across 9,700 miles of ocean floor with the help of military icebreakers, this supercable will directly connect British Cornwall to Tokyo through the new Northwest Passage and the Bering Strait. All along the cable, derivations will be set up in order to connect the world to the existing and future Arctic littoral communities located in Greenland, Nunavut, the Yukon, and Prudhoe Bay (AK). The Alaska-based Arctic Link, projected for 2015, will feature the same technical specifications, undersea routes, and derivations as its Canadian counterpart. Each project is estimated to cost around $1.5 billion, which will be jointly funded by the public and private sectors.

Parallel to the development of these American and Canadian fibers, the rival Russian Polarnet Project will be draped across the Arctic in 2015 via the new Northeast Passage from the Norwegian shores to Tokyo via the Siberian Barents, Kara, and Laptev Seas up to the Kamchatka peninsula. Just like its American counterparts, this Russian supercable has a historic impact: It is the first step toward establishing the Arctic as the heart of international commerce. Beyond their humanitarian branding that “our fiber will bring bulk bandwidth to Nordic communities,” the ultimate aim of these fibers is to eventually allow heavy industries to colonize a new region and local tribes – all thanks to the technical and logistical support provided by the technologies of communication. By laying down these fibers, Arctic powers lay down the foundations of the Arctic’s integration into the global economy.

Ultimately, for Arctic oil and gas to be profitable to Arctic littoral powers, reliable Arctic tanker routes must be mapped. For this purpose, it is necessary to develop a whole network of Arctic-specific infrastructures, which will in turn enable the development of the whole Arctic shore. Yet any absolute economic or military gain in the Arctic first requires the installation of a dense, reliable, and proprietary digital communication network.

The feasibility of the Arctic’s opening to international trade and resource exploration requires a robust digital presence and strong military capabilities. With these preconditions falling into place, who can protest the total exploitation of the Arctic sanctuary? Who could now prevent the Arctic from becoming the middleman between the Far East and the Atlantic? Who could go against the will of Arctic littoral powers that deem the Arctic’s geological wealth and strategic commercial position as critical assets to their national energy and commercial security in the upcoming century? Not green-friendly world powers such as Germany or France, or resource-hungry ones like China or India. All have too much to gain from the opening of the Arctic.