Russian Navy

The Land of Ice and Silence - Future Hot Spot of the Planet

The Arctic is fraught with risk of acute conflicts, possibly military ones
Lately, the debates over revising of territorial rights in the North Atlantic Ocean Shelf that broke out at the end of the summer of 2007 lost the spotlight. However, the “battle” for the Arctic already practically started and soon will most probably pass from being a hypothetical possibility to a clear geostrategic reality.

Soon the polar bears will no longer be principal masters of the Arctic. Photo by Reuters


There sure is something to fight for. According to the US Geological Survey, the bottom of the North Atlantic contains approximately 25% of the world supply of carbohydrates, as well as rich deposits of diamonds, gold, platinum, tin, manganese, nickel, and lead. Just the oil deposits of the Arctic alone, according to the UN, are over 100 billion (metric) tons – 2.4 times more than all of the Russian resources together.

For a long time this storage of mineral deposits and bio-resources were not being developed due to being extremely difficult to access. However, as the Canadian scientists maintain, in the period from 1969 to 2004, the volume of ice on the East of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago has decreased by 15%, and in some areas of the country’s West – by one third. Experts predict that by the year 2004, due to global warming, a substantial part of the North Atlantic Ocean will be free of ice, which will make mining for the natural riches of the ocean bottom significantly easier and transportation less costly. Chairman of the international organization for estimating the influence of civilization on the Arctic climate, the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, Robert Corell, recently announced that according to his calculations, by the year 2050, the Northern Sea passage will be open 100 days a year instead of 20.

According to the UN Convention on Law of the Sea, the economic zone of a country extends out to the 200 mile (370 kilometer) mark, but its boundaries can be extended by 150 more miles if it can be proven that the Continental Shelf is in fact an extension of the land territory that belongs to the said country. In 2001, Russia submitted an appropriate application to the UN Commission on the Outer Limits of the Continental Shelf, however, Moscow’s claims were denied due to “insufficient proof.” Russian expedition “Arctic-2007” has supposedly found the said proof, which would allow the Russian Federation to lay claim to 1.2 million square kilometers of the North Atlantic Ocean Shelf (about 45% of its area). A fact to which some members of the world community strongly object.


Six countries “border” the Arctic: Russia, Canada, US, Norway, Iceland, and Denmark (which, of course, owns Greenland). Two more nations, Sweden and Finland, do not have direct access to the North Atlantic Ocean, but also consider themselves members of the “Arctic Cooperative.” Even the Chinese have serious interest for this region – they opened a research station on Spitsbergen Island and twice sent their icebreaker Snow Dragon, which usually works in the Antarctic, into the Northern seas.

Russia (as did the USSR before) bases its position in the discussions about the jurisdiction of the nations in the Arctic latitudes on sector principle – it suggests that each nation adjoining the North Atlantic Ocean should be allocated a sector, bounded by meridians that pass through the East-most and West-most points of its Arctic territory.

Norway, basing its reasoning on a one-sided interpretation of the Geneva Convention of 1958 and the UN Convention on Law of the Sea of 1982, insists that the basis for demarcation of the Arctic region should be the principle of midline – equidistant from the zero line of the Novaya Zemlya and the Franz Joseph Land on one side and the Spitsbergen Archipelago on the other. Moscow, on the other hand, wants the border to go up to the line representing the Western border of the Russian Arctic sector and declared as such by the decree of the Presidium of the Central Executive Committee of the USSR as of April 15, 1926. As a result of the these disagreements, a region with an area of 155 thousand sq. km was formed, bounded on one side by the Western border of the Russian Arctic sector and on the other, by the midline suggested by Oslo. The Norwegians call this region the gray area, and, judging by all appearances, are not about to cede it to the Russian Federation. But if we can’t even manage to share the fish with them in a civilized manner, it’s very hard to believe that we’ll be able to do it with oil. And that means we are in for yet another war, this time - an “oil war”, with our neighbors.

