Saturday, August 29, 2015

Russia Raises an "Ice Curtain" in the Arctic Thanks to Climate Change

A Russian icebreaker in the Arctic. (Credit: NOAA via Wikimedia Commons)
Russia has developed an "anti-access" presence in the Arctic in the past year with a stronger military presence, a push for more territory, and nationalist rhetoric, a report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies notes.

While not focused entirely on climate change, the analysis offers a preview of ongoing geopolitical tensions — and legal issues — likely to be exacerbated by ice loss.  It urges Arctic nations to negotiate a "declaration on military conduct" requiring nations to give a 21-day advance notice of major military exercises — which could prevent actions like the unannounced Russian Arctic military exercises this year involving more than 45,000 forces.

NATO has reported that Russia has increasingly been turning off aircraft tracking devices when flying over Northern Europe, and the country has announced the reopening of dozens of previously closed military bases in the Arctic.

"The Arctic is beginning to become militarized and there is no forum or place to discuss security-related issues and to promote greater transparency and confidence," states the report, which refers to the current situation as "the new ice curtain."

"We are in quite a different place than we were a year, even a year and half ago," added Heather Conley, director of the Europe program at CSIS and the report's co-author.

According to the center, there should be a joint U.S.-Russia working group to enhance safety in the Bering Strait and more coordination between the U.S. Coast Guard and Russia over issues such as vessel traffic lanes.  A new Arctic Coast Guard Forum to be launched this fall — involving the United States, Russia and other Arctic countries — offers an important opportunity to "maintain contact" with Russian officials at a time when bilateral military contacts are not an option, said the research institution.

Tensions, trade or both?
The likely drivers of Russia's new nationalism range from internal political tensions to arrests of Greenpeace activists after they scaled a Russian oil rig in 2013, the center said.  Protests and a lagging economy have put additional pressure on President Vladimir Putin's government. Also, China has been making a push in the Russian Arctic, sending a range of ships through the Northern Sea Route, including its first container ship in 2013 on a path historically used for Russian shippers.  The route runs along Russia's coast and connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

In one sign of tension, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said this year that "some developed countries that don't have direct access to the polar regions obstinately strive for the Arctic."

On one level, Russia's actions are not surprising, considering that the Arctic accounts for approximately 20 percent of the country's gross domestic product and exports, according to Conley.  Efforts on things like search-and-rescue and oil spill prevention are "understandable," she said.

What is unusual, the report says, is the degree of the aggressiveness, and that it is occurring at a time when many Arctic oil and gas activities and infrastructure projects are still on hold. Military exercises in September 2014, for example, were the largest since the collapse of the Soviet Union and involved a new military base in the New Siberian Islands.

Read original article at Russia Raises an "Ice Curtain" in the Arctic Thanks to Climate Change

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