A daily bulletin of news & opinion

24 September 2010

Visitors to Russia are used to toasts to eternal peace and international co-operation. In the Arctic, Russia might just mean it. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was the star turn at yesterday’s international conference in Moscow dominated by the mantra of Arctic dialogue and working together. “If you stand alone, you cannot survive”, as Putin put it.

Better known for street language than flights of oratory, Russia’s former and possible future president managed a positively JFK turn of phrase arguing that “the price of the Arctic is much higher than the billions of oil and gas which we can extract from the region”. He almost sounded soft.

What’s going on? Has Russia given up on the minerals of the Arctic in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico spill? Has the Kremlin decided to opt for Arctic internationalisation? Has Putin gone green?

Not quite. As an exercise in public diplomacy “Arctic: Territory of Dialogue” was valuable, even necessary. (“Potemkin village-like, but useful” as one foreign participant put it privately). It showcased Russia’s often-underappreciated Arctic history and science. It reiterated the Kremlin’s commitment to law in deciding who owns what in the Arctic. (Just last week Russia settled a long-standing dispute with Norway, opening the way for further hydrocarbon exploration in the Barents Sea, with Norwegian companies in pole position.)

There are plenty of potential problems ahead – Canada, Denmark and Russia haven’t yet submitted full claims while the US hasn’t even joined the UN Convention that helps prevent a free-for-all. There’s a risk of overlapping claims. There’s a risk of misunderstanding. But as its chief beneficiary in the Arctic, Russia has no interest in tearing up the rulebook. Moreover, Russia needs Western technology in the Arctic. It needs a positive political dynamic. Co-operation is about self-interest, as much as idealism.

Economic development – albeit more green-tinted – remains the top priority. It’s not just oil and gas. The first international commercial shipments along the Northern Sea Route (NSR) in the Russian Arctic took place this year. It will be a long time before the NSR replaces Suez or Panama, but only a tiny proportion of shipping needs to be diverted from those choke points to transform Arctic geo-economics. The Chinese are watching.

Shipping linked to mineral development is already taking off. Long-term, Arctic routes could open up Russia’s vast northern interior, provide a way of diverting oil and gas from those pesky Europeans to energy-hungry China, and fulfil an age-old Russian dream of linking up the East and West of the country more effectively. “There’s twice as much oil in the Arctic as in the Pacific or the Indian Ocean,” one official boasted. “We have reached a tipping point,” another explained. Increasingly, this is looking like a tipping point that just tipped.


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