By Tom Fries Arctic News May 26 - June 1, 2012
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Thanks for joining us this week! We take the time to find the most interesting stories, the best writing and the threads that tie it all together. If you like what you read, please share it with others. Your feedback and comments are always welcome; feel free to contact the author directly. All opinions and any mistakes are the author’s own.
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: Thank you, as always, for your readership. I hope you’ll excuse a brief gap next week while I attend a week-long event abroad. I look forward to sharing our next edition with you on 18 June!
BEST READS OF THE WEEK
If you’ve only got a few minutes this week, spend your time on these particularly useful, informative, creative or well-written pieces.
The policy wonks among you absolutely must read a newly-released set of recommendations for Canada’s upcoming chairmanship of the Arctic Council from the Munk-Gordon Arctic Security Program. The recommendations are actionable and discrete, the report is written well and information-rich without being dry…it’s an exemplary piece.
Bob Reiss, author of The Eskimo and the Oil Man, wrote a guest post on Forbes explaining why he has come to support Shell’s drilling plans in Alaskan waters despite his own environmentalist leanings. One Shell rig headed for Arctic prospects that’s gotten a lot of coverage is the Kulluk, and a nice article from the Seattle Times covers the refurbishment of that huge beast, which is almost complete. Popular Mechanics also wrote an in-depth description of the rig, its staff, and what might be done to mitigate a spill should something, god forbid, happen.
The complex tug of war over the appropriate role for individuals, researchers, governments and industry in the Arctic never ceases to fascinate. A Fortune blog from Jon Birger regarding Shell’s Arctic plans illustrates this nicely, as does an article from Alaska Dispatch on the shrill, infantile (in my estimation) fight between Alaska’s governor and various federal environmental agencies. Providing another perspective on the same issue is a nice piece from the Moscow Times on the legacy of a Soviet-era decision to artificially expand the range of Kamchatka crabs, thereby supporting fisheries.
The engineering that’s necessary to make a go of it in the North can be simply jaw-dropping. While the Nord Stream pipeline isn’t technically Arctic, it’s a useful analogue for work that might eventually need to be done; check out the work that will go into connecting two sections of the Nord Stream pipeline under the Baltic (Natural Gas Europe, AB). Wow.
BLOOD AND TREASURE
Word came via Northrop Grumman, primarily, that Canada is considering the use of $30mn-$50mn drone aircraft based on Northrop Grumman’s Global Hawk as a tool to help monitor its Arctic territory. Thanks to the Financial Times for doing the research to learn that, for its current visual coverage, Canada relies on occasional manned missions and on “a Polar satellite that takes a very narrow picture of the territory – and thus needs three weeks to collect information on the entire area.” The planes under discussion are under construction for the US, but might be orphaned by reductions in defense spending. Because of this status, any such purchase would have to go through the US Department of Defense. Goose Bay, NL and Comox, BC are being cited as potential home bases (G&M). This model of aircraft apparently suits an Arctic climate because it flies “at 60,000 ft, above the weather and airliners plying time-saving polar routes” (Aviation Week).
Russia meanwhile is also preparing to reopen air bases on Novaya Zemlya, Naryan-Mar and Franz-Josef Land (RIAN), while political and financial considerations seem to have finally pushed Russia’s purchase of five Borey-class submarines forward despite their budget-busting high prices (BO). Norway, meanwhile, is apparently having a fire sale for its northernmost submarine base outside of Tromsø (BO), while Voice of Russia analyzed an actual fire aboard the USS Miami at a dock in Maine. The two Barents Sea neighbors are meanwhile preparing details for their Barents 2012 joint naval exercises (Naval Today), and the US Coast Guard is looking at its own upcoming Arctic Shield exercises (Coast Guard News). NATO, meanwhile, is underway with its marvelously-titled Dynamic Mongoose 12 exercise, which consists of training exercises pitting submarine and anti-submarine operators against one another (Naval Today).
For those of us who prefer not to see potential armed warfare all over the Arctic, the release of a briefing note from Canada’s Department of National Defence indicating that Canada does not see Russia as a military threat felt vindicating (ceasefire.ca).
THE POLITICAL SCENE
First, special kudos are due to the Munk-Gordon Arctic Security Program for its newly-released set of recommendations for Canadian chairmanship of the Arctic Council. The recommendations are fairly concrete, the report is written well and information-rich without being dry…it’s an exemplary paper.
