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New Cold War?

John BlauDecember 12, 2013

The Arctic is heating up, both climatically and militarily. But experts differ in their views on whether the region, with its vast shipping opportunities and energy resources, could become the site of the next Cold War.

Arktis Eisbrecher Polareis
Image: AP

Russia's response to Canada's announced plans to extend its territorial claims in the Arctic is the latest in a series of moves by countries sharing coastlines along the vast polar ocean.

Tension is on the rise as Russia, Canada, Denmark, Norway and the United States seek to assert jurisdiction over parts of the warming Arctic and claim rights to the sea-floor assets as well as protecting their borders.

"There is some overlap - everyone acknowledges that," said Robert Huebert, associate director of the Center for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary.

The rising interest in the region is being driven, in large part, by climate change. Ice in the Arctic Ocean shrank last year to its lowest levels since satellites began monitoring it more than four decades ago. Many scientists now believe that by the middle of this century, it could vanish altogether in the summer months.

Vast oil and gas reserves

Already ships are taking advantage of open polar waters to navigate a shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific. And competition for oil and gas is intensifying in contested, overlapping areas.

The Arctic is believed to hold up to a quarter of the planet's undiscovered oil and gas reserves. Nations with continental shelves extending into the vast 18-million-square-mile polar region are now vying for a chunk of it.

Michael Byers Copyright: private
Michael Byers sees no moves to militarize the ArcticImage: privat

Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a country can secure control of the ocean floor beyond the internationally recognized 200-nautical-mile limit, provided it can demonstrate the seabed is an extension of its continental shelf.

On Monday (10.10.2013), Canada said it intended to extend its territorial claims in the Arctic all the way to the North Pole, although it hasn't yet fully mapped the area and doesn't have scientific evidence to back its claim. Prime Minister Stephen Harper stepped in at the last minute to insist that the North Pole be included in Canada's claim after a scientific assessment, submitted on deadline to the UN a week earlier, put the boundary just south of the pole.

Symbolic claim

"I think the prime minister did not want to be accused by the media and his political opponents that he had surrendered the North Pole," said Michael Byers, a professor of global politics and international law at the University of British Columbia and the author of "Who Owns the Arctic?" noting that the Convention on the Law of the Sea allows data to be submitted at a later date. "I think he just didn't want to have to explain that the door wasn't closed," he told DW.

In 2007, Russia staked a symbolic claim to its seabed in 2007 by dropping a canister containing the Russian national flag on the ocean floor at the North Pole. Its response to the Canadian move, however, was less symbolic: It flexed its military muscle.

Arctic Sunrise
Russian security forces siezed the Greenpeace ship Arctic SunriseImage: Greenpeace

On Tuesday (11.12.2013) Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the country's armed forces to expand their presence in the Arctic, describing the region in a meeting with top military brass as crucial to the country's economic future and security. That move came after he announced in September the reopening of the former Soviet military base in the Arctic.

Since being elected to a third presidential term, the Russian president has been seeking to revive Russia's Soviet-era clout and military might amid disputes over the US-led NATO missile shield and other disputes.

Some experts put Russia's security concerns at par or even above its economic interests in the Arctic.

Nuclear deterrent

"Now that Russia has recovered economically, it wants to build up its military capabilities again, also in the Arctic," said Huebert. "The core security policy of Russia, as it is for the US, France, the UK, Israel and India, is nuclear deterrence, and Russia's primary nuclear deterrent is its submarine force."

Huebert sees potential for greater tension in the long term. "As Russia improves its submarine capabilities and nuclear deterrence, its military activities will increase and that, in turn, will trigger a response from NATO," he said.

The ice continues to melt in the ArticImage: AP

The US is on the alert. In November, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced the Pentagon's first Arctic strategy to "evolve" its infrastructure and capabilities to defend US sovereignty in and around Alaska, while working to help ensure freedom of the seas. Fort Greely, about 100 miles southeast of Fairbanks, is one of the country's primary sites for launching anti-ballistic missiles.

But what "evolve" means in concrete terms remains to be seen, according to Heather Conley, an Arctic expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C. "From a Washington perspective, the State of Alaska - our Arctic reach - seems to be very far away; it's a long-term issue that doesn't require immediate attention," she told DW.

Arctic Sunrise

As for Russia, Conley says its increased military interest in the Arctic should come as no surprise, given that the country holds 50 percent of Arctic coastline and needs to protect this area as shipping traffic grows. But she warned that incidents such as the recent seizure of the Greenpeace vessel, the Arctic Sunrise, by Russian security officers "warrant attention."

Commercial opportunities weigh heavily in Russia's Arctic strategy, according to Conley. "Russians need the Arctic to be stable because they have such ambitious plans for economic development there; they see it as their 21st century resource base," she said. "If there is instability in the region, companies won't invest."

Byers agrees, pointing to Russia's membership in the World Trade Organization as an indication of its economic interests. And apart from that, he added, the country "can't afford to militarize the Arctic; the expense would be prohibitive."