Vienna, August 25 – Moscow’s use of force in Georgia suggests that Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev are likely to pursue a “very aggressive” policy in their drive to control a large swath of the Arctic Ocean and the enormous natural resources in its seabed, according to a Canadian expert.
“The Russians understand why they need the Arctic,” Rob Hubert, the deputy director of the Center for Military and Strategic Research at the University of Calgary, told the Kazakhstan journal “Delovaya Nedelya,” and they are far “outstripping” all the Arctic powers in their projection of force there (www.iamik.ru/?op=full&what=content&ident=39863).
The Arctic is increasingly becoming an apple of discord not only for the five countries bordering the region – Russia, Canada, the United States, Denmark, and Norway – but also for three states near the Arctic – Iceland, Sweden and Finland – and for more than 20 other countries, including South Korea and China, which have interests there.
As the map recently released by University of Durham shows, many of these countries have made claims for economic exclusion zones far larger than the normal 200 to 300 kilometers from shore, but no country has sought to exploit one provision of the UN Convention on Law of the Sea more thoroughly than the Russian Federation.
According to that accord, which all the countries involved except the United States have ratified, a country can claim that part of the continental shelf extending from its shores if it is able to demonstrate that the undersea shelf is “an extension” of its own territory. So far, only Russia and Norway have tried to do this, with Russia making the far larger claim.
In 2001, Moscow made its first claim on the basis of the provision, asking for international recognition of Russia’s control over 1.2 million square kilometers of the Arctic seabed. Then in August 2007, it more than doubled its claim after dropping a metal copy of its national flag to the sea floor 4,000 meters deep.
In response, the then Canadian foreign minister Peter McKay called this action “a return to the 15th century, adding that in Ottawa’s view, the Arctic is “Canadian property.” Denmark also responded by announcing its claims, while the United States pointed out that the dropping of the Russian flag onto the seabed “does not have legal significance.”
Last month at a hearing in a committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, defense department officials past and present called for an expansion in spending on the building of ice breakers and other equipment suitable for operations in the far north given Russia’s lead in this regard. At present, Russia has seven icebreakers; the US has only four.
Ted Allen, commander of the U.S. Coast Guard, told the congressmen that “we are losing [our] positions in the global competition [in the Arctic]. Russia next year will complete its program of constructing the next generation of icebreakers,” something that will allow Moscow to project power there to 2020.
Over the last several weeks, geopolitical and even military competition in the Arctic has heated up. The Russians launched a new expedition to establish their claims, and the Americans and Canadians dispatched ships to conduct seismic studies in the Beaufort Sea north of Alaska and the Yukon.
(To make this joint operation possible and in the face of rapidly expanding Russian activities in the Arctic that threaten all other Arctic countries Washington and Ottawa agreed to set aside for the time being their own long-running dispute about the division of that sea north of the Alaskan-Yukon border.)
One of the reasons that the various Arctic powers are taking so many actions there is that according to the UN’s special commission on the continental shelf, they are supposed to agree on the delimitation of the Arctic by the end of May 2009, an accord that in the current circumstances seems implausible.
And thus it is both disturbing and significant that “Delovaya Nedelya’s” Maisur Khabarov should entitle his article posted online today “A Caspian Scenario for the Arctic,” which of course refers to the ongoing diplomatic arguments about the post-Soviet division of the Caspian but after the events in Georgia points to a fundamental change in Moscow’s approach.