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Analysis & Opinion
06.02.09 Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel: A Looming Battle For The Arctic?
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Contributors: Vladimir Belaeff, Stephen Blank, Ethan Burger

Russia, the United States and NATO are exchanging messages that indicate their readiness to engage in a serious political and military competition in the Arctic. The opening up of Arctic sea routes threatens to complicate relations between countries with competing claims to Arctic territory, as once inaccessible areas become ripe for exploration for oil and natural gas. Are Russia and NATO heading for a military confrontation in the Arctic? Is NATO’s move to boost its military presence in the region justified by Russia’s actions? Has Russia been too provocative in the Arctic?

Some scientists predict that the Arctic waters could be ice-free in summers by 2013, decades earlier than previously thought. The United States, Russia and Canada are among the countries attempting to claim jurisdiction over Arctic territory, alongside the Nordic nations.

In 2007, Russia planted a titanium flag on the floor of the sea under the North Pole, claiming an area the size of France that the government estimates to hold ten billion tons of oil-equivalent, along with gold, nickel and diamonds. Russia is hoping to claim the seabed under the Law of the Seas Convention. The United States, which has long spurned the Convention, has rushed to secure its ratification by the Senate.

Russia’s Security Council has released the Development Strategy for the Arctic Regions, which lays Russian claims to significant energy resources there. The Security Council is expected to devote a significant part to the Arctic issues in the upcoming Russia’s National Security Doctrine. A prominent Russian legislator and former Arctic explorer Arthur Chillingarov summed up the Strategy’s message: “We will not cede the Arctic to anyone.”

In its waning days, the George Bush administration released a Presidential Directive on the Arctic Policy. It says that climate change in the Arctic has caused all Arctic nations to reassess their policies in the region. In addition, with the increase in summer melting of Arctic sea ice, human activity is increasing. The new directive says that the United States has fundamental homeland security interests in preventing terrorist attacks and criminal or hostile acts in or via the Arctic region.

Last week, NATO stepped into the debate. NATO commanders’ and lawmakers’ meeting in Iceland's capital concluded that a military presence in the region would eventually be needed, as standoffs between powerful nations unfold. "I would be the last one to expect military conflict -- but there will be a military presence," NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told delegates to a NATO conference titled “Prospects for Security in the Arctic.” "Several Arctic rim countries are strengthening their capabilities, and military activity in the High North region has been steadily increasing," de Hoop Scheffer said.

Scheffer’s speech has been billed as NATO’s first coordinated response to Russia’s moves to claim a sphere of privileged interests in the Arctic. This means that Russia will probably have to deal not with a few Arctic littoral states (the United States, Canada, Denmark and Norway), but with a unified NATO alliance that will serve as a platform for coordination of the Arctic policies.

Russia will also have to adjust its defense posture to counter the growing NATO military presence in the region.
Are we heading for a military confrontation between Russia and NATO in the Arctic? Is NATO’s move to boost its military presence in the region justified by Russia’s actions? Has Russia been too provocative in the Arctic? Are there opportunities for Russia and NATO to cooperate constructively on Arctic issues? Could this be handled as part of the climate change agenda? And can climate change, mitigation and adaptation become an opportunity for the Barack Obama administration to improve U.S.-Russian relations and bring an introduction to a new era of issues uniquely relevant to the twenty-first century and beyond? How should Russia respond to NATO’s push into the Arctic?

Vladimir Belaeff, President, Global Society Institute, Inc., San Francisco, CA:

Let me first recap the historical context for the activities of the Arctic Ocean littoral nations. Scandinavians and Northern Europeans have been present in the region since time immemorial. In fact Iceland, Greenland and even Labrador were settled by Scandinavians about 1,000 years ago. Russia’s sovereign presence in the Arctic Ocean predates the time of Columbus. It was the Russians who did most of the exploration of the northern shores of Eurasia and discovered the Bering Strait in 1648. The United States is a relative newcomer to the region – and only through the generous sale of Alaska by Russia in 1867. Russia and Canada have the longest shorelines facing the Arctic Ocean.

Thus, it should not be at all surprising that Denmark, Norway and Russia are busy in the region, getting ready to increase their use of the diverse natural resources of the Arctic littoral and the oceanic shelf. This economic use is often manifested by pluralist business consortia of multiple national enterprises.

Growing international interest in the region’s subsurface wealth is an excellent opportunity to continue and further develop a process of multilateral agreements, based on existing and future international legislation, international diplomatic institutes, including the UN, and market economy dynamics, to satisfy the needs and interests of the Arctic littoral nations.

The new administration in Washington could very wisely include this very important regional situation as a platform for the rebuilding of America’s diplomatic standing, which has been significantly undermined during the previous American presidency.

