Arctic Geopolitics

Russia continues hostility as climate change melts ice caps

The chilling climate of arctic geopolitics in a time of global warming

June 3rd 2015 | Montana | Christopher Beddow

Photograph by Davide Monteleone

There are signs of climate change in nearly every aspect of our environment today, including the behaviour of the human civilisation.

Melting ice caps in the last 50 years have had a ripple effect on the world. A few decades ago, the media began highlighting concerns about shrinking polar bear habitats as a result of drastic climate change. Yet, in 2007, the hypothetical sea route known as the Northwest Passage was so devoid of ice that it was opened for shipping for the first time in recorded history, allowing a Norwegian cargo ship to successfully navigate the route in 2013 on a voyage from Vancouver to a port in Finland.

With foresight, the Russian government submitted a request to the United Nations in 2001 for permission to stake claim to a large swath of the Arctic. Even though the motion was rejected, Russia began moving submarines and aircraft through the region in a high profile manner. This activity sparked serious worries among other stakeholders in the Arctic, notably the Nordic countries, Denmark with its Greenland territory, and Canada.


Law and the Arctic Council

The Arctic is a rather difficult region to regulate, but is mostly covered by the UN Convention on Law of the Sea 1982 (UNCLOS) and the Arctic Council. Comprised of representatives from eight member states, the Arctic Council primarily addresses environmental concerns and the socioeconomic well-being of local communities in the region. It is made up of The United States, Canada, Russia, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, and Iceland.

In order to be compliant with the UNCLOS 1982, the territorial boundaries of Arctic Council nations must end 12 miles offshore, whilst their economic zones can extend up to 200 miles. The agreement also gives freedom of navigation through the region to all, an issue which is becoming increasingly relevant as melting ice actually opens up new trade routes for ships to sail through.

Photograph by the World Wild Fund

Commercial traffic through the Arctic has been growing significantly in the past decade, which creates the need for additional government presence in the region in order to provide security and safety. It is predicted to quadruple over the next twenty years as raw materials are shipped out in volume, construction materials are shipped in to support development, and melting ice leads to faster transit times.

The Arctic region is rich in natural resources, a trait that drives competition between nations in the same manner that has been seen throughout all of history. While Canada expects a growing output of minerals from its Arctic territories, much of the Arctic’s potential resources — including one third of the planet’s untapped oil and gas reserves — are not clearly owned by any member of the Arctic Council.

The council itself is intended to act as a barrier against any government establishing hegemony over the region, but increased Russian military presence, combined with Russian aggression in neighboring Ukraine and Georgia in past years, has made other Arctic nations cast a more serious eye on their northern coasts.


International relations

Whereas Iceland was seeking to establish better economic relations with Russia up until recently, it was discouraged by the war in Ukraine and Russia’s takeover of Crimea. This February, Russian bombers skirted along the Icelandic coast, further pushing Iceland into the grudging circle of Nordic nations against Russia.

Finland, a country whose older generation still recalls Russian and Soviet incursions during the first half of the 20th Century, is now questioning its security in the wake of recent events. This includes Russian military targeting Finnish research vessels in international waters, as well as repeated violations of Finnish airspace.

Likewise, Sweden is also growing wary of Russian activity, as seen by their efforts in pursuing a suspected Russian submarine that entered Swedish waters in the fall of 2014. Unlike other Nordic countries, neither Finland nor Sweden are members of NATO, but both recognise a need for increased security cooperation with their neighbors.

Norway made a show of strength its own response to Russia. Conducting an exercise called Joint Viking in the far northern Finnmark province, the Norway fielded more than 5,000 troops for the operation, making it the largest Norwegian military exercise since the Cold War. As a result, Russian navy was placed on high alert in the Arctic region, especially in areas bordering Norway and Finland.

Photograph by Reuters

Ironically, Norway and Iceland had both been warming their relationships with Russia in recent years. For Norway, this involved dismissing the notion that Russia is a threat to global security as it had been in the past, as well as a decommissioned Norwegian submarine base being rented to the Russian government.

On the other hand, Iceland had recently signed several agreements for economic and social cooperation, including the establishment of a joint center for collaborative development of geothermal energy. Now, it may be rolling back its willingness to work with Russia as it resumes a role similar to that of the Cold War years — when Iceland was the centre point of the Greenland-Iceland-UK gap (GIUK) that was patrolled to prevent Russian incursion into the North Atlantic.

The physical changes occurring in the Arctic are heralding a parallel transformation of economic, political, and social relationships in the region. This grand shaft, deemed the “respatialisation” of the north, is making the Arctic region less of a periphery and instead more of a functional, critical part of geopolitics. Whilst governments, private industry, and local communities in the north may experience increased prosperity as a result of melting ice caps, they will also require environmental stewardship to mitigate the risk of accidents and damages.

Russian commercial harbors along the country’s 10,000 mile coastline are being modernised, but investment in Russian military is also growing. Meanwhile, Canadian air patrols in the north have increased, and American military presence in Alaska continues to be marked by advanced missile testing ranges and regular deployment of paratroopers in frigid Arctic training grounds.


A cold future?

