Tag Archives: arctic

Russia’s Military Buildup Focuses on Arctic

A Russian serviceman of the Northern Fleet's Arctic mechanised infantry brigade participates in a military drill on riding reindeer and dog sleds near the settlement of Lovozero outside Murmansk, Russia January 23, 2017. Picture taken January 23, 2017. Lev Fedoseyev/Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation/Handout via REUTERS

A Russian serviceman of the Northern Fleet’s Arctic mechanised infantry brigade participates in a military drill on riding reindeer and dog sleds near the settlement of Lovozero outside Murmansk, Russia January 23, 2017. Picture taken January 23, 2017. Lev Fedoseyev/Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation/Handout via REUTERS

By Andrew Osborn 
February, 2017

A general view shows ships moored in the Northern Fleet's Arctic headquarters of Severomorsk, Russia July 30, 2016. Picture taken July 30, 2016. REUTERS/Oleg Kuleshov

A general view shows ships moored in the Northern Fleet’s Arctic headquarters of Severomorsk, Russia July 30, 2016. Picture taken July 30, 2016. REUTERS/Oleg Kuleshov

MURMANSK, Russia (Reuters) – The nuclear icebreaker Lenin, the pride and joy of the Soviet Union’s Arctic great game, lies at perpetual anchor in the frigid water here. A relic of the Cold War, it is now a museum.

But nearly three decades after the Lenin was taken out of service to be turned into a visitor attraction, Russia is again on the march in the Arctic and building new nuclear icebreakers.

It is part of a push to firm Moscow’s hand in the High North as it vies for dominance with traditional rivals Canada, the United States, and Norway as well as newcomer China.

Interviews with officials and military analysts and reviews of government documents show Russia’s build-up is the biggest since the 1991 Soviet fall and will, in some areas, give Moscow more military capabilities than the Soviet Union once had.

The expansion has far-reaching financial and geopolitical ramifications. The Arctic is estimated to hold more hydrocarbon reserves than Saudi Arabia and Moscow is putting down a serious military marker.

“History is repeating itself,” Vladimir Blinov, a guide on board the icebreaker Lenin, which is named after communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, told a recent tour group.

“Back then (in the 1950s) it was the height of the Cold War and the United States was leading in some areas. But we beat the Americans and built the world’s first nuclear ship (the Lenin). The situation today is similar.”

Under President Vladimir Putin, Moscow is rushing to re-open abandoned Soviet military, air and radar bases on remote Arctic islands and to build new ones, as it pushes ahead with a claim to almost half a million square miles of the Arctic.

It regularly releases pictures of its troops training in white fatigues, wielding assault rifles as they zip along on sleighs pulled by reindeer.

The Arctic, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates, holds oil and gas reserves equivalent to 412 billion barrels of oil, about 22 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas.

Low oil prices and Western sanctions imposed over Moscow’s actions in Ukraine mean new offshore Arctic projects have for now been mothballed, but the Kremlin is playing a longer game.

It is building three nuclear icebreakers, including the world’s largest, to bolster its fleet of around 40 breakers, six of which are nuclear. No other country has a nuclear breaker fleet, used to clear channels for military and civilian ships.

Russia’s Northern Fleet, based near Murmansk in the Kola Bay’s icy waters, is also due to get its own icebreaker, its first, and two ice-capable corvettes armed with cruise missiles.

“Under (Soviet leader Mikhail) Gorbachev and (Russian President Boris) Yeltsin, our Arctic border areas were stripped bare,” said Professor Pavel Makarevich, a member of the Russian Geographical Society. “Now they are being restored.”

