Arctic Geopolitics: Future Conflict beyond the Caspian

Russia is not a littoral nation of just one great body of water in the Caspian. It also has its entire northern expanse along the Arctic Circle. In August 2007, the Russian expedition Arktika 2007 planted a titanium pole with the Russian flag at the bottom of the North Pole seabed in an effort to project Russian power.

It was meant to promote its ambitions of development in the Arctic. One third of the Russian nation is located above the Arctic Circle, an area known to have an extensive amount of untapped natural resources—a commodity that the Russian economy is highly dependent upon. In terms of domestic agendas, any nation - democratic or not - would pursue interests that provide an economic benefit. This is apparent in the claims made by other countries for the same Arctic areas that Russia believes are its own rightful territory. In Russia's case, natural resources account for an average of 15-20% of their GDP. Therefore if Arctic findings proved successful, the rewards would be highly beneficial for its economy. Due to recent global developments caused by ecological shifts throughout the world - the melting of the polar ice caps and new advanced technologies - it has become much easier for Russia to satisfy its heightened ambitions as well as allow increased opportunities for development in the North. So what geopolitical impact might this agenda have and exactly what might be hindering these Russian pursuits in the Arctic Region?

Russia is not the only player in the race to secure the North Pole. This vast, desolate, and cold landscape has remained at the center of each Arctic coastal nation's geostrategic and geopolitical initiatives throughout the past few decades. It is only the fact that recently the Arctic has become easier to explore that has driven the increase in Arctic ambitions. As it currently stands, the Arctic Ocean is classified as international waters and is beyond any country's single control. Additionally, the Arctic is governed according to domestic laws and the regulations of each coastal border state, making the region also subjected to bilateral, regional, and international agreements. For example, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) regulates the Arctic coastal nations’ jurisdiction over resources found within specifically defined or demarcated areas. Known as Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), they grant exclusive rights to defined geographical areas for each nation in question. These EEZs guarantee a legal justification to both explore and exploit natural resources within the zones and establish each country as the sole economic proprietor. The EEZs extend 200 nautical miles from the coast of each nation. Certain stipulations within the law allow legally-granted additional rights, however, if a nation can provide proof that its continental shelf extends beyond the denoted EEZ.

Russia has attempted to capitalize on this stipulation. Since 2001 Moscow has attempted to convince the UN that the Lomonosov Ridge, a 1,240 mile long underwater mountain range that spans the length of its polar region, is actually an extension of the Siberian shelf and therefore Russia should be granted exclusive economic rights to it. The formal submission by Moscow to the UN was rejected. However, when Russia planted its flag under the North Pole, it was not just making a prideful statement to the international community: it was also conducting an expedition to gain scientific evidence that the Lomonosov Ridge was in fact directly connected to the Siberian shelf. Russia resubmitted its claim to the UN again in 2015, utilizing the scientific data it collected during the Arktika 2007 expedition. However, this new claim now encompasses an area of over 1.2 million square kilometers and includes not only the Lomonosov Ridge but also the Mendeleev-Alpha Rise and the Chukchi Plateau—areas that both Denmark and Canada also claim as native to their territories. The addition of these areas was based upon Russian evidence suggesting the territories are natural components of the continental periphery. If the new proposal submitted to the UN is accepted, Russia would be guaranteed the exclusive right to all natural resources and mineral deposits in these underwater territories of the Arctic region. This would also allow for the country to increase its already heavy military developments in the region, a scenario that would escalate tensions among the other littoral Arctic nations and shape the future dynamics of Arctic insecurity, perhaps making it even more dangerous and tense than the issues presently afflicting the Caspian Sea nations.

There are five littoral nations that encircle the Arctic Ocean. These include: the United States, Russia, Canada, Norway, and Denmark (Greenland). It should be noted that of these nations Russia is the only Non-NATO member and its ambitions for developing the Arctic Region have outpaced all other regional players. President Vladimir Putin even professed his ambitions to secure the Arctic when he was quoted as saying, "I want to stress the importance of the Northern Sea Route as an international transport artery that will rival traditional trade lanes." Russian pursuits and its aim for Arctic supremacy has created a new security dynamic--as with any resource race—which has sparked a response from the other regional states as they also attempt to increase their military presence in the Arctic to secure and develop the region, preventing Russia from establishing itself as the sole dominant regional power.

Russia in response has adopted a new military doctrine, one that has for the first time established the protection of national interests in the Arctic as one of the country's top geostrategic and geopolitical priorities. Snap military exercises in the area conducted by Russia have increased in size, scope, and frequency, sparking counter-responses from the militaries of several NATO members. For example, the Arctic Challenge Exercise in May 2015 was Europe's largest military exercise ever conducted in the region. It encompassed ten different NATO nations putting on various displays of military muscle in the form of air and naval interoperability maneuvers. The intent of the exercise was to balance the competing spheres of influence in the Arctic and prevent Russia from thinking its right to supremacy there would go unchallenged. The impact of Russia Arctic supremacy would undoubtedly alter trans-Atlantic shipping routes and commitments, revamp relations between Northern European countries, and evolve relations between China and Russia. This is because as trade routes through the Arctic Ocean become more accessible, oil companies and the nations they belong to will capitalize on this new freedom of movement to both secure and protect the large supply of natural resources emerging from beneath the sea bed. For now, a UN acceptance of Moscow's territorial submission will not be decided until the designated UN commission meets in 2016. Until then, we can expect the military gambit on all sides to continue to escalate in size, scope, and frequency. As each player attempts to establish its dominance in what can be known as the race to the top of the world, it should be disconcerting to the global community that the likelihood of major power discord and/or confrontation might exceed that other geopolitically influential natural resource body of water, the Caspian Sea.

Andy Deahn

Andy Deahn is a 2015 graduate with a Bachelor of Science degree from Bellevue University’s International Security and Intelligence Studies program.  He is currently employed as a Department of Defense contractor working throughout various worldwide locations.  He had previously worked as Special Tactics-Tactical Air Control Party member in the U.S. Air Force supporting Army Special Forces ground teams as a Joint Terminal Attack Controller.

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