Russia and the US Claim the Arctic

Welcome To Siberia, Santa

by Eric Margolis by Eric Margolis


TORONTO — Santa is not going to be happy to learn that his home and workshop at the North Pole just became part of Mother Russia.

Last week, Russia literally stole a march on its would-be Arctic competitors by dispatching a powerful icebreaker and research vessel to plant its flag on — and under — the North Pole.

Two Russian submersibles dove over four km to the ocean’s bottom in the latest feat of Russia’s long, often heroic record of Arctic exploration that is almost unknown in the west.

Moscow’s Arctic surprise and dramatic claim to a huge swathe of the Artic Ocean was the latest example of Russia’s headlong drive to make itself the world’s energy superpower. According to the US Geological Survey, the Arctic Ocean may contain up to 25% of global oil and gas reserves.

The Artic pack ice has been melting rapidly due to global warming produced by over-use of fossil fuels. This, ironically, is opening the Arctic to new energy exploration and maritime commerce through the long-sought Northwest Passage.

Normally dour President Vladimir Putin must have been grinning from ear to ear as he watched the outraged reaction to his polar adventure in Canada, the US, Norway and Denmark, all of whom have been hungrily eying the high Arctic.

The Kremlin claims the continental shelf of Siberia actually extends to the North Pole along a long underwater ridge named after the renowned 18th century Russian scientist, Lomonosov. International law grants maritime nations a 200-mile economic exclusion zone off their coasts. So Moscow insists the North Pole is really just an extension of northern Siberia. It failed to mention that another ridge runs underwater from Alaska to the North Pole, giving the US a pretty good claim as well.

Normally placid Canadians are furious that Moscow had the audacity to make even a symbolic claim to the polar region which they consider their own. Canada wants to advance its own Arctic claims, but, embarrassingly, lacks the icebreakers, patrol vessels, long-ranged aircraft and bases to defend or even police them.

New Canadian icebreakers and patrol vessels are still on the drawing boards. Meanwhile, its conservative government is spending ever-increasing amounts of cash paying for its troops to chase Afghan tribesmen through the Hindu Kush while it can’t even safeguard its own territory.

"This isn’t the 15th century!" exclaimed Canada’s Foreign Minister Peter MacKay. "Nations can’t claim territory by just planting flags." But that, of course, is just what happened. Under international law, a nation can indeed plant its flag and make a claim on vacant territory.

Washington’s reaction was also angry, and bizarre. A US icebreaker is being rushed at high speed from the Pacific port of Seattle to assert Washington’s claim to the North Pole. Administration officials actually fretted the fabled Arctic Northwest Passage might be used "to transport terrorists." While 200,000 illegal aliens slip into the US from Mexico each month, the Bush Administration worries about Islamic jihadis lurking behind icebergs. Peter Sellers could have had a field day with the Arctic fracas.

The Russians actually have solid historic claims to the Arctic. Only the Norse Vikings have been active there longer. As early as 1032 AD, Russians explored the Kara Sea off northern Siberia and, soon after, the White and Lapatev Seas only 700 km south of the North Pole. In the 1600’s, major Russian expeditions charted the Arctic. Under Peter the Great, Russia opened the Arctic Seas to commerce and made Alaska a colony. Selling Alaska in 1867 to the US for a song was one of the stupidest mistakes Russia has ever made, but at the time the Imperial Government was desperate for cash and had to unload assets.

Moscow vows to observe international law and advance its Arctic claims through the UN. Fair enough. It’s refreshing to see a great power observing international law. Moscow could have annexed the North Pole, claiming it was searching for weapons of mass destruction hidden by terrorist seals.

This whole Arctic story certainly is a refreshing diversion to this summer’s heat waves. But it is also serious, as conflicts over dwindling resources will grow increasingly common over the next decade.

Moscow’s territorial claim is way over the top and the wrong way to deal with what is becoming the very important and potentially dangerous issue of Arctic resources.

There’s a much better method to handle this potential gold rush. The entire, oval-shaped Arctic zone surrounded by the 200-mile limits of Canada, the US, Norway, and Denmark should become a special UN economic zone. Any nation seeking to drill or mine in this region should buy concessions from the UN and pay it royalties that will be used to fund humanitarian and ecological projects.

Regions in which maritime exclusion zones overlap — such as off Greenland, the Bering Strait, Norway’s Savalbard, Russia’s Franz Josef Land, Greek and Turkish Aegean islands, the South China Seas’ contested Paracel and Spratly islands should also become UN-run special economic zones.

Large areas of water or ice could be made into international zones, like Antarctica. Sharing the resources of the Polar region is a sensible, grown-up way of handling this dispute.

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