Russia's Race for the Arctic


Russia's Race for the Arctic

Aug 8, 2007 3 min read

Former Visiting Fellow, Douglas and Sarah Allison Center

Ariel was a Senior Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy at The Heritage Foundation.

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 superpower."

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 2010.

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 power-crazy dictator.

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 Russian demands.

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