The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

The Arctic:
A Prize of Big-Power Rivalries

Aug 11, 2020

This is a translation of an article that first appeared in Lutte de Classe (Class Struggle) #210, September-October 2020, the magazine of Lutte Ouvrière (Workers Struggle), the revolutionary workers group active in France.

The Arctic region, which encircles the North Pole, had seemed to be removed from the conflicts that cover the planet. But lately, it has been in the news as a result of environmental disasters, and of rivalries between the big powers, intensified by the worsening of the economic crisis.

At the beginning of June, 23,000 tons of diesel fuel leaked out of a thermal power plant in Norilsk, a city in the Siberian Arctic. A red sheen of hydrocarbon covered the nearby river and reached as far as the sea, as satellite images revealed. Besides a lack of maintenance of the infrastructure, much of which dates to the Soviet era, the spill was caused by a process linked to global warming: the decrepit and corroded infrastructure rested on ground that until recently had been permanently frozen, called permafrost. It became destabilized when rising temperatures melted the surface layer of the soil.

On June 20, 2020, temperatures shattered a historic record when they rose above 100 °F in Verkhoyansk, above the Arctic Circle. There has always been a wide span of temperatures there, ranging from -70.6 °F to 86 °F, but this new record is due to global warming, which also explains the recurrence of giant fires ravaging Siberia in 2019.

The Arctic region is in the middle of a major upheaval. Global warming is taking place twice as quickly there as in the rest of the world. Its winters are less and less frozen. The extent and depth of the ice field are decreasing every year. According to some studies, it could disappear within 20 years. This will not take place without consequences.

On the one hand, the melting of the ice field is changing ocean currents.

On the other hand, the melting phenomenon, caused by global warming, has the effect of accelerating this warming. In effect, the ice field slows down global warming because it reflects the sun’s rays back into outer space, unlike the ocean, which absorbs them and converts them into thermal energy.

In the midst of the environmental consequences that global warming has brought to the polar region, a certain number of big capitalist companies have been rushing there in search of mineral wealth long locked up below layers of ice.

The melting of the glaciers has enabled ships to cross a sea route called the Northeast Passage, which goes along the coast of Russia and connects Norway to China and Japan via the Bering Strait. Partially freed from glaciers, it remains dangerous but cuts three weeks off the journey compared to the route going south of Europe and Asia. This creates significant cost savings, especially for marine transport companies, shippers, and oil and natural gas corporations. Several oil tankers have already made the journey this year. Incidentally, hydrocarbons, minerals, rare-earth elements, and other riches of the Arctic seas and territories are also becoming accessible, since the science and technology allowing for their exploitation has advanced considerably. The big fishing and fish processing companies are also eyeing the resources of the northern regions, where the warming waters attract shoals of fish.

These potential riches and new shipping routes are kindling the desires of nearby countries: the United States via Alaska, Canada, Denmark via Greenland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, and Russia, which is not only the largest Arctic nation, due to the length of its northern coastline, but is also the one which has most developed infrastructure in the region. The hopes for profit generated by the land and sea freed from ice, whether real or partially imagined, are fanning rivalries between bordering countries. Who do the natural riches of the Arctic Ocean belong to? Which straits will remain open to the passage of commercial, touristic, and military vessels? The United States and the multinational corporations tied to it are paying close attention to the spaces now opening up and have no intention of letting their rivals establish themselves there. The European imperialist countries and the Asian countries, especially China, are also hoping for their share of the pie.

Rivalries and Relations of Force

When the big powers were dividing up the world, the Arctic region was partially protected by its extreme living conditions, which made it difficult to exploit and colonize. Nevertheless, starting in the 16th century, whaling vessels criss-crossed the seas of the Far North. The powers of the time fought over the Barents Sea islands, on the border between Russia and Norway, which led to a first battle in 1693. Explorers, adventurers, and merchants began the search for a northeast passage, navigable during the summer months, linking Norway to the Pacific along the Russian coasts. Starting in the 18th century, the most economically and militarily developed Western European states sent scientific expeditions to the Arctic. This practice continued, but their mission was not exclusively scientific: they served as footholds for the policies of these states and often of their corporations. The desire on the part of these states to be represented in the Arctic Council, created in 1996 at Russia’s instigation, expresses their economic and strategic interest in the future of Arctic exploitation.

