In August 2007, media reported that a Russian flag had been planted on the bottom of the Arctic Sea at the North Pole, 4,300 meters below the surface. With this symbolic act, Russia staked a claim to a strategic area of interest and caused blood pressure to spike among the other seven Arctic Council members. The Arctic had become a more important international political battleground than it had ever been before.
Estonia is not one of the Arctic Sea States, but it does share a border with the largest Arctic country, Russia, as do Estonia’s allies and its closest partners, Arctic Council members Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Canada and the US. Under international law, the five countries surrounding the Arctic region have a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone along their northern borders. Russia’s share is about one-half of the entire territory.

In the current clash of civilizations we are seeing, although it is not mentioned that much in polite company, Estonia and the aforementioned seven countries are in one boat and Russia, due to its own behaviour, increasingly alone in the other boat. As the Arctic represents a widening expanse of open water for potential economic activity not far from Estonia, it is wise to keep up with the developments.

So it was with pleasure and excitement that I recently accepted an invitation to take part in a seminar in Bergen, Norway, entitled “A Sustainable Arctic–Preconditions, Pitfalls and Potentials”, which provided a good overview of the debate on this subject in the West. The event brought together scientists, international cooperation officials, representatives of interest groups and people involved in politics from Sweden, Norway, the Faroe Islands, Latvia, Lithuania and the European Commission. The Chatham House rule was in effect.

Topics discussed included the melting of ice cover, aspects related to fish stocks, shipping routes, natural resources, habitats of indigenous Arctic peoples, and international relations. Intriguing maps and numbers were displayed. The melting of the ice has an effect on the movements and range of sea creatures as well as animal ice habitats. Fishing, oil and gas deposits and shipping routes are the main areas of geopolitical interest. 
Four million people live above the Arctic Circle – mainly indigenous peoples whose interests cannot be overlooked by democracies. Or at least, in an ideal world, they shouldn’t be.

Over the last 30 years, Arctic Sea ice cover has decreased and in the summer, the Northern Sea Route (from Europe to Asia through the Bering Strait) has recently even been completely open. This opens new prospects for transport of goods from Europe to Asia, using a shorter sea route than the Suez Canal. Looking at the global view, we can imagine the economic feasibility of a Helsinki-Tallinn railway tunnel, which the more conservative Estonians tend to consider a utopia. Transit between Asia and Europe through Arctic waters is currently scant, as it depends on many climatic and technical factors and the existence or absence of infrastructure. Sixty-five percent of the current Arctic ship traffic is regional and takes place in Russia, Finland, Sweden and Norwegian coastal waters.

Photo: Wikipedia

Complicated cooperation with Russia

Still, it should be borne in mind that climate changes in the Arctic are not sudden but gradual. The ice won’t melt tomorrow or the next year; it is a long-term process. Thus the risk of a political conflict over the Arctic (i.e., with Russia) should not be overestimated. But of course, Russia does use all of its means to establish its global authority, and it acts strategically. Thus the Ukraine-Russia conflict also boils over into the Arctic. In May this year at a St. Petersburg press conference, Vladimir Putin announced that he understands Canada’s concerns on the issue of Arctic sovereignty but not the Canadian positions on the Russia’s role in the Ukraine conflict. Of course no one likes such signals and threats and they are cause for concern, not only on the political field but also in other forums that deal with Arctic issues.

Some have noted that Russia’s narrative on the Arctic topics appears to be somewhat mentally unhinged. Namely, although Russian scholars say in private conversations that their practical research supports climate change theory, Russia does not acknowledge climate change at the political level and their scientists argue against it in public appearances. Moreover, Russian scientists have become more unpredictable, sometimes not showing up for research conferences or panel discussions. Most recently some of them were unable to participate for lack of a Canadian visa. This naturally causes unease in the collaboration oriented scholar community.
Although there is also anxiety in business circles, scientists currently do not anticipate a mining boom in Arctic areas. Conditions are very complicated and oil and gas extraction is expensive. Considering the fields currently being developed, the shale gas boom and low prices, it may not necessarily be economically feasible to adopt the entire potential. While Norway is investing significantly into new oil and gas fields, it does so with great discretion. Global oil prices and demand have to support economic activities in the far north. Despite that, Russia has clearly longer-term strategic interests it is prepared to work to achieve.

The Chinese are on their way

When it comes to Russia, European companies’ economic interests also hang in the balance in the Arctic. Sanctions against Russia, which possesses half of the Arctic and its resources, are frightening for European companies. Europeans are afraid of the dynamic Chinese, South Korean, Singaporean and other companies who threaten to claim their place in relations with Russia and have showed that they are technologically gifted partners. The fear is likely justified. In spite of Asian companies’ lack of experience in operating in Arctic conditions, they are known as fast learners.

There is all the more reason for anxiety considering the state visit made by former Chinese president Hu Jintao to Denmark in 2012, where, among other things, he expressed interest in natural resources in Greenland. China’s strategic and economic interests shouldn’t be discounted. The Chinese technology sector is thirsting for materials. At one international scientific conference, the Chinese expressed a strong position that the international territory in the Arctic should not be the domain of just the eight states on the Arctic Council but that China should also have the right to operate there.

The possibility of cooperation in the Arctic

The Arctic Council has thus far been based on trust and cooperation. In the sense of international law, the Arctic is weakly regulated. There are many treaties that not all of the parties have signed. It is quite a lawless area when it comes to international law and the territorial claims. In addition to the dearth of regulations, the trust and cooperation have deteriorated recently, the Western parties say. Naturally, the decline in trust is mainly due to the actions of Russia. It sometimes seems that a decision has been made to go to war on all fronts. At the same time, it is clear that the arrogant attitudes from Russia can sometimes be just symbolic and a matter of prestige; a way of creating opportunities for itself on the global playing field.

Considering the low population of the Arctic and the interest of the international community in natural resources, it would be a good idea to invite large multinational corporations to sit at the discussion table as well. Often it is they who have the best understanding of what is within the realm of possibility. Universities and research institutions lack resources and experience. Representatives of indigenous peoples should also be welcomed to have a voice at the table, but I suspect they are destined to lose out in this highstakes game.

Thus the question comes up: what business does Estonia have there? Simply and concretely: already now, many Estonian companies are involved in the search for solutions to construction and engineering problems in the Arctic region with regard to extracting natural resources. In light of the above, it would be wise to follow all of the developments because of the global political games. A ripple in the newly open waters above the Arctic Circle can result in a distinct wave at 59 degrees North, Estonia’s latitude. 

Veiko Lukmann is the International Secretary of Pro Patria and Res Publica Union