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Russia's Arctic 'sea grab'

Russia is expected within months to claim to the United Nations its right to annex about 380,000 square miles of the Arctic.

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"Interest is growing in the region, as it becomes obvious that new economic possibilities will open up as more of the icecap melts with each successive summer," says Alexander Konovalov, president of the independent Institute of Strategic Assessments in Moscow. "But time is running out to make an orderly division of the territories."

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Russia and Norway recently ended a 44-year dispute over division of the Barents Sea, which borders the Arctic Ocean, in a bargain that could set a prece­dent for an Arctic deal. Under that treaty, the two countries will split a 67,500 square mile area, thought to contain 7 billion tons of oil and gas, and open it up for joint exploration.

"The UN commission will soon receive the claims of Russia and Canada, but it's unlikely to come to any decision without agreement among the countries involved," says Vassily Sokolov, an expert with the official Institute of USA-Canada Studies in Moscow. "The truth is that Canada and Russia have a lot of common interests here, and we should be able to come to an equitable arrangement, but we belong to different clubs. Canada's in NATO, and we're not, and that makes it difficult to cut a deal between Moscow and Ottawa based on our common interests."

The real threat perceived by the big Arctic states may not be each other but the chance that other countries will press for claims, say experts. "There are 20 other countries that have already expressed an interest," says Mr. Sokolov, who notes that at a May Arctic Council meeting, members blocked several nonnorthern states – including China, Japan, South Korea, and the European Union – from becoming "permanent observers" in the group.

Canada even rebuffed NATO's offer to help it defend its Arctic interests against Russia. According to a US diplomatic cable published in June by WikiLeaks, Canada is not only concerned that having NATO in the Arctic would exacerbate simmering tensions with Russia but Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper fretted it might give non-Arctic states influence in a part of the world where "they don't belong."

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