Vienna, September 13 – Russia’s National Security Council have declared that “the Arctic must become the basic strategic resource base of Russia,” thus reaffirming Moscow’s intention to claim a large portion of that region as its own economic exclusion zone and setting the stage for heightened conflicts with other countries adjoining the polar region.
Yesterday, members of that council met on an island in the Arctic Ocean to discuss how to protect the security and economic interests of the Russian Federation. Among those in attendance were the speakers of the Federation Council and Duma, the director of the FSB, and the ministers of defense, interior, and development, as well as the chief of the Presidential Staff.
Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of the Security Council, told this high level group that “the Arctic must become the basic strategic resource base of Russia” and said that the group’s deliberations would contribute to the development of a new approach there to be discussed at a council session next Wednesday(www.rusk.ru/newsdata.php?idar=728404).
In his remarks, Patrushev focused on economic issues, noting that “the Arctic [region] already today provides about 11 percent of Russia’s national income” and that in some sectors – such as nickel, cobalt and platinum – it already is responsible for more than 90 percent of the country’s production.
But meetings like this one and the one scheduled for next week are about far more than economics: they are about the increasing geopolitical competition in the Arctic basin between Russia, on the one hand, and the other polar powers, on the other, and about what Moscow’s next moves are likely to be (www.rusk.ru/newsdata.php?idar=178498).
At present, these states not only have competing claims for the Arctic seabed and, thanks to global warming, sea lanes, but dramatically different strategies in advancing these claims. To date, Moscow has sponsored a series of expeditions intended to show that much of the Arctic Ocean is above the continental shelf extending from the Russian landmass.
But the arguments of Russian officials in this regard have been disputed by Canadian, Danish, Norwegian and American officials and scholars, who argue that each of these countries might use the same kind of evidence to claim portions of the seabed that others, including Russia, insist belongs to them.
Those disputes, a product of the failure of the international community to focus on this region and reach an agreement on which countries control what until global warming and new technology made the Arctic Ocean basin economically and geopolitically important, are now moving beyond declarations by the countries involved.
On the one hand, most of the polar powers, including the Russian Federation, as well as many other maritime states have ratified the Law of the Sea Treaty and thus are in a position to lobby for their positions in United Nations bodies established to resolve disputes over control of sea beds and sea lanes.
But on the other, the United States has not, and consequently, it, along with Canada and the Russian Federation, have been seeking to press their claims or advance their interests in other ways, including the projection of force through the staging of scientific research expeditions and military exercises.
Although the Russian Federation has far more icebreakers than any of the other states and consequently a greater chance to exploit the Arctic, Moscow has accused Washington of militarizing the region via exercises and of seeking to unite the other polar states against Russia by making concessions or resolving its own disputes – as in the case of Canada -- with them.
And Russian commentators have played up statements by U.S. Navy and Coast Guard officials to Congressional committees over the last several months about the need to increase American spending not only on icebreakers but also on other equipment capable of functioning in the high Arctic.
Given the enormous oil and gas deposits already known to lie under the Arctic Ocean and the deteriorating relations between Moscow and Western governments, it appears likely that next Wednesday’s meeting of the Russian Security Council will mark a further heating up of geopolitical competition in a region that until recently most governments ignored.