The sector method of demarcation is disadvantageous for the US. They can expect only 10% of the Arctic territories (the Alaska). Ideally, the Americans would prefer to be able to develop the Arctic deposits on terms of the government that owns the promising part of the shelf. In this scenario, the details of such deals need not be discussed with third parties. Hence, Washington does not abandon hope to lobby this option of the Arctic Shelf development for international agreement. Canada and Denmark, in turn, offer their own suggestions in this regard.

Overall, total of 20 nations expressed their readiness to develop the Arctic Shelf, a fact that automatically raises the question of revising the notional boundaries of the North of our planet. It’s initiated by the economic giants – Canada, Japan, Germany, the US, and China. India, Brazil, and South Korea are considering the possibility of joining them. Since only small portions of Arctic have been explored, the nations-contenders found new ways of introducing themselves into the region. They outfit expeditions having the goal of claiming rights to as much of the water area of the Atlantic Ocean as possible. It’s true that similar claims are made throughout the world oceans but it’s the Arctic that is expected to have the most intense, possibly escalating to armed, conflicts.

Under conditions of such an active tug-of-war, some experts allow the possibility of forming coalitions. To start with, such an alliance is possible between Russia and Denmark. If the Lomonosov Range is recognized to be an extension of both the Greenland and the Siberian Continental Shelf, Moscow and Oslo can, in principle, come to an agreement on beneficial terms. Secondly, the US, in turn, is actively trying to be friends with Norway. There is talk in Oslo and Washington that the Americans and the Norwegians are ready to develop the Arctic together.

But these are only hypothetical suppositions. For now, all of them - Norway, and Denmark, and Canada, and the US - oppose Russian claims in order to provide Western companies with easier access to the resources of the land of ice and silence. Internationalization is more advantageous to them than dividing up into sectors, because in the latter case Moscow would have the largest “piece” of the Arctic region.


Collision of interests in the Arctic latitudes is practically unavoidable. Economic conflicts of interests started between Russia and Norway long before 1977, when Oslo introduced a 200-mile protection zone around Spitsbergen, declaring it to be its exclusive economic zone, or, as the Norwegians themselves called it, a fishery conservation zone. The king of Norway issued a decree pronouncing that his country decided to use the opportunity to pass and declare measures that can ensure protection, and, if necessary, rehabilitation of the fauna and flora of the Archipelago and the adjacent waters, provided for by the Spitsbergen Agreement of 1920. (The Agreement of 1920 was signed by more than 40 nations, including, in 1935, the USSR; according to the Agreement, Spitsbergen fell under Norwegian jurisdiction.)

Paragraph 3 of the “Spitsbergen Decree” specified bans and restrictions for commercial activity in the region of the islands that were being introduced, accentuating that any such activity is altogether banned in the Spitsbergen zone for the period of a year after the Decree goes into effect.

However, Moscow refused to ratify the “Spitsbergen Decree” because it infringed upon its economic interests, and so did other countries who signed the Agreement of 1920. Only Finland and Canada, who are not involved in commercial fishing near the Arctic Archipelago, recognized the one-sided decision of Norway. However, Oslo soon had to soften the severe measures, because the Soviet trawlers, quite intentionally, answered by catching a significant amount of young cod fish within the boundaries of their economic zone, reducing the number of fish spawning in the territorial waters of Norway.

Since then, an unannounced war has been taking place between our fishermen and the Norwegian fish protection authorities. The Soviet administration, for example, ordered its sailors fishing in Archipelago area to not sign any papers drawn up by the Norwegian controllers to avoid creating a precedent for recognition of Norway’s right to the waters around Spitsbergen.

At the same time, the fishing area was patrolled by first the Soviet and then the Russian Navy, escorting the fishermen. The First Deputy Chairman of the Government of the Russian Federation (and now the third Russian President), Dmitry Medvedev, while in Murmansk, underlined the necessity to revive the Navy “so that Russia becomes both a maritime and a naval power” and so that neighboring countries regard Russian vessels with great respect. According to Medvedev, “this work is in progress, maybe slower than we would like, but this is the first time we’ve tackled it in twenty years.”

