Sunday, March 29, 2009

Coming Cold War in the Far North?

I hate how the term ‘Cold War’ is thrown around anytime there’s the least bit of tension between the West and Russia, but this time it’s at least a somewhat apt description. A day after Russia announced plans to create a new Arctic military force, Canada replied that they “will not be bullied” in the Far North.

It’s an exchange that shows how tensions are rising over the Arctic region. It’s thought that a quarter of all the undiscovered oil and natural gas deposits left on the planet are under the Arctic ice. Now, thanks to global warming and the melting of the polar ice pack, these deposits may finally become commercially viable to explore.

That has the countries that ring the Arctic Ocean thinking about their policies towards the polar region. In 2007 Russia sent an expedition far into the Arctic Ocean. The expedition made news for planting a miniature Russian flag on the seabed at the exact spot of the North Pole, but the real focus of the expedition was gathering geological information to bolster a Russian claim that an undersea mountain chain called the Lomonosov Ridge is a geologic feature of the continental shelf. If proven true (a decision will be made by 2011), it would give Russia territorial rights to much of the Arctic Ocean and a potential windfall in oil and natural gas reserves.

But the Russians aren’t waiting for 2011. A new strategic paper says that by 2020 the Arctic will be Russia’s “top strategic resource base”, and with that in mind the Kremlin has announced the creation of a new military force to protect their Arctic interests. The strategy, published on the internet with no fanfare, suggests giving the Federal Security Service (FSB) responsibility for the region, drawing on a collection of Russian military units to provide security forces as-needed (in practice this would likely include elements of the Air Force and ships from Russia’s Northern Fleet).

This quiet announcement brought a very vocal response from Canada, with Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon making his ‘we won't be bullied’ remark on Friday. The view in Canada is that Russia will try to use military force to push other countries out of disputed areas in the Arctic; Cannon was following up earlier statements by Prime Minister Stephen Harper that the Arctic belongs to Canada too and that they intend to make their presence felt as well. Canada has previously announced plans to build a deep-water port in the Arctic and build a new, modern icebreaker that will be the flagship of their northern naval forces.

And while Canada and Russia are trading barbs, keep in mind that the United States and Denmark (Greenland is a territory of Denmark) also have claims on portions of the Arctic and NATO is saying that they intend to have a role in the Arctic as well. It seems like global warming isn’t the only thing heating up the Arctic.
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