Specter of Arctic standoff looms as melting sea ice upsets geostrategic balance 

The Arctic is warming at twice the pace of the rest of the planet, opening up long-frozen sea lanes to commercial traffic. (AFP)
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The Arctic is warming at twice the pace of the rest of the planet, opening up long-frozen sea lanes to commercial traffic. (AFP)
Russian warships at the Arctic base of Severomorsk. The changing geography of the Arctic increases the risk of confrontation between the major powers.  (AFP)
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Russian warships at the Arctic base of Severomorsk. The changing geography of the Arctic increases the risk of confrontation between the major powers. (AFP)
This photo taken on August 17, 2019 shows an iceberg caving with a mass of ice breaking away from the Apusiajik glacier in Sermersooq island in Greenland. (Jonathan Nackstrand / AFP)
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This photo taken on August 17, 2019 shows an iceberg caving with a mass of ice breaking away from the Apusiajik glacier in Sermersooq island in Greenland. (Jonathan Nackstrand / AFP)
A soldier stands near a Russia's Bastion mobile coastal defense missile system on the island of Alexandra Land, part of the Franz Josef Land archipelago, on May 17, 2021. (Maxime Popov / AFP)
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A soldier stands near a Russia's Bastion mobile coastal defense missile system on the island of Alexandra Land, part of the Franz Josef Land archipelago, on May 17, 2021. (Maxime Popov / AFP)
Sea ice is seen from NASA's Operation IceBridge research aircraft off the northwest coast on March 30, 2017 above Greenland. (Mario Tama/Getty Images/AFP)
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Sea ice is seen from NASA's Operation IceBridge research aircraft off the northwest coast on March 30, 2017 above Greenland. (Mario Tama/Getty Images/AFP)
A glacier is seen from NASA's Operation IceBridge research aircraft on March 30, 2017 above Ellesmere Island, Canada. (Mario Tama/Getty Images/AFP)
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A glacier is seen from NASA's Operation IceBridge research aircraft on March 30, 2017 above Ellesmere Island, Canada. (Mario Tama/Getty Images/AFP)
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Updated 23 June 2021

Specter of Arctic standoff looms as melting sea ice upsets geostrategic balance 

Specter of Arctic standoff looms as melting sea ice upsets geostrategic balance 
  • Climate change is disrupting the environmental balance of the Arctic with potential global ramifications 
  • Arctic states are jostling for control of shipping lanes, natural resources and strategic advantage as polar ice retreats

BERN, Switzerland: America is back. That was the message Joe Biden wanted to drive home during his first foreign foray as US president — an eight-day Europe tour in June.

The soft-power offensive has been welcomed by America’s European allies after four years of turbulence in transatlantic ties. But it has also brought the West’s long-simmering rivalries with Russia and China to the surface — including the possibility of a nasty confrontation over the Arctic region.

The Arctic is a physical space where geopolitics meets climate change, and where competition over access to natural resources collides with contested commercial and military shipping routes. These are matters that will have serious ramifications well beyond the handful of nations that border the North Pole.

The poles are often described as the Earth’s thermostat, reacting to even the slightest changes in sea temperature. The Arctic has warmed at twice the pace of the rest of the globe and, according to NASA, its sea ice has declined by 13.1 percent during the past decade.

Melting sea ice is contributing to rising sea levels, causing Arctic coastlines to gradually vanish. The process is being accelerated by the thawing of permafrost, which releases long-trapped pockets of carbon dioxide and methane gas into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change.

The rapid retreat of Arctic ice is opening up long-frozen sea lanes for the first time in millennia, exposing the region’s natural resources and shipping lanes to commercial and military exploitation.

According to Bloomberg, about 30 percent of undiscovered gas reserves and 13 percent of oil reserves are estimated to lie beneath the Arctic region. However, the race to claim these vast riches collides with the emerging global consensus of achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The Arctic Council deliberated over these issues in late May when its members met in the Icelandic capital, Reykjavik. The multilateral body of eight member states bordering the Arctic region and 13 observer nations was founded 25 years ago to address such issues as the rights of indigenous groups, climate change, oil and gas development, and shipping. Its mandate does not, however, extend to the realm of defense.

When Iceland passed the two-year rotating presidency of the organization to Russia last month, divergent views and geopolitical tensions came to the fore. The summit coincided with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s first meeting with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. The latter had stirred the pot by declaring “the Arctic is our land and our waters.




