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Russia’s Ambitions in the Arctic

By Sophie des Beauvais

On August 2, 2007, the Russian expedition Arktika 2007 planted a Russian flag on the North Pole seabed, descending more than two miles under the ice cap in a pair of submersible vessels. Notably, one third of Russia lies within the Arctic Circle, a region full of natural energy that plays a major role in the country’s economy. With the melting of the Arctic ice cap opening a new array of challenges and opportunities, and the congruent growing interest of non-Arctic states in the region, Russia has been substantially enhancing its Arctic policy. 

In September 2008, the Russian government adopted “The fundamentals of state policy of the Russian Federation in the Arctic in the period up to 2020 and beyond.” Accordingly, Russia’s four national interests in the Arctic are the use of the Arctic zone within its borders as a strategic resource base; the maintenance of the greater Arctic region as a zone of peace and cooperation; the preservation of unique ecological systems in the Arctic; and the use of the Northern Sea Route as a strategically located transport route in the Arctic.

The plan emphasizes the region as a source of revenue, mainly from maritime transport, oil, and gas. So far, Arctic resources account for 10-15 percent of the country’s GDP and 20-25 percent of national exports. The melting of the Arctic ice cap also creates new opportunities for shipping and trade routes since it decreases natural obstacles. The Northern Sea Route could reduce the route between Rotterdam, Netherlands and Yokohama, Japan by more than 7,000 km, compared to the traditional Suez Canal route. The prospect of an ice-free sea also reopens the discussions on sovereignty over new routes.

The center of the Arctic Ocean is classified as international waters and thus beyond any country's control. However, Arctic coastal nations – Canada, Denmark, Norway, and the U.S. along with Russia –  have registered claims which could technically extend their purview up to the North Pole.

Indeed, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) regulates the right of coastal nations’ jurisdiction over the resources of a given area. Coastal nations are granted the rights to exclusive economic zones (EEZ) that range 200 nautical miles from the coastlines, but if a nation can provide scientific proof that a  continental shelf extends beyond the EEZ then additional rights are granted.  Article 77 of UNCLOS states, “The coastal state exercises over the continental shelf sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring it and exploiting its natural resources.” However, if overlapping claims exist then the nations involved are responsible for finding a solution, similar to how Norway and Russia resolved a 40-year old maritime dispute in 2010. 

On December 15, 2014, Denmark submitted a claim of around 347,500 square miles of the continental shelf extending into the Arctic Ocean by filing a submission to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. This claim includes the North Pole.

Russian Natural Resources Minister Sergey Donskoy responded the next day: “We are drafting a document together with the Defense and Foreign Ministries and the Russian Academy of Sciences for submission to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf.”

This claim will likely include the North Pole, as Russia claims to have gathered scientific evidence that the Lomonosov Ridge, which goes straight across the Pole, is a continuation of the Russian continental shelf. This claim, first made on December 20, 2000, was rejected at the time because of lack of scientific proof. 

Although Russia’s Arctic Policy is multi-dimensional and cannot be reduced to only its strategic dimension, the country has been developing its military plan in the region to protect its strategic and commercial interests. As a result, Russia is reportedly building a unified network of military facilities in its Arctic territory to protect the country’s borders and interests in the region. Its new strategic command in the Arctic is headquartered in the Northern Fleet and became operational on December 1, 2014.

Later that month, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin said that the country is not planning to militarize the Arctic, but is taking the necessary measures to ensure its defense capabilities in the region. However, a few weeks later, spokesperson for the Russian Northern Fleet, Vadim Serga indicated that the fleet’s “marines will undergo special training in 2015 for military activities in the Arctic.”

According to a recent Stratfor report, “of the eight countries of the Arctic Council, five are members of NATO, fueling Russia's suspicion that opposing forces are massing against it. Although friction with Kiev and the West has overshadowed Russia's military build-up in the Arctic, Moscow's long-term ambitions for the region are making other Arctic countries nervous.”

Although threat of an armed conflict between Arctic powers is very low, the Arctic itself is becoming strategically important, and the prospect of any party militarizing the region can seem alarming. However, the U.S. Special Representative for the Arctic, Admiral Robert Papp, argues the military can serve other purposes.

“If you’re going to have increased maritime traffic, you should have search-and-rescue facilities, you should have modern airports and other things—things I’d like to have built in Alaska as maritime traffic increases,” he said. 

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Sophie des Beauvais is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

[Photo courtesy of NOAA Photo Library, Arctic Controversy, The Economist]

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