FILE PHOTO: Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu watches honor guards passing by during a wreath-laying ceremony to mark the 71st anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two, at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by the Kremlin walls in Moscow, Russia May 9, 2016.  REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu watches honor guards passing by during a wreath-laying ceremony to mark the 71st anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two, at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by the Kremlin walls in Moscow, Russia May 9, 2016. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov/File Photo

‘AGGRESSIVE STEPS’

Russian servicemen of the Northern Fleet's Arctic mechanised infantry brigade participate in a military drill on riding reindeer and dog sleds near the settlement of Lovozero outside Murmansk, Russia January 23, 2017. Picture taken January 23, 2017. Lev Fedoseyev/Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation/Handout via

Russian servicemen of the Northern Fleet’s Arctic mechanised infantry brigade participate in a military drill on riding reindeer and dog sleds near the settlement of Lovozero outside Murmansk, Russia January 23, 2017. Picture taken January 23, 2017. Lev Fedoseyev/Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation/Handout

The build-up, which echoes moves in Crimea and Kaliningrad, has been noticed in Washington. U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis told his confirmation hearing this month it was “not to our advantage to leave any part of the world” to others.

Mattis, in a separate written submission, described Moscow’s Arctic moves as “aggressive steps” and pledged to prioritise developing a U.S. strategy, according to Senator Dan Sullivan.

That poses a potential dilemma for President Donald Trump, who wants to repair U.S.-Russia ties and team up with Moscow in Syria rather than get sucked into an Arctic arms race.

The build-up is causing jitters elsewhere. Some 300 U.S. Marines landed in Norway this month for a six-month deployment, the first time since World War Two that foreign troops have been allowed to be stationed there.

And with memories of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea still fresh, NATO is watching closely. Six of its members held an exercise in the region in 2015.

The Soviet military packed more firepower in the Arctic, but it was set up to wage nuclear war with the United States not conventional warfare. Arctic islands were staging posts for long-range bombers to fly to America.

But in an era when a slow-motion battle for the Arctic’s energy reserves is unfolding, Russia is creating a permanent and nimble conventional military presence with different and sometimes superior capabilities.

Sergei Shoigu, the defence minister, is presiding over the re-opening or creation of six military facilities, some of which will be ready by the year’s end.

They include an island base on Alexandra Land to house 150 troops able to survive autonomously for 18 months. Called the Arctic Trefoil, officials have said they may deploy military jets there. MiG-31 fighters, designed to shoot down long-range bombers, or the SU-34, a frontline bomber, are seen as suitable.

Moscow’s biggest Arctic base, dubbed “Northern Shamrock”, is meanwhile taking shape on the remote Kotelny Island, some 2,700 miles east of Moscow. It will be manned by 250 personnel and equipped with air defence missiles.

Soviet-era radar stations and airstrips on four other Arctic islands are being overhauled and new ground-to-air missile and anti-ship missile systems have been moved into the region.

Russia is also spending big to winterise military hardware.

“The modernisation of Arctic forces and of Arctic military infrastructure is taking place at an unprecedented pace not seen even in Soviet times,” Mikhail Barabanov, editor-in-chief of Moscow Defense Brief, told Reuters.

He said two special Arctic brigades had been set up, something the USSR never had, and that there were plans to form a third as well as special Arctic coastal defence divisions.

“Russia’s military activity in the Arctic is a bit provocative,” said Barabanov. “It could trigger an arms race.”

Atomic icebreakers Russia and Yamal are seen moored at Atomflot (Rosatomflot), the operator of Russia's nuclear icebreaker fleet, base in the Arctic port of Murmansk, Russia December 22, 2011. Picture taken December 22, 2011. REUTERS/Andrei Pronin

Atomic icebreakers Russia and Yamal are seen moored at Atomflot (Rosatomflot), the operator of Russia’s nuclear icebreaker fleet, base in the Arctic port of Murmansk, Russia December 22, 2011. Picture taken December 22, 2011. REUTERS/Andrei Pronin

‘FRIENDLY PEOPLE’

In Murmansk, home to Russia’s icebreakers and just an hour from the Northern Fleet’s headquarters, the prospect of an Arctic renaissance is a source of pride.

