August 8, 2007
By Ariel Cohen, Ph.D.
By planting the Russian flag on the seabed under the North Pole
and claiming a sector of the Continental Shelf the size of Western
Europe, Moscow generated a new source of international tension,
seemingly out of the blue.
Geopolitics and geoeconomics are driving Moscow's latest moves.
The potential profits are certainly compelling. Geologists believe
a quarter of the world's oil and gas -- billions of barrels and
trillions of cubic feet -- may be located on the Arctic Continental
Shelf and possibly under the polar cap.
The Arctic, the final frontier, also harbors precious, ferrous
and nonferrous metals, as well as diamonds. At today's prices,
these riches may be worth hundreds of billions of dollars. And if
the ice caps melt and shrink, not only will these resources will be
more accessible than they are today, but a new sea route along the
northern coast of Eurasia may be open to reach them.
The other side of the economic coin is political -- the
exploration and exploitation of polar petroleum and other resources
may be a mega-project for the 21st century -- the kind of
opportunity that Russia is seeking to satisfy its ambition to
become what President Vladimir Putin has termed "an energy
In 2001 Russia filed a claim to expand the continental shelf
with the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental
Shelf under the Law of the Sea Treaty (LOST), to which it is a
party. However, in 2002 the commission declared it neither accepts
nor rejects the Russian claim, and demanded more study. Russia
plans to resubmit the claim, and expects to get the answer by
Russia's claims are literally on thin ice. Moscow is extending
its claim to the Arctic Ocean seabed based on its control of the
Lomonosov Ridge and the Mendeleev Ridge, two underwater geological
structures that jut into the ocean from the Russian continental
shelf. However, it looks like the ridges do not extend far enough
to justify Moscow's claims beyond its 200-mile economic zone, while
other countries also claim control of the same area.
This latest move by Moscow is also a chilling throwback to the
1930s Stalinist attempts to conquer the Arctic during the years
when the U.S.S.R. was seized by fear and hatred. Stalin and his
henchmen executed "enemies of the people" by the hundreds of
thousands in mock trials and in the basements of the Lubyanka
secret police headquarters, or in unnamed killing sites in the
woods. Those not yet arrested were forced to applaud the "heroes of
the Arctic": pilots, sailors and explorers, in a macabre
celebration of Stalinist tyranny.
To the regime's critics, today's expedition is a chilly reminder
of the brutal era when millions of Gulag prisoners were sent to the
frozen expanses to build senseless mega-projects for the
Today's Russian rhetoric is reminiscent of the past two
centuries. The leader of the Arctic expedition, Artur Chilingarov,
deputy chairman of the Russian Duma, proclaimed, "The Arctic is
ours and we should manifest our presence." Russia's Arctic and
Antarctic Institute declared, "This is like placing a flag on the
moon" -- conveniently forgetting the United States never claimed
the moon as its territory.
Andrei Kokoshin, chairman of a parliamentary committee on the
ex-Soviet region, said Russia "will have to actively defend its
interests in the Arctic" and called for reinforcing Russia's
Northern Fleet and border guard units and building airfields to
"ensure full control." Vladimir Putin spoke on a Russian nuclear
powered ice-breaker earlier this year, urging greater efforts to
secure Russia's "strategic, economic, scientific and defense
interests" in the Arctic.
A crisis over Russian claims in the Arctic would be perfectly
avoidable, if Russia is prepared to behave in a more civilized
manner. If Moscow suggested exploring the Arctic's wealth in a
cooperative fashion, in partnership with the United States and
other countries aboard, this could become a productive project that
furthered international cooperation. However, the current rush to
dominate the Arctic Ocean and everything under it indicates that
greed and aggression characterize the new Russian polar bear.
The State Department has expressed its skepticism regarding
planting of the Russian flag, and said it has no legal standing or
effect on Russia's claim. Canada has voiced similar objections.
To stop the expansion, the U.S. should encourage its friends and
allies -- Canada, Denmark and Norway -- to pursue their claims in
the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental
Shelf. While the United Sates has not ratified the Law of the Sea
Treaty (LOST), other Arctic countries, including Norway and
Denmark, have filed their own claims with the Commission, opposing
The Nordic countries do not view Russia's attempted seabed grab
kindly. Nor should they. The U.S. should also encourage Canada to
coordinate a possible claim through the International Justice Court
in The Hague against the Russian grab.
Russia's decision to take an aggressive stand has left the U.S.,
Canada and the Nordic countries little choice but to design a
cooperative High North strategy, and invite other friendly
countries, such as Great Britain, to expend the necessary means to
build up the Western presence in the Arctic. This will probably
have to include a fleet of modern icebreakers, submersibles,
geophysics/seismic vessels, and polar aircraft.
There is too much at stake to leave it to the Russian bear.
Ariel Cohen is a
senior research fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies at the
Heritage Foundation and the author of "Russian Imperialism:
Development and Crisis (1998)."
First appeared in the Washington Times
By planting the Russian flag on the seabed under the North Pole and claiming a sector of the Continental Shelf the size of Western Europe, Moscow generated a new source of international tension, seemingly out of the blue.
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D.
Senior Research Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy, The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies
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