Russia’s Race for the Arctic (Video Available)

Dr. Pavel K. Baev
Research Professor, International Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO)

Glen Howard
President, The Jamestown Foundation

On October 25, The Jamestown Foundation hosted a lecture by Dr. Pavel K. Baev, a Research Professor at the International Peace Research Institute, Oslo. Dr. Baev shared the results of his analysis on the August 2007 expedition to plant the Russian flag on the seabed at the North Pole, including domestic and international responses to Moscow’s bid to claim a wide swath of the Arctic as Russian territory, as well as the implications on its relationship with its Arctic neighbors. Dr. Baev argued that the August 2007 expedition to plant the Russian flag on the seabed at the North Pole had minimal scientific content but played a prominent role in adding an Arctic dimension to Russia’s assertive foreign policy. The event has been a source of domestic jubilation and media interest, as well as international criticism. Dr. Baev contemplated the possible responses by the other Arctic countries—Denmark, Norway, Canada and the United States—and explored which may be the most effective in defying Russian unilateralism.


Russia desires to expand its 230-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) by about 460,000 mi2 beyond the Chukotka Sea and the East Siberian Sea, advancing the argument that the underwater ridges of Mendeleev and Lomonosov constitute continuations of its continental shelf. In 2001 Moscow applied to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) with the same request it is unofficially advocating now, but the Commission denied the bid due to insufficient evidence.

Dr. Baev contended that the expedition produced little of worth to science, as the submersible—reaching the seabed in the middle of the Amundsen Basin that is squeezed between the Lomonosov and Gakkel ridges—collected only a few samples of sand and dirt, none of which constituted any geologic evidence. Still, the Russian media covered the event with fanfare, and several politicians voiced their support for the claim.

Despite the priority that energy has in Russia’s foreign policy, the connection between the expedition and the potential oil and gas reserves in the Arctic is not clear. Reliable estimates are not feasible for much of the Arctic region, though in terms of the Russian “sector,” the Lomonosov and Mendeleev ridges are actually the least likely to have substantial amounts of reserves. Russia also lacks experience and technology in developing off-shore oil and gas fields, let alone in harsh conditions such as those in the Arctic region. Moscow recently had to cancel development of a gas field in the Barents Sea for this reason.

Gazprom, the oil companies, and government agencies are apparently in no rush to develop the vast hydrocarbon resources of the Arctic seas—Moscow estimates that hydrocarbons will still be in high demand in 30 years. Dr. Baev suggested that current plans and mid-term prospects for energy development cannot justify the present-day rush in advancing the claim for expanding Russia’s possessions in the Arctic.

President Putin recently ordered the resumption of “combat patrolling” by the Strategic Aviation over the Arctic, canvassing what other officials called areas of Russian “economic interest.” Dr. Baev noted technological weaknesses in the Russia military, concluding that it would be senseless for Moscow to re-launch a military brinkmanship in its northern waters.

A credible reason for the expedition may have been to establish a more solid ideological foundation, especially since 2004, when Russia suffered several setbacks in its foreign policy. Dr. Baev remarked that Putin’s administration may have stumbled upon the Arctic theme as an opportunity to improve PR.

The Arctic provides a theater for Russia to display its newly consolidated power, and elites believe a readiness to advance one’s own interests is a virtue. Dr. Baev suspected that diplomatic confrontations with Denmark, Norway, and Canada over the issue are unlikely for reasons individual to each, and that the main source of intrigue is the United States and whether it tries to form a coalition with the other Arctic states to counter Russia.

Dr. Baev concluded that potential positives to come out of this event could be: the U.S. Congress feeling an urgency to ratify the UN Law of the Sea Convention, thereby strengthening this international regime; demonstrating again the depletion of the Arctic ice cap, thereby illustrating the problem of global warming. In reality, Russia has little chance of the CLCS approving its request for an expansion of its EEZ. Nevertheless, Dr. Baev suggested a policy of containment against Russia and pointed to the Antarctic model as an ideal solution to dealing with the Arctic.


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