In light of the above, NATO’s declarations and unilateral self-insertion into the process is completely unhelpful. NATO is an organization designed for war. For such an entity to inject itself, uninvited, into a process that should be the domain of diplomacy and market economics, can appear as provoking conflict a priori. It has been often noted by many observers that NATO is an obsolete organization which is searching for a mission in order to justify its own bureaucratic existence. The cited statement by de Hoop Scheffer can be used as proof of the abovementioned perception. And realistically, NATO war-making resources are already stretched rather thin with present commitments, and thus placing the “High North” in NATO’s gun sights can be seen as both inflammatory and – worse yet – pointless.

There already is a military presence in the Arctic – as part of the superpower nuclear deterrence. There is no need to inject another war-making player like NATO into what is a modern, twenty-first century opportunity for a peaceful international legal and economic consensus, achieved through diplomacy, not threats of military power.

An international legal and economic framework for the Arctic Ocean and its subsurface resources must include imperative rules for protection of ecosystems, as well as a delineation of regions of economic use of the Arctic by the littoral nations, and international diplomatic mechanisms for resolution of potential disputes. All these goals are achievable through constructive diplomacy. This is a great opportunity for the new administration in Washington to redraw America’s faded diplomatic image and to improve the reputation of the United States as a productive partner in international diplomacy. NATO’s self-inclusion in the process does not seem a useful contribution.

Ethan S. Burger, Adjunct Professor, Georgetown University Law Center, Washington, DC:

Now is the time for an international convention to resolve the competing claims to the Arctic and the right to develop its natural resources. For the world, the consequences of this not being handled in a proper fashion could have calamitous consequences. I would think the Antarctic Treaty might serve as an appropriate model.

All too often, many treaties are negotiated over issues the results of which are relatively limited in their objectives or are full of loopholes -- such as in the nuclear area. Personally, I dread an arms race in connection with the Arctic Circle. When there is potentially a lot of money at stake, the chances for conflict and an aggravation of the global situation are great.

There has been a lot of thought on the Arctic region over the years, much of it coming out of Canada. One draft convention was proposed quite some time ago by a professor in Ottawa which has a number of good ideas, and might serve as a starting point (the proposal is available on the Canadian Arctic Resources Committee Web site).
The NATO countries have often regarded the Russian/Soviet political leadership as proposing overly lopsided agreements for propagandistic reasons. Even when this might not be the case, its past actions make their motivations suspect.

The world's energy situation is sufficiently real so as to motivate the establishment of an energized, multi-national negotiating team, with sufficient scientific and economic expertise to produce a reasonable basis for discussions. The global warming situation makes this all the more urgent.

Perhaps as a sweetener, the often-delayed examination of the de-militarization of outer space might be an area where multi-national negotiations could be initiated at the same time. An arms race in space would be costly at a time when the world cannot afford it, and the consequences would be terrible for mankind.

The former Russian President Vladimir Putin has been somewhat bellicose on the topic of the Arctic (at first glance, Russia might have a lot to gain, but also a lot to lose if it aggravates the tensions). Perhaps this is an opportune time for Russia (and other countries) to broach the issue of the U.S.'s non-ratification of the Law on the Seas Convention. U.S. president Obama's cabinet has recently begun to re-examine the issues, and many of those who opposed the agreement seem to have been silent as of late. I would think it would be a no-brainer.

Professor Stephen Blank, the U.S. Army War College, Carlyle Barracks, PA:

Undoubtedly, Russia's overly aggressive moves in the Arctic have caused NATO and the associated states to react strongly, raising the possibility of a political and military struggle over its resources, especially as they become more accessible.

This has become a continuing theme in East-West relations, where Russia, driven by resentment over Western failure to take it at its own, self-inflated value, makes an excessively aggressive move that it cannot then back up, except at ruinous cost.

That said, there is no a priori reason why the Arctic should become a zone of military confrontation. The missile defense issue which was supposedly a red line has suddenly vanished, merely because, or so we are told, the Obama administration hinted that it would review the project (which in any case was not to begin until 2011).

Therefore, there are good reasons to hope for a negotiated settlement of rival claims in the Arctic, in view of NATO’s and Washington's strong responses to Russia’s actions there. Russia thus ought to seek negotiations and retreat from its excessive claims in the Arctic which it cannot in any case sustain. Indeed, given the economic realities, Russia cannot sustain much of the previously-proclaimed military buildup that it had laid out, and it was doubtful, given its economy, that it could do so with oil prices much higher, due to the pathologies of its internal economic structure.

One way to resolve conflicting claims in the Arctic is possibly to tie those claims into an agenda for international action against climate change, which threatens everyone. I'm not so sure that climate change, which the new administration intends to take very seriously, is a real or sufficient basis for U.S.-Russian cooperation, as much as it can be an issue for broader international cooperation beyond the two states in question.

More promising would be negotiations on key issues, a new START treaty, Afghanistan, and Iran. NATO enlargement is by any standard currently dead in the water, and while there will be negotiations on Dmitry Medvedev's European security plan, Moscow should not hold out any hopes for a totally self-serving program, if there is one. Similarly, Moscow needs to find a way to deal effectively with North Korea, and all parties need to find a way to cooperate to overcome the global economic crisis.
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