Is Vladimir Putin Coming for the North Pole Next?

While international cooperation is cooling down, the race for control over international waters may be heating up.

The beginning of the ice road the leads from Dettah to Yellowknife, TK.  
National Journal
Marina Koren
March 27, 2014, 1 a.m.

Crimea wasn’t the only ter­rit­ory Rus­sia claimed as its own this month.

Just three days be­fore Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Vladi­mir Putin an­nounced his plan to an­nex Ukraine’s pen­in­sula, a U.N. com­mis­sion gave him sov­er­eignty over the Sea of Ok­hotsk, loc­ated off Rus­sia’s south­east­ern coast near Ja­pan. Those wa­ters, it was de­cided, are part of Rus­sia’s con­tin­ent­al shelf.

Rus­sia’s En­vir­on­ment Min­is­ter Sergey Don­skoy called the 20,000 square miles of once-in­ter­na­tion­al wa­ters a “real Ali Baba’s cave” be­cause of its nat­ur­al-re­source re­serves. “It took Rus­sia many years to achieve this suc­cess,” he said, lo­gic that rings true for the ac­quis­i­tion of Crimea.

But Rus­sia’s ap­pet­ite for ter­rit­ory does not end at its south­ern shores. The coun­try is hungry for more con­trol over the top of the globe, and has been for a long time.

Five coun­tries stretch in­to the re­gion called the Arc­tic: Rus­sia, Canada, and the United States, by way of Alaska; and Nor­way and Den­mark, through Green­land. No coun­try has yet laid full claim to the en­tire re­gion, which in­cludes the North Pole and is home to 15 per­cent of the world’s oil, a third of its un­dis­covered nat­ur­al gas, and, de­pend­ing on your age, Santa Claus. But sev­er­al na­tions have tried to ex­tend their sov­er­eignty there, which re­quires prov­ing that their con­tin­ent­al shelves ex­tend more than 230 miles in­to the Arc­tic Ocean. (For a visu­al of who cur­rently owns what, check out this map from The New York Times.)

The Arc­tic is not a law­less free-for-all, however. The five na­tions, along with Fin­land, Ice­land, Nor­way, and Sweden, are mem­bers of the Arc­tic Coun­cil, an in­ter­gov­ern­ment­al for­um cre­ated in 1996 to fa­cil­it­ate co­oper­a­tion among Arc­tic states, as well as com­munit­ies in­di­gen­ous to the area. The coun­cil is far from a mil­it­ary or eco­nom­ic al­li­ance. Fo­cused on sub­jects like en­vir­on­ment­al pro­tec­tion, pol­lu­tion, trade routes, and fish­er­ies, the group prides it­self on keep­ing polit­ic­al and mil­it­ary is­sues out of the dis­cus­sion.

This week, the coun­cil is meet­ing in Yel­lowknife, the cap­it­al city of Canada’s North­w­est Ter­rit­or­ies. Rus­sia, already cut out of oth­er in­ter­na­tion­al sum­mits, is in at­tend­ance. Arc­tic Coun­cil Chair­wo­man Le­ona Aglukkaq, who rep­res­ents Canada, said Tues­day that bar­ring Rus­sia from this week’s sum­mit “serves no con­struct­ive pur­pose.” But the Ca­na­dian gov­ern­ment is keep­ing a close eye on what the Rus­si­ans say there, she said.

It ap­pears the north­ern part of the globe can’t ig­nore the south­ern ten­sions forever.

Thanks to glob­al warm­ing, the Arc­tic has be­come a hot spot for eco­nom­ic de­vel­op­ment in re­cent years. The more sea ice melts away, the more wa­ter there is for cargo ships to cross and for rigs to drill in­to to reach vast un­tapped nat­ur­al gas and oil re­serves. Last year, China, In­dia, Italy, Ja­pan, and South Korea, as well as the European Uni­on, Green­peace, and the In­ter­na­tion­al As­so­ci­ation of Oil and Gas Pro­du­cers, all ap­plied for a seat at the Arc­tic Coun­cil.

The race for the Arc­tic is quietly un­der­way, and Rus­sia seems to be win­ning so far. This is es­pe­cially troub­ling for the rest of the North Pole. The re­gion is already locked in what’s known as a se­cur­ity di­lemma, ex­plains Kris­ti­an At­land, a seni­or re­search fel­low at the Nor­we­gi­an De­fence Re­search Es­tab­lish­ment. World powers have a tend­ency to as­sume the worst about their neigh­bors, and any meas­ure taken by one na­tion to in­crease its sov­er­eignty or se­cur­ity could be per­ceived by an­oth­er as a threat. It also doesn’t help that all of Rus­sia’s Arc­tic neigh­bors are NATO mem­bers.

If the oth­er Arc­tic states have learned something from the Ukraine crisis, it’s that the Rus­si­ans will pro­tect what they feel is right­fully theirs.

Rus­si­an ter­rit­ory ac­counts for about half of the Arc­tic re­gion, but there’s a lot more to the coun­try’s lead in the game than size. In 2001, Mo­scow sent the first-ever ter­rit­ori­al claim for the North Pole to the U.N. Com­mis­sion on the Lim­its of the Con­tin­ent­al Shelf, which defines na­tions’ rights in the world’s oceans. The com­mis­sion told Rus­sia that it needed more sci­entif­ic evid­ence that the Arc­tic shelf is part of the coun­try’s land­mass, and a de­cision has not yet been made.

