Polar Geopolitics: The Scramble to Control the Arctic

Sailors aboard the fast attack submarine USS Seawolf (SSN 21) remove Arctic ice from the hull after surfacing at the North Pole. (U.S. Navy)
Sailors aboard the fast attack submarine USS Seawolf (SSN 21) remove Arctic ice from the hull after surfacing at the North Pole. (U.S. Navy)

-- Joseph V. Micallef is a best-selling military history and world affairs author, and keynote speaker. Follow him on Twitter @JosephVMicallef.

"They've [Russia] got all their chess pieces on the board right now, and we've got a pawn and maybe a rook. If you look at this Arctic game of chess, they've got us at checkmate right at the very beginning." -- Admiral Paul Zukunft, Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, May 3, 2017

Current global warming trends are rapidly transforming the geopolitics of the Arctic region. This development, should it continue, could unlock vast new mineral and hydrocarbon resources in the Arctic and the accompanying continental shelf. It also could make practical a northern sea route, via either Russia's northeast passage or Canada's northwest passage, which could cut the transit time to ship from east Asia to either Europe or North America's east coast by a third.

In addition, Moscow's expanded access to Russia's more than 4,000 miles of Arctic coastline could fundamentally transform Russia from a continental to maritime power, creating new opportunities for Russia, as well as underscoring security risks along Russia's northern border that previously had been made moot by the area's harsh climate. Moreover, the prospect of the Arctic Ocean emerging as a new theater of military rivalry between Moscow and Washington will create new challenges for the U.S. and its NATO allies in projecting military power across the Arctic region.

This is the first of a two-part series that will explore the emerging U.S.--Russian rivalry in the Arctic. Part I will look at the geopolitics of the region, its economic significance and the basis for the conflicting claims that have been extended over the Arctic Ocean. Part II will look at the military dimension of the U.S.--Russian rivalry in the Arctic.

Arctic Geopolitics

The definition of what constitutes the Arctic varies widely. At its narrowest, it encompasses the Arctic Ocean. That makes the five nations that surround it -- Russia, the United States, Norway, Denmark/Greenland and Canada -- the principal Arctic powers.

The region has also been defined as the area above the Arctic Circle, what Russia refers to as the "High North." This definition would include Iceland, Sweden and Finland as Arctic powers, even though they do not front the Arctic Ocean. These eight nations form the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum to deal with Arctic-wide issues. Roughly half of the four million people who live above the Arctic Circle are Russian, although Russia's Arctic regions have been steadily depopulating for the last several decades.

China, Japan and South Korea all have expressed interest in Arctic affairs and have observer status on the Arctic Council. China has declared itself to be a "near Arctic state." In January 2018, Beijing unveiled its plans for a "Polar Silk Route" and announced that it was "an important stakeholder in Arctic affairs."

Beijing has aggressively pushed for a wider role in the Arctic, seeking to negotiate free trade agreements with both Canada and the Scandinavian nations. It provided financial support for Russia's Yamal LNG project and for a similar U.S. project in Alaska.

It has also heavily wooed Greenland's government with offers of large-scale investment and economic development aid. Greenland, along with the Faroe Islands and Denmark, is part of the Unity of the Realm, in Danish, known as the Rigsfællesskabet federation, a semi-autonomous grouping with Denmark retaining jurisdiction over foreign and defense policy. Unlike Denmark, Greenland is not part of the European Union (EU), nor is it part of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), like Norway and Iceland. It is gradually moving toward becoming a fully independent state, although this will likely be an extended, decades long, process.

Notwithstanding these various definitions, however, it is not always possible to deal with the Arctic as a contiguous whole. Climatically, the Arctic Ocean area is divided into four regions (eastern Greenland to western Russia, the Siberian shelf, Chukotka to the western Canadian Arctic and the central Canadian Arctic to western Greenland), all of which are responding differently to the region's rising temperatures.