This council was created as a “forum for cooperation” with non-binding declarations. Limited at first to the United States (with Alaska), Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, Iceland, Sweden, Finland, and to the representatives of certain native peoples, it expanded well beyond the circle of bordering states in the 2000s. Eight European governments, including France, have obtained observer status in the Arctic Council. The European Union itself was blocked from joining by some of its positions, particularly its demand for a moratorium on seal fishing. Today, it has the status of a permanent special guest. In 2013, China, South Korea, Singapore, India, and Japan obtained observer status on the Arctic Council.

Natural Resources Already Exploited

Certain Arctic countries are already profiting from the exploitation of the seas and underground resources. Norway owes its recent enrichment to the offshore oil drilling it has been doing since the 1980s, and it exports the second-most fish and seafood of any country in the world. In Sweden, the world’s largest iron mine is located in Kiruna. The Sami people, who are the native population of northern Scandinavia, have recently challenged its expansion. They are also opposed to the exploitation of a new iron mine in Kallak.

Greenland, a de facto colony of Denmark, has been a terrain for mining since the 19th century. Cryolite, used as an ore in the manufacture of aluminum, certain glasses, and strategic military production, was mined there until 1987. Greenland also contains lead, zinc, gold, and silver mines. Several of these mines have recently become depleted, with the companies that ran them leaving their facilities abandoned.

In Alaska, oil deposits began to be drilled in 1977, and hydrocarbon is the main resource of this U.S. state, an immense region which Russia sold to the United States in the 19th century. In Canada, oil drilling started in the territory of Yukon despite the protests of the local population. Canada’s mines ranked third in global diamond production in 2017.

Nevertheless, Russia is the country most engaged in developing its territories above the Arctic Circle, and this has been true for some time.

The Beginning of the Development of the Siberian Arctic

In the time of the czars, the exploration of this vast territory attracted adventurers who were hoping to make their fortune by selling furs and sealskins. Siberia was an immense territory that had not been colonized until the 18th century and populated mainly by nomads, seal hunters, and reindeer herders. Before the Russian Revolution, during the 19th century, it had become an open-air prison, reserved for all those who challenged the autocracy. World War One pushed the government to build ports on its Arctic front.

Once the Soviet government stabilized in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, it sought to develop these vast, semi-deserted territories, rich in minerals and strategic from a military point of view. But power was soon confiscated by a parasitic bureaucracy. With workers’ democracy giving way to a dictatorship centered on Stalin, the chief of the bureaucracy, the development of Siberia and the Soviet Far North became marked by extreme police violence and bureaucratic contradictions.

At the end of the 1920s, the forced collectivization decreed by Stalin supplied these zones with the human material needed for their exploitation. The government deported millions of peasants and their families to Siberia for their real or imagined opposition to the regime. There, if they survived, they were forced to try and cultivate these practically virgin and desolate lands. Just like the political deportees—Trotskyists, socialists, and anarchists—the peasants had to work in the mines, such as the one that today belongs to Norilsk Nickel corporation. Their work founded the city of Norilsk in 1935. Hundreds of thousands of deportees were employed in the construction of railroad lines used to transport minerals, and in digging the sea route, the White Sea Canal, connecting the Arctic Ocean to the shipping channels of Northern European Russia. However, until World War II, the facilities remained underdeveloped or unused, and sometimes not even usable, due to the government’s negligence and waste.

