Arctic by Russian Rules

Many of my blogs will focus on an emerging global issue—in this case the Arctic and Russia’s actions there—and provide insights on  possible developments we might see in the next five years. The blog format will be Foresight Summary, Recent Signals of Change, and Plausible Developments in the Next Five Years.

Foresight Summary

Development of oil and gas resources and other mineral deposits in the Arctic will start increasing again now that commodity prices have started to recover. Confrontations with NGOs and local communities over environmental and social problems in all Arctic countries will begin to increase. Russia will continue to strengthen its dominant Arctic position and as commodity prices rebound will exploit the new economic and political opportunities in the region afforded by Russia’s large search and rescue and security resources in the region, the warming climate, and new technologies for overcoming the hazards of the region. The United States is not building economic and security capabilities in the region and will struggle to influence future outcomes. For the foreseeable future Russia will define the rules and ways in which human activities evolve throughout the region. For Norway, the Arctic will continue to be strategic; Norway will continue to invest in the region, led by Statoil the state-owned oil company, and remain the West’s most active operator and negotiator with Russia in the region. As NATO reinforces its capabilities in Eastern Europe, Russia will exert its presence in the Arctic. While China is not an Arctic nation (with land bordering the Arctic Ocean or above the Arctic Circle), the Chinese government and Chinese companies will increase their presence in Russia, Canada, and Greenland. Specialized shipments of oil, gas, and minerals extracted from Arctic deposits will start flowing regularly along the Russian Arctic coast to Asia countries.

Recent Signals of Change

The key to recognizing new trends, anticipating possible developments in the future, and identifying the strategic implications is to focus on recent signals of change in the world—big, disruptive, out of the ordinary changes—in whatever part of the world, physical or societal, they occur. Recent changes related to the Arctic that indicate new trends or developments may be emerging include:

