Beware of the bear
At a time when the environmental and scientific communities are concentrating on saving the polar regions from destruction caused by climate change, Russia has plans to build an additional hazard, in the form of a floating nuclear power plant to be anchored off the town of Pevek on the Chukotka Peninsula. The Akademik Lomonosov, currently being built in St Petersburg, will hold two 64-megawatt reactors. It will join Russia’s offshore Arctic oil platform, the Prirazlomnaya, which ships its oil through the port of Murmansk.
The reactors are all part of Russia’s new strategy in the Arctic, with a build-up of its military and scientific presence and the refurbishment of Soviet-era bases and installations in the region, according to a series of reports in Arctic Now, a consolidation of news reports from several publications around the circumpolar north. New weapons systems are being deployed in “more than seventy major sites and ports,” General Mayor Yevgeny Nikiforov told Isvestia, and radio-radar capabilities are also being increased to beyond Soviet-era levels. Ten new and upgraded airfields, under the control of the Russian ministry of defence, are expected to be completed by 2021 and a new railway line is being constructed to run between Bovanenkovo and Sabetta, between Western Siberia and the Arctic coast. In December 2016, Russia opened its northernmost base, on the 75th parallel on Kotelny Island. It will house 250 people in 42 environmentally friendly buildings with an airfield.
Trade all along the Northern Sea Route is increasing, especially the traffic in oil and shipments to the new military sites. And Russia is increasing its fleet of icebreakers, with three new, nuclear powered vessels being built, which will bring the total number to nine. In February, the European Parliament’s Committees on Foreign Affairs and Environment passed a resolution asking for heavy fuel oil to be banned on ships operating in the Arctic to lessen the chance of an environmental disaster. So far, it is not legally binding, but if it were adopted, it would raise the cost of non-nuclear shipping in the region because light crude is much more expensive.
All this is thought to be part of a long-term Russian strategy to establish control over the area where the world’s next big deposits of oil and gas will be uncovered. As the permafrost decays, the fossil fuels will be easier to extract and Russia wants to be ready. As the sea ice melts, shipping lanes will be open for more months of the year. The Arctic is ripe for large scale development.
The balance of power in the region is always precarious, and nations with an interest in the Arctic try to avoid open conflict. A recent poll of citizens of northern Norway found that 76 per cent of them wanted better relations with Russia. They are hedging their bets though: 300 US Marines have arrived in Norway for a six-month exercise, the first time foreign troops have been stationed on Norwegian soil since World War Two.
Any large-scale drilling project in the Berents Sea will meet with opposition. In an upcoming lawsuit brought by Greenpeace and other groups, sometime in 2017 an Oslo court will decide whether drilling for oil in the Berents Sea violates Paragraph 112 of the Norwegian Constitution, which prohibits actions threatening future generations. Greenpeace doesn’t have a legal slam dunk: in 2011, Norway and Russia finally resolved border disputes in the Barents Sea and began seismic exploration, looking for deposits of oil and gas which both countries claim will provide much needed jobs in the area.
A conference in Arkhangelsk, Russia, this month will bring together 1,500 delegates from 14 countries to discuss the region, including nations such as Switzerland without a direct interest in the Arctic.
Right before Putin invaded Crimea, he was about to sign one of the biggest oil mergers on the planet with a deal to sell part of Rosneft to Exxon, with the money going directly to the Kremlin. When the US imposed sanctions, the deal fell through, but now that Putin’s Manchurian candidate is in office, sanctions will be removed sooner rather than later. Putin is building up his military presence in the Arctic, right on our borders, and our resources and security are threatened. At one time, Canada could have depended on US help in the event of Russian aggression. That is no longer the case. And in the meantime, the US is ripping itself apart: the EPA, education, scientists. The US could not be destroying itself faster if Russia itself were pulling the levers, which it might be. Who is Donald Trump, really, and what does he want? And, in the new, looking-glass world of 2017, who is the real president of the United States?