Russia Sending Military to Resource-Rich Arctic As Claims Heat Up

By Patrick Goodenough | December 11, 2013 | 4:05 AM EST

Canadian and U.S. coast guard vessels during a joint mission to map the continental shelf in the Arctic Ocean. (Photo: Canada Dep’t of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development)

( – Facing competing claims for territory it covets, Russia aims to deploy a military force in the Arctic from next year to protect its “national interests” in a region believed to boast vast untapped resources, including oil and gas.

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said during a meeting of senior military officers Tuesday that the plans include reopening military airfields and shipping docks mothballed after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Addressing the same meeting, President Vladimir Putin said that since Russia was “intensifying the development of this promising region” it would need to have “all the levers for the protection of its security and national interests,” the pro-Kremlin RT broadcaster reported.

He instructed the military commanders to “devote special attention to deploying infrastructure and military units in the Arctic.”

The Russian move comes against a background of territorial claims by Russia, Canada, the United States, Norway and Denmark, all of which have territory bordering the Arctic. Some of the claims have been lodged with the United Nations.

A U.S. Geological Survey study in 2008 found that “the Arctic accounts for about 13 percent of the undiscovered oil, 30 percent of the undiscovered natural gas, and 20 percent of the undiscovered natural gas liquids in the world.”

The following year NATO officials declared the Arctic to be a strategically important region, and Russia published a security strategy warning of the possibility of military conflict over the resources.

“With the ongoing competition for resources, attempts to use military force to solve emerging problems cannot be excluded – and this might destroy the balance of forces on Russia’s and its allies’ borders,” the Russian document stated.

Moscow at the time proposed creating a special Coast Guard, under the control of the Federal Security Service, “to ensure the security of the Russian part of the Arctic Ocean under various military-political situation conditions.”

Nothing came of the proposal publicly, and in 2010 the Russian foreign ministry stated that there were no plans to militarize the Arctic or create a special Arctic military force.

Now, however, the Kremlin seems to be moving ahead,

The first steps came in September, when a naval squadron including the flagship of the Northern Fleet ferried equipment and supplies to the New Siberian (Novosibirsk) islands, an archipelago north of eastern Russia, in preparation for work on reopening a Soviet-era airfield.

Putin said Thursday that the islands “have key meaning for the control of the situation in the entire Arctic region.”

Shoigu also announced that a Russian airfield would be restored on Franz Josef Land, a group of Arctic Ocean islands lying east of Norway’s Svalbard.

The region’s sea routes – and potentially its rich resources – are becoming more accessible due to a reduction in sea ice, attributed to rising temperatures.

The 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) recognizes exclusive economic zones stretching 200 nautical miles from a country’s coastline. Claims beyond that point are considered by an UNCLOS body which is tasked to establish the outer limits of the continental shelf.

Claimants must submit to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf data proving that the areas are an extension of their territory, and a panel of experts in geology, geophysics and hydrography then determine the validity of the claims.

Russia in 2001 submitted a claim to an undersea mountain range called the Lomonosov Ridge, which runs between the Siberian coast and Canada’s northernmost territory, Ellesmere Island.

Russia’s claim that the ridge is an underwater extension of its continental shelf was rejected for lack of evidence but it continues to collect samples in support of its claim, and in the 2007 planted a Russian flag on the seabed. If approved, the Russian claim would give it sole access to almost half of the Arctic region, including the North Pole.

Canada, which along with Denmark has competing claims relating to the Lomonosov Ridge, announced Monday that it has made a preliminary submission to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, the result of a decade-long scientific and technical study by experts.

Countries have 10 years to file submissions from the date of their UNCLOS ratification, and Canada’s submission was made just before its deadline last week.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said a follow-up submission will seek to extend the claim all the way to the North Pole.

The U.S. has also undertaken Arctic summer voyages over a number of years, to map the seafloor and obtain continental shelf data. Because of Republican opposition in Congress, UNCLOS has been awaiting Senate ratification since 1982, but the U.S. has nonetheless been gathering data since 2001, according to the State Department.

(The U.S. does not claim the Lomonosov Ridge, which it regards as an oceanic ridge rather than an extension of the continental shelf of any country.)

The White House last May released a “National Strategy for the Arctic Region,” highlighting the importance of freedom of navigation in far northern waters.

It says the U.S. seeks to preserve in the Arctic “international legal principles of freedom of navigation and overflight and other uses of the sea and airspace related to these freedoms, unimpeded lawful commerce, and the peaceful resolution of disputes for all nations.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow