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Russia's Putin says he wants peaceful division of Arctic

At a conference that included the US, Canada, Denmark, and Norway, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said the area should be a 'zone of peace.' But Russia is bolstering its claim to a large tract of the Arctic seabed.

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An Arctic strategy document signed by President Dmitry Medvedev in 2008 declared that the polar region will become Russia's "top strategic resource base" within a decade, and warned that "in a competition for resources, it cannot be ruled out that military force could be used to resolve emerging problems that could destroy the balance of forces near the borders of Russia and her allies."

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Russian Natural Resources Minister Yury Trutnev told journalists last week that Moscow estimates its Arctic sector contains 100 billion tons of oil and gas, plus a cornucopia of other valuable mineral resources.

Under a 1982 UN convention, each northern country is entitled to a 200-mile zone of economic influence, but that could be enlarged if a country could prove that the seabed is a natural geological extension of its own coast. Hence the sudden boom in undersea mapmaking, a race that Russia also appeared to seize the lead in with the announcement by the Russian Geographic Society last week that it will soon issue the first-ever "comprehensive atlas of the Arctic."

Russia and Norway settle old dispute

This month Russia and Norway settled a 40-year dispute over control over lucrative fisheries and other resources in the Barents Sea by agreeing to divide the 175,000 sq.-km. swath of sea and ice equally between them. Mid-September Moscow talks with Canadian Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon went less well; Mr. Cannon emerged repeating Ottawa's belief that the UN will back Canada's claim to the Lomonosov Ridge, due to be submitted around the same time as Russia's, probably in 2013.

Both countries are constructing new military bases in the north, and looking nervously toward their neighbors.

"Russia is planning to create a new northern frontier guards service to control the northern coast, which now looks suddenly vulnerable," says Andrei Ivanov, an expert with the official Institute of World Economy and International Relations. "Right now it's covered with ice, but if the icecaps melt, it will be uncontrolled, and any ship capable of navigating there could reach any point on our coastline.... We know that Canada and the US are facing a similar challenge."

Some experts suggest that the rest of the world ought to wake up and assert their interests before the five northern nations divvy up the Arctic, and its treasure trove of resources, among themselves. Some point to the 1961 Antarctic Treaty System, which has kept that frozen continent free from international strife, as a model for the northern polar region as well.

"The countries of the Arctic zone are in a rush to do their own deals, because they don't want to let anyone else in there," says Mr. Kremeniuk. "But at some point, everyone else's interests should be taken into account."

Environmentalists say they are appalled by the frenzied rush to open the Arctic for commercial exploitation.

"It's all about resources, but we are talking about a very fragile Arctic environment that could easily be undermined and ruined," says Ivan Blokov, of Greenpeace Russia. "The Arctic would be better kept under international stewardship, as a common space, and any potentially destructive activities should be curtailed."