Oil hunger not reason for Barents treaty

Researcher Arild Moe from the Fridtjof Nansen Institute in Oslo participate on the voyage with “Professor Molchanov” across the Barents Sea towards Siberia.

BARENTS SEA: Delimitation agreement with Norway was part of a broader Russian strategy to secure stability in the Arctic, argues researcher Arild Moe as the Nansen Expedition sails through the waters in question.


We have left the White Sea behind and are well into the Barents Sea. At Cape Kanin we anchored for a few hours. Russia has had a meteorological station here since 1915. Another vessel, delivering the winter supplies to the station is anchored not far from us and is sending a shuttle boat in and out from the shore.

Can’t stop thinking about how it would be to spend the winter here, totally isolated from the outer world.

Across the ocean to the west, we have the northern coast of the Kola Peninsula. The Barents Sea is Europe’s most important fishery region with rich resources. Here in the east, in the choppy swells between North Cape in Norway, Svalbard to the north and the Russian coast, swims stocks of fish in company with whales and seals.

It is due to the advancing and retreating pack ice edge that the Barents Sea is so fertile. At the edge of the pack ice are the waters rich in algae and phytoplankton, which bloom as the sun strikes the saline solution draining out of the sea ice. These algae, in turn, make good feeding for capelin and herring that are eaten by cod in particular, which consequently draw predators higher in the food chain, from seal and whales to us humans, who, by the way, yesterday had delicious cod served by Marina here onboard “Professor Molchanov”.

We sail east along the shores of Cape Kanin, into the Pechora Sea, which is the eastern branch of the Barents Sea. On land is the Nenets Autonomus Okroug, one of the wealthiest of all 83 Federal districts in Russia. That’s due to the oil. Loads of oil. Produced from onshore fields east of Naryan-Mar, the capital of the district.

Oil is also what many Norwegians believe is the reason why Russia in 2010, after 40 years of negotiations, came to an delimitation agreement for the maritime boundary in the Barents Sea. The agreement was announced when then-President Dmitry Medvedev visited Oslo. A year later, in July 2011, the treaty went into force.

Arild Moe is a researcher with the Fridtjof Nansen Institute in Oslo and a leading expert on Russia’s energy development in the north. Giving a highly interesting lecture for the participants on the Nansen Memorial Expedition, he argues that there was no pressure from oil companies in Russia for a Barents Sea agreement in 2010.

“On the Russian shelf there was a monopolized situation with Rosneft that both had a lack of interest and experience, so that can’t explain the treaty. Energy development was therefore not a driver as commonly believed in Norway,” says Aril Moe.

He continues: “I believe the delimitation treaty came as a broader Russian strategy to secure resource rights and stability in the Arctic. It is important for Russia to support the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. And thirdly; Russia’s relationship with Norway is generally good over the last years, including successful cooperation in management of the fish stocks.”

Moscow’s Arctic diplomat Anton Vasiliev, also sailing with the Nansen Memorial, is very happy with the Barents Sea treaty.

“Cooperation with Norway is a part of the agreement and should be used to the full. Let’s celebrate it. The agreement is a great success of negotiations,” says Anton Vasiliev.

Head of the Norwegian Barents Secretariat, Rune Rafaelsen, is convinced that the good relations developed during twenty years of people-to-people contacts in the north by the Barents cooperation constitutes the frame that finally made the delimitation agreement possible.

Today, it feels good sitting on the top deck of “Professor Molchanov” celebrating the 100 years anniversary of Fridtjof Nansen’s tour across the Barents Sea towards Siberia knowing that these waters are no longer an area of dispute between our two countries. As the sun sets in the horizon, Norway and Russia can sleep well and wake up for yet another period of normalized cooperation in the Arctic. Just as it was when Fridtjof Nansen built bridges of research-, political and business cooperation with Russia.

Meanwhile, I am sitting in the low light into the Arctic night on deck and searching for whales, normally quite common in the Barents Sea, but obviously not willing to be spotted tonight.

But how beautiful isn’t the sea when the sunlight is reflected like golden ribbons and the low clouds are glowing; perfect conditions for taking photos.