The Norwegians also haven’t wasted their time and took measures for fighting the “Russian poachers.” In 1994, the Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries published a “Regulation of mesh size, incidental catch, and minimum fish size for commercial fishing in the fishery conservation zone of Spitsbergen,” as well as a document on “Regulation of Fishing in the Fishery Conservation Zone of Spitsbergen,” introducing Norwegian rules for fishing for the disputed area of water, which differ significantly from the Russian ones. According to the latter, the trawl mesh size is smaller than what the Norwegian rules prescribe – 125 mm against 135 mm. And the minimum allowed size of the cod fish itself is different. According to Norwegian standards, fish must be no smaller than 47 cm, according to the Russian ones – 42 cm is sufficient. Thus, all the Russian Federation vessels carrying on commercial fishing near the shores of Spitsbergen were now poaching by law - that is, not playing by the Norwegian rules. And whereas before Norway pursued its politics in the zone cautiously enough, now it toughened them up.

Vessel captains, regardless of the port of registration, now had to report the volume of their catch to the Norwegian Coast Guard, and the trawlers themselves were now subject to regular inspections by the servicemen of the Northern Kingdom. According to the data by the Office of the Auditor General of Norway (Riksrevisjonen), in 2005 every third Russian trawler in the Barents Sea has been subjected to inspection by the Norwegian Coast Guard more than three times. Only one of 87 Norwegian trawlers has undergone inspection over the same time period. Even tougher was Norwegian control in the Spitsbergen region, where every Russian vessel was examined three-four times per season. The conflict around Spitsbergen became one of the reasons why Moscow curtailed the joint program for studying fish resources of the Barents Sea. With no explanations provided, the Norwegian scientists were not admitted to count the young cod.

It’s possible that the Norwegian harassment of the trawlers was the first ball in the big game of remake of the Arctic. In this case, whatever they may say in Oslo, this conflict is far from being private – it’s quite intergovernmental. Moreover, Norway can probably be expected to continue to conduct itself in a decisive and defiant manner towards Russia because it is feeling the support of the US.


According to the Prime Minister of Canada Stephen Harper, the issue of sovereignty in the Arctic is a non-issue. “It's our country, it's our property, it's our water... The Arctic is Canadian,” he said. Using the fact that Russia placed its flag on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean by the North Pole as an excuse, Ottawa made the move to renew the Canadian military installations located in the polar region. The Country of the Maple Leaf announced their intent to build the first Canadian port suitable for deep-sea vessels in the Arctic. A military training base would be built in the settlement Resolute, for preparing the Canadian military personnel for operations under the arctic conditions.

At the end of the 1950s, Canada laid a claim to the North Pole. Then, the International Court of Justice ruled that Canada could claim this territory if in the course of 100 years no one proves that the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean belongs to them. In 1977 Ottawa claimed the straits between the North Canadian islands to belong to its country’s territorial waters. The US, who firmly believes that these waters are international and so can be used by anyone to go anywhere, did not agree. It even escalated to a diplomatic scandal between the two neighboring nations when in the middle of the 1980s, a US Coast Guard motorboat tried to pass through one of these straits. As a result, in 1988 an agreement was concluded between Washington and Ottawa whereby the US Coast Guard had to first notify the Canadian authorities to use the Northern route. And as an argument in support of its point of view regarding the issue of the straits, last year Canada conducted the largest military maneuvers in the Arctic in the history of the country.

Today, Ottawa is planning to spend 7 billion dollars on building and maintenance of eight Arctic patrol ships. As a result, the country’s Coast Guard, already in possession of 17 icebreakers, will receive substantial reinforcement. Canadian Prime Minister underlined that the goal is to assert Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic. Moreover, the border guard community in the region will increase by 900 people.

The Canadian administration sent several of its combat ships to the Arctic. They will patrol the regions that Ottawa believes to belong to its territorial waters. Additionally, this is a badly disguised demonstration of intent – Ottawa is sending a message, for one as part of its disputes with Copenhagen, that the Artic is a zone of its vital interests.

