September 7, 2007

September 7, 2007 | Commentary on Energy and Environment

Putin's ambition

A Danish ambassador to Peter the Great was asked by the czar to point out his country on the map. Embarrassed at the size of his homeland compared to the vast Russian expanse, the ambassador evaded the question, and rather than point to the Lilliputian Scandinavian country from which he hailed, he put his finger on Greenland, the world's biggest island. "Let me show you one of our colonies," he said slyly, but truthfully. Peter the Great, of course, was suitably impressed.

Today, the North Pole is again an object of international competition, thanks mainly to the putative consequences of global warming, and Russia and Denmark are among the countries competing for territorial claims to its landmass. The other nations include Norway, Canada and the United States. Russia has launched a pre-emptive claim to the so-far-frozen north, to the point of reviving Cold War military tactics, causing other nations on the edge of the Arctic Circle to scramble.

To reinforce its claim, Russia has started flying military missions over the North Pole, reviving its policy from Cold War days, approaching close to U.S. airspace. The Russians discontinued the missions in 1992 because of the lack of funding and have now revived a fleet of obsolete Tupolev bombers to establish the principle of their right to the airspace. Norwegians have had to scramble to send up their own aircraft to fend off Russian incursions. The whole scenario is straight out of a Cold War spy movie.

By American estimates, 25 percent of the world's oil and mineral deposits are locked beneath the northern ice cap, but will become available if the world warms enough. It would not be the first time that the Arctic has been free of ice. Analyses of soil samples drilled beneath the mile-thick ice cover have shown that Greenland was in the past rich in forests, vegetation and animal life.

If in fact the Earth warms as much as the environmentalist scaremongers insist it will, one benefit will be that in time - which may be as much as 50 years from now - the North Pole could be accessible and so could the Northwest Passage through the Bering Strait, which is situated between Russia and Alaska. This would mean huge savings for the world's shipping.

The Russian imperialist power grab of the North Pole has taken its northern neighbors by surprise, and it is high time they get their act together to oppose it. Perhaps not surprisingly part of the problem is the U.N. Law of the Sea Treaty, known by the acronym UNCLOS. According to the treaty, which the United States has signed but not ratified, countries can lay claim to land beyond their 200-mile territorial waters if they can demonstrate that the landmass of their continental shelf is connected below sea level to the land in question. Each country has 10 years after ratification of the treaty to stake its claim, and each country is planning its own claim to the North Pole, including the United States.

The Russians lost no time after ratifying UNCLOS and claimed a vast area, including the North Pole, as early as 2001. They have even planted a titanium flag on the bottom of the Arctic Ocean to stake their claim. The United Nations has at least rejected the Russian claim for now. Meanwhile, the United States and Canada have dispatched expeditions of their own to the North Pole, and Denmark has sent an an icebreaker carrying a scientific expedition.

Russia's aggressive behavior is entirely consistent with the revanchist policies pursued by President Vladimir Putin, who has made no secret of his ambition to again make Russia a powerful nation, and who has focused on using its energy wealth to fuel those ambitions.

Other nations have argued for the United States to ratify UNCLOS in order to strengthen the position vis-à-vis the Russian claims, but it is rather doubtful that Russia will respect its international treaty obligations, through the U.N. or otherwise. Meanwhile, it is clearly important for the countries that have an interest in the Arctic to unite behind a common cause and confront the Russian government's land grab.

And if the climate-change scaremongers are wrong, and the North Pole remains good for nothing but hunting polar bears, at least we have reasserted a principle that will no doubt be relevant for relations with the Russian bear in years to come.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in the Washington Times