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Swords and Shields: Arctic strategies

Spitsbergen island.
by Ariel Cohen | Lajos F. Szaszdi
Washington (UPI) Nov 21, 2008
The resumption of Cold War-style patrols and increased naval presence in the Arctic Ocean by the Russian navy and air force is in keeping with the Russian Federation's more forward posture of recent years.

The new policy and stepped-up deployment of aircraft and warships in the Arctic Ocean region is also intended to increase the Kremlin's leverage vis-a-vis territorial claims in the Far North. The Russian Federation is taking a dual approach of projecting military power while invoking international law.

Regarding its new, increased level of naval deployments near Spitsbergen island, the Russian navy stated: "Sorties of warships of the Russian Northern Fleet will be made periodically with a necessary regularity. All actions of the Russian warships are fulfilled strictly in accordance with the international maritime law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea."

At a meeting of the Russian government's Maritime Board in April 2008, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov backed a policy of settling territorial disputes in the region with the countries bordering the arctic through cooperation.

Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov stressed at the meeting that Russia observes the international law on the matter through adherence to "two international conventions": the 1958 Convention on the Continental Shelf, signed by Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the United States, and the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

While paying lip service to international law, Russia's ambitious actions hark back to 19th-century statecraft rather than 21st-century law-based policy and appear to indicate that the Kremlin believes credible displays of power will settle the conflicting territorial claims. By comparison, the West's posture toward the Arctic Ocean has been irresolute and inadequate.

The Arctic Ocean has two main sea routes that are open to shipping for about five months of the year with the help of icebreakers: the Northern Sea Route and the Northwest Passage.

The Northern Sea Route links the Barents Sea in the west with the Chukchi Sea to the east and services isolated settlements along Russia's long Arctic Ocean coastline. If the arctic ice cap continues to shrink, it will become a major route for international shipping. A Northern Sea Route that is navigable longer would make the transportation of commodities to international markets easier and significantly reduce transportation costs between the Pacific Rim and Northern Europe and Eurasia.

A political commentator from Russian news agency RIA Novosti argued: "The country that dominates this sea lane will dictate its terms to the developers of the shelf deposits and will see the biggest gains from the transportation of raw materials to the Pacific and the Atlantic. These include billions of tons of oil and trillions of cubic meters of gas, not to mention other minerals in which the local lands abound."

(Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is senior research fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Security, and Lajos F. Szaszdi, Ph.D., is a researcher in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.)

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