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

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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)
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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)
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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)
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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)
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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)
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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 

  • 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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Afghanistan could become failed state: UK’s top soldier

Updated 54 min 55 sec ago

Afghanistan could become failed state: UK’s top soldier

  • Gen. Nick Carter: Govt forces need to secure military stalemate with Taliban so as to enable talks
  • There is a ‘real risk’ that the West is ‘giving far too much legitimacy to the Taliban’

LONDON: Afghanistan risks becoming a failed state unless government forces can prevent the Taliban’s advance, Britain’s most senior soldier warned on Wednesday.

Gen. Nick Carter, the chief of defense staff, said Afghan forces have to secure a military stalemate in order to start talks between the government and the Taliban. 

He also warned the international community against giving credence to the Taliban and its leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, saying there is a risk of giving the group “legitimacy” that it does not deserve.

Carter said the country becoming a failed state “is one of the scenarios that could occur, but we have to get behind the current Afghan government and support them in what they’re trying to do.

“And if they can achieve a military stalemate, then there will have to be a political compromise. Even the Taliban at the level of Baradar recognize that they can’t … conquer Afghanistan.

“There has to be a conversation. And the important thing is to achieve the military stalemate that can then bring on that conversation.”

Carter told the BBC that there is a “real risk” that the West is “giving far too much legitimacy to the Taliban movement.”

He added: “There’s a huge disparity between what Mullah Baradar is saying publicly and … what’s actually happening on the ground. 

“And the international community has got to do much more about calling out the way that the people on the ground are trashing government buildings, they’re threatening the population, there are reports of people being forced into marriages.”

Carter said he has seen “grisly videos of war crimes,” and the international community “mustn’t let them get away with this — we’ve got to call them out.”

His comments come as Tobias Ellwood, a Conservative MP and chair of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee, called for the West to “rethink its strategy.”

Ellwood, himself a former British Army officer, tweeted on Wednesday that there is “still time to prevent civil war” by sending “a 5,000-strong coalition force — enough to give legitimacy to the Afghan government & support to Afghan forces to contain and deter the Taliban.” He added: “Otherwise we face a failed state.”


WHO calls for moratorium on Covid vaccine booster shots

Updated 04 August 2021

WHO calls for moratorium on Covid vaccine booster shots

  • WHO chief called on countries and companies controlling the supply of doses to change gear and ensure more vaccines to less wealthy states.
  • More than 4.25 billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines have now been administered globally

GENEVA: The WHO on Wednesday called for a moratorium on Covid-19 vaccine booster shots until at least the end of September to address the drastic inequity in dose distribution between rich and poor nations.
World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called on the countries and companies controlling the supply of doses to change gear and ensure more vaccines to less wealthy states.
“I understand the concern of all governments to protect their people from the Delta variant. But we cannot accept countries that have already used most of the global supply of vaccines using even more of it, while the world’s most vulnerable people remain unprotected,” Tedros told a press conference.
“We need an urgent reversal, from the majority of vaccines going to high-income countries, to the majority going to low-income countries.”
More than 4.25 billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines have now been administered globally, according to an AFP count.
In countries categorized as high income by the World Bank, 101 doses per 100 people have been injected — with the 100 doses mark having been surpassed this week.
That figure drops to 1.7 doses per 100 people in the 29 lowest-income countries.
“Accordingly, WHO is calling for a moratorium on boosters until at least the end of September, to enable at least 10 percent of the population of every country to be vaccinated,” said Tedros.
“To make that happen, we need everyone’s cooperation, especially the handful of countries and companies that control the global supply of vaccines.”
Tedros said the G20 group of nations had a vital leadership role to play because those countries are the biggest producers, consumers and donors of Covid-19 jabs.
“It’s no understatement to say that the course of the Covid-19 pandemic depends on the leadership of the G20,” he said.


Germany detains man for grenade attack on civilians in Syria

Updated 04 August 2021

Germany detains man for grenade attack on civilians in Syria

  • At least seven people were killed in the attack and three were injured

BERLIN: German police have detained a Syrian man accused of war crimes for firing a rocket-propelled grenade into a group of civilians in Damascus in 2014, officials said Wednesday.

The suspect, identified only as Mouafak Al D. in line with German privacy laws, was detained in Berlin on Wednesday.

German federal prosecutors said he is suspected of firing an RPG at a group of people lining up for food aid in the Yarmouk district of Damascus, home to a large population of Palestinian refugees.

At least seven people were killed in the attack and three were injured, including a 6-year-old child.

The suspect is alleged to have been a member of the Free Palestine Movement, and previously of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Palestine General Command. Between July 2013 and April 2015 the groups exerted control of the Yarmouk refugee camp on behalf of the Syrian government.

Prosecutors said that in addition to war crimes, the suspect faces being charged with seven counts of murder and three counts of serious bodily harm.

A federal judge is expected to determine Wednesday whether the man shall remain under arrest for the duration of the pre-trial investigation.


Taliban claim Kabul attack targeting defence minister: insurgent spokesman

Updated 04 August 2021

Taliban claim Kabul attack targeting defence minister: insurgent spokesman

KABUL: Taliban claim Kabul attack targeting defence minister: insurgent spokesman


Dubai airport expects passenger surge as UAE eases travel curbs

Updated 04 August 2021

Dubai airport expects passenger surge as UAE eases travel curbs

  • UAE has lifted a ban on transit flights from India, Pakistan, other countries from August 5
  • Dubai International Airport is targeting 8 percent growth in passenger traffic this year to 28 million

DUBAI: Dubai’s state airport operator expects a “surge” in passenger traffic over the coming weeks and months, its chief executive said on Wednesday, after the United Arab Emirates announced an easing of travel restrictions from African and Asian countries.
The Gulf state, a major international travel hub, on Tuesday said it would scrap on Aug. 5 a transit flight ban which Emirates airline later said applied to passengers traveling from 12 countries, including major market India.
The UAE will also lift this week an entry ban on those who had visited India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Nigeria or Uganda over the past 14 days for those with valid residencies and who are certified by Emirati authorities as fully vaccinated.
Dubai Airports Chief Executive Paul Griffiths said Dubai International was “ready to accommodate the anticipated surge in the coming weeks and months” once restrictions ease.
The Indian subcontinent is traditionally the largest source market for Dubai International, which is one of the world’s busiest airports and the hub for state airline Emirates.
Griffiths said the easing of entry restrictions on inbound travelers from South Asia as well as Nigeria and Uganda would allow for thousands of UAE residents to return.
“It’s a great development from both a social and economic standpoint,” he said.
Those traveling to the UAE or transiting through its airports need to meet various conditions including presenting a negative polymerase chain reaction (PCR) coronavirus test prior to departure.
Dubai International Airport is targeting 8 percent growth in passenger traffic this year to 28 million. It handled 86.4 million in 2019, the year before the pandemic struck.