On August 4, 2015 a mini-submarine commanded by famed Arctic explorer Artur N. Chilingarov touched down on the ocean floor at the exact location of the North Pole. The underwater pod gathered soil from the seabed and planted a Russian flag made of titanium in the soot. It was a signal to the world of Russia’s interest in the region. While, historically, Moscow has focused on the mineral wealth stored in the arctic, it has since changed focus to oil and natural gas exploitation. With melting ice caps, longer summers, and new technologies that allow for safer passage through the treacherous waters, including a growing fleet of icebreakers, resource exploitation has become much easier in the area. However, other states have also noticed the growing potential in the North. This growing attention has set the stage for an Arctic standoff, with multiple actors vying for access. At the literal center of this standoff is a gap formed by the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) of each country. The North Pole, along with its trove of untapped natural resources, is located in this hole. According to longstanding international law, this area cannot be claimed by any state, but countries have made claims that it belongs to them. Russia has the longest coastline and the largest EEZ in the Arctic, but to what extent it’s Zone reaches is a point of contention in the international community. Russia has already made leaps and bounds in asserting its claim over the region with only the Law of the Sea to stand in its way. It is this revanchism that is making the Kremlin rather than the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) the King of the North.
The definition of Exclusive Economic Zone is, “sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring, exploiting, conserving and managing natural resources, whether living and nonliving, of the seabed and subsoil.” Every country that has a coastline has an EEZ that extends into the ocean. The limit of the zone is the continental shelf on which the state is located. Under the 1982 United Nations convention, the Law of the Sea, a nation may claim an exclusive economic zone over the continental shelf abutting its shores. In 2007, around the same time Russia planted its flag on the North Pole, Russia claimed that its shelf “extends far north of the Eurasian landmass, out under the planet’s northern ice cap.” This claim is based off of the belief that “The Arctic has always been Russian” according the Chilingarov, who was tasked to prove this when he gathered soil deposits from the seabed. Russia submitted the proposal in spring of 2016. The United Nations (UN) has yet to announce its verdict. It should be noted, however, that should Russia be granted the area it has claimed, it would only own the seabed and the resources lodged within, not the water above. Given the potential for the Arctic to become a great source of natural resources, for not only Russia, but also Denmark and Canada, a standoff is imminent, possibly involving military means. The Kremlin has already taken the initiative in building up its military presence in the area, including re-opening ports and increasing military drills in the region.
One strategy Russia has implemented to protect and fulfill its territorial ambitions in the region is the building up its northern naval fleet while also updating the existing military presence there. In the past few years, “Russia unveiled a new Arctic command, four new Arctic brigade combat teams, 14 new operational airfields, 16 deepwater ports, and 40 icebreakers with an additional 11 in development.” This buildup is to show a proactive role in claiming the region as part of the Russian Federation. While it may not be ‘officially’ Russian territory, or part of its EEZ, a strong military presence in the Arctic would give Moscow a stronger case that the Arctic is in the Russian zone of sovereignty. Katarzyna Zysk, an associate professor at the Norwegian Defense University College, explains, “There are three basic drivers: military-strategic calculations, economic development, and domestic objectives.” These three goals can be seen in one of the founding documents of Russian Arctic policy: “Russian Federation Policy for the Arctic to 2020.” In it, Moscow outlines how it seeks to use the Arctic “as a strategic resource base of the Russian Federation providing the solution of problems of social and economic development of the country.” This excerpt alludes to Russia’s economic dependence on natural resources such as oil and natural gas that provide trade income for the Kremlin. While this action plan was written before the current economic ailments plaguing Russia broke out, this quote is nonetheless relevant. Tapping into such resources would provide more income for Moscow.
In recent years Russia has rebuilt Soviet-era naval bases and airstrips on several Arctic islands near Alaska, while also implementing modernization efforts on existing forces. Professor Zysk notes that “As a result of the military modernization, Russia is today better prepared to participate in complex military operations than a decade ago, especially in joint operations, strategic mobility and rapid deployments.” Moscow is prepping for all three of these situations. In the event of a conflict with the U.S., Russia believes that the Arctic will become a major target due to the latter’s exposed border to NATO countries. Such an event is unlikely, however, considering that NATO’s role in the Arctic is at the moment “uncertain and unfocused,” although it should be noted that every country that has stake in region is a NATO member-state, Russia notwithstanding. Simultaneously, Canada and Norway have all conducted military and naval operations in the Arctic to stage their capabilities and demonstrate their sovereignty. The Kremlin is already showing its strength and prodding other countries’ airspace. In 2014 alone Norway “intercepted 74 Russian warplanes conducting air patrols on its coast,” a nearly 50 percent increase from the previous year. The United States, meanwhile, has been more modest in this regard as the Arctic policy has a lower tier status in US national interests. In sum, while Russia is strengthening its military presence in the Arctic, it is doing so in such a way that it does not create an armed run-in with any other NATO member-state in the region.
Next, Russia’s interest in natural resources found in the Arctic, such as oil, natural gas, and precious minerals must be explained. As explained before, resource extraction is one of the main objectives of the Kremlin’s interests in the region. “Regarding Russian territories in the Arctic, it is estimated, that 90 percent of her gas and 60 percent of her oil can be found there. Moreover, there is up to 90 percent of the hydrocarbon reserves, as well as nickel, cobalt, copper and platinum metals.” Such a high density of industrial elements and energy sources make the region a lucrative area of investment for Russian businesses. However, these percentages are just estimates. It is unclear and nearly impossible right now how much of what is embedded in the Arctic soil. Permafrost makes it excruciatingly difficult to test what lies underground and technology has not come far enough to create conditions in the ice-laden waters to sample the seabed for anything. Russia did sign a pact with U.S-based oil giant ExxonMobil for “joint ventures” in the Arctic, but these plans were scrapped in 2014 with the onset of Western sanctions. This partnership, however, is only one example of a 90-year history of resource exploration in the Arctic. Over the past few decades, “more than 400 onshore oil and gas fields have been discovered north of the Arctic Circle,” although roughly a quarter of them are not yet in production. Global oil prices and Western sanctions are hurting Russia’s economy. When it comes to low oil prices, Russia has two options: diversify its exports, so that the Kremlin’s export-related income is not as reliant on petroleum; or find and tap into more oil reserves. The latter option is more conceivable since the infrastructure is already set up to due so. Thus, the Arctic becomes that much more important to solve Russia’s energy needs and economic woes.
The Arctic has a great deal of untapped resource reserves that presently cannot be extracted due to climatic and technological difficulties, but climate change and rapidly advancing technology is changing that. What’s more, the Kremlin sees the Arctic as an emerging field in which Russia can assert its sovereignty and strength. In addition to new ships, including a small armada of icebreakers, Russia is also modernizing its existing military presence in the region. Placing a Russian flag at the North Pole seabed showed to the world that Russia was staking its claim as the King of the North.