Russia pulling ahead in the Arctic

By Michael Byers

NOVOSIBIRSK, RUSSIA—“Canada has a good working relationship with Russia with respect to the Arctic. There is no likelihood of Arctic states going to war.”

The Russian foreign ministry’s representative in Siberia smiles as he quotes the Canadian Prime Minister, as reported in a U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks.

Although Stephen Harper never expected that his conversation with NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen would be made public, the analysis was entirely correct. Here in Novosibirsk (pop. 1.5 million), people are more interested in trade and investment opportunities than geopolitical conspiracies.

The freshly snow-cleared streets are crowded with new Japanese cars; the shop windows filled with the latest European fashions. Most of the students at my lectures are fluent in English; some already have jobs lined up with the Moscow branches of multinational law and management consulting firms.

Others will stay in Novosibirsk, which is profiting from being a hub on the Trans-Siberian Railway. From here, trains carry lumber, oil and minerals east and south to China. In my hotel, close to the rail bridge across the River Ob, I can feel almost non-stop vibrations from the heavily loaded trains.

Siberia is larger than Canada and its resource industry more developed, in part a legacy of the Stalinist era drive for self-sufficiency. Fully 20 per cent of Russia’s GDP comes from this vast, sparsely populated territory.

Nikolay Pokhilenko is director of the Sobolev Institute of Geology and Mineralogy. A field geologist who oversees 700 scientists and technicians, he spent 12 summers working for Canadian mining companies and is credited with a major diamond find in the Northwest Territories. Dressed in a well-tailored suit, he looks remarkably like Sean Connery.

Pokhilenko shows me a geological map of his latest discovery, just 100 kilometres from Russia’s northern coastline. “There are billions there,” he enthuses. “Billions of carats.”

Russia also has massive deposits of oil and gas, both onshore and offshore. Earlier this year, Russia and Norway settled the Arctic’s largest sovereignty dispute — by dividing a contested portion of the Barents Sea exactly in half.

As a result of the boundary agreement, Norway’s national oil company StatOil has been permitted to invest in Russia’s largest natural gas project, while Russia’s Gasprom now has access to world-leading Norwegian expertise and technology.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin celebrated the agreement with a speech about Arctic cooperation. “If you stand alone in the Arctic,” he exclaimed, “you do not survive.”

Unlocking Russia’s Arctic treasure chest will require new transportation routes. Some Siberian officials envisage a railway to the Bering Strait and beyond through a tunnel to North America. It’s easy to dismiss the plan as unrealistic, until you remember that the Trans-Siberian Railway connecting Europe to China and the Pacific was once also only a dream.

However, Siberians are more realistically enthusiastic about the Northern Sea Route, which offers a direct sea-link from the Atlantic to the Pacific and has, because of climate change, already become seasonally ice-free. Hundreds of ships used the waterway last summer to transport natural resources from Russian ports to Asian and European markets.

South Korean shipyards are building dozens of ice-strengthened cargo vessels that will extend the shipping season beyond the summer months, while the Russian government is building new icebreakers to escort ships through in convoys.

Russia is intent on turning the Northern Sea Route into a commercially viable alternative to the Strait of Malacca and the Suez Canal. There is just one fly in the ointment: the United States, which opposes Russia’s claim that key parts of the Northern Sea Route constitute Russian internal waters.

Significantly, the Russian legal position is identical to that taken by Canada with respect to the Northwest Passage, where the only country that opposes Canada’s internal waters claim is, once again, the United States.

During a conference in Novosibirsk, I explain that the Soviet Union had expressed support for Canada’s legal position when the U.S. sent an icebreaker through the Northwest Passage in 1985.

A Russian professor asks the logical question: “Did Canada ever support the Soviet Union’s Northern Sea Route claim?”

I reply that, although mutual recognition would have strengthened both countries’ legal positions, Canada could never have supported the Soviets in a Cold War dispute with the United States.

The professor looks at me quizzically: “But the Cold War is over, nyet? Russia, after all, is about to join the WTO.”


Michael Byers, a visiting professor at Novosibirsk University, holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia. He is the author of Who Owns the Arctic?

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