Russia’s long-game in Antarctica runs political risk

Russia’s long-game in Antarctica runs political risk

Recent signals out of Moscow suggest the increasing consideration of Antarctica in Russia’s broader strategic vision, a destabilizing trend that risks triggering militarized competition among resource-seeking nations in a thus far exemplary domain of international peace and cooperation.

Just two weeks into the new year, Kremlin media outlets reported that a Russian naval expedition had arrived in Antarctica as the country’s first Antarctic mission organized by the Ministry of Defense in three decades. Despite garnering little outside media attention, the expedition is suggestive of an important emerging trend in Moscow’s strategic vision with significant geopolitical risks — a steadily building interest in Antarctica for strategic and economic purposes.

Russia’s Antarctic activities and ambitions

While Russian interest on the global stage is quite characteristic of President Putin’s ambitious foreign policy, Moscow’s subtle yet strategically important policy shift towards Antarctica is of particular note given the context surrounding the relatively unpoliticized “white continent.”

For one, Antarctica is managed by the highly successful Antarctic Treaty System (ATS), a series of international agreements that has preserved the continent as a non-militarized, strictly scientific global commons for several decades in spite of the numerous territorial claims and major powers involved. This has meant that Russian Antarctic policy — along with that of other important players like the United States and China — has historically been focused on enhancing national prestige through scientific endeavors rather than advancing military interests or augmenting economic growth.

Secondly, the remoteness and harsh environmental conditions of Antarctica have meant that any military or economic benefits that might be pursued regardless are quickly sidelined by concerns of feasibility and high buy-in costs.

Screenshot 2016-01-25 at 2.png

Source: University of Texas, Edited to highlight the five year-round Russian bases in Antarctica

While seven countries have maintained territorial claims to sections of Antarctica and, in turn, the potential strategic and economic benefits therein, Russia is not one of those states. At the same time, Moscow has consistently left the door open for its own Antarctic land grab by refuting the territorial claims of other nations and maintaining its right to spontaneously claim the entire continent at any point in the future. Now, in spite of existing barriers, Russia’s Antarctic policy has begun to suggest that it fully intends on taking advantage of that right over the long-term.

Indicators of this increasingly aggressive approach can be found in virtually every facet of Russia’s policy towards Antarctica and touch on nearly all the strategic and economic opportunities that the continent has to offer.

First and foremost, the recently launched endeavors of the Russian Navy are a clear sign that interest in the Antarctic has increased. While the Antarctic Treaty System allows for military vehicles and equipment to be used in the region so long as they are limited to non-military scientific research, the return of Russia’s Navy after 30 years may well symbolize to other Antarctic powers that Moscow’s assertive Arctic strategy is now spreading to the South Pole.

In addition, Russian military officials have stated that the naval effort is aimed at conducting a hydrographic survey for the refinement of Antarctic sea maps, but there is reason to believe that the effort may in fact be poised at achieving strategic goals in violation of the Antarctic Treaty — namely oil and gas exploitation. Rough estimates place total Antarctic oil reserves between 50 billion to 203 billion barrels, while natural gas reserves are projected at 106 trillion cubic feet.

Although the Madrid Protocol of the Antarctic Treaty prohibits the exploration of natural resources on the continent until 2048, Russia has alarmingly and unabashedly expressed its intention to “strengthen the economic capacity of Russia… through complex investigations of the Antarctic mineral, hydrocarbon, and other natural resources” in its 2010-2020 Antarctic strategy.

Looking through this lens, and recognizing that hydrographic surveying is also utilized for offshore oil exploration, it is reasonable to suspect that Russia may be taking early steps towards a longer-term strategy of eventually rejecting the ATS in whole and laying claim to Antarctic oil or gas reserves.

Furthermore, Russia has evoked several other policies to help create favorable conditions for an eventual resource grab in Antarctica. This past October, Moscow unilaterally vetoed plans for an Antarctic ocean sanctuary that would have prohibited fishing throughout a vast area of surrounding oceans while also initiating plans to expand its efforts to fish squid, fish, and krill in the region. Though obstructive to the ATS and Antarctic environmental protection, this policy is particularly lucrative for the Russian fishing industry when considering that Antarctic fishery is literally unmatched in its potential — with only 150,000 metric tons of krill caught per year in spite of a 6.5 million ton limit.

To tie these efforts together and increase their future potential, Russia is also investing in a new Antarctic runway, a multitude of Antarctica-ready planes, and two new ice-breaker vessels. Taken together, these policies suggest a two-fold, long-term strategy: first build Russian understanding and control of lucrative Antarctic resources within the general boundaries of the established Antarctic regime, and then — when the time is right — ensure the future option of forgoing the ATS and lay down official territorial claims.

High political risk for Antarctic states

Considering the active Antarctic involvement of countries like the United States, China, India and Japan, this strategy implies clear and serious political risks for all major resource-seeking powers. Should Russia continue gradually nudging its Antarctic policy towards the realization of strategic and economic aspirations, a similarly gradual militarization of the region can be expected to follow.

Even without moving to violate the Antarctic Treaty through explicit natural resource exploitation, the mere indication that Russian interest in Antarctica and its natural resources has increased holds the potential to begin shifting other major resource-seeking powers away from prevailing cooperative sentiments and towards geostrategic competition.

In fact, there is evidence already that China is responding to Russian policy in a similar fashion — with senior officials from the Polar Research Institute of China expressing a general Antarctic philosophy that scientific research on the continent is a disguise to guarantee access to any potentially discovered resources in the long-term.

Though Washington’s Antarctic stance has continued to remain publicly limited to scientific pursuits, it has continued to reserve the same right as Moscow to assert territorial claims at any point, and is also moving forward with plans for two billion-dollar ice-breakers partially tasked with bolstering national security infrastructure in the region.

As is always the case with fossil fuels, competition over oil and gas is essentially guaranteed to introduce military elements to Antarctica — both to maintain potential resource “claims” and, eventually, protect the transportation of resources. With Russia becoming more unapologetic in its long-game for Antarctic resource exploitation, other major powers will be increasingly inclined to follow suit — leading to the kind of escalatory strategic environment that is already beginning to form in the Arctic.

To be certain, there are still clear obstacles to the pursuit of any of these alluring opportunities — namely the high buy-in costs wrought by Antarctica’s remoteness and extreme climate as well as the long-enduring, international bans on non-scientific activities. However, it is important to recognize that technological advances and increasing demand for new natural resource domains are already beginning to erode those barriers, and they can only be expected to diminish further in the coming years.

In short, Antarctica presents an essentially untapped strategic and economic domain that is in increasing jeopardy of exploitation by an aggressive Russia bent on restoring its international influence and an escalating demand for new sources of energy and sustenance. Russia’s gradual efforts to secure its own share of these resources runs the risk of inciting militarized competition amongst major resource-seeking nations like the United States, China, and India. Though Antarctica has historically remained one of the most extraordinary examples of successful multilateral institutions, Russia’s actions have begun a gradual escalation which, if continued, may erode this enduringly peaceful, international regime.

About Author

Ian Armstrong

Ian Armstrong is Commissioning Editor and Senior Analyst at GRI. He also serves as the Geostrategy and Diplomacy Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. Previously, Ian assisted in research at Temple University, the University of Pennsylvania, Scottish Parliament, and Hudson Institute's Center for Political-Military Analysis, where he has focused on non-proliferation and international energy. Ian's analysis has been featured at prominent outlets such as Huffington Post, Business Insider, Foreign Policy Association, CBS News, and RealClearEnergy.