India must take advantage of Moscow’s leverage in the Arctic region

  • Uttam Kumar Sinha, New Delhi
  • Updated: Dec 09, 2014 22:42 IST

When Russian President Vladimir Putin comes calling on India, he will be opening the Arctic frontier to co-develop the oil and gas fields there. It is expected that Russia’s energy giant Rosneft will sign two MoUs with ONGC Videsh for joint exploration and production in the strategic oilfields in Siberia. This is critical as India is looking to source one million barrels per day of oil and oil-equivalent gas from Russia. The Arctic is now an important geostrategic category and the region has become accessible to resource exploration, thanks to global warming.

Russia accords high priority to the Arctic and only recently created an Arctic military command. The region plays a significant role in its economy, almost accounting for 11% of GDP and 22% of Russia’s total exports. One of Putin’s grand ambitions is to develop Arctic resources, particularly gas, which is heavily concentrated in Russian territory. An estimate suggests that 43 of the 60 major oil fields in the Arctic are in Russia, strengthening its pre-eminence as the world’s largest gas producer.

Russia’s Arctic profile is a new dimension that India has to factor in as it offers several opportunities for cooperation in the strategic, commercial and scientific domains. Moscow is keen on building ties with Asia to offset the US’s pivot policy. For instance, the Russia-China $400 billion Siberian gas pipeline agreement in May will enable China to receive 38 billion cubic metres of gas annually after 2018. Likewise, Gazprom has signed an agreement with Vietnam to jointly explore the gas fields in southern Siberia. Russia is looking eastwards as a counter-weight to the sanctions imposed by the West over its role in the Ukraine crisis. Russia’s challenge to western predominance is, incidentally, not totally unwelcomed by India.

Commercially, Russia is set to play a big role in India’s energy security. ONGC Videsh has had a long experience of working with Russian oil companies in the Sakhalin oil projects and is gaining considerable expertise in cold-climate oil and gas ventures.

Russia’s Arctic region is also probably the most developed and where the possibility of mining the vast deposits of minerals is high. India is recognised by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) as the first pioneer investor in the location, survey and evaluation of polymetallic nodules in deep sea-beds outside national jurisdictions. India can use this experience in the Arctic with respect to exploring strategic mineral resources. The increased economic activities in Russia’s Arctic region will require technological upgrade and adequate human resources. Indian entrepreneurship should be encouraged to venture into the region.

As an observer in the Arctic Council, India now has a legitimate role to make the region one of “peace, stability and constructive cooperation”. The Council provides working groups and one such is on Emergency, Prevention, Preparedness and Response (EPPR). India and Russia have a long tradition of naval cooperation and the Indian Navy is quite exposed to the hazards of Russia’s north along the Arctic. With the familiarity of the surroundings, the Indian Navy can be engaged in search and rescue exercises as well as monitoring pollution control activities.

The Arctic also brings in a scientific dimension. The geophysical changes in the Arctic are strongly believed to be impacting the regional climate, particularly the monsoon. Indian and Russian scientists can work together to unravel Arctic climatology and meteorology.

The Arctic presents an antithetical situation where strong economic interests collide with a need for climate protection and resource governance. India needs to balance climate change considerations with vital economic opportunities. If both Narendra Modi and Putin are keen to turn around bilateral ties then the Arctic offers a new context.

Uttam Kumar Sinha is a fellow at IDSA The views expressed by the author are personal

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