US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (R) at the Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik, Iceland, on May 19, 2021. (Saul Loeb / Pool / AFP)

The sentiment is understandable from Lavrov’s perspective, given that Russia extracts about 90 percent of its natural gas, 17 percent of its oil, and 90 percent of its nickel from the Arctic, which also contains the majority of its platinum and palladium reserves.

The Russian economy is highly dependent on mineral extraction. In 2019 the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment estimated that oil, gas, mining and raw materials amount to about 60 percent to Russia’s gross domestic product.

Moscow and Washington have differing visions on matters concerning the Arctic, among them the fine balance between energy production, natural-resource extraction and the quest to halt climate change.

At the start of his term, Biden suspended the oil-drilling rights north of the Arctic circle that his predecessor, Donald Trump, had granted. The Kremlin, however, intends to expand its drilling operations.




A soldier stands near a Russia's Bastion mobile coastal defense missile system on the island of Alexandra Land, part of the Franz Josef Land archipelago, on May 17, 2021. (Maxime Popov / AFP)

Novatek’s LNG (liquefied natural gas) project on the Arctic Yamal peninsula is producing at 114 percent of capacity on its four trains. In March the company approved external financing for the $11 billion Arctic LNG 2 project, which will start production in 2023. The project is expected to reach a production level of 20 million tons by 2026. Fundraising efforts will take place in Russia, China, Japan and Europe.

Energy is where China enters the fray. Saudi Arabia and Russia alternate as Beijing’s largest oil supplier. In 2020, China received 16.8 percent of its crude oil from the Kingdom and 15.3 percent from Russia.

CLIMATEFACTS

Sea ice keeps polar regions cool, helps moderate global climate.

Ice surface reflects back into space 80% of the sunlight that hits it.

As sea ice melts in the summer, it exposes the dark ocean surface.

Temperatures rise as the ocean absorbs 90% of sunlight and heats up.

The poles are the regions of the Earth most sensitive to climate change.

Owing to an especially cold winter, China’s pipeline imports of natural gas via Russia’s eastern (Siberian) route reached 28.8 million cubic meters a day in early 2021 — double the 2020 contract, according to S&P Global Platts. In 2020, Russia was the sixth-largest LNG supplier to China after Australia, Qatar, the US, Malaysia and Indonesia, according to Argus.

China has become an important financier of major energy-infrastructure projects in Russia’s Arctic region and Siberia. One reason for this is that US sanctions imposed on Russia in 2014 coincided with China’s growing thirst for energy and rising affluence.

However, some Russian experts are concerned about the growing dependence on Chinese money to fund the Arctic expansion, an undertaking of vital national importance to Moscow. Arctic Council members and observers are therefore watching the Sino-Russian relationship very closely.




Russian warships at the Arctic base of Severomorsk. The changing geography of the Arctic increases the risk of confrontation between the major powers.  (AFP)

The valuable resources beneath the seafloor are not the only prize at stake in this polar scramble. The Arctic shipping route, from the Bering Strait to the Barents Sea, stretches for 5,550 kilometers and constitutes the shortest possible route between Asia and Europe.

The Northern Sea Route used to be open to ships for only 80 days of the year, frozen over for the remaining 285. Now it allows passage for 120 to 150 days, courtesy of the melting ice caps. Researchers at Kyoto University expect this time window will widen to 225 days.

The Northern Sea Route shortens the passage from China to Europe by 10 to 12 days, compared with the sea journey via the Strait of Malacca and the Suez Canal. Although the route is relatively shallow, limiting the size of vessels able to traverse it, control of it has obvious strategic and commercial benefits.

 

 

During his European tour, among engagements designed to shore up Western solidarity, Biden attended the UK-hosted G7 summit in Cornwall, met with NATO chiefs in Brussels and held his first tete-a-tete with his Russian counterpart in Geneva. Relations between Vladimir Putin-led Russia and the West are currently too frosty to patch up without addressing the many underlying differences.

Take Arctic freight traffic. Putin wants to expand its volume by 2.5 times to 80 million tons by 2024. This “Polar Silk Road” would have serious ramifications far beyond the Arctic circle, placing it in direct competition with the Suez Canal and major ports from the Mediterranean and the Middle East to Southeast Asia.