In the meantime, the first uncivilized conflict may break out between the near-Arctic nations – Denmark and Canada. For three decades now, the two countries cannot figure out a way to share the tiny rocky Hans Island (Tartupaluk), located in the ices of the Northwest Passage that joins the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans. In fact, this scrap of land is nothing more than a three-kilometer strip of icy rock. Until now, the only war that was taking place over it was the war of the flags. Danish and Canadian expeditions took turns to erect their banners on Hans. However, these last years the strife escalated to a new phase. Canada conducted military maneuvers in the region of the island, the Head of the Ministry of Defense of the North American nation landed on the disputed territory, his actions provoking Copenhagen’s protests. Denmark sent an Arctic patrol motorboat Tulugak signifying military presence of the Royal Navy in the region.

So what brought about all this fuss?

Recently, the European Space Agency (ESA) published satellite photographs of the Northwest Passage, which, for the first time since the beginning of its monitoring (in 1978), was free of ice. This strait will shorten many important intercontinental routes by few days. The nation that gains ownership of the strait would be earning billions of dollars.


From the end of the 1990s – beginning of 2000s, the US, not expecting any serious resistance, have been concentrating their principal efforts on gradually limiting their competitors’ opportunities in the Arctic. The American anti-missile defense system, its first area located in Alaska, and the radar stations in Greenland and Great Britain, are supposed to further this goal. The joint United States-Norway use of the satellite communications center, located in the settlement Longyear on Spitsbergen and used for gathering information from the ecological and meteorological polar orbit satellites, is regarded by a number of experts as serving the same purpose.

In September of last year, the US National Council for Science, on instructions by the Congress, prepared findings noting that due to the geographical location of Alaska, the US constitutes an arctic nation with significant geopolitical, economic, scientific, and security interests in the Arctic, and that therefore, the US interests in this region must be protected. The document also underlines that the potential expansion of human activity in the Northern latitudes most probably will require the US Coast Guard to strengthen its presence on the borders of the ice cover to carry out missions in the spheres of security and protection of rights.

Already today, Alaska stations 24 thousand American troops, three ground force and three Air Force bases, as well as several US Coast Guard installations. The icebreaker fleet numbers 3 vessels (one Healy and two of Polar class) that are part of the 13th US Coast Guard District and are based in Seattle (Washington State). However, these forces are considered to be insufficient. In 2008, 8.726 billion dollars is planned to be allocated for the needs of the Coast Guard, 100 million of which is intended for the maintenance and operation of the polar icebreakers. An increase from the present 40 thousand to 45 thousand persons is planned for the US Coast Guard.

In the beginning of this year, the Pentagon’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (BIR) that controls funding for the defense projects (with a budget of 3.2 billion dollars) held a meeting on the possible consequences of global warming in the Arctic. Experts concluded that if the climatic tendencies do not change course, it’s possible that the US and other nations would face a number of foreign policy problems, concerning availability of energy resources and their extraction, development of fishery, access to new marine routes, new maritime law related claims, national security, etc. A contest was announced for new technologies that would ensure the United States military superiority in the circumpolar regions. Under the umbrella of increasing the US presence in the North, a collection of small-scale maps of the Arctic, of both the surface and the underwater areas, is being created. The Director of the Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping of the New Hampshire University announced on August 7, 2007 that to create these maps, the information obtained with sonar studies of the ocean bottom is actively used.

The Arctic has also been recently visited by an expedition organized by one of the leading American centers for ocean studies, the Woods-Hole Institute in Massachusetts. The official goal of the US scientists taking the vessel Odeon from Norway to the Gakkel Ridge was “no less scientific than that of the Russian collegues” – they were looking for microorganisms in the hydrothermal vent fields of the ocean.

But the affair clearly will not end with expeditions.

For now, the Americans cannot stand in the way of Russian plans and substantiate their own claims to the section of the North Atlantic Ocean, since the Congress still hasn’t ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea of 1982, which means the US is not member of the committee for the continental shelf boundaries. However, Washington can apply for the right of ownership of the coastal zone in the region of the Alaskan shoreline that extends into the North Atlantic Ocean for 600 miles (965 km). First though, they would have to ratify the UN Convention, which Washington was unwilling to do for many years. But now it’s just a question of time. And then the United States will begin active participation in the great game of the North Atlantic Ocean. And that means the Arctic front will become yet another field of confrontation between Russia and the West.

