Geopolitics

Russia Prepares For A Very Cold War In The Far North

The Arctic, where Russia has dispatched military resources, is the last disputed area of such massive proportions. It's a region where the interests of Moscow and Washington collide, an excellent stage for a Cold War parody.

U.S. crew members observing a Russian tanker in the Arctic
U.S. crew members observing a Russian tanker in the Arctic
Aleksandr Golts*

-Op-Ed-

MOSCOW — In September, the Russian Navy completed an exercise that was unprecedented, both in size and complexity. A fleet of 10 ships, led by a nuclear cruiser, sailed to the New Siberian Islands, which are located between the Laptev Sea and the Eastern-Siberian Sea, in one of the least-studied corners of the Arctic Ocean.

All the nuclear icebreakers in the Navy’s fleet joined the expedition. On the islands, the icebreakers and ships left construction and technical material, living supplies, 46 tons of fuel and 43 tons of food. In short, they brought everything needed to reopen the military airport that had been shuttered in the 1990s. In the next couple of months the airport will start accepting transport planes. And then strategic bombers.

There is no doubt that this is just another step in Russia strengthening its military presence in the Arctic — the importance of which officials have been talking about for the past eight years. Key government figures were present at the opening of an outpost on Franz Josef Land, one of the northernmost groups of islands in the world. From time to time there is talk about establishing a special “Arctic department” complete with special equipment and even a possible air base in the north polar region.

The reason behind this necessary presence in the Far North is well known. Ice is melting in the Arctic Ocean, which will leave a new, shorter shipping route connecting Europe and Asia — one that passes Russia’s northern shore. For Russia, which will serve the ships on this route, this is manna from heaven. In addition, there are opportunities for increased oil and gas exploration underneath the Arctic ice.

But leave it to the sneaky West to try and infringe on Russia’s good luck: Moscow has already rejected Western claims to rights on 1.3 million square kilometers of water in the Arctic Ocean. At the same time, the country is preparing to defend its interests using force, if need be.

Virtual riches

First of all, there is the question of whether there is anything worth defending. The theory of global warming is still a theory. Others, like the Russian Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute, believe that we are just experiencing cyclical warming and that an Arctic cooling period will begin in 10 to 15 years.

But even if global warming is real, it is more likely to bring us problems than riches. Because as the ice melts, so will the permafrost, turning kilometers of Russia’s coastline into deep swamps. How will we be able to provide infrastructure for a sea route and oil exploration if that happens?

At the same time, according to the UN Convention on Maritime Rights, there cannot be any restrictions on another country’s shipping traffic — meaning that Russia would be required to provide weather, oceanographic and rescue services for other countries’ ships, without compensation. The only opportunities for making money would be to provide navigation and icebreaking services, as well as the development of infrastructure. And by just looking at a map, it’s easy to see how developed the infrastructure is along the country’s Arctic coast.

About 1.2 million tons of cargo were transported on the Arctic shipping route last year. According to some estimates, the route will start being profitable once 4 million tons are transported annually — with other projections going as high as 14 million tons. The truth is, in the 80 years that the route has existed, no one has asked themselves about its return on investment. The route was important in supplying military installations and bases.

Three icebreakers near the North Pole — Photo: LCDR Steve Wheeler

Now the primary hope is that that the transport route will allow access to Arctic oil. But at the moment, all Western oil companies have refused to explore oil reserves in the Arctic, saying it is too dangerous and expensive. In addition, large ships like oil tankers can’t follow the Arctic passage. A route through the Novosibirsk Islands for ships with a keel depth of more than 12 meters still has to be found. And in any case, most researchers agree that even under the best conditions, the Arctic’s riches won’t be able to be reasonably exploited for another 40 or 50 years.

Hoping in vain

You could say that the Russian government is showing commendable foresight, preparing several decades in advance for the future of the Arctic route. Or you could also say that Moscow is preparing to claim all of the Arctic riches for itself, dispatching military units to the Far North.

But at the moment, there are still many more calls to action than actual actions. “Without the creation of a domestic cluster of specialization in off-shore technology and rigs, our Arctic shelf programs are under threat,” the CEO of state-controlled Russian oil giant Rosneft, Igor Sechin, recently told Russian manufacturers. As of today this kind of “cluster” is nowhere to be seen in Russia.

Ambition and ammunition

At this point, “developing” Arctic resources actually means “preparing to develop” Arctic resources, together with increasing military resources in the region. But while Russia is sending ships north, a little math shows that the nation’s fleet is woefully outgunned by that of the United States, one of the important players in the future of Arctic exploitation.

That balance of power is a relic of the Cold War, since the Arctic was already a contested area between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The ice-covered depths of the north polar region were seen as the best place from which to carry out an attack on the enemy. It’s not a coincidence that when asked about the future of the Arctic, President Vladimir Putin’s immediate reaction was to mention American submarines stationed near Norway.

The most important Soviet goal in the Arctic was to protect the military bases. Nobody suggested patrolling the thousands of kilometers of frozen emptiness. Submarines practically cannot function east of the Ural Mountains, which is what made the expedition to the New Siberian Islands so heroic.

But the establishment of a small air base there is not going to change the situation. Patrolling the vast territory would require a large quantity of fuel, and the trip to the islands demonstrated how difficult that would be to provide. It is also doubtful that the airport is really necessary for the air force, which has developed perfectly effective routes to return to Russia if they were to strike U.S. territory.

This symbolic “build-up” of military power is not particularly astute from a political point of view. Right now, the countries with interests in the Arctic are the U.S., Denmark, Canada, Norway and Russia. Since each country has its own interests, Russia has a lot of room to make alliances, compromise and meet its goals. But this diplomatic game works only if Russia refrains from making threats.

As soon as Russia becomes menacing, NATO countries will all band together — leaving Moscow to face a unified opposition. Worse yet, the riches in the Arctic Ocean, and the possibility of transit through it, are useful to Russia only as long as it can sell them to the aforementioned countries.

Right now there is nothing for us to defend the Arctic with, nothing really to defend and, most importantly, no reason to defend it. So why exactly is Russia focusing on military in the Arctic? It is worth remembering that Russia isn’t the only country playing this game. The Canadian prime minister attends military exercises in Canada’s far-flung north nearly ever year. Meanwhile, Americans have also been talking about the need for increased presence in the Arctic, and have ordered the construction of yet another icebreaker.

The problem is that the Arctic is the ideal place to demonstrate ambitions of great power. It allows politicians to get on the front page of newspapers and show voters their patriotism. The Arctic is the last disputed area of such massive proportions. It’s a region where the interests of Moscow and Washington collide. It’s an excellent stage for a Cold War parody. I’m just concerned that for the soldiers stationed at the New Siberian Islands airport, it’s going to be very, very cold.

* Aleksandr Golts is a Russian military expert.

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Future

7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.


But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

commons.wikimedia.org

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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