Hillary Clinton was underway to the beautiful city of Tromsø this week to, according to the articles I can find, act as a symbol of the United States’ interest in the Arctic, and suggest without saying so directly that it is time for the US to sign on to UNCLOS (Reuters, Arctic Portal). Former Secretaries of State Kissinger, Shultz, Baker III, Powell and Rice all had no problem saying so directly in the Wall Street Journal. Indeed, signing on would give the US the chance to officially press its claim to Arctic Ocean territory, nicely illustrated in an infographic from RIA Novosti.
Territorial squabbles aren’t new to Russia, which is refusing to accustom itself to United States Ambassador Michael McFaul’s habit of unusual frankness (RIAN). The world’s largest country is also strengthening its Arctic borders (BO), as well as its borders more generally (RIAN). Norway meanwhile is opening a visa-free area to Russians who, sweetly, are instructed not to go beyond 30km from the border (BN). Consul General of Norway Oyvind Nordsletten says this observation system is “mainly built on trust.” Adorable! Meanwhile the Barents Euro-Arctic region is beginning to look forward to determining which areas of cooperation will be covered under the Kirkenes-2 agreement, to be negotiated and signed next year (VOR).
Eyes are on Canada as it prepares to take over the reins of the Arctic Council. A report from the Gordon Foundation, inter alia, drew plenty of headlines this week not least for the recommendation that the bestowal of observer status on China and other non-Arctic nations should be a priority (Nature blog). The report also recommended that means should be identified to support full participation by often under-funded and ill-equipped aboriginal groups in the Arctic Council (Science Codex). Aboriginal groups don’t act as a bloc, though – there is often discord (CBC).
Perhaps in preparation for the country’s new Arctic leadership role, the Canadian Polar Commission is finally setting up some meager human infrastructure north of Ottawa (Global News). Meanwhile, Canadian officials’ “frank” remarks regarding the validity of UN food envoy Olivier de Schutter’s negative statements on food security in Canada continue to cause a kerfuffle (CBC).
Finally: miscellanea. Contracting with northern vs. southern Canadian companies continues to be politically touchy in the Northwest Territories (CBC), and Ernst & Young seems to have concluded that corruption in Russia in on the wane (BN).
The IEA announced this week that world gas demand is likely to rise by 50% by 2035, if one assumes that unconventional resources can and will be brought on-line (Platts). Fatih Birol, chief economist at the IEA, said however that an energy-development path focused on “more renewables, more efficiency and more low-carbon technologies” is the better choice (Euractiv). A meaningful proportion of future gas demand might be supplied from Arctic resources, and Business Insider offered a good survey this week of the developing prospects in the Beaufort and elsewhere. It’s worthwhile to couple the Business Insider article with one from the Globe and Mail that delves more deeply into the particular attractions of the prospects that Canada opened last week.
There is of course substantial resistance to oil & gas exploration from local residents and environmental groups (NYT blog), but federal judge Sharon Gleason this week expanded the territory covered by an injunction protecting Shell’s drillships from Greenpeace activists from a 12-mile to a 200-mile offshore boundary (The Republic). Alaska also saw a 5% increase last year in oil and gas jobs, a data point which clearly adds political strength for the industry (EOTA). Bob Reiss’s new book The Eskimo and the Oil Man covers the development of Shell’s activity plans for Alaska waters, and it got a ton of coverage this week via the Leonard Lopate show and Eye on the Arctic. Mr Reiss himself wrote a guest post on Forbes explaining why he has come to support Shell’s plans despite his own environmentalist leanings.
In further legal action, the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals supported the federal government’s decision to permit Shell to drill in Alaskan waters this summer (ADN), but heavy sea ice off Alaska’s northern coast could prove a practical barrier, regardless of what may be legal (LA Times). Despite the ice, Shell CEO Peter Voser said this week that he hopes to be drilling within the summer (NASDAQ), and the company’s interest in its Alaskan properties is beautifully covered by Jon Birger via Fortune.
