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The Bear and the Beaver
About a month ago in a column for Russia Profile, I warned against the coming conflict in the Arctic over its undersea resources between Russia and other Arctic powers – the United States, Canada, Norway and Denmark. I had no idea the conflict would become reality in less than a month.
On August 2, two Russian mini-submarines dove 4,200 meters beneath the surface of the Arctic Ocean and planted a Russian flag made of titanium on the seabed directly underneath the North Pole.
Despite the symbolic nature of the event, the Russian polar expedition broached questions over the legal status of the land and more generally, the riches of the Arctic. The expedition’s head, polar explorer and deputy Duma speaker Artur Chilingarov said, "We're doing it for science and, of course, for Russia's presence at the North Pole." Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told journalists in Manila that "the goal of this expedition is not to plant a border post and assert Russia's rights, but to prove that our shelf stretches to the North Pole. There are concrete scientific methods for that. And I think this expedition, including the mini-submarine reaching the bottom of the Arctic Sea in the area of the North Pole, will supply additional scientific evidence for our aspiration."
Under the International Law of the Sea Convention, Russia, Canada, Norway, the United States, and Denmark (through Greenland) each control a 320-kilometer economic zone in the Arctic Ocean, extending from their coastline. But the Convention also allows a country to claim control of additional space if it can define the outer limits of its continental shelf. Russia attempted to file the claim in 2002, but it was rejected by a UN Commission. The United States has not yet ratified the Law of the Sea Convention and cannot file territorial claims, or take part in the review of similar claims by the involved parties. The Bush Administration is working hard with the US Senate to push the Treaty’s ratification through before the next congressional election.
The rush to claim large chunks of the Arctic shelf is spurred by viable estimates of large hydrocarbon resources that lay hidden there. For example, ExxonMobil estimates that Arctic oil and gas reserves could rival those of Saudi Arabia, no less. The progress of global warming and skyrocketing oil prices have made the exploration of at least a part of those reserves commercially viable.
The United States and Canada rejected Russia’s claims to the outer reaches of the Arctic seabed. The State department said in a statement that Washington would work with its allies to derail Russia’s bid in the UN Commission.
Canada also claimed ownership of the Arctic seabed. Canadian Foreign Minister Peter Mackay told journalists on August 2nd that "there is no question over Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic. We have established, a long time ago, that these are Canadian waters and this is Canadian property. You can't go around the world these days dropping a flag somewhere. This isn't the 14th or 15th century….This is Canadian territory, plain and simple." Canada has long claimed sovereignty over the Arctic, and under the terms of the Law of the Sea must file by 2012 its own claim that the seabed beneath the pole lies on its continental shelf.
The conflict over the Arctic seems to be spreading and engulfing even Western allies.
The Canadian government recently announced that it will build up to eight patrol boats to assert its related claims to sovereignty over the melting Northwest Passage, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Ottawa considers the Northwest Passage an inland waterway. Washington rejects that claim.
Denmark and Norway are speeding up their own Arctic Pole expeditions to boost their own territorial claims.
But the conflict over Arctic resources would eventually pit Russia against other Western states. As The Wall Street Journal argued on August 3rd, "the real threat is the Russian bear, not the Canadian beaver."
So what is going on? Why this frenzy over Arctic resources yet to be proved? Has Russia overplayed its hand by rushing its claim to the Arctic? What if the territorial claims are not resolved through the Law of the Sea? Are we to see an arms race in the Arctic? Is there going to be an increase in naval operations there? Will Russia be pitted against all other Western powers, or could there be tactical alliances that split the traditional Western coalition?
This just proves a point that Steven Weber, Ely Ratner and Naazneen Barma made in the recent issue of The National Interest: “Those who own the fossil fuels and those who can manufacture at low cost, by controlling the most rivalrous of economic resources, will have outsized economic power in the foreseeable future.” And where would Russia be likely to export these new resources? Perhaps Western countries would be less concerned if they were guaranteed not only sales but access for their firms to develop these sites. But Weber et al. point to the fact that “the twenty largest and wealthiest countries in the developing world are, overall, trading preferentially with the rising powers that lead the pack—China, India, Russia and Brazil.”
On this issue it won’t end up being Russia versus the West, but a coalition of states who can make claims versus those who want to challenge them. Canada may want to block Russia’s bid—even at Washington’s behest—but might just as easily switch its position if Ottawa and Moscow find a way to reconcile their claims (look at how coalitions have shifted in terms of defining who owns the Caspian Sea).