There is also a defense dimension to the changing geography of the Arctic. Mikhail Gorbachev, the former president of the Soviet Union, famously called the Arctic a peaceful place. The great powers and their armed forces had little choice but to avoid creating conflict there, given the inhospitable climate and impassable sheets of ice




Russian icebreaker ships and LNG transport vessels cruise in the Arctic. (REUTERS/Olesya Astakhova)

Not so now. With sea lanes open much longer than ever before and competition over natural resources in full swing, the potential for a confrontation between the big powers, and their air and naval forces, is growing ever more likely.

Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary general of NATO, recently voiced such concerns over the mounting Russian and Chinese military presence in the region at the same time as US forces are shifting strategic emphasis toward the Arctic.

To sum up, climate change is upsetting both the environmental and strategic balance of the Arctic, with far-reaching ramifications for the hydrocarbon economy, maritime trade — and perhaps even peaceful coexistence.

_________

Cornelia Meyer is a Ph.D.-level economist with 30 years of experience in investment banking and industry. She is chairperson and CEO of business consultancy Meyer Resources. Twitter: @MeyerResources

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After months of delays, Somalia postpones election amid threats of violence

Somalia’s leaders agreed last month on a voting timetable after months of stalemate. The country is facing violence by Al-Shabab militants. (AFP/File)
Somalia’s leaders agreed last month on a voting timetable after months of stalemate. The country is facing violence by Al-Shabab militants. (AFP/File)
Updated 26 July 2021

After months of delays, Somalia postpones election amid threats of violence

Somalia’s leaders agreed last month on a voting timetable after months of stalemate. The country is facing violence by Al-Shabab militants. (AFP/File)
  • The country’s Al-Shabab militants warned politicians last week against taking part in the vote

MOGADISHU: Somalia has postponed elections that were due to start on Sunday after months of delays in the deeply unstable Horn of Africa country, officials told AFP.

Indirect parliamentary and presidential polls were due to open on July 25 with four days of voting for the upper house by state delegates. The election cycle was due to end with a presidential poll on Oct. 10.
“Even though the plan was the upper house election to start around the various states today, there is a delay, the election may not take place as planned,” a member of the electoral commission said.
The delay was due to the fact that federal regions were neither able to submit candidates’ lists in time, nor to form local committees to cast the ballots, the source added.
A spokesman for the federal government, Mohamed Ibrahim Moalimu, told AFP that the elections were “postponed,” without providing details.
Last week, the country’s Al-Shabab militants warned politicians against taking part in the elections, which were due to kick off after months of deadlock and delays.
The threat, in an audio message purportedly recorded by Al-Shabab leader Ahmed Umar Abu Ubaidah, underscores the security challenges facing the election process in the country.
The Al-Qaeda-linked group has been fighting to overthrow the federal government since 2007 and frequently attacks government, security and civilian targets.
Somalia was plunged into an unprecedented constitutional crisis early this year, when President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed and the leaders of Somalia’s five states were unable to agree on the terms of a vote before his term lapsed in February.

SPEEDREAD

Somalia was plunged into an unprecedented constitutional crisis early this year, when the country’s leadership was unable to agree on the terms of a vote before his term lapsed in February.

After months of stalemate that at times turned violent, the political leaders finally agreed last month on a voting timetable.
According to the agreed plan, delegates from the five federal states, chosen by various clans in that state, elect parliamentarians, who then elect a president. The process was due to kick off on Sunday.
But according to several sources, the sole state that was capable of carrying out a vote “during the week” was Jubaland. The state has already chosen its delegate committee and could publish a list of candidates “during the week.”
“We are expecting the election to take place soon,” said Mohamed Adan, a senior government official in Jubaland. Another source said the electoral process could kick off in the state later on Sunday.
In Puntland state, sources said the elections were delayed because of “technical reasons.”
In Galmudug state, the local parliament is on a break and will reconvene in early August.
In South-West state, the process is blocked because the regional president is out of the country.
Somalia’s political impasse exploded into violence in April when negotiations collapsed and the lower house extended the president’s mandate by two years, sparking gunbattles on the streets of Mogadishu. Under pressure the president, commonly known as Farmajo, reversed the extension and ordered his prime minister to reconvene with the state leaders to chart a fresh roadmap toward elections.
The ballots follow a complex indirect model whereby special delegates chosen by the country’s myriad clan elders pick lawmakers, who in turn choose the president.
Successive leaders have promised a direct vote but political infighting, logistical problems and the Al-Shabab insurgency has prevented such an exercise. The upper house vote will be followed by elections for the lower house from Sept. 12-Oct. 2, according to an updated timetable issued last week.
According to a statement issued in June, both assemblies were due to convene to vote for the president on October 10, but no date for this election was given in the updated timeline.
Somalia has not held a direct one-person, one-vote election since 1969, the year dictator Siad Barre led a coup and went on to rule for two decades.
Barre’s military regime collapsed in 1991 and Somalia sank into anarchy.


