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Caution must be taken in Arctic dispute

The continued melting of polar ice has produced an unexpected side effect: The Arctic’s receding ice is revealing unknown amounts of natural resources and potential new shipping lanes. Unfortunately, this has sparked conflict among countries bordering the Arctic, and the situation seems only to be intensifying.

Russia has been adamant about securing Arctic treasures for years, and a report released Friday shows how serious it is. The report called for increased security on the northern border and the creation of a new Arctic military force to “ensure military security under various military-political circumstances.”

This seems to be only the next step in the escalating struggle among the five countries laying claims to Arctic regions: Russia, Canada, Denmark, Norway and the United States. If the dispute is not mediated carefully, the situation could turn into a modern-day land grab with possible military consequences.

Like Russia, Canada has made arrangements to secure and develop its Arctic regions. In 2006, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper planned to spend $5.3 billion developing its Arctic coast and increasing the military presence there. According to the U.K Times Online, Harper defended the plan and said, “I’ve been very clear that we have significant plans for national defense and for defense of our sovereignty, including Arctic sovereignty.”

Denmark planted its flag on Hans Island last year and plans to develop a military base and port there, though Canada also claims the island. The Barents Sea, thought to contain a high concentration of oil and gas deposits, has been the subject of border disputes between Norway and Russia for more than 35 years.

Russia is by far the biggest contributor to the hostilities. In 2007, in an act reminiscent of European imperialism during the Age of Exploration, Russia sent two small submarines under the polar icecap to plant a national flag encased in a titanium box. However, planting a flag is no longer a legitimate means of claiming territory.

Russia’s recent activities have been far more dangerous than the flag stunt. Russian fighter jets have been probing the edges of North American airspace, apparently testing how far they can get before prompting a response.

Dan Dugas, communications director for Canadian Defense Minister Peter MacKay, told Montreal paper The Gazette that the Canadian government would begin meeting all approaching Russian planes with its own fighter jets. The decision follows an incident in February in which two Russian Tupolev Tu-95 strategic bombers came close to entering Canadian Arctic airspace. The jets turned away only after they were met by two Canadian CF-18 jets. The incident was especially alarming because it took place
one day before a visit to Ottowa by President Barack Obama.

Russia has downplayed its aerial exploration of the Arctic, claiming it has done nothing wrong because the jets never actually left international airspace. Russia also claims it informs Canada of most Arctic flights near the border, according to the Times Online. Dugas denied this claim and said, “There have been 74 flights into North America’s zone of interest in 2007 and 2008 sparking (North American Aerospace Defense Command) intercepts, including eight by Canadian jet fighters. The Russians only provided advance notice on three of these flights.”

Countries bordering the Arctic have plenty of reasons to want a piece of polar territory. Helge Lund, chief executive of Norway’s state oil company, Statoil, told the Times Online that a quarter of the world’s undiscovered oil reserves — an estimated 375 billion barrels — lie in the Arctic. In addition, because of the receding ice, the fabled Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific explorers searched for centuries ago now actually exists, and another route connecting northwest Europe and northeast Asia is opening up, according to NASA projections.

An attempt to resolve this issue was made last year, when officials from Russia, Canada, Denmark, Norway and the U.S. agreed to abide by the 1982 Law of the Sea, which permits nations to claim all water within 200 miles of their coast. However, the U.S. never actually signed the law, and Russia’s plan for an Arctic military force is a sign that it will likely not be satisfied with 200 miles.

Russia is determined to find evidence that a mountain range along the Arctic floor is connected to the Russian continental shelf, and it is preparing to defend its territorial claims with military force.

Polar researcher Arthur Chilingarov, who took part in the flag-planting mission, praised Russia’s plans and said to the Russian business paper Kommersant, “The creation of Arctic forces reflects a normal desire to protect our territory.”

As Russia’s territorial claims are far from concrete, its stubborn determination may spark increasingly hostile responses if diplomatic measures are not taken. A greedy carving up of the already environmentally damaged Arctic will only lead to further conflict.

Michael Hardcastle is a freshman majoring in mass communications.