Sometimes the perception of power is more important than physical might.
It seems Santa Claus will no longer have a monopoly on business and militarization of the North Pole. His elves may start speaking Russian and shift their occupation to oil-slaves as good ol’ Saint Nick was bribed to do so by pesky Russian scientists who offered him a few cartons of cigarettes and a 1.5% share in Russia’s biggest oil company. Just kidding. But, foreign presence and interest is nothing new in the North Pole. It keeps expanding as our outlook towards the North Pole slowly changes.
In 2003, Russia aimed to glamorize places to stick their flags, such as the Americans and Chinese did on the Moon. However, it’s government decided to be unique. By employing deep-sea robotic machinery, Russian scientists succeeded in placing, and recording, a tiny flag on the exact North Pole position at the height of the deep seabed. This raised eyebrows globally as it portrayed Russia’s territorial ambitions in the Arctic ocean, which they named the Russian Sea. Since then, Russia has shown an astonishing amount of interest in the North Pole and the surrounding sea. Our global warming crisis has also caused the disappearance of vast amounts of unnavigable ice sheets, opening up the doors for travel and shipping for the first time in human history. One may leave North-Eastern Siberia to sail North, cross the North Pole, and end up in Greenland or Canada.
Recently, the international community has also started to worry about the alarming amount of military presence in Russia’s Northern territory. It seems Russia is slowly creeping into claiming, and possibly annexing, the Earth’s North Pole. However, these claims are contested and not internationally recognized. There is a complicated process involving claiming seas and oceans which has to be recognized by the UN through its established United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
This states that: for a state to claim this external maritime territory, it has to portray scientific proof that the territory is an extension of its continental shelf. Currently, three countries claim territory near, and at, the North Pole. Namely, Russia, Denmark and Canada. Why exactly do these states claim the Arctic and should the political world be worried about the consequences?
What makes this geopolitical tension unique is that the UN Agency is the supranational organization that has the ability to approve and recognize the sovereignty of one of these nations to the North Pole. However, this can only be achieved by legitimate scientific evidence which specifically involves explaining why the Arctic Lomonosov Ridge is an extension of the respective state’s continental crust. In short, this ‘Lomonosov Ridge’ is an underwater portion of continental crust that divides the North Pole’s surrounding area and of which little is known about, including its formation and seafloor. Since the beginning of the 21st century, various countries have made contesting claims that parts of the Arctic Ocean are an extension of continental crusts.
One may wonder what the advantage is of owning sovereignty over an empty, partially frozen, ocean. A few significant aspects make this spot desirable. First, ownership will change the global perception about the mythicized North Pole which will be painted a certain colour on our political maps and contribute to a political threat based on the significant increase of a state’s size. Second, exclusive passage through Arctic waters massively increases a state’s economic power as new, simple, trade routes change our globalized trade forever through the new ‘Northern Sea Route’, courtesy of global warming’s effects. Third, ownership opens up the doors for full territorial exploitation, including potential military infrastructure, and the available resources. The latter part is what makes this three-way tug-of-war exciting as scientific research reveals that a whopping 20-25% of the world’s crude oil and natural gas is to be found in this Artic circle. Knowing what oil can do to all politicians, such as interventionism in the Middle East and the Pacific, it can be concluded that interest in this region is bound to only grow. A favourable verdict by the UN commission obviously provides the winning state an incredible expansionary opportunity, riches and a potential to be a geopolitical threat.
While a variety of scientific evidence is being piled as legal submissions in the UN, any conclusive decision may be slow which implies that the aforementioned states are likely to already act prior to such decision.
Denmark, through its Greenland territory, and Canada have shown interest in the Arctic Ocean and the North Pole for the aforementioned reasons. However, since these states are not too geopolitically ambitious, they are mainly concerned with national prestige over the territorial expansion and resource acclamation alongside the exploitation of the Northern Sea Route. This interest shows hypocrisy since Canada and Denmark have announced its shifting to cleaner energy and a deep dedication to combating global warming rather than exploiting it and its effects.
Whilst Denmark and Canada do not pose any expansionary threat on a geopolitical scale, the case is exactly the contrary for Russia; which acts similarly to its predecessor in the Cold War. In fact, we can assume that this dispute is, in fact, part of the ‘New Cold War’, a reality in which the West vs. Russia tensions prevails in new manners.
In typical Russian governmental fashion, it has been moving its pawns since the 2003 flag-planting. This was encapsulated when the Russian authorities announced in late 2017 that most of all habitable islands adjacent to the Arctic Ocean were equipped with extensive military facilities and are manned all-year-around. The international community did not appreciate when a full-scale military exercise of an ‘American invasion’ was performed by the Russian armed forces on various islands in the Arctic. By claiming the entire Arctic Ocean, Russia is able to check off a major military concern. Namely, the issue of separation of its Pacific and Atlantic fleet may be resolved. Instead of an Iron Curtain symbolizing these tensions, the Ice Curtain has taken place in the shape of a Russian militarized latitude. Russian officials have expressed interest in establishing a Northern passage which also permits the interconnectedness of the Russian entity.
For centuries Russia had to transport goods through its Western port of Sevastopol, which was then shipped through the Suez Canal and the Indian Ocean, as to reach Eastern cities such as Vladivostok. The new passage definitely would shorten such a trip, leading to further urbanization and development. However, this could also imply further militarization of Siberia and the Polar region so as to create a ‘Russian fortress’ covering 1/5 of the earth’s surface. Knowing the relatively radical decisions which the government can make in a post-Crimea annexation era, it is likely that the international community is terribly worried. A Russian Arctic would result in a deeper European dependency on Russian oil, rising geopolitical tensions resulting from unnecessary militarization and a Russian lever controlling parts of the global trading aspects. Naturally, it is difficult for the UN to split this region equally or to hand it to no one and everyone simultaneously. Because, as long as unclaimed and un-exploited territory remains, the greed of humans persists even on state-level interactions.
What awaits the world is only speculative. Until nothing occurs diplomatically, one can only await the gradual militarization of all actors in the region and the consequences of climate change to reveal the actual value of the frozen region currently home to a fat Saint Nick and his elves.