Moreover, the state of infrastructure development varies widely across the Arctic coastline. Russia divides its Arctic region into three distinct zones: a European zone from Murmansk to Arkhangelsk, which incorporates the Barents and Pechora Seas, a central Arctic zone centered on the Yamal Peninsula, and including the Kara Sea, and an eastern Siberian zone from Sakha to Yakutia, which incorporates the Laptev, east Siberian and Chukchi Seas. Development prospects range from quite feasible in the Murmansk-Arkhangelsk region to poor in Sakha-Yakutia. Likewise, infrastructure development in Norway's Arctic region is far more advanced than it is in Greenland or North America, especially the Canadian High Arctic.

The Arctic's Mineral Bonanza

In 2008, the U.S. Geological Service (USGS) estimated that the Arctic contains more than 1,669 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves. This amount is equivalent to roughly 30 percent of the world's remaining undeveloped supply and almost four times U.S. reserves. This estimate does not include methane hydrates on the sea bed. Their addition could boost potential reserves exponentially. In addition, it's estimated that there is 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids and 90 billion barrels of oil. This is about 13 percent of the projected undeveloped oil resources.

The USGS estimated that 84 percent of the Arctic's hydrocarbons are offshore; 60 percent of undiscovered Arctic oil is in Russian territory. According to Russian geological surveys, 90 percent plus of the hydrocarbon reserves are located in the Arctic zone of the Siberian continental shelf, with 67 percent in the Barents and Kara Seas in the western Russian Arctic.

Additionally, the USGS has estimated that Alaska has coal reserves equivalent to nearly 10 percent of the world's supply, and that the Arctic subsurface contains large quantities of chromium, cobalt, copper, gold, iron, lead, magnesium, manganese, nickel, platinum, silver, tin, titanium, tungsten and zinc. Additionally, about 10 percent of the world's fish stocks inhabit Arctic waters.

It is not clear, however, whether these reserves are technically and economically feasible to exploit. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that oil prices will have to average around $120 per barrel for Arctic hydrocarbon development to be economic. Moreover, Russian sources claim that infrastructure and development costs will amount to approximately one trillion dollars (69 trillion rubles) in capital investment.

Russia's energy sector lacks the technology to exploit deep water Arctic hydrocarbon deposits. Additionally, much of the existing Russian energy infrastructure in the Arctic region was not designed to cope with melting permafrost. A warming Arctic will wreak havoc with Russia's pipelines and oil fields long before it opens access to new hydrocarbon deposits.

The Arctic's Conflicting Land Claims

Map of the Arctic Ocean sea floor that illustrates the position of the Lomonosov and Mendeleev Ridges. (Wikimedia Commons/Mikenorton)
Map of the Arctic Ocean sea floor that illustrates the position of the Lomonosov and Mendeleev Ridges. (Wikimedia Commons/Mikenorton)

One of the distinctive features of the Arctic Ocean is that roughly one-third of it sits atop the Eurasian and North American continental shelf. Depending on whether the Mendeleev and Lomonosov ridges are considered part of the continental shelf, this could be increased to more than half of the Arctic Ocean. In addition, a vast number of islands rise up from the continental shelf. Like the disputes in the South China Sea, adjudication of who owns the continental shelf will have a significant impact on sovereignty in the Arctic region.

Conflicting claims to the Arctic date back to at least 1925, when Canada extended its maritime boundary to cover an area from 60°W to 141°W and northward all the way to the North Pole. The distance between Canada's northernmost point of land, Cape Columbia on Ellesmere Island, to the geographic North Pole is 415 nautical miles (478 statutory miles). Canada has also claimed that the various channels and straits that constitute the northwest passage are part of its internal waters. The U.S. and several other countries have contested that claim, arguing that the northwest passage is an international waterway allowing free and unencumbered passage.

In 1926, the Soviet Union claimed sovereignty over all the islands and lands between 32°E and 168°W between its coastline and the North Pole. During the Cold War, Soviet eras maps of the Arctic marked the USSR's northern boundary as a line along 32°E longitude from the Kola Peninsula and 180°E longitude from the Bering Strait extending toward the North Pole. Based on those coordinates, approximately a third of the Arctic Ocean were considered Soviet territorial waters. Russia's current claims are less expansive than those extended by the Soviet Union.