From World War Two to the Cold War

During the war, the Far North became a combat zone; and when Hitler’s armies invaded Russia in June 1941, it became a supply route for the USSR used by its new U.S. and British allies. Starting in the summer of 1941, the German armed forces launched attacks along the access routes to Murmansk, the closest Soviet port to the North Cape in Norway, and the only one which glaciers never block. A front more than 600 miles long extended from the Barents Sea to Leningrad. German troops occupied the northern part of Norway, particularly the town of Kirkenes, on the Soviet border, where the nickel and iron which Germany needed were located. In the region of the Arctic Circle, Greenland and Iceland served as U.S. military bases against Germany.

At the end of the war, the tensions between the United States and the USSR (the state that came out of a workers’ revolution which imperialism was unable to crush) led to what was characterized as the “Cold War.” The development of Siberia and the Far North accelerated. The Arctic Circle bristled with Soviet military bases, while the United States and its NATO allies built their own scattered all over the world, claiming to do so in order to contain communism.

At the same time, the politics of terror returned to their previous intensity inside the USSR. The bureaucracy could not let the population believe that, having defeated Nazism, it could hope for the dictatorship to soften. Repression supplied an endless servile workforce to be used in the reconstruction of the country. These gigantic projects were also an attempt to industrialize the northernmost territories of the USSR. The Stalinist apparatus was used to this practice, given how it had consolidated itself by terrorizing the population, and its secret police used this to justify its rank and privileges. But as the head of the secret police, Beria, would observe in 1953, the camps were more economically costly than they were efficient.

After the death of Stalin, the bureaucracy shifted to the use of “free workers” to extract oil and gas, trying to attract them to the very hard life in Siberia and the Far North using higher wages and other benefits.

The USSR, Dependent on its Oil and Gas Resources

In the 1950s, thousands of geologists were sent to explore Siberia. During the following decade, the USSR began operating 250 oil wells and more than 100 gas pockets in the region. The government built more and more oil and gas pipelines, despite the technical difficulties. The pipelines had to cross thousands of miles, sometimes cutting through swampland. In 25 years, 16 cities shot up near the Arctic Circle.

In order to overcome its partial isolation from the rest of the world—and therefore from the international division of labor—the USSR attempted to collaborate with the most technologically advanced Western companies who were ready to invest. The two oil shocks of the 1970s facilitated the closer ties between the countries of Western Europe and the USSR. Exports of Soviet oil and gas beyond the Eastern Bloc increased 15 times as high in the years that followed. Oil revenues occupied an increasingly important place in the budget of the USSR, which was forced to keep pace in the arms race against imperialism, while the parasitism of its privileged and ruling layer, the bureaucracy, increasingly hindered its economy. Against a backdrop of the West’s growing demand for oil, the Kremlin tried to develop production.

After the Collapse of the USSR, the Search for New Deposits

Ruined and weakened by the war in Afghanistan and the paralysis of the bureaucratic system, Gorbachev’s USSR was set adrift, eventually collapsing in 1991. The population plunged into poverty, and the bureaucracy carved up the Soviet economy. In Siberia and the Far North, infrastructure fell into ruin or was grabbed up by various bureaucrats or adventurers tied to the government, while the nomadic populations lost certain advantages from the Soviet era, such as free education and healthcare. As in the rest of the ex-USSR, the ongoing plunder by a minority of oligarchs, the magnates of the bureaucracy, made it even more challenging to plan for investment in the region.

Putting a stop to this rapid decline in the 2000s, Vladimir Putin used an iron fist to impose new rules of the game on the bureaucrats. The militarization of Siberia picked up again, as did the search for new oil and gas deposits, since those already under operation had become depleted. Dmitry Medvedev, the former Chairman of the Board of the giant state-owned natural gas corporation Gazprom who was also Putin’s Prime Minister, declared in 2008: “Our first and main task is to turn the Arctic into a resource base for Russia in the 21st century.” The government has used legislation to reserve oil and gas drilling licenses for companies which are at least 50% state-owned. Accordingly, only the two giants Gazprom and Rosneft can get these licenses, even if they must rely on Western partners because they don’t have the necessary technology. In 2013, tax rates on Arctic extraction were lowered from 30% to 5% in order to attract investment and to favor the big Russian oil corporations.

