Russia's Arctic claim: What's the message?

Russia submitted a claim to the UN this week of territory that may hold 5 billion tons of untapped oil and natural gas. But the move is not just about resources. 

Association of Russian Polar Explorers/AP/File
A photo taken on Aug. 2, 2007 of a titanium capsule with the Russian flag on it. The capsule was planted by the Mir-1 mini submarine on the Arctic Ocean seabed under the North Pole during a record dive.

Russia submitted its latest claims over a vast area of the Arctic Ocean to the United Nations this week. A win would mean access to sought-after resources, but the petition itself underscores Russia's broader interest in solidifying its footing on the world stage, observers say.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced Tuesday that Moscow has formally made claim to about 463,000 square miles of the Arctic territory. If Russian scientists are able to prove Moscow's claims, it will have exclusive access to vast resources, including fisheries and oil and gas reserves.

Under international law no person or country owns the Arctic. But a UN convention allows nations to claim economic zones over the continental shelves abutting their shores. Russia, Denmark, the United States, Canada, and Norway all can hold claim to parts of the Arctic under this convention.

The territory Russia is claiming may have 5 billion tons of untapped oil and natural gas reserves worth as much as $30 trillion, according to the Ministry of Natural Resources, Russia Today reports.

But it's not just about monetizing resources. For the past two years Russia has been trying to establish its military might in the region, reopening Soviet-era military bases in the Arctic and conducting military drills

"As Putin tries to reestablish Russia as a great power, as we see the increase of military activity elsewhere, the Arctic also provides the best springboard by which the Russians can once again reemerge as a dominant geopolitical military player in the entire international system," Robert Huebert, an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Calgary, told the BBC World Service.

Military presence in the Arctic is about building global influence, Michael Byers, professor of international law at the University of British Columbia, agrees. 

“The Barents Sea in the western Arctic is ice-free throughout the year and therefore a very important place, not to access the Arctic Ocean but to access the Atlantic and to project power around the world,” Mr. Byers, author of “Who Owns the Arctic,” told the BBC.

However, Russia’s attempts to expand its reach in the Arctic shouldn’t worry the US the way its presence in the Ukraine does, Byers said. “Russia’s Arctic military capabilities declined so incredibly sharply after the cold war…. We are [now] seeing some rebuilding, but nothing close to the levels that they [Russians] once had.”

Russia submitted a similar Arctic claim in 2002, but the UN turned it down citing a lack of scientific support.

The most recent submission will be studied by UN scientists, and if it’s supported by geological facts, will be recognized under international law. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Tuesday that it hopes the UN will start discussing its application this fall.

Moscow’s current submission overlaps with a separate claim submitted by Denmark, and it will likely overlap with Canadian claims as well, Mr. Huebert told the Toronto-based news site, The Star.

If the competing nations each have a valid claim, it would mean moving the process to an international court.

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