Five years ago, when Russia first submitted its case for the extension of the Russian continental shelf in the Arctic, there was no fanfare. This time it is quite different. The Russian expedition that placed the state flag on the seafloor at the North Pole raised eyebrows in apprehension among the Arctic nations, spurred the US administration to act on ratifying the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and thoroughly entertained the Russian public.
Two things are happening. Russia has emerged from the 90s with a clear development strategy in which natural resources play a major role in regaining its superpower status. This strategy is combined with a restored economic strength and a consolidated state prepared to fight for national interests. The latest Russian claim for almost half the arctic seafloor is more than serious, and is recognized as such by the international community.
The Russian claim is particularly scary for the other Arctic neighbors because Russia has the will and means to conduct the required research, pursue its claim through the mechanisms established by the Convention, and defend its position on the ground. If the evidence is significant and plays in favor of Russia, the case should go through. If scientific evidence turns out to be uncertain, Russia’s first move advantage will give it a strong hand in any negotiations. This expedition shows that the Arctic continental shelf is a matter of Russian vital national interest that will be pursued with full force.
In addition to making a decisive move to secure subsoil rights in the Arctic, the Russian establishment carried out a very important image campaign. The tricolor at the North Pole is the latest in a series of symbols of Russian revival that have been capturing the public at home and abroad. Its message is clear: although half of the country was lost, we are now strong again and growing in influence and territory. This message is important for consolidating the public around a national idea, and is helping to shape public opinion in the election period. After all, the flag stand has the insignia of United Russia – Putin's party.
National consciousness and prevailing moods and attitudes are critical for projecting state power. It suffices to look at the US, plunged into Iraqi despair and thus hamstrung in its foreign policy, or Germany, still reeling from the trauma of the World War II and uncertain about its foreign policy mandate.
The Russian psyche was bombarded in the 90s, and at the beginning of the new century with semiotics of weakness and defeat: the disappearance of the USSR, a destitute population and ultra rich oligarchs, separatist Chechnya, terrorist attacks, the sinking of the Kursk submarine, NATO encroachment, etc. New, positive symbols of strength are required to undo the damage to Russian self respect. The Russian state has been quite busy recently generating such symbols: the 60th Anniversary of the Great Patriotic War, a pacified and recovering Chechnya, Putin's Munich speech, the launch of new sophisticated weapons, a nuclear ice breaker, the awarding of the 2014 winter Olympics to Sochi, and now--the flag. This image campaign is clearly succeeding—polls confirm that Russians are happier, more confident, and quite supportive of Putin's revival strategies. In short, this Arctic expedition has been an unqualified success at home and abroad.
The Russian polar expedition should be viewed in broader context – that of claiming national interests in different areas. The process goes on without an announced plan, but it’s unmistakably consistent, taking care of defense needs (staunch opposition to US ABM plans in Eastern Europe, rejecting the CFE treaty), securing hydrocarbon deposits and exports routes (new pipelines through the Baltic Sea, Bulgaria and Greece, around the Caspian etc.), and strengthening the inner tissue of infrastructure (first and foremost in Siberia and Far East).
No wonder the Arctic came next. It is too rich a piece to be left out. The claim comes as more proof of Moscow’s foresight and capability to nurture and put forward strategic plans, and there is no doubt scientific and legal foundations for the claim will follow shortly.
Will military preparations follow suit? They might – if a peaceful settlement is not reached. There seems to be little chance of a quick agreement, though, due to a complicated and contradictory nature of international law on the subject. Therefore, an arms race in the Arctic is in perspective for years to come.
There does exist, however, a precedent of a peaceful decision on a similar matter: the Antarctic. It was formed by a compromise – forbidding any sort of mining of Antarctic natural resources except for strictly scientific purposes. This seems hardly attainable as far as the Arctic is concerned. Moreover, the race for Arctic natural resources might lead to the erosion and final abandonment of the Antarctic agreements – similar to the US abandoning the ABM treaty when it ceased to suit American national interests (as viewed from Washington).
At this moment, though, the arguments about “claiming the North Pole” seem funny enough. Staking this imaginary geographic point, though no small feat in itself, is but a symbolical act (helping to boost another patriotic wave, weaker but similar to that following the first Sputnik launch). Russia actually challenged other Arctic nations to repeat this action, which probably none of them are capable of doing at the moment. But what Russia and its competitors do next is much more important. Legal arguments will evidently be accompanied by the backstreet intrigues of major oil and mining companies. That’s where the outcome of the Polar Battle will be decided.
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