The Prirazlomnaya platform was built in 2011 in the Pechora Sea, within the Arctic sector. In October 2014, the first oil tanker loaded 70,000 tons of crude oil, despite the protests of environmental organizations. At first, the technological capabilities were provided by a collaboration with BP and then ExxonMobil, one of whose oil tankers, the Exxon Valdez, ran aground in Alaska in 1989 and caused a giant oil spill. In 2014, another oilfield was discovered farther east in the Kara Sea, once again with the participation of ExxonMobil and Rosneft.

The Russian state corporation Rosatom has built a fleet of nuclear icebreakers, the most powerful of which can carve a path through ice which is nine feet thick. Russia is the Arctic country which possesses by far the most icebreakers, which allow it to open routes for its ships.

Resource extraction in the Arctic, at a great distance from the rest of the country, requires the construction of new logistical and military bases to support navigation and to protect and secure the facilities. In order to supply these bases and cities with electricity, a subsidiary of Rosatom has built floating nuclear reactors, meaning that they are on board ships. The first one was launched in May 2020. The melting of the permafrost essentially increases the risk of accident, with power plants built on what is no longer truly solid ground, such as in Chukotka, a region in Russia’s Far East near the Bering Strait. But these achievements, associated with risks which are difficult to manage, actually remain somewhat isolated. After 2010, the rush toward the Arctic ground to a halt. In 2012, Total renounced its offshore oil drilling in the Arctic, and Shell abandoned oil drilling in Alaska in 2015.

The Rivalries of Imperialist States and of their Corporations

In addition to the low profitability of projects already started and the shattered hopes for easily exploitable raw materials, there is a more political reason for this halt. The United States has threatened to levy sanctions against Western companies doing business with Russian firms, using the pretext of the 2014 conflict between Russia and Ukraine. These sanctions do not put an end to joint projects, but they aim to deprive Russian companies of investment in dollars and of access to the latest, often indispensable, technology. Since then, Russia has turned to Asia. China, which is trying to guarantee a supply of raw materials and to ship its goods to Europe more easily, has chosen to invest in these projects. To a lesser extent, South Korea and Japan are trying to do the same thing.

One example of this collaboration is the liquefied natural gas plant built at the Bovanenkovo gas field in the Yamal Peninsula. This enormous investment, extremely complex due to the challenges of operating in the Arctic, encompasses the extraction, liquefaction, and transportation of gas. It includes the transformation of the port of Sabetta and other facilities. It has been carried out by a consortium that includes Total (with 20% direct investment and 16% through its participation in the Russian company Novatek), and the Chinese National Petroleum Company along with a Chinese fund called the Silk Road Fund with 30%. Total was able to maintain its presence by finding new, non-U.S. investors to finance its participation. One part of the plant was built in Chinese, Indonesian, and Malaysian shipyards. Double acting ice-breaking super tankers for natural gas were built by the South Korean company Daewoo and bought by the Russian maritime shipping company Sovcomflot, among others.

As a result of Russia’s collaboration with certain Asian countries, the share of Russian gas exported to Asian markets has reached 54%.

A Race for Appropriation

European states are also ready to invest. The Norwegian government is taking part in the Russian Northeast Passage project. The port of Kirkenes in Norway just signed an accord with a Chinese company specializing in oil. Iceland has made agreements with China at the same time that China has negotiated with Greenland.

In reaction, Trump simply proposed to buy Greenland in August 2019! More recently, he announced an aid package of 11 million dollars to this province of Denmark, with the goal of inciting Greenland to refuse Chinese capital. As provocative as this may seem, the United States’ attitude is no different from that of the other states bordering the Arctic, which want to keep an eye if not a hand on the riches which they might be able to exploit in the near future.

