The Race for Arctic Oil: Is Russia Ready to Share?

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Konrad Steffen / University of Colorado / Reuters

An iceberg carved from a melting glacier floats south of Greenland

Russia's leaders have never been coy about their designs on the Arctic. In recent years, their message has been clear: We want a a big, fat slice of it, including the seas of oil and gas underneath, and we are ready to defend our claim. The country expressed its intentions blatantly in August 2007, when a Russian lawmaker planted a flag on the seabed at the top of the world, and a year later, when President Dmitri Medvedev told his top generals at a meeting that defending Russia's interests in the Arctic was nothing less than "their direct duty to posterity." Which is why so many of the world's Arctic decisionmakers were amazed last week when they were called to a forum in Moscow to hear a very different message. Russia wants the Arctic to be "a zone of peace and cooperation," Prime Minister Vladimir Putin told them. But could he possibly be serious?

Many observers, including a large portion of the guests at the Sept. 23 forum, say the rhetoric is welcome, but the world will have to wait and see. For now, no one is rushing to dismantle the huge military capacities all of the Arctic countries — the U.S., Canada, Denmark, Norway (all members of NATO) and Russia — have been building north of the Arctic Circle. Ebbing and swelling over the past half-century, the intensity of this militarization has largely depended on Russia's assertiveness over the years.

It began, of course, at the height of the Cold War, when the Arctic was studded with more nuclear weapons than virtually any other part of the world. Then, in the late 1980s, as the Soviet Empire approached its collapse, the military build-up tapered off and began to decline after Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev made his famous Murmansk speech in October 1987 in which he said the Arctic should become "a zone of peace and fruitful cooperation."

When Gorbachev used that phrase, it meant something very different from how Putin used it last week. By the end of the 1980s, Russia was financially incapable of waging an arms race in the polar regions. With no more threat from the Russians, the four other Arctic powers began to let their northern militaries lapse. Attitudes changed after 2001, when soaring oil prices put jets beneath the Russian economy and Putin's government began allocating billions to its Arctic infrastructure. Canada and other Arctic states responded with a greater focus on military spending in the north. At the same time, it became obvious to everyone that the polar ice caps were melting fast and the potential for drilling for and shipping oil and gas in the Arctic would soon be considerable. The northern powers were suddenly facing the last great energy frontier, with a quarter of the world's untapped reserves in the Arctic — more than 400 billion bbl. of oil and oil-equivalent natural gas — and the scramble to claim it began.

By the end of 2014, the U.N. will receive competing claims for parts of the Arctic from Canada, Denmark and Russia, which are using seabed samples to try to prove that the oil-rich regions are extensions of their continental shelves and therefore belong to them. But even though the U.N. will rule on whether the science behind these claims is accurate (it already rejected a Russian claim in 2001 based on poor evidence), it is not the job of the U.N. to delineate borders. That will be up to the countries themselves, and that is where things might get sticky.

A hopeful sign on this front came on Sept. 15, when Russia and Norway settled an Arctic border dispute that had been festering for four decades. The agreement came in the lead-up to last week's forum in Moscow, "The Arctic — Territory of Dialogue," and was seen as part of Russia's push to shed its image as the Arctic aggressor. "We're at a transition," says Paul Berkman, professor of Arctic Ocean geopolitics at the University of Cambridge. "Russia, from the perspective of the West, had been the difficult entity and is now inviting the international community to participate."

The reasoning behind Russia's change of tune is both pragmatic and political. A gentler approach to Arctic policy is in line with Medvedev's broader effort to win over the West, as symbolized by his budding friendship with President Obama. (Remember the french fries they shared at Ray's Hell Burger in June?) And as Russia realizes, exploiting the energy wealth of the Arctic will be much harder if the region gets mired in conflict. "In the absence of stability, none of the energy opportunities are possible," says Berkman.

That, however, has not stopped countries from ramping up their military exercises in the far north — at least, not yet. In August, the U.S., Denmark and Canada held major war games in the region for the first time. "It is a chess game, and everyone is setting up their pieces," says Rob Huebert, an expert in Arctic military strategy at Canada's University of Calgary. "We can dance around it and talk about partnerships of peace, but quite frankly, they are preparing capability against the Russians."

Some would say Moscow started it. In June 2008, a Russian lieutenant general said Russia had begun preparing Arctic-ready troops "after several countries challenged Russia's rights for the resource-rich continental shelf in the Arctic." But in his speech to the forum last week, Putin dismissed all "futuristic predictions of a looming battle for the Arctic" as an attempt to pit the region's governments against one another. Russian officials also denied that any special Arctic forces were being prepared.

Robert Corell, a leading climate scientist who helmed the U.S. delegation at the Sept. 23 forum, says Putin's speech was a turning point and would shift the Arctic debate toward levelheaded discussion. "If the Prime Minister comes out and says that, it's going to be hard for them to back down from that position, certainly in the near future," he says. But underneath Russia's message of peace and cooperation, it seems, there is still plenty of bravado in the country's Arctic claim. "[The other Arctic nations] should have been grateful to us [for planting the flag], because we pushed them to think about the shelf, to consider what needs to be done there," says Artur Chilingarov, a Duma deputy and explorer who led the expedition to plant Russia's tricolor beneath the North Pole in 2007. "If someone wants to stick their flag in as well, there is plenty of room. But it'll be a hundred years before anyone can get down there." And so the scramble continues.