Putin warns of ‘lethal’ strikes at Russian warship parade

Putin warns of ‘lethal’ strikes at Russian warship parade
Updated 26 July 2021

Putin warns of ‘lethal’ strikes at Russian warship parade

Putin warns of ‘lethal’ strikes at Russian warship parade
  • The Russian leader’s boast comes days after military officials announced tests of advanced new weapons

PETERSBURG: President Vladimir Putin said on Sunday that Russia’s navy was capable of delivering lethal strikes against underwater and aerial enemy targets during a parade of warships in the port city of Saint Petersburg.

The Russian leader’s boast comes days after military officials announced tests of advanced new weapons, some of which come from an arsenal Putin has described as “invincible.”

“The Russian navy today has everything it needs to guarantee the protection of our country and our national interests,” he said.

“We can detect underwater, surface or aerial enemies and target them if a lethal strike is necessary,” Putin said according to a broadcast on state television.

The Russian leader was speaking on the sidelines of an annual parade of military vessels, flanked by naval officers in white, and also Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

Putin said Russia had secured its place among the world’s leading naval powers, including by developing “the latest hypersonic precision weapons still unrivaled in the world.”

The US, China, France and other major powers have announced plans to develop their own hypersonic weapons and are expected to soon catch up.

With the second-largest arsenal of nuclear weapons in the world and a huge cache of ballistic missiles, Russia already has more than enough military capacity to deter its enemies.


America to continue air strikes supporting Afghan troops: US general

America to continue air strikes supporting Afghan troops: US general
Updated 25 July 2021

America to continue air strikes supporting Afghan troops: US general

America to continue air strikes supporting Afghan troops: US general
  • Since early May, violence has surged after the insurgents launched a sweeping assault
  • Taliban's assault has seen the insurgents capture scores of districts and border crossings

KABUL: The United States will continue air strikes in support of Afghan forces fighting the Taliban, a top US general said Sunday, as the insurgents press on with offensives across the country.
Since early May, violence has surged after the insurgents launched a sweeping assault just days after the US-led foreign forces began their final withdrawal.
The Taliban's deadly assault has seen the insurgents capture scores of districts, border crossings and encircle several provincial capitals.
"The United States has increased air strikes in the support of Afghan forces over the last several days, and we are prepared to continue this heightened level of support in the coming weeks if the Taliban continue their attacks," General Kenneth McKenzie, head of the US Army Central Command, told reporters in Kabul.
McKenzie acknowledged that there were tough days ahead for the Afghan government, but insisted that the Taliban were nowhere close to victory.
"The Taliban are attempting to create a sense of inevitability about their campaign. They are wrong," he said.
"Taliban victory is not inevitable."
McKenzie's remarks came as Afghan officials in the southern province of Kandahar said fighting in the region had displaced about 22,000 families in the past month.
"They have all moved from the volatile districts of the city to safer areas," Dost Mohammad Daryab, head of the provincial refugee department, told AFP.
On Sunday, fighting continued on the outskirts of Kandahar city.
"The negligence of some security forces, especially the police, has made way for the Taliban to come that close," Lalai Dastageeri, deputy governor of Kandahar province, told AFP.
"We are now trying to organise our security forces."
Local authorities had set up four camps for the displaced people who are estimated to be about 154,000.
Kandahar resident Hafiz Mohammad Akbar said his house had been taken over by the Taliban after he fled.
"They forced us to leave... I am now living with my 20-member family in a compound with no toilet," said Akbar.