The US Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement also announced this week that it would be carrying out unannounced inspections of equipment in the Arctic this summer (Int’l Business Times), after conducting tabletop exercises this week modeling a joint government-industry response to a blowout in the Chukchi Sea (Maritime Executive). A nice blog piece from NOAA highlights the necessity of incorporating local understanding into any such plans. The USCG announced that it will scale back the security services it offers to Shell’s offshore operations this summer (Dutch Harbor Fisherman).
Of the equipment that will be serving Shell in Alaskan waters this summer, the rig that’s gotten the most coverage is the Kulluk. A nice article from the Seattle Times covers the refurbishment of that huge beast, which is almost complete. Popular Mechanics also wrote an in-depth description of the rig, its staff, and what might done to mitigate a spill should something, god forbid, happen.
The Kulluk isn’t the only rig garnering interest; a new ultra-deepwater rig costing $700mn and designed for year-round use in the Norwegian Barents will be built by Hyundai for delivery in March 2015 (scandoil.com), while Troms Offshore Supply welcomed a new platform supply vessel to its fleet (Offshore Magazine) and Statoil awarded a $605mn four-year contract for a jack-up rig to Maersk Drilling (AB). Statoil is also looking at implementing RFID technology to help manage its equipment (AB).
There was a surprising amount of diverse writing on renewable energy in the Arctic this week, with the IEA releasing a paper indicating that worldwide supply of bioenergy – a significant energy source particularly in remote Arctic communities – could double by 2050 (IEA). The Center for American Progress also hosted Alaska’s senators for a discussion of renewable energy in that state (videos here), and indeed Senator Murkowski is preparing a proposal for a new comprehensive energy policy (Chicago Tribune). Also, a ranty but possibly useful blog post from savingiceland.org covered that country’s plans for expansion of hydro and geothermal energy.
In Canada, the premiers of Alberta, Manitoba, BC, Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories met to discuss, among other things, the possibilities that exist for Canadian gas to become a regular source of supply for Asian markets (CBC), and the government of the NWT released a speech indicating that territory’s continued interest in becoming as much of an oil-&-gas hub as possible. There are troubles at home to be dealt with first, though; the Nunavut community of Sanikiluaq requires an airlift of fuel (NN), and a pipeline spill from Pace Oil & Gas Ltd. in Alberta’s northern reaches seems to have “killed one duck” (G&M) as well as sending 22,000 barrels of oil mix into the surrounding muskeg.
In Russia, the Shtokman project continues to be buffeted by myriad questions and exhausting challenges, with Gazprom announcing last Friday that the project would indeed be switched to LNG (AFP). Though Shtokman is a gas project, Arctic oil is of increasing interest to Russia as it looks to maintain/reclaim (depending whom you read) the title of world’s top oil producer from the Saudis (AD). There continues to be buzz about the possible departure of Statoil and/or the addition of Shell to the project partners (Upstream Online, RIAN), and President Putin enjoined the partners to pick up the pace of their decision-making (Reuters).
Shtokman isn’t the only Russian energy news, though, and we heard this week as well that Lukoil’s first quarter profits were up substantially over 2011 (WaP), as well as that Rosneft is looking to sell oil out of the ESPO pipeline for late July (Bloomberg). TNK-BP’s CEO Mikhail Fridman appears to have resigned (Offshore Energy Today), while a former deputy chief executive returned as an adviser, with hints that he might be slated to take over the top job (Reuters). The best story, though, is the eye-popping work that will go into connecting two sections of the Nord Stream pipeline under the Baltic (Natural Gas Europe, AB). Wow.
Next door in neighbor Norway, drilling plans for a new prospect near the Skrugard and Havis fields has Statoil excited (Upstream Online), and the company is moving forward with exploratory drilling off the Faroes as well (AB), but the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate is falling victim to a labor dispute (AB) and a HuffPo article highlighted the…shall we say, “awkward” discussions around Statoil’s involvement in Canadian tar sands.
As a last note, a quick report and recommendations on Greenland’s hydrocarbon future, if it has one, came out from two master’s candidates at Lund University in Sweden, and MarineLink provided a thorough (if not revolutionary) overview of the interests at stake in Arctic business writ large.