Rus­sia has pre­vi­ously em­ployed a fairly friendly po­lar policy, The Guard­i­an‘s Luke Hard­ing ex­plains. Un­der Dmitry Med­ve­dev, Mo­scow re­solved a ter­rit­ori­al dis­pute with Nor­way and worked out policy is­sues with oth­er Arc­tic powers, but “Putin’s Arc­tic rhet­or­ic has been hawk­ish.” Ca­na­dian Prime Min­is­ter Steph­en Harp­er has also been known to turn up the rhet­or­ic on his coun­try’s right to the Arc­tic, but he’s not the one who just an­nexed an­oth­er coun­try’s ter­rit­ory.

Mo­scow’s tough for­eign policy has also leaked in­to re­search in­terests in the re­gion. Dur­ing the In­ter­na­tion­al Po­lar Year pro­gram in 2007 — an in­ter­na­tion­al ef­fort to ex­plore the po­lar re­gions — Rus­sia isol­ated it­self from oth­er par­ti­cipants. When Rus­si­an ex­plorers reached the North Pole’s seabed that sum­mer, a first in his­tory, they stuck a Rus­si­an flag in it, stak­ing a claim in an arc­tic ridge that Canada and Den­mark have also said is theirs. Rus­sia also denied lo­gist­ic­al sup­port to a French ex­ped­i­tion, which pre­ven­ted its crew from leav­ing the Siberi­an port of Tiksi for two weeks.

Two years later, Rus­si­an Se­cur­ity Coun­cil Sec­ret­ary Nikolai Patrushev claimed that “the United States, Den­mark, Nor­way, and Canada are con­duct­ing a com­mon and co­ordin­ated policy to deny Rus­sia ac­cess to the riches of the [Arc­tic] shelf.” So much for team­work.

If there’s an­oth­er thing the Arc­tic states have learned from the Ukraine crisis, it’s that Mo­scow will risk polit­ic­al isol­a­tion to pre­serve its do­mest­ic in­flu­ence. The Rus­si­an pres­id­ent said he sent troops in­to Crimea to pro­tect its eth­nic Rus­si­ans from Ukrain­i­an op­pos­i­tion forces. In real­ity, the crisis had cre­ated the pre­text Mo­scow needed to take back former So­viet ter­rit­ory. When Canada, Rus­sia’s Arc­tic rival, an­nounced in Decem­ber that it plans to sub­mit its own claim for ad­di­tion­al Arc­tic ter­rit­ory, in­clud­ing the North Pole, Putin re­spon­ded im­me­di­ately. The next day, Putin ordered an in­creased mil­it­ary pres­ence in the re­gion, in­clud­ing troops and in­fra­struc­ture.

Rus­sia lost some of its Arc­tic power after the Cold War, when the re­gion served as a nuc­le­ar bat­tle­front. Now, Rus­sia plans to re­store aban­doned So­viet-era air­fields in the Arc­tic and turn the re­gion in­to a stra­tegic nat­ur­al-re­source base by 2020. The coun­try’s nav­al pres­ence there is already great­er than it was in the 1990s. And as we learned from Mo­scow’s pro­tec­tion of the Black Sea Fleet base in Crimea, mari­time power is key.

Oth­er na­tions, in­clud­ing Canada and the U.S., are beef­ing up their mil­it­ary foot­prints there, but not at the same rate as the Rus­si­ans. The U.S. has not yet rat­i­fied the U.N. Con­ven­tion on the Law of the Sea, which means it is eli­gible to file of­fi­cial ter­rit­ori­al claims in the Arc­tic. But Amer­ic­an law­makers with a stake in the re­gion, such as Sen. Mark Be­gich, D-Alaska, are wor­ried about the White House stand­ing by, The Hill re­ports. “When I first ar­rived in the Sen­ate five years ago, I got a lot of puzzled looks when I men­tioned the Arc­tic,” Be­gich said last week. “With un­pleas­ant re­mind­ers of the Cold War and the vast po­ten­tial for re­source de­vel­op­ment in the re­gion, a mil­it­ary pres­ence is more im­port­ant than ever.”

Be­gich has in­tro­duced le­gis­la­tion for an in­creased U.S. Coast Guard pres­ence in the po­lar re­gion.

Arc­tic Coun­cil mem­bers take turns chair­ing the or­gan­iz­a­tion every two years, and the U.S. is up in 2015. Canada, the cur­rent chair, has used the last two years to push for more con­trol over the area. The Ukraine crisis gives Canada some more wiggle room in the com­ing months, and the U.S. could fol­low its lead once it takes over the lead­er­ship. The Arc­tic Coun­cil may have wel­comed Rus­sia this week, but the coun­try’s po­s­i­tion in mul­ti­lat­er­al or­gan­iz­a­tions is on thin ice. Push­ing Mo­scow out of the coun­cil, however, would destabil­ize the en­tire re­gion. Without Rus­sia, Arc­tic co­oper­a­tion, wheth­er on fish­ing prac­tices or mil­it­ary bases, can’t ex­ist.

Still, it will be years, per­haps even dec­ades, be­fore chunks of the Arc­tic Ocean are div­vied up among world powers. While melt­ing ice is pav­ing the way for eco­nom­ic op­por­tun­it­ies, the Arc­tic re­mains largely a sym­bol of na­tion­al pride for the na­tions that ex­ist in­side its sphere, in­clud­ing Rus­sia. In Decem­ber, Putin said mil­it­ar­iz­ing the Arc­tic is cru­cial to pro­tect­ing the coun­try’s “na­tion­al and stra­tegic in­terests.”

Sound fa­mil­i­ar?

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