UK health minister sparks fury by urging people not to ‘cower from’ COVID

UK health minister sparks fury by urging people not to ‘cower from’ COVID
Updated 25 July 2021

UK health minister sparks fury by urging people not to ‘cower from’ COVID

UK health minister sparks fury by urging people not to ‘cower from’ COVID
  • “Please — if you haven’t yet — get your jab, as we learn to live with, rather than cower from, this virus,” Javid tweeted
  • Britain has one of the highest official COVID death tolls

LONDON: British health minister Sajid Javid was accused of insulting coronavirus victims on Sunday after urging people to take a COVID-19 vaccine and “learn to live with, rather than cower from, this virus.”
Javid, who replaced Matt Hancock as health minister last month after his predecessor stepped down for breaking COVID rules by kissing an aide in his office, began his job by urging people to learn to live with the virus.
Britain, which has one of the highest official COVID death tolls, has shifted its strategy to fight coronavirus from using restrictions to limit its spread to opening up society in the hope vaccines will protect most people from serious illness.
Cases are high, but so is uptake of COVID-19 vaccines, and officials argue the shift is needed to help businesses in sectors such as hospitality and the night-time economy.
Writing on Twitter, Javid said on Saturday he had recovered after testing positive for COVID. “Symptoms were very mild, thanks to amazing vaccines,” he said.
“Please — if you haven’t yet — get your jab, as we learn to live with, rather than cower from, this virus.”
Angela Rayner, deputy leader of the Labour Party, was one of several lawmakers from opposition parties and people who have lost family members to the pandemic to criticize his use of the phrase “cower from.”
“127,000 people have died from this virus, tens of thousands of whom would still be here if it wasn’t for the catastrophic failures of your government,” she said on Twitter.
“So how dare you denigrate people for trying to keep themselves and their families safe.”


Briton held in Somalia alleges torture by CIA-linked officials

David Taylor’s son has begged foreign secretary Dominic Raab, above, to intervene in his father’s case. (Shutterstock/File Photo)
David Taylor’s son has begged foreign secretary Dominic Raab, above, to intervene in his father’s case. (Shutterstock/File Photo)
Updated 25 July 2021

Briton held in Somalia alleges torture by CIA-linked officials

David Taylor’s son has begged foreign secretary Dominic Raab, above, to intervene in his father’s case. (Shutterstock/File Photo)
  • War on Terror practices including sensory deprivation, waterboarding still used, document claims

LONDON: A British citizen has raised concerns that highly controversial forms of torture and interrogation practices used during the War on Terror are still being employed by US-linked officials.

David Taylor, whose identity was made anonymous following a family request, claimed he was tortured in Somalia and interrogated by US intelligence officers.

The torture practices, Taylor alleges, were used by Somalian authorities to force him into CIA cooperation, and involved hooding, sensory deprivation and waterboarding.

His London-based family have warned that UK intervention in his case is essential to ending his two-year detention in the African country.

A document relating to the legal case also shows that Taylor was questioned by two US FBI agents in Mogadishu on June 30.

It says: “They asked the claimant whether he wished to live in the US. They also showed him pictures of various individuals asking him whether he knew them.”

One of the people Taylor was shown an image of was a man imprisoned for supporting the terror group Al-Shabaab. It suggests that the alleged CIA involvement is aimed at targeting the Somalian-based militant group, which has launched dozens of deadly attacks around east Africa.

Taylor moved to Somalia in 2009 and was arrested a decade later in 2019 after visiting Yemen to organize his return to London.

He was transferred to Mogadishu, arrested and driven to a location near Mogadishu by anonymous individuals, who Taylor alleges were CIA agents.

The legal document stated: “He found himself in a room with a white lady and a white man. The lady spoke in an American accent and identified herself as ‘Roxanne.’ Taylor asked her to confirm the agency or organization she represented but she refused to do so.”

It added that Taylor subsequently faced daily interrogation, including having a gun pointed at his head after refusing to cooperate.

Later that year, he was transferred to a Mogadishu prison, where he currently lives in a cell with about 60 other prisoners. Taylor said that he has received death threats from other prisoners and has been accused of operating as a British spy.

His son said: “My dad has been left to languish in a foreign prison, in dangerous conditions, without charge or any proper reason. He is a UK citizen and he has had no support from his country. To know that my dad has faced torture, interrogation and violent threats to his life is terrifying and extremely distressing.

“I am heartbroken and afraid of what might happen to him if he stays there any longer. How can this still be allowed to happen?”