The research town of NY-Ålesund in Svalbard, Norway, which houses the research stations of about a dozen countries (Source: GoI Policy Document)
LAND AND SEA CORRIDORS that promise to connect Murmansk to Mumbai and Vladivostok to Chennai, Paradip and Visakhapatnam. The scenarios are not pipe dreams but opportunities that could add a new resilience to India’s supply chains and energy security at a time when global uncertainties have deepened. Paradoxically enough, the prospects for some nimble-footed Indian initiatives have presented themselves in the wake of the Ukraine war which has played havoc with multilateral cooperation, not least in the Arctic where Western nations have halted engagement with Russia over the future of the region following a revival of fresh geopolitical contestations given the conflict in the Caucasus.
In a matter of weeks after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February, frontiers and political precepts that had acquired an air of permanence were swept away as Russia’s border with NATO suddenly changed from 196km (with Norway) to an additional 1,340km once Finland’s application to join the security pact was accepted. All of this, including Russian President Vladimir Putin’s warning that military deployments in Finland would be met with matching counter-measures, has had an immediate fallout on the vast Arctic region. The outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine war has undermined the Arctic Council, with the other seven (of eight) members suspending cooperation with Moscow. Five of these countries—Denmark, Iceland, Canada, the US and Norway—have been joined by Sweden and Finland who decided to shed their long-held neutrality. The anti-Russia grouping is unlikely to alter its posture anytime soon, forcing India to rapidly reassess its options in a region where it has vital scientific and strategic interests. Access to the continent and cooperation with Arctic nations are vital for studying how climate change impacts monsoons, as also for synergies with the studyof the Himalayas and how melting ice will open the region to energy exploration, mining and shipping. The area of energy exploration and oil and gas imports, particularly with Russia, is significant as India seeks to reduce its dependence on the Gulf while also securing reliable supplies for the next few decades.
A recent brief published by the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), ‘Changing Security Dynamics in the Arctic and India’s Approach’, argues that the Ukraine crisis requires India to adopt a calibrated approach to achieving its national objectives. The termination of scientific cooperation of seven Arctic countries with Russia has hit data sharing relating to the Arctic, requiring India to pursue its bilateral ties with Western nations while preserving and, in fact, enhancing its cooperation with Russia. The IDSA paper’s authors, research analyst Bipandeep Sharma and research fellow Uttam Sinha, underline that India’s interest is driven by a growing need for hydrocarbons and energy resources. “India has made investments in Russian energy projects, but continuous discoveries of new oil and gas fields in the region offer new opportunities in terms of harnessing hydrocarbon potential of the region,” they write. The proposition rests on India using it independent relationships with all Arctic nations, including Russia, to forge its policies and further its interests. Cooperation with Nordic countries has deepened with Prime Minister Narendra Modi meeting his counterparts from these nations during the second India-Nordic Summit in May and evidence offered by teleconnection (climate variability links between non-contiguous regions) links between the Arctic, Antarctic and the Himalayas that are sometimes referred to as the Third Pole. Given its space capabilities, India can offer important cooperation in enhancing telecommunication, connectivity, navigation, search and rescue, climate modelling and environment monitoring in the Arctic.
There is a crucial link between the shrinking of Arctic sea ice leading to increased maritime traffic and India’s energy needs. While the Northern Sea Route (NSR) along Russia’s coast may offer more benefits to China, the development of Russia’s Far East from the Bering Sea to Vladivostok can establish commercial links with eastern Indian ports with sea links remaining operational for longer periods of the year than was the case earlier. Russia has also expanded its railway network to reach and develop its Arctic areas, the northern port of Murmansk in particular. A bold and imaginative policy can visualise the benefits for the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC), a multi-mode network that links Russia, Azerbaijan, Iran and India. The NSR and INSTC can bring about a direct connectivity between Murmansk and Mumbai ports, a likelihood not many would have bet on. While pointing to the need for equal partnerships, Sharma and Sinha stress that Russia remains a crucial partner. “India and Russia have a partnership that goes back many decades. Often the emphasis has been on the defence aspect. But India will need access to fossil fuels for at least a couple of decades even as it pursues aggressive green energy goals,” Sinha tells Open. With the Arctic Council in suspended animation, India will need to use its own diplomatic resources. The chances of the council excluding Russia are not very feasible as the country accounts for more than 52 per cent of the Arctic coastline and has the largest economic and military presence in the region.