As is often the case, much of the mining news this week comes from Canada. Devolution talks continue between the territorial government of Nunavut and Canada’s federal government over benefits to come from development of the territory’s gold, uranium and iron resources (Chronicle Herald), while Sabina Gold & Silver Corp’s Back River property in the neighborhood of Bathurst Inlet appears to hold at least $1.1bn worth of gold (NN). Plans for a lead-zinc mine in Yukon are meanwhile being scaled back fairly substantially (EOTA). Nunavik’s Plan Nunavik, a response to Québec’s Plan Nord detailing Nunavik Inuit preconditions for support of Plan Nord, should be released during the first week of June (NN), and we’re looking forward to reading it. The NWT also shared the news this week that it is investing in the development of its own equivalent mineral development strategy to the tune of $1mn (miningnorth.com).
In other mining news, the wholesale moving of the Swedish city of Kiruna is good fodder to discuss the relationship between mining towns and the mines themselves (WSJ), as is Alaska’s proposed Pebble Mine, a project with multi-billion dollar potential within spitting distance of ecologically-valuable Bristol Bay (AD).
BUSINESS AND INDUSTRY
In general business news around the circle, Russia’s Economic Ministry has announced privatization of portions of Sberbank, Rosnano and Sovkomflot, as well as the Arkhangelsk trawl fleet (see fisheries, below) and the port of Murmansk (BN). Jobs in Alaska’s manufacturing sector grew 1.8% over the past 12 months (MarketWatch), including most fancifully new jobs in the Bear Creek Winery bottling plant in Homer (Alaskan wine?), but across the border in Canada bad news came for the Nunavik Investment Corp., which will likely close its doors after failing a forensic audit (NN).
Russia was doubtless proud this week to find itself tied with such world leaders as Guinea and Lebanon in the World Bank’s recent Logistics Performance Index, which assessed the logistics “friendliness” of various countries (BN). Meanwhile, Maritime Executive – which I find increasingly impressive – published a lengthy blue-sky piece on the possibility of setting up river barge-based transport in Canada’s North. Also in Canada, Nunavut Sealink and Supply Inc. seems to have secured a semi-monopoly on government resupply contracts within Nunavut (Canada Newswire). In terms of ocean transit, Japan’s transport ministry is looking at an Arctic Ocean route to help develop Japan into a world-leading shipping hub (Japan Times), and Norway and Russia are looking at increased traffic in the Barents as possible incentive to develop their own Arctic ports (BO).
In terms of air transport, the opening of an Iqaluit-Nuuk route from Air Greenland, at the low, low price of $748 one way (!!!), garnered notice from Nunatsiaq News. The route will save three days’ flying. Might be worth it.
Russia’s state-owned Arkhangelsk-based trawler fleet may soon be privatized, and it looks as though Russian Sea Group – one of many large fisheries, and partly owned by Putin ally Gennady Timchenko – will certainly bid. Competitors are concerned that the Gazprombank-managed sale is rigged (Reuters, Bloomberg). In Canada, the problem is more fish than fleet; Trevor Taylor, policy director of Oceans North Canada, published a heartfelt but rather non-specific call to arms asking Canada to take the lead in blocking fishing in the Arctic until sustainable management of those stocks is possible.
Next door in Alaska, much-lauded Copper River salmon have arrived in Anchorage (Cordova Times), while the run of King salmon in the Yukon River is predicted to be just awful, perhaps resulting in the barring of commercial fishing for the third year in a row (fis.com). In terms of broader impact of climate change on fisheries in Alaskan waters, summaries of several legitimately fascinating studies were released by NOAA this week. Take the time to browse the abstracts. The Moscow Times also published a great piece on the long-term impact of the Soviets’ transplantation of Kamchatka crabs to the Barents, and on the commercial jockeying between the different contingents that depend today upon the income from that particular stock.
Tourism: A dramatic dropoff in tourism for Inuvik is a source of no small concern, considering the importance of the industry to the local economy (NNSO).
Biotech: Tromsø is making an effort to become a biotech hub with the establishment of the Barents BioCentre and a new BioTech North industry cluster (nortrade.com).
Telecom: The expansion of competitors into Canada’s northern territories means that long-time de facto monopolist Northwestel may be looking at a tougher time ahead (Whitehorse Star). The company may be able to offer better internet service, at least, with the completion of a new fiber-optic link across the Deh Cho Bridge (CBC).
Lumber: RusForest did not do well in Q1 2012 (lesprom.com).
