Russia is staking its economic future on its controversial territorial claim to a huge slice of the fast-melting Arctic, which holds up to a quarter of the world's untapped energy resources, and is set to launch an unprecedented diplomatic campaign to achieve its goals.
But despite a bit of saber-rattling in the past and a boisterous 2007 expedition that planted a titanium Russian flag under the North Pole, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin insists he wants to see a peaceful division of the Arctic and its resources with neighboring states, as well as an ecologically friendly approach to development.
More ominously, he and other Russian officials say they also expect the United Nations to approve Russia's "scientifically grounded" claim to own a vast 1.2 million sq.-km. tract of Arctic seabed, including the North Pole, on grounds that the still largely unmapped Lomonosov Ridge, the mountain range that underlies much of the Arctic, is a natural extension of Siberia's continental shelf.
"We think it imperative to keep the Arctic as a zone of peace," Putin on Thursday told a Kremlin-sponsored northern development conference, which included 300 scientific specialists and official representatives from the four main Arctic countries besides Russia: Canada, the US, Denmark, and Norway. "Very serious economic and geopolitical interests intersect in the Arctic, but I have no doubt that all the problems existing in the Arctic, including problems over the continental shelf, can be resolved in an atmosphere of partnership."
One reason for the Kremlin's haste is fresh data that suggests Arctic icecaps are melting much faster than anyone previously thought. This year saw the third-lowest level of Arctic ice on record, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado.
The only worse years were 2007 and 2008, with the fourth-biggest summer melt taking place in 2009. Disappearing icecaps spell open season for oil and gas exploration, expansion of fisheries, new navigation routes, and other immensely lucrative possibilities.
"Everybody is in the starting gate on this issue now, and framing their initial positions," says Viktor Kremeniuk, deputy director of the official Institute of USA-Canada Studies in Moscow. "The resources of the Arctic look very valuable, and everyone involved is calculating what they want to get."
Military force not ruled out
Russia moved first, sending an expedition to map the seabed under the North Pole three years ago and committing $60 million to research aimed at proving the Lomonosov Ridge is Russian.
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."
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."