After its polar experience began in 1981, India’s engagement has increased rapidly. There are over 25 universities and institutes involved in Arctic research in India, the new 2022 Arctic Policy states. India’s arctic station Himadri is manned 180 days of the year and India has been an observer nation at the council since 2013. Looking ahead, India plans to own and build polar research vessels and set up dedicated funding for Arctic studies while pledging to use its vast satellite network for radar imaging and remote sensing. Scientific studies of environmental management aimed at reducing methane emissions and examining the effects of de-freezing of permafrost are important to India. These areas are linked to rising sea levels and the possibilities of the thaw releasing new pathogens, a prospect the importance of which was dramatically highlighted by the Covid pandemic. The region contains deposits of copper, phosphorus, niobium, platinum group elements and rare earths, the Indian policy states, adding that the country can assist in evaluating their sustainable use. There is room for expanded cooperation in renewable energy where Scandinavian countries have taken a lead in using geothermal resources. The expansion of maritime traffic is likely to rise to 80 million tonnes by 2024. The policy states that India’s interests in the Arctic are scientific, environmental, economic and strategic. But whereas it has acknowledged the primacy of the Arctic Council in inter-governmental cooperation, the mechanism is all but defunct.
The strategic aspect is enhanced by the recent turn in the Ukraine war where reports indicate that Russia has suffered setbacks. The crisis and Putin’s decision to call up reserves could mean a greater dependence on China which has steadily expanded its access to Russian energy. India’s need to increase energy cooperation with Russia is also spurred by a desire to balance its relations and ensure that Moscow retains a strong interest in its ties with New Delhi. Sinha says the China factor is important and while it should not be the primary driver for India’s choices, it has a certain salience in India’s ties with Russia. The need to reduce dependence on Middle Eastern oil, which can be vulnerable to events in the region and beyond, is an important reason to seek deeper associations with the Russian Far East. If the Ukraine war worsened, its effect on Europe’s energy needs for the coming winter could have unpredictable political and economic consequences. An energy crisis may test the West’s resolve against Putin. It might impact global oil prices that have eased due to a slowdown in consumption. In such a situation, it makes sense for India to hedge its bets.
The Arctic is emerging as a region of overlapping geopolitical contestations. “NATO’s eastward expansion, post-Ukraine crisis, has brought securitisation upfront with East-West military re-alignment… Finland and Sweden’s application for membership to NATO and presumed isolation of Russia have led to greater insecurities in the region. In the changing scenario, India, as an Observer Member in the Arctic Council, needs to carefully align its national priorities in the region,” the IDSA paper says. This will require India to develop several mechanisms to strengthen its existing bilateral relations with all the Arctic countries by leveraging all resources, ranging from academic and scientific to commercial, diplomatic and defence. The turmoil in the Arctic, which is not a stranger to military and great power rivalry, requires a pragmatic pursuit of interests while maintaining a delicate balance between economic and strategic needs and ecological goals and international commitments. “India should continue to re-emphasize its call for peaceful resolution of Arctic disputes and promote its traditional philosophy of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (the world is but one family) in the Arctic,” Sharma and Sinha note.
Navigating conflicting claims amid swiftly changing geopolitical scenarios is not easy but India will need to continue displaying the fleet-footedness it showed in the face of calls to condemn Russia when the Ukraine war began. It is no small irony that several months later, Western opinion latched onto Modi’s “not an era of war” remark to Putin to validate calls for an end to hostilities.
Gitanjali Aiyar (1947-2023): Poise and Perfection Kaveree Bamzai
‘India needs to look at water, climate problems closely,’ says Joyeeta Gupta Ullekh NP
The Yaksha Who Deserves More Attention Aritra Ghosh