Fur: An enthusiastic and informative review of a new book on the history of fur farming in Alaska may well be richly deserved – you’ll have to see for yourself (FNM).
(From the author: Thanks to Nunatsiaq News for providing by far the best, and the most, coverage of social issues in Canada’s North.) The city of Iqaluit is exploring further ways in which it can achieve its goal of being a sustainable city (NN), while simultaneously attempting to encourage “resilience” as a central goal for communities (NN). Many social organizations in Nunavik, however, are struggling mightily with the minimal resources they have (NN), and overcrowded social housing facilities in Nunavik are a growing problem, not to mention enormous sums of unpaid rent (NN). Poverty in Nunavik is a persistent issue, as 4 in 10 households there can tell you (NN), and a group in Nunavut is making an effort to produce a peaceful protest against high food prices in that territory (NN). Meanwhile, public engagement will be necessary in the Yukon to galvanize government action against poverty (EOTA).
Some interesting figures on the population of Canada’s territories came out this week, with Yukon the oldest of the three (median age 39.1) and Nunavut the youngest (median age 24.1 – quite a difference) (EOTA). Yukon’s population also reached a record high in March of 35,944 (Whitehorse Star), and a baby boom in the territory’s capital Whitehorse means that day care is becoming hard to find (CBC).
The changing environment and its impacts on Northern communities are the subjects of a new set of policy recommendations released this week in which a new approach to health and social service programs is suggested (NN). Situations highlighting this need, such as a TB outbreak in Kangiqsualujjuaq (NN), are easy to find. Health Minister of Nunavut Keith Peterson devoted time this week to a smoking-reduction initiative in Nunavut (NN), but the health issue garnering the most attention is a continued rash of suicides in aboriginal communities in Nunavut (APTN). The territory’s suicide rate in 2011 was 220 per hundred thousand, or nearly four times that of Lithuania, which has the highest national rate in the world (NN).
Now to a few miscellaneous reads. An article on the establishment of ferry service to the Pribilof Island community of St. George is well worth a read for the good picture it gives of transport challenges (Bristol Bay Times). The implementation of federally-mandated minimum sentencing may result in up to $70mn in increased prison costs for the Northwest Territories (CBC). A strange pilot program in Sweden is bringing unemployed immigrant youth on to military bases for 10-week programs to (1) help them complete their high school degrees, (2) familiarize them with the Swedish military as a future option, and (3) offer them free room and board. It’ll be interesting to see what, if anything, the program yields in increased diversity in Sweden’s military (thelocal.se).
SCIENCE, ENVIRONMENT, ANIMALS
Plenty of hand-wringing this week was associated with the announcement that carbon dioxide has hit 400 parts per million in the Arctic (WaPo). Al Gore is unsurprisingly concerned in a blog post citing other writing from Climate Central, and the Mistra Arctic Futures project is preparing research on the value of ecosystem services at risk from Arctic oil work (arcticfutures.se). Meanwhile Greenland had its warmest day on record at 24 degrees Celsius (dr.dk), and melting of the island’s ice sheet appears to have been moving faster in the past ten years than in the past fifty (sciencedaily.com). You can watch a brief video on the issue if you wish. In one of those marvelous grandma’s-attic discoveries, photo plates from Knud Rasmussen’s 1930 expedition to Greenland were discovered in a Danish basement; they’ll be used to gain insight into changes on Greenland’s coast since that time (sciencedaily.com). Meanwhile the dramatically high ice extent in the Bering Sea this past year is a data point which seems to demand continued clarification and explanation (NSIDC).
Forest fires are already wreaking havoc around the circle, with 23 forest fires raging in Siberia (focus-fen.net) and another under watch near Behchoko in the Northwest Territories (CBC). Dry conditions in Canada’s North have led to the declaration of fire bans in Yellowknife, Hay River and Fort Smith (CBC).
Science policy and government funding have a great deal to do with what we know and don’t know about the Arctic; to see what lies ahead for the National Science Foundation’s Arctic research, check out the Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee’s Arctic Research Plan and their efforts to support research on sustainability in the Arctic.
