Washington’s reaction was angry and bizarre
By Eric Margolis
Sun, August 5, 2007
Russia scored a “coup de theatre” this week by sending a nuclear-powered icebreaker and another research vessel to show the flag at the North Pole.
Two submersibles then made a perilous, four-km- deep dive to the ocean’s bottom in the latest feat of Russia’s long, often heroic record of Arctic exploration.
Supposedly down-and-out Russia shocked everyone by staking an audacious claim to a large swathe of the Arctic Ocean which may contain up to 25% of global oil and gas reserves.
The Arctic pack ice has been melting rapidly due to global warming produced by over-use of fossil fuels. This, ironically, is opening the Arctic to new energy exploration and maritime commerce.
Usually dour President Vladimir Putin must be grinning from ear to ear as he watched huge consternation in Canada, the U.S., Norway and Denmark, all of whom have been hungrily eying the high Arctic.
The Kremlin claims its Siberian continental shelf extends to the North Pole along a 1,200-km underwater ridge named after the renowned 18th century Russian scientist, Lomonosov. International law grants maritime nations a 200-mile economic exclusion zone off their coasts. Moscow insists the North Pole is really just an extension of northern Siberia. Santa will not be happy.
Nor is Ottawa, outraged the Russians had the cheek to make even a symbolic claim to the polar region. Canada wants to advance its own Arctic claims, but, embarrassingly, lacks the icebreakers, patrol vessels, long-ranged aircraft and bases to defend or even police them. New Canadian icebreakers and patrol vessels are still on the drawing boards.
“This isn’t the 15th century!” exclaimed Foreign Minister Peter MacKay.
“Nations can’t claim territory by just planting flags.”
True, but it didn’t seem to occur to outraged Ottawa that its limited military forces and budgets might better be used defending Canadian sovereignty claims in the Arctic than chasing Pashtun tribesmen in remotest Afghanistan.
Washington’s reaction was also angry, and bizarre. A U.S. icebreaker is being rushed at flank speed from Seattle to the North Pole. Administration officials fretted the fabled Arctic Northwest Passage might be used “to transport terrorists” — this, while 200,000 illegal aliens slip into the U.S. from Mexico each month!
Actually, the Russians have solid historic claims to the Arctic. Only the Norse Vikings have been active there longer.
As early as 1032 AD, Russians explored the Kara Sea off northern Siberia and, soon after, the White and Lapatev Seas only 700 km south of the North Pole. In the 1600’s, major Russian expeditions charted the Arctic. Under Peter the Great, Russia opened the Arctic Seas to commerce and made Alaska a colony.
Moscow vows to observe international law and advance its Arctic claims through the UN. Fair enough.
It’s refreshing to see a great power observing international law. Moscow could have adopted the Bush administration’s excuse for invading Iraq, claiming it was occupying the North Pole to find weapons of mass destruction hidden there by rogue seals.
Even so, and joking aside, Moscow’s territorial claim is way over the top and not the right way to deal with what is becoming the very important and potentially dangerous issue of Arctic resources.
There’s a much better method to handle this potential gold rush. The entire, oval-shaped Arctic zone surrounded by the 200-mile limits of Canada, the U.S., Norway and Denmark should become a special UN economic zone. Any nation seeking to drill or mine in this region should buy concessions from the UN and pay it royalties that will be used to fund humanitarian and ecological projects.
Regions in which maritime exclusion zones overlap — such as off Greenland, the Bering Strait, Norway’s Savalbard, Russia’s Franz Josef Land, Greek and Turkish Aegean islands, the South China Seas’ contested Paracel and Spratly islands — should also become UN-run special economic zones and, like Antarctica, international territory.
It’s called sharing, a grown-up way to resolve global resource disputes.
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