Sun, Jun 15, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Cold War-style spy games return over melting Arctic

The US, Canada, Denmark, Norway and Russia are expected to have overlapping claims as the Arctic ice recedes, opening up potential fossil fuel reserves, fisheries, shipping lanes and conflict — leaving their intelligence agencies warily circling each other

By Karl Ritter  /  AP, OSLO

Illustration: Kevin Sheu

In early March, a mysterious ship the size of a large passenger ferry left a Romanian wharf, glided through the narrow Bosphorus Strait that separates Europe and Asia, and plotted a course toward Scandinavia.

About a month later, at the fenced-in headquarters of Norway’s military intelligence service, the country’s spy chief disclosed its identity. It was a US$250 million spy ship, tentatively named Marjata, that is to be equipped with sensors and other technology to snoop on Russia’s activities in the Arctic beginning in 2016.

“There is a demand from our political leadership to describe what is going on in this region,” Norwegian Lieutenant General Kjell Grandhagen said in an interview at the hilltop surveillance base outside Oslo.

Of particular interest, he said, are Russia’s ambitions to develop oil and gas and shipping opportunities in the Arctic — and the “military aspects in terms of being able to defend that.”

As climate change eats away at the sea ice covering the North Pole, Arctic nations are fishing for secrets in East-West spy games echoing Cold War rivalries. The military dimension remains important, but this time there is an economic aspect, too: getting a leg up in the competition for potential oil and gas resources, along with newly accessible shipping lanes and fishing waters.

Even before the Ukraine crisis put a chill on cooperation between Russia and the West in the Arctic — joint military exercises have been suspended and Canada skipped a meeting of an Arctic environmental task force in Moscow in April — Western nations in the region accused Russia and China of launching cyberattacks and other espionage operations.

In Canada, a naval officer was sentenced a year ago to 20 years in prison for spying for Russia. And in December last year, police arrested a Toronto-based employee of Lloyds Register accused of trying to supply China with sensitive information about Canada’s plans to build Arctic patrol ships.

The Chinese government called the allegations groundless.

“Canada has been experiencing levels of espionage comparable to the height of the Cold War,” the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service’s oversight committee said in a report late last year.

The intelligence service has been reorganized to put more focus on Canada’s northern perimeter.

The Arctic — surrounded by the US, Canada, the Nordic countries and Russia — was a fault line during the Cold War as NATO and Soviet submarines spied on each other beneath the ice cap. After a lull following the collapse of the Iron Curtain, the Arctic is regaining its strategic importance as warming makes it more accessible. Summer sea ice reached a record low in 2012, and scientific projections suggest that it could disappear completely this century.

Shipping is already growing, albeit from low levels, in the Northern Sea Route north of Russia. The melt is also opening a new energy frontier — the Arctic is believed to hold an estimated 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30 percent of its untapped gas.

The most accessible resources are within national boundaries and are undisputed.

Security analysts say the risk of conflict lies further ahead, if and when the ice melts enough to uncover resources in areas where ownership is unclear.

The US, Canada, Denmark, Norway and Russia are expected to have overlapping claims.

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