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Reaching out in the Arctic

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti military commentator Ilya Kramnik) - Global warming has turned from a research phenomenon into a political factor. Melting ice and the extension of navigation time mean free access to the Arctic Ocean's natural and biological wealth, and potential year-round navigation of the Northern Sea Route (NSR) connecting Europe and Asia.

The latter event will have a greater impact on international shipping than the opening of the Suez and Panama canals put together.

Today, almost all the arctic nations are stepping up their activities in the region in order to shore up their positions in the future debates on the possession of the Arctic waters, shelf and resources.

Naturally enough, the military have increased their interest in the Arctic as a result of these enhanced research and business activities. Their duty is to protect the interests of their countries in the event of potential conflicts. What could they be?

Let's start with resources, considering the permanent growth of prices on hydrocarbons. This subject attracts the most attention. The arctic countries may dispute not only deposits which are located in formally neutral territories. If the situation becomes critical, they may violate one another's exclusive economic zones. It all depends on what price a barrel of oil and a thousand cubic meters of natural gas reach before demands for equal and free access to the Arctic's natural riches become a permanent item on the agenda of talks between the countries concerned.

The region's transport potential is no less important. The NSR is the shortest route between Western Europe and East Asia. A ship bound for Japan from the Netherlands would have to cover just 14,000 km. At the same time, the route via the Suez Canal and the Indian Ocean is 20,000 km; the itinerary via the Atlantic, Panama Canal and the Pacific is 24,000 km; big ships which cannot pass through the Panama and Suez canals, have to go all the way around Africa, covering almost 27,000 km. Such a sharp reduction in the route's length (by 6,000 km - 13,000 km) will make it much less expensive, especially if navigation goes all the year round. This will result in the economic growth of the NSR ports with adjacent territories. Both Norway and Russia will stand to gain from such changes because the NRS lies along their coasts.

The growth of navigation will require the development of the coastal infrastructure all along the NSR, especially from the Kara Sea to the Bering Strait, that is along the least developed territories; border controls will have to be enhanced to prevent attempts to violate the freedom of navigation and combat its traditional vices - smuggling, poaching, and the like. The bigger and flourishing ports will have to be protected as well, because they will be very attractive military targets. The threat of occupation will loom over the high Arctic lands for the first time.

The Arctic's organic resources should not be forgotten, either. The world's growing population will inevitably require more food, and the scale of fishing will have to be increased everywhere, including the Arctic. Conflicts between rival fishing fleets in northern seas are already being waged now. It is enough to recall the incidents with Russian trawlers off the shores of Spitsbergen, or the "cod war" between Iceland and Britain. The growth of fishing will only further increase the number of such conflicts.

Russia has the strongest position in the Arctic for protecting its interests and increasing its influence there. It controls the NSR, and has infrastructure along it, such as cities and ports, which may serve as a foundation for further development. We have been conducting polar research for many years, for instance on drifting stations, and have amassed unique knowledge about this region. Russia has a massive ice-breaking fleet, including nuclear-powered ships, which can escort single vessels and whole convoys in arduous conditions.

Finally, we have the biggest military potential in the Arctic - our Northern Fleet, and fairly numerous Air Force units. It is by far bigger than the permanently deployed potential of any other polar country. If we adopt the right approach, this foundation should guarantee the defense of our interests in the Arctic, and a weighty argument for expanding our polar possessions.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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