Tuesday, January 26, 2021

"New Undersea Cables Could Become a Flashpoint in the Arctic"

 From the Jamestown Foundation's Eurasia Daily Monitor, January 26:

Russian efforts to control the Northern Sea Route and to secure exclusive access to the local seabed, from which it hopes to pump oil and natural gas as well as mine coal and other minerals for export, have been attracting increasing attention for years (see EDM, September 3, 2019, October 20, 2020, November 9, 2020). But these issues particularly gained in prominence in recent months. First of all, global climate change has lengthened the navigation season in the north and made access to the mineral wealth there far easier. Second, those ongoing climactic shifts are making it more likely that either the United Nations will soon approve or Russia may act unilaterally to make vast claims to an economic exclusion zone in the Arctic Ocean (Newizv.ru, November 9, 2020).

Such matters will undoubtedly draw even more attention later this year, when Moscow assumes the chairmanship of the Arctic Council, the international body where the competing interests of the Arctic powers and others with an interest in the region are often thrashed out. But one aspect of Moscow’s regional policy has garnered little notice so far, even though it may soon become a flashpoint in relations among the Arctic countries: namely, Russia is backing the laying of an extensive network of fiber optic cables to service its own northern reaches and also, as one commentator claims, to promote international cooperation. For better or worse, however, such cables and related undersea electronic networks and sensor technology widely expected to accompany this initiative are likely to trigger a new round of competition between Russia, on the one hand, and the West and China, on the other.

In two new articles, Regnum commentator Vladimir Stanulevich argues that this undersea project will represent “a second Northern Sea Route, a fiber optic cable one” that will not only benefit Russians living and working along the northern reaches of the country “but interest the entire Arctic” (Regnum, December 21, 2020 and January 22, 2021). Not surprisingly, he stresses the importance of a fiber optic cable under the Arctic Ocean for Russians in the High North, pointing out that “ ‘the big three’ Russian cable operators have refused to extend a line from Novy Urengoy to Norilsk,” because there are too few potential customers, the distances are enormous and the costs high. But as regional leaders like Sakha’s Aysen Nikolayev posit, internet connectivity in the High North is critical for distance learning, media distribution, banking, and government services as well as for the promotion of the digitalization of economic activity there.

Given that Russian firms are not willing to spend the money and the Russian government does not currently have sufficient funds, Stanulevich continues, the obvious answer is to seek foreign investors. And at least in a preliminary way, they have been found with a consortium of companies (mostly from Scandinavia and Japan with one Russian member) called Arctic Connect. This corporate grouping plans to lay a 14,000-kilometer fiber optic cable along the Northeast Passage (of which the Northern Sea Route is a main part), from Finland to Japan. The project is estimated to cost $800 million to $1.2 billion and will offer data speeds of up to 200 terabytes per second, making it a key communications link between Asia and Europe. The consortium has agreed to build 11 branch lines to connect the central trunk cable with northern areas of Siberia and the Russian Far East. Those extra links are something Moscow will likely have to pay for, but compensating Arctic Connect to do this work will still cost the Russian government far less than attempting to lay any line itself across that territory, where the melting of the permafrost is making such projects vastly more difficult and expensive....



"A several thousand kilometer long fiber optic cable is to be laid along the Russian Arctic coast as part of the Armed Forces’ building of a new closed internet."
Trans-Arctic undersea cable attracts Norwegian and Japanese partners