The Northwest Territories is preparing a new Wildlife Act (Gov’t of NWT), while Alaska is the scene of truly shrill and embarrassing to watch political battles between Gov. Sean Parnell and federal conservation agencies (AD). No one appears to be eager to conserve large, confused and inconvenient adolescent elks in Finland, which, stumbling about in their hormone haze, must be the kind of nuisance that only a Finn can appreciate (YLE). Across the pond at Southampton Island’s Coral Harbour, an upcoming caribou count will help determine what, if any, restrictions will be placed on hunting (EOTA). Hunting of bowhead whales off of Alaska, at least, has been extraordinarily successful this season (AD). Enormous flocks of migratory birds are heading North from their wintering grounds (Frontier Scientists), and Arctic nesting birds may be altering their nest initiation dates in response to the timing of spring snowmelt (APECS).
Finally, in less easily categorized science news, we heard this week that Québec may be considering adding the full Nastapoka River watershed (Note: it has freshwater seals?) to Tursujuq provincial park in Nunavik (NN), and that Alaska’s national parks will offer great views of the transit of Venus coming up on Tuesday 5 June (nps.gov). Scientists are monitoring Alaska’s northern lakes more closely (Valdez Star) and exploring concentrations of carbon at different depths in the Arctic Ocean (redorbit.com), while CryoSat is offering great data that helps to map the Arctic’s ocean floor (redorbit.com).
My own personal thanks to Trude Pettersen for a beautiful article and photo series on the (re)construction of the world’s northernmost monastery, Trifon of Pechenga outside of Murmansk.
Solar maximum next year! Everyone get ready for a year of awesome Northern Lights! Enjoy a series of stop-motion videos in anticipation from Ole C. Salomonsen (NYT blog). Try to ignore the Star Wars music, which leaves the impression that the aurora is pacing like a tiger in the thermosphere, awaiting its opportunity to devour you whole.
A Russian ship hit an iceberg and went down in the Bering Sea this past week, but all 91 crew aboard were rescued (dnaindia.com). I’m curious as to why there’s not more press on this – it seems like it would make good headlines, no?
Minicopters, which are neato until you realize that you can now be tracked pretty easily by just about anybody, are being used by reindeer herders to find their own lost animals (Arctic Portal).
This is very niche, but if you’re interested in the laws governing salvage from sunken ships, you might be interested in this story from ADN regarding a barge and a sunken tugboat in the Bering Sea. Also the video of the tug sinking.
The reinvigoration of Information Satellite Systems in Zheleznogorsk, a formerly closed Soviet city, is the topic of a great article from Russia & India Report.
Hoo boy, this is really quite a collection of Alaska-themed tattoos from ADN.
It is hard to think of anything more twee than a group of hardy, mountaineering Canadians and Brits scaling Mount Barbeau on Ellesmere Island to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee with a “traditional English tea party” involving scones and cakes (CBC). Adorable.
The Alaska Permanent Fund is considering some investments that seem kind of risky to me (AD). But I am not in finance, so what do I know?
Again I must observe that, below a certain threshold, there is absolutely no telling what the Washington Post will find interesting or not. Completely baffling, the stories they pick up.
The treatment of aboriginal children in residential schools in Canada early in the twentieth century is just awful to contemplate (CBC), and it seems like the excavation of this particular wound in Canadian history will continue for a while.
This may be too much reality for you. It is almost too much for me. But the rendering of a whale is not something I’ve watched on video before, so here you are. (Alaska Dispatch)
Here are some fantastic photos from…
The Alaska SeaLife Center (which, by the way, is awesome and totally worth a trip to Seward)
Nunatsiaq News on Facebook – I can’t say these girls look so much refreshed as pained.
Asksiberia.com – photo series of a tourist train on the trans-Baikal railway.
And finally, let me refer you again to the live looncam at Connors Lake in Alaska, courtesy of Alaska Dispatch. Thanks guys!
Alaska Dispatch (AD)
Anchorage Daily News (ADN)
Barents Nova (BN)
Barents Observer (BO)
Eye on the Arctic (EOTA)
Fairbanks News Miner (FNM)
Globe and Mail (G&M)
Moscow Times (MT)
Natural Gas Europe (NGE)
Northern News Service Online (NNSO)
Northern Public Affairs (NPA)
Nunatsiaq News (NN)
Ottawa Citizen (OC)
RIA Novosti (RIAN)
Russia Today (RT)
Voice of Russia (VOR)