General view of the Norwegian city of Kirkenes where a summit of Arctic nations is to be held in 2013.
Recent NATO’s decision to denounce plans of direct Arctic presence sends a positive signal to all littoral states including Russia, a major regional stakeholder among non-members of the Alliance.
Predictable power balance in the High North may open up the possibility of extended economic cooperation between former Cold War rivals. The Arctic ice is melting and business struggle gradually becomes stronger.
In late May Norway’s military “hawks” failed to persuade NATO to establish a stronger military presence in the Arctic. It’s definitely good news for the international business community investing in the region (Shell, Exxon, Rosneft, Statoil to name a few), because political risks usually go hand-in-hand with additional safety and insurance expenses. The High North should not become another crisis spot in the war-torn world of today, which has been destabilized for more than a decade by the US military interventions. Luckily for the indigenous people of the Arctic, the US is so deeply involved in the MENA region it seems to have no time for the North. For example, freshly published “US Arctic Strategy” is a short 13-page document full of vague claims. In the US it has gotten a lukewarm reception. The Washington-based Arctic Institute called it a ‘‘lengthy wish list’’ pointing at the lack of funding.
Despite the fact that the US, which is the military engine of the Alliance, shifted its priorities to the South, trust issues in Russia-NATO relations in the Arctic are still very real. During the Barents Summit 3-4 June 2013 in Kirkenes (Norway) Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev warned: “Any expansion of NATO to include Sweden and Finland would upset the balance of power and force Russia to respond.”
Moscow wants peace, but keeps its powder dry, considering violent escalation in Syria. Russia’s precautions are corroborated by large historical experience - diplomatic talks of the Western countries prior to the World War II resulted in sudden aggression. A more recent example: In the 1990s after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact Organization NATO openly broke its promise not to spread military infrastructure closer to Russia’s borders. Today independent experts are concerned that NATO may use emergency and disaster preparedness measures to cover its indirect attempts to militarize the Arctic.
However, at the present time, the Alliance claims to have no intention to raise its presence in the High North, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said. NATO’s public statement may follow the logic of Nil Wang, a former Danish admiral and Arctic expert. “There is a general public perception that the Arctic region holds great potential for conflict because it is an ungoverned region where all these resources are waiting to be picked up by the one who gets there first. That is completely false. Arctic is an extremely well-regulated region,” Mr. Wang said, noting that more than 80% of all Arctic resources belong to Russia. “Russia is the biggest boy in the school yard.”
A treaty signed by Russia and Norway in 2011 during Dmitry Medvedev’s Presidency defined ownership of a large zone in the Barents Sea that holds large oil and gas reserves. Closer oil ties with Russian companies might reduce political tensions, if Norway drops its plans to challenge Moscow’s nuclear dominance in the Arctic and sovereignty over the Northern Sea Route (NSR). The NSR is the most important east- and westbound naval transport corridor in the North. Oslo’s tactics of using “environmental” initiatives as a pretext for establishing partial control over this vital sea lane are too obvious to be taken seriously. By now all that Norway could do was to send ten “green” activists to protest during Prime Minister Medvedev’s visit in Kirkenes, but who knows what may follow.
Two years ago Dmitry Medvedev invited foreign investors to develop untapped resources of the Russia’s Arctic. As a result, global energy giants signed many contracts with Russian corporations. A wonderful example of effective cooperation is the Russian breakthrough on Norwegian shelf by Rosneft with the help of Statoil. New institutes aimed at Arctic partnership are emerging in Russia: The NSR administration is officially established in Moscow. Now any company interested in shipping via the Russia’s route may get a certificate through a transparent procedure.
Russia is ready to offer many Arctic opportunities to the international business community in the spirit of Ilulissat declaration. This may be the reason why on the Kirkenes Summit Mr. Medvedev deemphasized geopolitical contradictions and encouraged economic cooperation. “We have a good opportunity to implement joint programs and initiatives, including public-private partnerships. The emphasis on cooperation must be shifted toward specific projects,” he said. One cannot help but hope that these lucrative business prospects will outbalance power projection.