This supposition led the Commander of the US Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command, Rear Admiral Timothy McGee, to make a couple of interesting declarations. In particular, he compared the situation in the North of the planet with the 20th century situation in the Middle East. The Rear Admiral underlined the unquestioned right of the US Navy to “boost its presence in the Arctic”, in particular, by introduction of aircraft carriers to the region, which he believes to be a real possibility.

While the top Legal Advisor to the US Secretary of State, John Bellinger, openly indicated that America would not idly watch as other countries are actively dividing up the Arctic with its wealth. But despite the White House’s displeasure with the claims and the unyielding conduct in regards to these questions by Canada and other countries, the US, as the tradition goes, is annoyed with Russia most of all.

The scientific and legal arguments may lead to a dead end – that’s when the traditional method of “the might is right” is put to use.


Today, the threat from the US and the NATO for Russia is hypothetical. However, it quite possibly may become more real in the North. In practical terms, it may amount to NATO designating an Arctic region in preparation to pressure Moscow with the threat of placing armed forces of the alliance along the borders of the disputed territories until the Arctic is "fairly" divided. Such a move is quite possible - it’s a known fact that the Russian military and the political leadership keeps constant surveillance of the US strategic bombers and nuclear submarines carrying out their military duty in the North Atlantic (as they are also forced to take into account the possible reach by the NATO tactical aviation from the airfields of the new block members of practically all the strategically important Russian objects of the European part of the Russian Federation).

Many experts believe the NATO large-scale military exercise Bold Avenger 2007, held in September in Norway, to be connected with the disputes over the upcoming division of the Arctic. 13 alliance member countries participated in the exercise, including Poland, Romania, and the Czech Republic, 100 aircraft units were used, including tanker, early warning and control, and electromagnetic warfare aircraft.

In response, on September 3 and 4, the Russian Federation conducted training for its Long-Range Aviation pilots. 12 strategic bombers participated. They flew out into the Northern latitude regions. This is not the first time the Russian Air Force conducted maneuvers of the kind. There had been flights into the North Pole region and over the water areas of the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans.

And the recently completed campaign into the Atlantic and the Mediterranean Sea of the ship group consisting of a heavy aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, the large anti-submarine ships Admiral Levchenko and Admiral Chabanenko, and supply vessels Sergey Osipov and Nikolay Chiker, most probably had as its goal, among others, demonstrating that the Russian Northern Fleet is even more ready to defend Russia’s interests in the near Arctic waters.

In the “battle for the Arctic” Russia has a number of advantages over Canada and the US. Control over the marine territories is determined by two factors – military might and geographic proximity. Russia has both. The US possesses the necessary military and naval might, but it is separated from the largest part of the territory by a significant distance. Canada borders the Arctic but is missing the necessary military potential. While Washington and Ottawa conflict over the Arctic, it will be difficult for them to get in the way of the Russian claims for its other regions.

If the US decides to support Canada’s claim to the Northwest Passage in exchange for some guarantees of access into this zone for the American warships and civilian vessels, this would strengthen the position of both countries in their dispute with Russia. Global warming is taking its course and nations need to prepare for the rivalry in the fight for the resources - and in the “battle for the Arctic,” the US and Canada are natural allies.

Our planet’s expanses are divided into two categories: territories controlled by sovereign states, and areas under no one’s control. The largest part of the World’s water belongs to the second category. Large naval powers had always supported the principle of the “freedom of the seas” for a simple reason that their naval forces are able to dominate them. The situation is predictable and unavoidable – if the international law has no provision regulating the sovereignty in the oceans, the problem will have to be solved by the mightiest…

Source:, author: Anatoliy Dmitrievich Tsyganok – Head of the Center for Military Forecasting, Candidate of Military Science

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