  • As of July 2016, it appears energy and materials commodity prices hit bottom in 2015 and now are steadily recovering. The commodity fuel (energy) index of is up approximately 45% since the beginning of 2016, although it’s still 23% down from the highs of a year earlier. Noticeably, private equity firms are beginning again to invest in oil opportunities. The metals price index of is up 10% for the year, but still down 15% from a year ago.
  • According to NASA, the Earth is getting greener in the rapidly warming northern regions. The amount of leaf area per ground area is increasing as a result of warmer northern temperatures and longer growing seasons. Some unknown amount of greenhouse gases is being pulled out of the atmosphere. It’s probably unlikely this will reduce the Arctic warming trends in a major way.
  • The non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with activities above the Arctic Circle are rapidly expanding, except in the Russian sector. The Arctic continues to be getting warmer, and environmental change research in the region continues to expand. At the same time, as social problems don’t seem to go away, particularly among the indigenous groups, NGO activity expands and media coverage increases.
  • Automation technologies and more data will be good for jobs, economic development, and better environmental management. Digital data about the Arctic is expanding very quickly because of increased human activities in the area for environmental, navigation, and economic purposes and the deployment of drones and commercial sensing satellites with large data collection capacities. The Arctic is one location where new automation capabilities and vast quantities of more data will lead to economic growth and job increases.
  • A large luxury cruise ship, the Crystal Serenity, will traverse the Northwest Passage for the first time in August 2016. The trip could be a turning point for Arctic tourism in Canada. Iceland, Greenland, and Norway already promote Arctic tourism. Some NGOs and insurance companies are concerned about the safety and environmental risks.
  • However, Arctic sea routes won’t become major shipping lanes for many years, if ever. It is clear the routes won’t reliably ice free during the summer and late fall for many years, if ever. Shipping traffic on the more navigable Northern Sea Route (NSR) along the Russia coastline has fallen significantly since the high point of 70 ships in 2013. The likely biggest use of the routes will be the movement of Arctic resources (like Russian LNG) to growing Asian markets.
  • Russia continues to develop key infrastructure in the far north. Russia just announced construction beginning in 2017 of another 170 km of rail across the Yamal Peninsula to support the development of natural gas reserves and a new port in the area. President Putin highlighted the railway in his 2016 annual press conference. Russia also just launched in June 2016 its largest and most powerful nuclear-powered icebreaker, the Arktika, for the Arctic. Russia now has six reactor-driven ships for the Arctic; the United States has none. Finally, Russia announced the first of its kind floating nuclear power station has started tests in advance of its deployment in October 2017 in the Arctic.
  • Ship transport of Russian Barents Sea oil along the Norwegian Arctic coast in the first part of 2016 reached new highs because of cumulative oil-development and port infrastructure investments over the last decade in the Russian sector above the Arctic Circle. While US Energy Information Administration in its 2016-published energy outlook shows oil production from Alaska decreasing to less than half its current level after 2030.
  • Russia’s US$27 billion Yamal LNG project within the Arctic Circle will begin operation in 2017. This remarkable project will use West-designed and Far East-built ice-class LNG tankers to enable year-round export shipments from northwest Siberia to European and Asian markets. The LNG tankers are intended for navigation both westbound and eastbound along the Northern Sea Route (NSR), the Arctic seaway along Russia’s coast linking the Atlantic and Pacific. The Russian company, Novatek, has a 50.1% interest in Yamal LNG; China National Petroleum Corporation and France’s Total Group both have a 20% holding; and the Chinese state-owned Silk Road Fund has a 9.1% interest.
  • Russia threatened by NATO in the Arctic. In Vladimir Putin’s July 2016 visit to Finland, he strongly advised the country to stay out of NATO. Both Sweden and Finland are increasing their military cooperation with NATO countries and having debates about joining the organization. The Russian Defense Ministry recently announced the deployment in 2017 of its Podsolnukh beyond-the-horizon radar system in the Arctic. In June 2016 a new law in Russia, aimed at strengthening security along the NSR, gave the Federal Security Service (FSB) responsibility for law enforcement along the Russian Arctic shipping passage. Before, law enforcement responsibilities in the area were distributed among the courts and various government agencies.
  • Sanctions by Western countries against Russia are also impacting Russia’s future development plans for the Arctic region. Russia’s economic development and business ambitions for the Arctic region call for more large investments in oil and gas and civil infrastructure that need international financial and technical support. Sanctions by Western countries, including Norway, Russia’s northwestern neighbor and a non-member of the EU have stopped most Arctic plans from moving forward. The remaining large project with Western capital involvement that was initiated several years ago is Yamal LNG, where the French energy company Total holds a 20 percent stake. Finland was a key supplier to Russia’s building nuclear icebreakers, but the ship equipment orders from Russia have stopped.
  • Despite the sanctions, on some multilateral Arctic matters cooperation with Russia has continued. From 2014 to 2016, a polar code for maritime activity was adopted, an agreement on fishing in the Arctic among the Arctic nations was signed; and an Arctic Coast Guard Forum was started.
  • But on other matters and at the bilateral level, cooperation with Russia has broken down. Russia is restricting Russian NGOs and international NGOs operating in Russia. Russia recently blocked the EU obtaining Arctic Council observer status. Russia recently refused permissions for Norwegian scientists to conduct research in Russia’s Arctic areas, while Norway suspended military to military cooperation with Russia.
  • In contrast to Russia’s commitment to the Arctic, the United States and Canada do not have grand ambitions for economic development in the area; instead they are largely trying to constrain the economic opportunities. At a recent summit between President Obama and Prime Minister Trudeau, they issued a statement pledging to develop low-impact shipping corridors, work toward a ban on all commercial fishing in the Arctic until research can determine sustainable levels, and protect 17 percent of land areas and 10 percent of marine areas by 2020. In April 2015, the United States assumed chairmanship of the Arctic Council for a two-year term and outlined the three priorities of its term: improving economic and living conditions for Arctic communities; Arctic Ocean safety, security, and stewardship; and addressing the impacts of climate change. Neither the United States nor Canada is expanding its navigation and infrastructure investments, including building any new icebreakers. The US Coast Guard has a total of two operational (old) icebreakers compared to Russia’s fleet of approximately forty. China—a nation without any territory above the Arctic Circle just commissioned its second icebreaker.
  • Since Russia’s incursions in Crimea and Ukraine, Norway has assumed a more confrontational approach to Russia’s aggressive behavior in the Arctic. The Norwegian government also recently announced plans to modernize the country’s armed forces and increase its military capital spending. Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg was quoted as saying, “we have an increasingly unpredictable neighbor to the east which is strengthening its military capacity and showing willingness to use military force as a political tool.” Norway’s recent award of a new exploration license to Statoil in disputed waters of the Barents Sea around Svalbard also upset Russia, which claims equal access to resources in the “Svalbard Box,” an area around the archipelago. The Svalbard Act of 1925 gives the Kingdom of Norway full and absolute sovereignty over Svalbard, but provides other countries that signed the treaty with economic rights on Svalbard.
  • As the technological and operational leader in the Arctic region, the partially state-owned Norwegian oil company, Statoil, continues to pursue opportunities throughout the region, including in Russia despite the strained political ties between Russia and Norway and the EU. Statoil’s strategic cooperation with Rosneft involves joint exploration in the Russian Barents Sea and Sea of Okhotsk, as well as pursuing interests in a license in the Norwegian Barents Sea. Statoil plans to drill two wells in the Sea of Okhotsk in the far east of Russia in the summer of 2016. “We are pleased to have entered a key stage in our long term cooperation with our partner, Statoil . . .,” said Igor Sechin, chief executive of Rosneft and an ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin in July 2016. On the other hand, Norway and Statoil would like to continue selling natural gas extracted from Norwegian waters to Europe. But replacing the aging gas fields in Norway has been difficult, and Statoil and other energy companies haven’t yet made the next big discovery in Norwegian waters that would justify building the large necessary gas export infrastructure.
  • China’s support to Russian energy and infrastructure projects in the Arctic is critical but fragile. Russia desperately needs capital for expensive development projects in the Arctic abandoned by western firms due to the sanctions, and China has stepped up to help. For example, the Yamal LNG project and Chinese lenders recently signed a $12 billion loan agreement after two years of talks. But many other agreements signed in the last two years haven’t yet led to firm contracts, and the perception is China has been able to take advantage of Russia’s weak negotiating position. Also, China’s goal of building land and sea routes that will enable Europe to connect more easily with China will effectively reduce Russia’s role as a key trading partner of Europe.