The city is steeped in Arctic and military history. The conning tower of the Kursk submarine, which sunk in 2000 after an explosion, looks down from a hill above the port.

And in central Murmansk, scale models of dozens of icebreakers crowd the halls of the Murmansk Shipping Company, while sailors, wrapped in great coats, barrel along its streets.

“These Arctic bases are on our territory. Unlike some other countries we are not building them overseas,” said Denis Moiseev, a member of the Russian Geographical Society.

“Other countries are also very active in trying to push their borders towards the North Pole. Our army must be able to operate on all our territory in extreme conditions.”

One country regularly mentioned as an unlikely Arctic rival is China, a close Moscow ally, which has observer status on the Arctic Council, the main forum for coordinating cooperation in the region, and is starting to build its own icebreakers.

Politicians are keener to discuss a commercial Arctic push.

New roads and a railway are being built and ports overhauled as Moscow expands its freight capacity and, amid warmer climate cycles, readies for more traffic along its Arctic coast.

It hopes the Northern Sea Route, which runs from Murmansk to the Bering Strait near Alaska, could become a mini Suez Canal, cutting sea transport times from Asia to Europe.

But while the route’s popularity inside Russia is growing, relatively high transit costs and unpredictable ice coverage means it has lost some of its lustre for foreign firms.

Grigory Stratiy, deputy governor of the Murmansk Region, told Reuters there was strong interest in sea route from Asian nations however and that new icebreakers would allow for year-round navigation in the 2020s.

“Whatever the weather, the Northern Sea Route will be needed. Its use will definitely grow,” said Stratiy, who said Russia was keen to attract foreign investment to the Arctic.

When asked about his country’s military build-up, he smiled.

“There’s no reason to be afraid I can reassure you,” he said, saying it was driven only by a need to modernise.

“Russia has never had any aggressive aims and won’t have them. We are very friendly people.”

Copyright Reuters 2017

(Editing by Janet McBride)

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Military gambit behind Putin’s Arctic oil ambitions

By James Henderson, University of Oxford 
August, 2015

The United States Geological Survey has estimated that the Arctic regions contain around 130 billion barrels of liquids and 47 trillion cubic metres of gas, equivalent to 22% of the world’s undiscovered hydrocarbon resources. It is hardly surprising then that all the countries whose coasts encircle the region, the US, Canada, Greenland, Norway and Russia, have made claims on territory outside of the clear boundary for each, which stretches 200 nautical miles from their shoreline.

United States Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory Photo by Donald K. Perovich, public domain

All the countries whose coasts encircle the Arctic — the US, Canada, Greenland, Norway and Russia — have made claims on territory outside of the clear boundary for each, which stretches 200 nautical miles from their shoreline. United States Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory Photo by Donald K. Perovich, public domain

Russia has been the most active. President Vladimir Putin’s latest call was for Russia to be granted an extra 1.2m square kilometres of territory based on its historic claims that the Lomonosov Ridge, which runs across most of the region, is connected to the Russian mainland and is therefore part of its territory.

An initial claim was made in 2001, and was reiterated when a Russian submarine planted its country’s flag at the North Pole in 2007, but it is over the past three years that Russia has become particularly active in the region, focusing on offshore exploration for oil and the development of a new LNG plant for gas export. It’s ultimate goal, however, is as much about establishing a new power base in the North as it is about gaining an advantage in the rush for resources.

Hydrocarbon licences in the Arctic offshore regions have been reserved for Russia’s state companies, Gazprom and Rosneft. Rosneft has become the leader of Russian attempts to exploit its vast acreage there, but its lack of experience in offshore development has meant it has needed to rely on foreign company assistance, forming joint ventures with US firm ExxonMobil, Norway’s Statoil and Italian group ENI to explore licences in the Barents and South Kara Seas.

The Exxon venture has been particularly successful, making an initial discovery in September 2014 which could ultimately hold seven to nine billion barrels of oil. However, sanctions imposed on Russia by the US and the EU in reaction to the Ukraine crisis have meant that activity has now been halted, much to the annoyance of the Kremlin.

