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OPINION: Canada and Russia edging toward Arctic territory battle

December 13th, 2013 | Carey Restino Print this article   Email this article  

As if on cue on the heels of an editorial last week in the New York Times by Michael Klare warning of this very sort of issue, Russia and Canada appear to be headed toward a territory dispute over parts of the Arctic.

At the heart of the dispute is an undersea mountain range between Ellesmere Island in Canada and Russia's Siberian coastline. Russia says it owns the ridge, citing a 2007 mission in which divers actually planted a flag on the seabed. But last week, Canada went the bureaucratic route and applied to the United Nations commission asking to increase its nautical borders by half a million square miles.

As it stands now, the Arctic is "owned by five nations, each limited to that area 200 nautical miles from their northern coasts. But as the valuable resources alleged to be beneath the surface of the Arctic beckon, that's unlikely to hold the peace, as it were.

That was among the assertions made by Klare, a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and author of "The Race for What's Left."

Klare pointed out that five of the Arctic states have overlapping boundaries on their claims.

On Tuesday, Vladimir Putin reportedly vowed to step up Russia's military presence in the region, telling his chiefs of defense to focus on building up infrastructure and military units in the Arctic.

So here we are, seemingly stuck between two nations who are in a tug-of-war over land, with far fewer resources than either nation thanks to our outdated Arctic equipment and nonexistent Navy presence. It's not the most comfortable position to be in, to be sure, but one that anyone following the developments in the Arctic could have predicted.

For all the opportunities touted by those in the know — be it shipping or resource extraction or tourism — there is the downside, too. Where there's money, there's greed. And where there's greed, well, there's all sorts of unattractive things, like environmental disasters, exploitation of peoples and my personal favorite, war.

That's not to say we are anywhere near there, now, but when your neighbor to the East considers physically diving down under Arctic waters and planting a flag as the most diplomatic way to divvy up resources, you might be well advised to be a bit concerned. Perhaps that strategy was a good one a few hundred years ago, but today, we're a little more sophisticated, one would hope.

As Klare points out, what Arctic nations need to move toward is developing an Arctic Treaty akin to that found in the Antarctic (they apparently took care of this 50 years ago). Defining who owns what in the Arctic ought to be a top priority for all nations involved, because no matter how much money there is to be made in the Arctic, there is even more to be lost. If you think a war in Afghanistan's rugged mountains is rough, try dodging icebergs on for size.

Russia has much to lose by giving up its claim to the North Pole, which is located on the Lomonosov Ridge where the flag was planted. If the nation prevails, it will have claim to nearly half of the Arctic.

While Russia is certainly ahead of the United States in its effort to develop oil and gas resources in the Arctic not to mention institute a way to make money from the increased vessel traffic near its shores with mandated ice breaker escorts, many would argue the nation is not leading the pack in environmental policies. Nor is it an ambassador for diplomacy, as exhibited by the recent overly aggressive response to the Greenpeace boarding of its drill rig.

Not that I'm endorsing Greenpeace's actions, by any means, which seem consistently aimed at drawing attention to problems but not so good at offering up solutions. But throwing the lot in jail indefinitely is a bit over the top. So was jailing a couple of explorers who tried to make it across from Alaska on jet skies. They were finally returned unscathed with quite a few stories to tell, but suffice it to say, Russia could use some chamomile tea when it comes to international relations.

When Alaska's lawmakers return to Juneau this winter, they will be handed the draft document that is supposed to guide them forward with their Arctic policy. Perhaps this will inspire them to get on the bandwagon, put aside some of the less dire issues for a bit and focus on what is going on around us.

We need our government - both state and federal — to start taking the changing Arctic and its impacts on Americans seriously, or Alaska could not only miss the boat but even worse, be caught in the middle of feuding nations. Oh, wait, that's already happened.


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