Race towards the Arctic

Back in 1991, eight countries signed the “Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS) and it was just the beginning of the successive establishment of the Arctic Council, born from the Ottawa declaration of the 1996. Eight member states (Canada, USA, Finland, Iceland, Russia, Norway, Greenland and Sweden) declared the will to guarantee a sustainable development for the Arctic, together with a special attention to environmental, social and economic policies. 

Race towards the Arctic - GEOPOLITICA.info

Contemporarily, during the 90s, studies conducted by the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) showed that global temperature of our planet was rising by a rate ranging from 0.6 to 0.8 degrees Celsius, leading to dramatic changes in the northern hemisphere, which in turn caused the hottest decade ever registered on the globe.

Facing this warning issue, some doubts have risen upon the purpose of the Arctic Council: is it actuallya real commitment to push forward important geopolitical changes worldwide in order to guarantee its members an easy access to the artic energetic resources?

Until recently the Polar Arctic sea distinguished itself for being covered by ice from one coast to the other over more than eight months per year but now, dramatically influenced by the global warming and related climate change, the natural ecosystems of the area have been irreversibly damaged.

In fact in the Polar Regions, temperature variations are higher than other areas and the ice melting represents a serious damage that affects not only the geography of the area, but also the food chain and biodiversity.

Even though the Arctic territories jurisdictionally belong to the eight members of the Arctic Council with boundaries already defined, the right of ownership upon the Arctic See represents the main geopolitical issue. The UN Convention of the Sea (UNCLOS), ratified in 1982 by many countries, has never been signed by the USA. The aforementioned Convention establishes a global regime of laws upon the oceans and seas, defining rules in order to discipline the resources exploitation. As the UNCLOS indicates, the issues related to the oceanic spaces are strictly linked to each other andmust be addressed in their complexity.

The Convention, open for signature on the 10th of December 1982, passed through a hard negotiation process, counting on the participation of over 150 countries by 1994 (the Italian ratification came with the n. 689 of the 2nd December 1994 Law).

During the second half of the XIX century there have been several attempts of reaching the North Pole like in 1923, when the Italian airship “Norge” overflew the North Pole for the first time and in 1958 the first American atomic submarine crossed the Arctic sea.

Besides those explorative purposes, the North Pole until that moment had not been so strategically important for states worldwide: in 1867 Russia sold Alaska to USA for 7,2$ million while the American press asked, outraged, the reason whyUSA would need an ice box and fifty thousands Inuit.

Only during World War II the Arctic region started gaining importance, especially for military purposes, as it became site of Anglo-American military supply for the Soviet Union. During the 50s’ and 60s’, tests of new unconventional weapons took place, enough to force USA to control the whole area during the cold war, fearing a nuclear attack by URSS using missiles launched beyond the North Pole. Terminated the cold war, tensions started to loosen, even though many international observers fear the Arctic region could become the new battlefield between USA and Russia.

As already mentioned, ice melting has open a wide range of possibilities for resource exploitation in the North Pole: 30% and 15% of global natural gas reserves and global oil reserves respectively still to be exploited, and gigantic mineral supply, have been estimated in the area . The shrinking the polar icecap, in the future it will make more feasible the transit atNortheast and Northwestroutes of commercial fleets. But nowadays, the extraction activities in that area are still economically prohibitive considering the harsh environmental conditions that affect the transportation of goods.

Looking at the “rival sovereignties” on the Arctic playfield, is clear that the consequences of climate change leading to new economic opportunities has attracted the interests of many nations. Coastal countries and members of the Arctic Council have the intention to claim their sovereignty right over the area, while other big actors like China, Europe and Japan are seeking a global framework aiming at promoting the most open and free trade of resources.

This point is the most crucial issue of the whole situation; considering that the international legislation defines the North Pole as human ownership and clarify, above all, that resources located there shall be administered by the International Seabed Authority (ISA), the states having territory included in the Arctic Circle have often called on the United Nation Convention on Law Of the Sea (UNCLOS) which establishes the terms of state sovereignty, but they still do not receive indications on how to act.

In this situation of juridical uncertainty and conflicting economic interests, there is room for tensions among the states aiming at protecting national interests, also through an increasing militarisation of the area. Russia continues to maintain the biggest naval-military base of the world in the Kola peninsula, with air and naval facilities, military camps and army training areas, but also the Scandinavian countries and USA seem to be always military present to protect their interests. In 2013 USA produced a document, the “Arctic Strategy”, affirming the importance of the Arctic for USA to contrast the threat posed by the presence of Russia in the area, statement that takes us back in time, almost in a Cold War environment. Even on the side of Russia there are no provocations missing, as the episode of planting the flag of Russian Federation on the bottom of the Arctic Sea, exactly in correspondence of the North Pole.

As many states members of the Arctic Council are also members of the Atlantic Treaty (Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, USA), we can still hope that the famous antipathy Russia-NATO and Russia-USA will not degenerate in policy of confrontation in the Arctic Region.