In 2001, in accordance with the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Moscow submitted a claim to the U.N. Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) to extend its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) from 200 to 350 miles. Under UNCLOS, maritime states can claim a 200-mile-wide EEZ off their coasts. This EEZ can be extended up to 350 miles if a country can show it has an "expanded continental shelf" that extends beyond the 200-mile limit. According to the Russian claim, the Lomonosov and Mendeleev ridges, two roughly 1,000-mile-long underwater mountain chains that span the Arctic sea floor almost all the way to Greenland and the Canadian Arctic, were part of the Russian continental shelf.

Based on Russia's extended continental shelf claims, roughly 460,000 additional square miles of the Arctic Ocean would come under Moscow's sovereignty. The area would extend to virtually the 200-mile EEZ of the U.S., Canada and Denmark/Greenland. It would also include the geographic North Pole, although Russia has stopped short of claiming the North Pole as part of its EEZ.

In 2005, however, the Russian Arktika expedition -- the first crewed descent to the sea floor beneath the North Pole -- did plant a Russian flag made of titanium on the Arctic floor at the geographic pole. The action brought sharp rebukes from the U.S., Canada and Denmark. The Kremlin claimed, however, that it was not asserting sovereignty and, according to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavarov, "We're not throwing flags around. We just do what other discoverers did. The purpose of the expedition is not to stake whatever rights of Russia, but to prove that our shelf extends to the North Pole. By the way, on the Moon, it was the same."

The CLCS has not ruled on the Russian petition but instead has asked for additional information substantiating Moscow's claim.

Norway has extended a claim from 5°E to 25°E, extending to the North Pole, and the U.S. has extended a claim from 170°W to 141°W, also extending to the North Pole. Denmark could extend a claim from 60°W to 10°W, also extending to the North Pole but has not formally done so. It has, however, claimed that the Lomonosov and Mendeleev ridges are extensions of Greenland's continental shelf. Both Denmark and Norway have filed claims with the CLCS. There is significant overlap in the claims that have been extended by the five Arctic nations.

Russia and Norway had a long-standing dispute over the demarcation of their respective boundaries in the Barents Sea. The dispute was finally resolved in 2010, when both countries signed a treaty dividing the disputed region evenly between them. Russia's extended claims may simply be a negotiating stance in anticipation of eventually splitting the disputed region between the other claimants.

There are, in fact, two different issues concerning the demarcation of the extended EEZs in the Arctic Ocean. Under UNCLOS, those areas that are not subject to a country's EEZ are open to all countries to exploit. The five nations whose continental shelf extends below the Arctic Ocean have a vested interest in an expansive definition of their respective continental shelves and in reaching an amicable agreement among themselves for dividing the contested area.

Notwithstanding that, however, an expanded Russian EEZ may pose security issues for the U.S. that may supersede the advantages of an extended U.S. EEZ. Moreover, an expanded Russian EEZ would also mean that the northeast passage route would remain firmly in Russia's zone of control. The northeast passage across the Arctic is superior to that of the northwest passage. First, it's deeper, allowing for larger ships and heavier cargoes. Moreover, under the influence of the Gulf Stream, it is expected to be operable much earlier than Canada's northwest passage.

Finally, those countries that are interested in a large role in the Arctic but do not border the Arctic Ocean, including China, South Korea, Japan, Sweden and Finland, have an interest in limiting the EEZs to the 200-mile limit and maximizing the area of the Arctic Ocean that would be classified as international waters.

International interest in exploitation of the Arctic and its resources will continue to increase as the region continues to warm, even if there are significant technological, capital and political challenges that need to be overcome before the region's mineral wealth can be unlocked. Moreover, several non-Arctic powers, especially China, are looking to play a larger role in the region's affairs, further complicating its political relations.

For the U.S., the economic opportunities presented by a warming Arctic are tempered by the fact that the region will likely emerge as an area of military rivalry with Russia, and eventually with China, as well. The military aspects of the emerging great power rivalry in the Arctic will be covered in Part II.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

Story Continues