The Mark | 8.11.10
By Alan W. Dowd and Alexander Moens
In the icy waters of the Arctic, U.S. and Canadian icebreakers have launched a five-week mission to collect data on what’s known as the “extended continental shelf.” Led by the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy and the Canadian Coast Guard Ship Louis S. St-Laurent, this Arctic cruise is far more than just a scientific expedition. In fact, it could have economic, energy, and even military implications. Here’s why.
The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic may hold 1,670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 90 billion barrels of oil, equaling 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered gas and 13 percent of undiscovered oil.
These resources will be increasingly recoverable and transportable because the fabled Northwest Passage, once frozen throughout most of the year and navigable only by heavy-duty icebreakers, is thawing. The Congressional Research Service notes that an ice-free Northwest Passage could “cut shipping routes between Europe and Asia by 3,000 to 4,000 miles.”
The prospect of rising oil prices in the long term, the emergence of sophisticated drilling technology and the opening of new transit routes provides new opportunities for exploring—and new incentives for claiming—this vast, resource-rich frontier. And Russia is already staking its claim.
In 2001, Russia brazenly laid claim to almost half the Arctic Circle and all of the North Pole. During a 2007 expedition, Russia planted its flag under the ice—far beyond the internationally recognized 200-mile territorial limit known as the “exclusive economic zone.” At the time, the lead explorer provocatively declared, “The Arctic is ours.”
Russia’s outsized Arctic claims rest on a dubious interpretation of an “underwater ridge” linking to the Russian landmass. Russia argues that this ridge is an extension of its own continental shelf.
Never much for subtlety or nuance, Moscow has begun training “troops that could be engaged in Arctic combat missions” and increased the “operational radius” of its northern submarine fleet, according to one Russian general.
Plus, Russian long-range bombers have started flying sorties again in the region, after nearly two decades of post-Cold War peace. The Canadian military reports that there have been 50 Russian incursions in the last three years. The most recent of these unfriendly flights occurred late last month, when a pair of Russian Tu-95 bombers approached Goose Bay. They were greeted and escorted away by Canadian F-18s.
Many observers conclude that Russia’s muscle-flexing is an effort to underscore its Arctic claims.
Not surprisingly, Russia’s claims and behavior have gotten the attention of other countries with Arctic territories, including the United States, Canada, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and Finland.
“We’re concerned about not just Russia’s claims to the international process but Russia’s testing of Canadian airspace,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in 2008.
At the end of the Bush administration, the U.S. issued a new Arctic Region Policy, declaring that “The United States has broad and fundamental national security interests in the Arctic region and is prepared to operate either independently or in conjunction with other states to safeguard these interests.”
Similarly, under the Obama administration, the U.S. government has emphasized that “The United States has an inherent national interest in knowing, and declaring to others with specificity, the extent of our sovereign rights with regard to the U.S. extended continental shelf. Certainty and international recognition are important in establishing the necessary stability for development, conservation and protection of these areas, likely rich in resources.”
Yet both Canada and the United States face challenges in asserting their rights—and fending off Russian encroachment.
Canadian governments have promised to invest heavily in Arctic military and security capabilities at least twice in recent history: during the early years of the Mulroney government and under the current Harper government. However, in both cases, budgetary restraints have eroded the plans, leaving Canadians with few assets to deploy in the Arctic.
Although the United States maintains 20,000 active-duty forces in Alaska, and has the capacity to project its military into any region, it has only three polar icebreakers. And two of these $800-million ships have exceeded their projected 30-year lifespan. In fact, engine failure prevented the icebreaker Polar Sea from deploying to Antarctica in June. Meanwhile, the icebreaker Polar Star is being refurbished and won’t be deployable until 2013, according to DefenseNews.
Russia, by way of comparison, can deploy 20 icebreakers.
Canada and the United States are not the only nations bracing for a cold front in the Arctic, however. Norway, Sweden, and Finland are developing what The Economist magazine calls a “Nordic security partnership” as a hedge against Russian adventurism in the energy-rich “high north.” Denmark is standing up an Arctic military command. NATO is even contemplating involvement in the Arctic. NATO commander Adm. James Stavridis hopes the Arctic will be nothing more than “a zone of competition” but concedes it could become “a zone of conflict.”
The primary reason allied nations are starting to react in a military-security context is Russia.
Russia’s claims are different than that of other Arctic nations both in the way the claims are being made and in the nature of the claims: Other nations are not laying claim to half of the region or the entire North Pole. Other nations are not making territorial claims in a blatant military context.
Conflict with Russia—in the Arctic or elsewhere—is not inevitable. Of course, neither is cooperation, as we have learned on issues as disparate as Georgia’s sovereignty, Iran’s nuclear program, Europe’s gas supplies, and NATO’s logistics arteries into Afghanistan.
Every reasonable effort should be made to include Russia as an Arctic partner. U.S. military commanders, for instance, are pursuing routine contacts with their Russian counterparts to prevent mishaps and misunderstandings in the skies above the Arctic.
Ottawa and Washington may also want to consider upgrading the Arctic Council, a forum founded in 1996 for dialogue among Arctic countries, including Russia. Similarly, the United States, Canada, Norway, and Denmark could explore a treaty with Russia to divide resource claims equitably.
Developing a security regime for the region that will augment and complement the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is also important. UNCLOS will play an important role in defining borders and boundaries in the Arctic, but like most UN regimes UNCLOS is inherently weak. Thus, allowing it to be the final arbiter could serve Russia’s interests. Indeed, it appears that Russia plans to use the loopholes of UNCLOS to claim much of the Arctic as its own. Developing a transparent security component seems prudent in a region where maritime traffic—and resource exploration—will dramatically increase.
Of course, it is important for the United States to adopt the treaty. Being a party to UNCLOS is the best way for the U.S. to ensure its voice is heard and its Arctic interests addressed, and it may be useful in the future to underscore allied solidarity.
Indeed, if Russia continues down its current path, Canada, the United States and their Arctic allies will be left with few other options than standing firm and standing together. Sharing the Arctic’s bounty—in a transparent manner governed by the rule of law and sound trade practices—makes more strategic sense than allowing Moscow literally to divide and conquer.
To prevent that unhappy outcome, the allies may need to agree among themselves on borders, transit routes, and exploration rights, and then pool their economic and military resources to protect their shared interests, as they do in other parts of the world.
NORAD could serve as something of a model. In fact, Gen. Gene Renuart, former commander of NORAD, contemplated NORAD’s role in Arctic security in 2008, openly asking, “How do we posture NORAD for the future to work with nations in that region to provide the right kind of search and rescue, military response, if need be, and certainly security for whatever activities occur in the Arctic?”
Such a united front could, paradoxically, keep the peace. As Churchill once said of his Russian counterparts, “There is nothing they admire so much as strength, and there is nothing for which they have less respect than for weakness.”