The collapse in the oil price over the past 12 months might well have had a similar effect in any case, as the economics of any oil and gas fields in the harsh and expensive environment north of the Arctic Circle are dubious. Even at $100 per barrel, many commentators were questioning the wisdom of pursuing projects which would cost many tens of billions of dollars to develop, while also bringing significant environmental risks in the case of oil spills or accidents.

Indeed some companies such as Total have decided to forego all Arctic activity for precisely this reason, and many others now see the opportunities offered by shale oil in the US and other more conventional offshore fields as preferable in an environment where cost control is vital to survival.

However, this does not mean the Arctic has lost all its allure, especially as a long-term project with political as well as commercial objectives.

Russia’s oil production from its traditional West Siberian fields has proved remarkably robust in a low oil price environment, mainly thanks to the benefits of rouble devaluation, but decline is ultimately inevitable due to the maturity of the assets, and the Arctic offshore is seen as one major source of new output to sustain Russia’s overall production levels. The ExxonMobil discovery with Rosneft could ultimately produce 1m barrels per day of oil, and the extent of Russia’s Arctic licences suggest that this could be multiplied many times over by new discoveries – if the oil price recovers sufficiently to allow economic returns to be made.

The Russian government has played its part by offering a new tax regime with more attractive terms, and has also set another trend by offering some companies specific support to develop infrastructure in the region. One important example of this is Novatek’s Yamal Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) project, which is an onshore gas liquefaction project in northern Siberia that is planned to be producing up to 16.5m tonnes per year of LNG by 2020.

The logic behind Russian government support, either fiscal or practical (Russian state companies have built the port facilities for Yamal LNG and are providing ice-breaking tankers), is of course political as much as commercial. The Kremlin is keen to encourage the development of a region which has been starved of investment in the post-Soviet era but which is set to become much more geo-politically important as warmer weather starts to open sea-lanes that had previously been closed by ice for most of the year.

Novatek has already set a precedent by transporting gas condensate from Russia to Asia via the Northern Route , and its Yamal LNG project expects to be able to supply gas to China for five months a year via this shorter sea passage. It goes without saying that Russia opening up of the region can pave a way for other commercial operations and also for military use, as ports and other infrastructure created to support the oil and gas industry can be turned to multiple alternative uses.

The military context has been evident in exercises undertaken by the Russian navy in March and June this year, with the Finns feeling particularly threatened by the re-opening of airfields in the region. Russia plans to establish a standing Arctic military force by 2018.

In this light, Putin’s claims for extra territory in the Arctic can be seen in two ways. Extra acreage can provide greater access to hydrocarbon resources for Russia’s state companies, although these may not be accessible economically depending on the price of oil and the ability of foreign companies to get involved given the current sanctions on Russia.

This commercial argument may take second place, though, to the drive for the Russian oil and gas industry to provide a platform for the country to dominate an increasingly accessible region as the ice starts to melt, with potentially huge geo-political and military consequences.

Creative Commons

The Conversation

James Henderson is Senior Research Fellow at University of OxfordThis article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Wandering through the icebergs

Former fishemen now harvest iceberg bits near Cape St. Francis, Newfoundland, for a company that makes vodka and beer out of the iceberg water. Photo by Greg Locke © 2013

Former fishermen now harvest iceberg bits near Cape St. Francis, Newfoundland, for a company that makes vodka and beer out of the iceberg water. Photo by Greg Locke © 2013

I just posted my photo essay Welcome to Iceberg Alley  in the GEO section.  A collection of photos and a look at how the people of Newfoundland live, study,  work, and make the most of these floating ice giants that come from the melting glaciers of Greenland and the Canadian arctic every spring. Behind it all is the underlying knowledge that it’s all because of a changing climate.

The Photo-Essay can be accessed with a $1 day pass for the entire site, or by subscription.

 

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