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Is Vladimir Putin Coming for the North Pole Next? Is Vladimir Putin Coming for the North Pole Next?

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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 that leads from Dettah to Yellowknife, in Canada's Northwest Territories.(Arctic Council/Flickr)

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.

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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?

The Russian Empire Takes Back

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