The Diplomatic Cold War for Arctic Territories

Written by S.M. Nahian Islam
(General Member, DUMUNA)

The cold icy water of the Arctic is starting to melt and with that, the battle for Arctic territories is heating up. Everyone wants a piece of the North Pole. The first thought that may come to your mind is why anyone would want such an unlivable hostile region. That’s where things get interesting. Because everyone wants what’s underneath the ice sheets, not above it. Based on reports from the U.S Geological Survey, 22% of the entire world’s Oil and Gas Reserves are in the Arctic. Plus, the Northern Sea Route works as a shortcut between Asia and Europe, saving both time and money, compared to the route through the Suez Canal. This diplomatic battle can be traced back to as far as the 19th century. The former Soviet Union claims the Arctic as their birthright. But modern-day Russia has taken a more scientific approach. No matter which part of the globe Russia goes to, NATO follows. But in regards to the Arctic territories, it directly impacts the NATO allies. However, every country is using its individual diplomatic ties to strengthen the claim on the north-most region of the world.

Image: Disputed Territories of the Arctic
Source: IBRU, Durham University

The region is up for grabs and whoever plays their cards right might get a piece of the territory. Russia, United States, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Canada, and Iceland the eight Arctic States have been proactive for the last century. Some of the countries have even held military exercises by reopening military bases of the Cold War era. Surprisingly enough, China and even North Korea has managed to meddle their way into the discussion.

But how did it all start? What’s the future of the Arctic? 

It’s time to find out.

How did it All Start?

Mankind’s thirst for discovering the unknown led the Vikings to the northern region of the globe. The main purpose was to find a shorter passage to the other part of the world. But their dreams got frozen in the ice. As countries evolved and boundaries were drawn, the forever existing confusion about the Arctic started to dictate country policies.

First known map of the Arctic: the Septentrionalium Terrarum by Gerardus Mercator
Source: Public Domain

In 1903, Canada established the North-West Mounted Police detachment on Herschel Island with the hope of securing sovereignty in the Western region of the Arctic. Canadian Senator Pascal Poirier on 20th February 1907 proposed that all the lands and islands between the Canadian border and the geographic North Pole belonged to Canada. Two years after that on April 6th, 1909, Admiral Peary claims that he is the first man to reach the North Pole. By hoisting the American flag on the ice he declares the entire territory of the North Pole belongs to the US. On July 1st of the same year, Captain Joseph Barnier claimed the Arctic Archipelagos for Canada by unveiling a plaque on Melville Island.

The claims on the arctic territories went back and forth for decades. In 1925 Canada officially amended the Northwest Territory Act which states that the Canadian boundary stretches to the North Pole. In response, the USSR releases the Arctic Decree claiming the arctic region. Following the 2nd World War, US President Harry Truman issued a proclamation enabling America to extract natural resources of the subsoil and the sea. Per Truman’s directive, the UN approves the Convention on the Continental Shelf which allows countries to exploit natural resources within their continental shelf. Every country except for Iceland ratified it. But soon the debates again started to get traction.

The following years saw various commercial and non-commercial vessels use the Northern Passage to traverse through the icy waters. In 1972, the Kingdom of Denmark and Canada submitted their agreement on the Arctic territories to the United Nations. Denmark’s claim via Greenland got public support but due to the diplomatic prowess of the other countries, progress became stagnant.

But everything changed when the United Nations Convention on Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS) was introduced in 1982.

Impact of UNCLOS on the Arctic Claims

It took over 9 years of negotiation to establish the United Nations Convention on Laws of the Sea. It is still the longest-running negotiation in the history of the United Nations. This treaty holds the Arctic together. If it wasn’t for this treaty we might have seen another World War. So, what does this treaty state? 

The UNCLOS grants coastal states a 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) which can be used for various national purposes. That should have solved the Arctic Crisis. But because of article 76 of the UNCLOS, the arctic waters are still unsettled.

According to that article, if any country can provide geological evidence that a distant seabed is an extension of that country’s continental shelf then that part of the sea falls within the territories of that country.  The idea is fairly simple, get scientific evidence, and prove it’s a part of the country.

Image: Maritime Zones based on UNCLOS
Source: European Commission, 2015

The treaty was introduced in 1982 and came into force in 1994. Every Arctic country apart from the United States ratified the treaty causing more disruption in the harmony of the windy Arctic. 

Canada, Norway, Denmark and Russia have submitted their scientific claim on the Arctic region to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. Because the process is completely based on research and evidence, it takes more time than it should.

NATO against Russia

Wherever Russia goes, NATO follows or the other way around. But in the case of the Arctic, the western bloc isn’t shying away from the dispute. Weirdly enough, even though the USA has a strong claim, they aren’t leading the pack and they have been reluctant to get involved entirely.  When the Arctic dispute is the topic of the meeting, every country has its agenda.

Image: The Russian Arctic Brigade on Snowmobile
Source: mil.ru

The militarization of the Arctic is one of the major concerns of the stakeholders. It’s fair to say that Russia is well-equipped to fight off any other country if it ever leads to that. Things started to escalate when two Russian submersibles planted the Russian flag in the North Pole, 14,000 feet beneath the ocean. This was done to show Russia’s authority in the region. Russia has been investing heavily in the Arctic, almost 10% of their total investment. The nuclear icebreaker fleet was introduced by Russia to help commercial vessels navigate through the cold-icy waters of the Northern Sea Route (NSR). In addition to the 61 Russian Ice-breaker fleet, Moscow has opened old naval bases in the high north and runs several military exercises in the cold winter of the Northern region.  Whether they’re preparing for something atrocious or just flexing their power, only time will tell. 

Canada has been very involved in the battle for the Arctic. They have operated several military drills in collaboration with the USA and other NATO allies in the Arctic Ocean. Norway has been ever-present in the scene as well. They have sent multiple patrol ships to the Svalbard archipelago in the last decade. In early May of 2019, for the first time since the Cold War, multiple British and American warships sailed to the Barents Sea. In response, Russia announced that they would also conduct their military exercises in the Barents Sea and the Norwegian Sea. According to many war veterans’ Russian military is far superior in the cold. A fine example is the recent military paratrooper exercise off the Coast of Franz Joseph Island. Normally Canada conducts its annual drill Operation Nanook during the summer when the Arctic weather is timid. On the other hand, Russia conducted its recent drill during mid-winter in harsh conditions.

Image: Annual Nanook Military Exercise by Canadian Military
Source: Andrew Testa for the New York Times

By opening new Arctic bases and establishing sophisticated Air Defense systems off the northern coast, Russia’s message to NATO and the rest of the world is straightforward and effective.

The Solution to the Arctic Dispute

As of now, the Arctic has been relatively calm compared to other disputed parts of the world. Although Russia has been broadening their military presence and NATO somewhat giving mixed messages, collaboration among the Arctic states is evident. A lot of it is down to the Arctic Council which was formed in 1996 to initiate cooperation and communication across the North Pole. The Arctic Council focuses on a non-military approach and so far the council has been more or less successful. 

China has recently been vocal about its ambitions relating to the Arctic. The Polar Silk Route also referred to as the Northern Sea Passage is of great importance to China’s trade. On top of that, their ambition to take center stage on disputes among NATO and Russia has driven Beijing to negotiate for a place in the Arctic Council.

All things considered, the Arctic Region can be a place of harmony and cooperation if we take a similar approach to the one we have taken on the South Pole. An international treaty has ensured peace in the Antarctic and that’s why most of it is unharmed. A similar approach might stop any further escalation of the cold chaos in the Arctic.


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