In a multinational race to seize the potential riches of the formerly icebound Arctic, being laid bare by global warming, Russia is the early favorite.
Within the next year, the Kremlin is expected to make its claim to the United Nations in a bold move to annex about 380,000 square miles of the internationally owned Arctic to Russian control. At stake is an estimated one-quarter of all the world's untapped hydrocarbon reserves, abundant fisheries, and a freshly opened route that will cut nearly a third off the shipping time from Asia to Europe.
The global Arctic scramble kicked off in 2007 when Russian explorer Artur Chilingarov planted his country's flag beneath the North Pole. "The Arctic is Russian," he said. "Now we must prove the North Pole is an extension of the Russian landmass."
In July, the Russian ship Akademik Fyodorov set off, accompanied by the giant nuclear-powered icebreaker, to complete undersea mapping to show that the Siberian continental shelf connects to underwater Arctic ridges, making Russia eligible to stake a claim. Around the same time, Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov announced the creation of an Arctic military force tasked with backing up Moscow's bid.
"We are open for a dialogue with our foreign partners and with all our neighbors in the Arctic region, but of course we will defend our own geopolitical interests firmly and consistently," Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said in July. Among other things, Moscow plans to build at least six more icebreakers and spend $33 billion to construct a year-round port on the Arctic shores.
This month, Canada holds Operation Nanook, an Arctic military exercise designed to send a stern message to Moscow. Canada also has plans for its own territorial claim. The US, which has not signed the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, under which any territorial divisions would be made, is also beefing up its regional military might.
"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."
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."