Part of the aim of these scientific expeditions is to define to whom these riches belong, naturally, if not legally. Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) determine the ownership of marine resources as a function of the extent of the continental shelf, at least in theory. In 2007, a Russian underwater vehicle worked to plant a titanium tube containing a Russian flag 13,980 feet below sea level at the North Pole, enabling Russia to claim that the seabed there was part of its continental shelf, extending its EEZ at Canada’s expense. Likewise, there are conflicts between the United States and Canada over the definition of their respective EEZs, especially in the Beaufort Sea, which contains oil deposits but borders both Alaska and the territory of Yukon. Denmark, for its part, has planted its flag on the tiny Hans Island, which is uninhabited and lies an equal distance from Qaanaaq (formerly known as Thule, in Greenland) and from Nunavut, in Canada, thereby extending its territory. For the moment, these conflicts are settled administratively—or not—by the Arctic governance bodies, which everyone still recognizes.

One Tiny Obstacle

The Arctic has a very low population density, and the way of life of many of the peoples who live there is not at all compatible with the development of mines and the exploitation of other minerals and hydrocarbons.

In the 1960s, some Arctic countries faced mobilizations by native peoples, who sometimes succeeded in slowing down the capitalist exploitation of these areas. Canada had to stop its policy of forced assimilation (carried out until 1996) and grant the Inuit the right to their land and mineral rights in that land. Denmark conceded a certain autonomy to Greenland in 1979, reinforced in 2009, and its native populations won the right to scrutinize the exploitation of their land, subsoil, and seas. The same has come to pass even in parts of Alaska and in the countries of Northern Europe.

However, in all capitalist countries, the populations of the Far North have been integrated first as colonized subjects, then as second-class citizens, and in any case with no possibility of going back. These populations find themselves faced with unemployment, the ravages of alcoholism, and the lack of all sorts of infrastructure. In the hope of developing and getting out of poverty, some of them have chosen to open their territories’ resources to exploitation. Thus, autonomous Greenland, after having for some time resisted the exploitation of its mineral wealth, including a decision on uranium in 1988, finally decided to allow the opening of a mine in 2016. But the French corporation Areva delayed its exploitation in light of the difficulty of predicting the evolution of global demand for uranium and therefore of profits.

Direct colonial domination, opposed by the population, has come to an end, but today it is capitalist relations in the global market which force the population to accept that which it long fought.

The peoples of the Russian Far North have another history. The Russian Revolution tried to integrate them into the Soviet system and to lift them out of their backward conditions. Even if Stalinism corrupted this policy, these peoples gained access to education, a certain level of infrastructure, and a social opening to modern life, despite the bureaucratic degeneration. Their economic activity, their living conditions, and their environment were at the same time grossly overturned, first, by the Gulag, and then by oil drilling and mining.


In fact, the race to control the Arctic’s resources remains, in fact, limited. It picked up and escalated over 20 years, but its intensity fluctuates as a function of the price of resources on the world market, and more fundamentally of the evolution of the global economy, and therefore of the crisis. In this sense, the race for oil, gas, and minerals has taken off when prices have risen the highest, then slowed down when prices have fallen, shaking the profitability of investments. China’s interest in sources of raw materials in the Arctic rekindles its trade rivalry with the United States. At the same time, the United States, Canada, and Russia also have their own rivalries there, as in other areas. The current crisis can alter the ambitions of the different states near the Arctic and of the powers that take an interest in the region. The fall of oil prices and the contraction of demand linked to the economic crisis could lead states and capitalist corporations to abandon certain deposits which they have coveted. Capitalism permits only a temporary equilibrium, the precariousness of which is highlighted by the chance of state policies and shifting corporate investments.

Nevertheless, the competition between imperialist states on the one hand, and between all of them and Russia and China on the other hand, over their desire to control the sea routes and potential wealth of the region, carries the risk of conflicts in the Arctic. This would mean the prolonging of tensions and clashes between rival powers at the level of the whole planet. The militarization of the different parties involved shows that they are preparing for this, the United States far ahead of the rest. In a world dominated by imperialism, confronted with a worsening of the crisis, the Arctic could serve as a pretext for a clash that would not be limited to the Polar Circle.