Plausible Developments in the Next Five Years

The signals of change above suggest a number of possible developments and outcomes in the next five years that could affect the well-being of people, organizations, countries, and the environment. For any issue, the possible developments and outcomes in the future could vary significantly given the ranges of uncertainty of the major forces involved. The developments and outcomes listed below are those that could severely impact the people, organizations, governments, and countries engaged in the Arctic.

  • United States and Canada policy positions toward the Arctic
    • US and Canadian priorities for the Arctic are unlikely to change. The focus will be on protecting the environment and limiting exploitation of natural resources.
    • Infrastructure investments are unlikely to increase even though economic activity could expand if the climate continues to get warmer.
    • No new icebreaker for Canada or the United States will be built and deployed in the foreseeable future.
  • Indigenous populations
    • Indigenous groups will continue to receive widespread social services, healthcare, and educational aid.
    • Interesting experiments for using new automation technology to deliver that aid will be implemented.
    • Better outcomes for the groups won’t be achieved in the next five years; most indices in fact will likely continue to remain low.
  • Maritime activity
    • Luxury cruises through Arctic waters will be a major success.
    • But Arctic sea routes won’t become major shipping lanes in the next five years. It is clear the routes won’t be reliably ice free during the summer and late fall for many years, if ever.
    • However, transport of commodities extracted above the Arctic Circle, principally in Russian territory, to Asia along the NSR could become regular.
  • Oil and gas and mining ventures
    • Oil and gas prices won’t rise much beyond current levels ($45/barrel to $65/barrel oil) in the next five years.
    • International oil companies will renew efforts in all countries to find and develop new large oil and gas fields in the Arctic. But except in Norway and Russia, no new exploration will begin.
    • New mining ventures in Greenland, Canada, and Russia will become attractive again.
    • Chinese companies will continue to be major players in the new mining ventures and in Russian oil and gas.
  • Russia
    • Russia will continue to push development of its Arctic territory, build the civil and security infrastructure to support expansion of Russia’s economic activity in the region, and exert Russia’s effective security control over the international navigable waters.
    • Russia could respond with physical action to any further NATO encroachment in the area, including Finland or Sweden joining NATO, deployment of non-Norwegian forces in Norway, etc.
    • Russia may demand different terms for the control and administration of Svalbard and its surrounding waters. Russia will not likely accept Norway’s licensing of disputed oil and gas licenses in waters surrounding Svalbard.
    • As long as the sanctions remain in place, Russia could limit non-Russian trade shipments between Asia and European along the NSR.
  • Norway
    • Like Russia, Norway will continue encouraging development of its northern region. The Arctic region with its social and civil infrastructure needs will receive budget priority.
    • Norway will continue to promote oil and gas development in the Norwegian Barents Sea.
    • Norway will likely expand its security capabilities above the Arctic Circle to remain NATO’s northern leader and limit the coast guard assistance required from Russia.
    • Norway recognizes NATO likely won’t confront Russia over Arctic incursions not involving the mainland. Norway will attempt to mend its political fence with Russia, and seek opportunities for civic and business collaboration.
  • China, South Korea, Japan, India and Russia cooperation
    • Because of western sanctions, Russia will continue focusing on developing Asian nations as trading partners and financiers. The Arctic region will provide multiple opportunities for developing long-term economic relationships.
    • LNG transport from Russia’s Arctic region to Asian countries using the Arctic sea route, NSR, along Russia’s coast could open up the route to other shipments of mined commodities from Greenland, Norway, and Russia to Asia.
    • But Russia will only be moderately successful in attracting investment monies and knowhow from China and other countries that do not support the sanctions. For the non-Arctic states of Asia—China, South Korea, India, and Singapore— the Arctic is not strategic and their long-term commitment to the region is iffy.
  • Environmental research and insights
    • Increased Arctic activity by NGOs will lead to confrontations over oil and gas developments in Arctic waters and with Russian authorities over almost every maritime operation they have in Arctic waters.
    • Confrontations will also increase related to other mineral developments and a host of social, environmental, and business issues.
    • Large increases in the environmental data gathered about the Arctic region will occur because of advances in automation technology, easier access to the area because of warmer temperatures, and more economic assets deployed in the Arctic.
    • The cost of acquiring all this new data and analyzing it will dramatically increase. Major budget fights over Arctic priorities—wellbeing of indigenous populations, new civil infrastructure, security, or more environmental information gathering—likely occur.


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