GP Insights

GP Insights # 179, 11 November 2019

Russia’s new Arctic pursuits: Beyond the discovery of five Islands
Rashmi Ramesh

What happened?
Recently, Russia discovered five new islands in the Arctic, near the archipelago Novaya Zemlya, off the coast of the mainland. With an average size of 27,700 square meters, these islands were initially glaciers. Undoubtedly, this is a direct outcome of climate change.  The discovery was confirmed by scientists from the Russian Arctic National Park, the Russian Geographical Society and the Ministry of Defense. 
 
What is the background?
In 2016, these islands were first discovered by a young student, who is now an oceanographic measurement service engineer in the Russian Navy. However, the government confirmed the discovery only now, after deploying a team of scientists and geographers to visit the islands and conduct topographical surveys. 
 
Russia’s discovery of islands and other geographical features comes in the wake of rigorous satellite-based studies that are being conducted to understand the changes in the Russian coastline. Between 2015 and 2018, Moscow discovered around thirty capes, islands and bays around Novaya Zemlya. Incidentally, climate change also uncovered a land that was under glaciers for 40000 years in the Canadian Arctic. 
 
What does it mean?
Russia has the longest coastline along the Arctic Ocean. Changes in the Arctic have enabled it to prospect for the navigation in the Northern Sea Route (NSR) and excavate energy resources to improve the economic situation. Simultaneously, Russia is militarizing its portion of the Arctic. It has shown great interest in reviving old Soviet military bases, constructing ports and airstrips, and installing radar and air defense systems.

The NSR passes through the Russian Exclusive Economic Zone, due to which it claims the ownership of the route. It announced in April this year that the transit fee for foreign ships would become costlier. This is opposed by the United States, as it does not adhere to the principle of “freedom of navigation”. 

The discovery of five new islands in the Arctic Ocean has expanded the territory of Russia, and will further support its actions in the region. Due to their proximity to the resource-rich Novaya Zemlya, Russia might scout for resources there, or use them for scientific purposes. While official statement regarding this has not yet been pronounced, the discovery of the islands itself has raised enough speculations. 

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