Despite the economic promise of the Arctic, it truly appears to be a case of geopolitical tension for the time being. The state of affairs is not one where Arctic Council members are collaborating for positive developments in the Arctic, but rather one where Russia has indicated its intentions to seek singular benefit and compete sternly against other Arctic stakeholders.

The gravity of the situation was further sealed last month by the emergence of a new Nordic defence agreement which calls for increased security cooperation against Russia in the far north. As in many other regions, it is now becoming clear that the key threat to peaceful economic cooperation in the Arctic is a solid alliance against Russian aggression.

As the northern landscape continues to morph into something navigable and inhabitable, geopolitics may dive in the opposite direction and leave an increasing amount of anxiety and hostility amid the chilling Arctic waters.

Russia and Crimean Tatars

Russia shuts down opposition in the new Crimea

The hardships of an ethnic minority facing an uncertain future in their homeland

April 15th 2015 | Netherlands | Melih Uzun

Photograph by Max Vetrov

“This blatant attack on freedom of expression, dressed-up as an administrative procedure, is a crude attempt to stifle independent media, gag dissenting voices, and intimidate the Crimean Tatar community.”

Those were the words used by Denis Krivosheev, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Europe and Central Asia, to state his concern for the wellbeing of Crimean Tatars – and compliance with their rights and liberties – as Russian authorities abruptly shut down their media outlets.

The formal annexation of the Black Sea peninsula, with the signing of a treaty between Crimea and Russia at the Kremlin on March 18th, sparked global controversy in 2014. NATO, as well as numerous prominent world leaders, condemned Russia for their conduct during the conflict that was dubbed the ‘Crimean Crisis’. Besides their disputed unconstitutional referendum, which was held to manifest Crimea’s supposed desire to join the Federation, the Russians also used persistent military intervention in order to seize control over the Ukrainian territory.


Tatar media shutdown

Crimean Tatars, now subjected to Russian legislature, have no choice but to comply to Russia’s demands that media outlets in the region must obtain a new broadcasting license. Whilst Russian-speaking media channels met the requirements with ease, newspapers and TV channels that broadcast in Crimean – a Turkic language spoken by the Tatars – were denied their permits and forced to shut down their services.

Only a single Crimean Tatar medium, the newspaper Yeni Dünya, successfully applied for their broadcasting permit. All other Tatar media have been indiscriminately rejected by the Russian authorities, often without a specified reason. In some cases, applicants were turned down multiple times or even plainly ignored. Such was the case with Crimean Tatar-language television channel ATR. Their efforts of registering under Russian legislation were arbitrarily denied three times, whereas their fourth application did not even earn a response.

“They can shut down the channel, but they can never curb the desire of the Crimean Tatar nation for truth and freedom” declared Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Twitter, strongly condemning the move against ATR.

Photograph by Vasily Fedosenko

Lilya Budzhurova, ATR’s Deputy Director for Information Policy, stated that the channel had no choice but to pull the plug. “We will be prosecuted according to Russian law. There could be severe consequences, including hefty fines of up to half-a-billion roubles (approximately $9,000), confiscation of equipment, and criminal charges against the management.”

And, just like that, an entire community was rendered speechless. By essentially turning Crimean Tatar journalism into a criminal offense, Russia is depriving this ethnic minority of their freedom of expression, and possibly much more. This is not the first time Amnesty International raised concerns for the wellbeing of Crimean Tatars. In May 2014, shortly after the Crimean peninsula was annexed, they had already predicted that the community would be at the risk of persecution and harassment under Russian rule. “Despite assurances made by the de facto Crimean authorities to protect the rights of Tatars, since the annexation of the peninsula by Russia in March this year, the Tatar community has faced increasing violence and discrimination” said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Europe and Central Asia Programme Director.

“The Russian authorities have allowed armed groups that have been behind some brutal attacks against the Tatars to operate freely in Crimea” he adds. “They have alienated Crimean Tatars by harassing Tatar leaders, threatening to dissolve their highest representative body, and restricting their rights to freedom of assembly and expression.”

Furthermore, Dalhuisen states that Crimean Tatars are being pressured into renouncing their Ukrainian citizenship in order to be granted a Russian one, with the only alternative to be doomed as stateless ‘foreigners’ in their own homeland. This unenviable scenario has already pushed thousands of Tatars to flee Crimea, as their outlook at home is far from reassuring.


Geopolitics of the past and future

Given the history of the two nations in conflict, these concerns are certainly not out of place.

During the Second World War, Stalin commanded atrocious acts of ethnic cleansing against Crimean Tatars, forcefully deporting their entire population – nearly a quarter million at the time – to remote parts of the Soviet Union such as the Uzbek SSR. During the journey, almost half of them died from starvation and disease, and it was not until 1989, during Perestroika, that the Tatars were allowed to return to their homeland.

Nowadays, after decades of oppression from Soviets and Russians, only one tenth of the original population remains.

Only time will tell how the future of Crimean Tatars unfolds, but the political setting in Russia provides a valid reason to remain sceptical.

United Russia, the ruling party of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and President Vladimir Putin, is as conservative as it is statist, and embodies a whopping 238 out of the 450 seats of Russia’s State Duma. This represents a vast amount power, one which is not expected to fade anytime soon.