Will the Arctic Circle Further Build U.S-Russian Tensions?

While Santa’s elves are busying themselves crafting rocking horses and wrapping gifts, the United States and Russia are engaged in North Pole affairs far more serious than Christmas presents. Indeed, the two economic powerhouses are vying for control over the Arctic region. This contest for authority over the far north has arisen from, of course, the lure of increased tourism and the drive for scientific exploration. More importantly, it comes from the appeal of quicker shipping lanes and natural resources.

So, why are Russia and the United States making more determined grabs for Arctic command now? Well, whether one accept climate change or not, its hard to argue that the Arctic Circle hasn’t been losing ice. With the region expected to lose yet more ice in the coming years, many oil and gas companies believe that the region’s natural resources will become increasingly easier to extract. By the same token, countries with close proximity to the Arctic Circle suppose the decrease in ice will allow fast and cost-effective shipping lanes to open.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic Circle holds 90 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 1,670 trillion feet of recoverable natural gas. To put it another way, the Arctic bears about 13 percent of the Earth’s undiscovered oil and 30 percent of its undiscovered natural gas. With many oil rich, Middle Eastern countries still under a period of strife, the Arctic provides an alternative for high oil consumption countries.

As for shipping routes, it seems as Arctic temperatures continue their upward trend and ice levels decline, trading vessels will be able to navigate through the northern waters with ease. This past September, a Chinese cargo ship voyaged through the Arctic Ocean to reach the major port city of Rotterdam in 31 days; that’s two weeks less time than the conventional course from China to Europe. Still, melting ice will enable use of this northern route to expand from just autumn and summer months to spring and possibly even winter months.

And so, as with any other resource-rich and trade-enhancing region, the Arctic Circle has come under the eye of several countries.

The complication over this area is that international law remains vague on the topic of a country’s continental shelf. Nations have had overlapping claims to continental shelves before, and, in a part of the world where population sizes are meager and inhabitants dispersed, determining how much of the Arctic belongs to the U.S. and how much belongs to Russia is a thorny case. Nevertheless, the United States and Russia have begun taking measures to gain Arctic ground, whether or not international law gives them the right to that area.

In 2008, Dmitry Medvedev, then-president of Russia, asserted:

“In a competition for resources, it cannot be ruled out that military force could be used to resolve emerging problems that could destroy the balance of forces near the borders of Russia and her allies.”

In December, current Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed:

“Experts know too well that the flying time of American rockets from Barents Sea to Moscow is 15-16 minutes. So what should we do – give up the Arctic? We, on the contrary, have to utilize it!”

To be sure, Putin did also stress the need to “develop cooperation” and “partnership” with the United States over Arctic territory. However, he has not refrained from ratcheting up Russia’s military presence in the region.

“Next year, we have to complete the formation of new large units” and that the military divisions currently stationed in the Arctic need to stay on combat alert,” Putin told his defense ministry.

Russia recently inaugurated an Arctic training military school and has the intent of re-instituting some of its Soviet-era military bases in the region.

On America’s part, the military has 22,000 soldiers, C-130s, and nuclear submarines safeguarding Alaska from a foreign threat. In addition, the United States has augmented its naval presence in the area over the past few years.

At a recent security forum in Canada, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel affirmed that America will “remain prepared to detect, deter, prevent and defeat threats to our homeland” and “will continue to exercise…sovereignty in and around Alaska.” Even so, Hagel did evince that a strategy of cooperation will be placed above one of militancy.

In the case that the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (UNCLCS) does not provide prompt analysis on Canada’s continental shelf claim, the UN International Maritime Organization (IMO) does not finish drafting what is called the Polar Code — regulations for the safe operation of ships in northern waters — before its deadline in 2014, and a dialog between Russian and the U.S. armed forces centered on peaceful use of the Arctic is not established, hostility will result. To say this will lead to the second Cold War is overstepping it, but the likelihood of a conflict will increase if the aforementioned scenario transpires.

No country wants tensions in the Arctic to rise — including Russia and the U.S. However, when nations and corporations venture into the Arctic with economic benefits on their mind and little regulations or safety mechanisms in place, misunderstandings and contentions are only more probable.

By my guess, because both the United States and Russia have voiced their desire for collaboration rather than an armed confrontation, building tensions will amount to little. But if Russia, the U.S., and the UN are truly serious about cooperation in the North Pole, they will make certain that the UNCLCS and the IMO work swiftly and both countries develop a productive dialog before further use of the Arctic heightens.