The Arctic is becoming the “wild west” of the 21st century, and the Russians have been quick to claim a good part of it as their birthright. The Russian state is after 380,000 square miles of this final frontier, which may store an estimated one-quarter of the world’s untapped hydrocarbon reserves. Moscow is expected to submit its claim to the United Nations for arbitration under the Law of the Sea Treaty (LOST) within the next couple of months.
Russia’s scramble for the Arctic’s minerals was on display for all to behold when Artur Chilingarov, a renowned explorer and Deputy Chairman of the Duma, planted a titanium Russian flag beneath the North Pole in 2007 under Vladimir Putin’s orders. Putin also went on a mission to the High North to track and tag polar bears, highlighting Russia’s Arctic policy priorities.
Russia initiated its claim through the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) in 2001—six years earlier. To boost this claim, this July the Russian research ship Akademik Fyodorov, accompanied by a nuclear-powered icebreaker, set off to prove that the Siberian continental shelf connects to underwater Arctic ridges by completing underwater mapping of the area in question. If confirmed, this may boost Russia’s claims to the Arctic continental shelf. Other members of the Arctic Council—the U.S., Canada, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, and Finland—may stand to lose if the CLCS approves Russian claims in the High North.
Moscow has an unquestionable head start on the rest of the world, and it is not shy about investing in its ambitions. At least six new icebreakers and Sabetta, a new year-round port on the arctic shores—costing $33 billion—are on the agenda, but Prime Minister Putin has said the Kremlin is “open for a dialogue with our foreign partners and with all our neighbors in the Arctic region, but of course we will defend our own geopolitical interests firmly and consistently.” Or as they said in Soviet times, “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is negotiable.”
The Arctic is of vital geopolitical importance not just to Russia, but to the entire world. It has enormous quantities of hydrocarbon energy and other natural resources, and as the Arctic is no longer completely icebound, in summertime it may become an important transportation route vital to U.S. national security.
Despite this, at present the U.S. has made virtually no effort to strengthen its position in the frozen final frontier. The chief concern is America’s lack of icebreakers—even Canada and Finland have more than the United States. Icebreakers are vital to exploring the Arctic and enforcing one’s sovereignty there. As of 2010, Russia had 29 icebreakers in total and was building more. The United States had two (including one that is obsolete), with no plans to expand. The Heritage Foundation has exposed this problem extensively:
The United States has significant geopolitical and geo-economic interests in the High North, but the lack of policy attention and insufficient funding have placed the U.S. on track to abdicate its national interests in this critical region.
The United States must strengthen its position in the Arctic and make its interests clear to friend and foe alike. Washington should reach out to the Arctic Council members to block Russia’s expansion plans at the U.N. Meanwhile, the U.S. should fund and build its icebreaking squadron and deploy it in Alaska.
Russia’s Arctic aspirations are a serious geopolitical challenge for U.S. and allied interests. America’s security and economic prosperity in the 21st century will depend on U.S. ability to access polar waters and the Arctic Ocean bed.