The new land the world is fighting over

Polar posturing … A Russian military vehicle is camouflaged among blocks of ice during military training near Murmansk on Russia’s polar territories earlier this year. Source: Getty Source: Getty Images

THE Arctic ice is in rapid retreat. Now the world’s militaries are advancing towards an uncertain future as nearby nations scramble to lay claim to the riches which lay beneath.

It’s the closest thing left to virgin territory the modern world has. But now a freshly aggressive Russia is building a swathe of new — and reactivating many old — military bases along its Arctic frontier. It’s something that has not gone unnoticed at the Pentagon. Unlike their political masters, the US defense forces know climate change is real. And they’re having to come to grips with its implications fast. By 2050, the US Navy predicted as far back as 2002, there could be no ice in the Arctic summer. Their more recent studies state it could happen much sooner. It could be as early as 2020. The political consequences are messy. The world is already seeing a scramble to lay claim to the resources currently locked away by the pack ice.

The retreating expanse of white has opened up waterways and passages long closed against ships and the commerce they carry. Ever hear of the fabled north-west passage? It’s a near-legendary sea route through the Arctic along the northern coast of Canada and Alaska. Sir John Franklin and the crews of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror perished in a failed 1845 attempt to find such an economically exciting shortcut to the north of Canada.Now that centuries-old dream is rapidly approaching reality.

In 2009 the pack ice retreated enough to excite commercial shipping to the prospect of a new, shorter route. Business is set to explode — carrying trade between Asia, Europe and the United States over vastly reduced distances.

With the rest of the Arctic, you can add new access to sea floor oil, gas and rare mineral deposits to the equation.

Anyone able to exert influence over such a strong commercial pulse will be in a box seat when it comes to world affairs. This is why Russia is building bases, Canada is in court, Denmark is conducting patrols and the United States is repositioning more and more forces within its reach.


Canada. Norway. Russia. These are the nations which all have significant national borders skirting the Arctic. The United States (via Alaska) and Denmark (via Greenland) have also staked their claims. The upshot is a vast stretch of space over which all these nations are bickering. As the ice retreats, the war of words is heating up.

Now the posturing has started.

In March this year Russia sent 40,000 troops, 15 submarines and 40 warships north. All the way north, in fact.

It was an enormous military exercise aimed at demonstrating its ability to project power over the rapidly diminishing polar ice cap.

To emphasise its point, Russian bombers now regularly range deep into the disputed territory.

TITLE: Russian bombers over the Arctic

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CAPTION: Russian bombers over the Arctic

The US Defence Force has long taken the consequences of climate change seriously.

It sees the implications as enormous. Not only does an ice-free Arctic open up new potential for territorial disputes, it also removes a key hiding ground for its submarines and opens up shorter routes for the movements of warships, troops and aircraft.

This is why it has been conducting its own studies into where — and when — the Arctic ice will retreat. It’s also been adapting its equipment and infrastructure to operate in the area.

“We are beginning to think about and plan for how our Naval fleet and other capabilities and assets will need to adapt to the evolving shifts and requirements in the region,” Hagel said as far back as 2013.

Last year’s US Defence Force Quadrennial Defence Review went on to make numerous specific references to evolving geopolitical issues linked to climate change.

The US Navy, in particular, has been looking forward. It wants to be ready to fight at the top of the world by 2030. They’re not the only ones.

In June, NATO responded to growing tensions with Russia with its most significant amphibious assault exercises yet. While based in the frigid Baltic Sea to counter Moscow’s increasingly belligerent attitude towards former satellite states, it coincided with the significant air combat exercise “Arctic Challenge” involving NATO, Sweden and Norway.

Even China has begun to weigh into the debate, highlighting how the absence of ice changes the application of the Law of the Sea and the global significance of new shipping routes.


Russia has the most to gain from an Arctic territorial grab.

Fuel. Metals. Diamonds.

According to an article in the Moscow Times: “Putin sees control of the Arctic as a matter of serious strategic concern for Moscow. Below the Arctic lies vast stockpiles of largely untapped natural resource reserves; estimates vary, but the more optimistic ones put the undiscovered reserves of oil and gas in the Arctic at 13 and 30 per cent of the world’s total, respectively.”

Moscow has declared a claim on 1.2 million square kilometres and issued a string of scientific papers defining new, advantageous interpretations of Law of the Sea statutes.

In December last year, President Vladimir Putin declared the formation of a new military command with specific jurisdiction over Arctic waters: The Northern Fleet United Strategic Command.

According to a report in the news agency TASS, the command’s responsibilities include protecting the region’s natural resources and providing security for expanding commercial shipping.

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CAPTION: Russian navy in bracing waters

New units placed under its control are based in the Arctic New Siberian Islands, Franz Josef Land and the Nova Zembla archipelago. A Cold War era military air base on Kotelny Island was reactivated in 2013, and work has reportedly begun on a chain of air bases along Russia’s northern coast.

On the other side of the Arctic, between Russia and Alaska, work on a new military base on Wrangel Island last year. This part of the Chukchi Sea which has recently experienced significant ice loss.

It’s also near where US President Barack Obama recently approved exploratory oil drilling.

But Russia’s not the only nation to seek to expand its territorial reach into the Arctic.

Canada is embroiled in an international court battle over the Northwest Passage. Its government even went so far as to change the name — to the “Canadian Northwest Passage” — in order to emphasise its claim.

The sea route passes through a string of arctic islands along Canada’s northern border which it considers to be its national waters. The United States, much of Europe, and Asia think differently. They argue this passage should be classified as an international strait — allowing “free and unencumbered passage” for any who wishes to pass. This legal wrangle has begun before the viability of the channel as a route for large containerships and supertankers has even been established.


The wrangle of Arctic Ocean rights is a dispute that has been thrashed out on the floors of the United Nations for more than 15 years. No resolution is yet in sight.

Originally, the world simply defined its international coastal limits by the distance a cannonball could be shot. That’s just 5.6km.

The thinking was, since anything closer to that could attack the shore — approaching within that distance could be perceived as a threat. Thus the emergence of the idea of territorial waters.

This all became complicated after World War II when the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention was established in order to minimise the risk of fresh territorial tensions over resources leading to conflict.

The consensus view was that national waters would now extend up to 12 nautical miles (22.2km) from a coastline. Above and beyond this, however, was a 200 nautical mile (370km) Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) which could be stretched an additional 150 nautical miles (279km) if no other nation was between you and the continental shelf.

The United States has long refused to sign this convention.

This has put it in a difficult position when it comes to mediating in global hot spots such as the East and South China Seas.

But it has changed its mind when it comes to the Arctic.

Russia, for its part, remains suspicious of the formation of an Arctic Council to mediate on the matter as most of its members — which include the main claimants as well as states such as Finland, Iceland and Sweden — belong to either the EU, NATO, or both.

But the treaty is not black and white.

Possession remains nine-tenths of the law. Just ask China with its land reclamation projects in the disputed South China Sea. It’s these politics of pragmatism that has seen Denmark establish a military force specifically to police its Arctic waters in 2012. It’s also why there is a new emphasis on war games over the rapidly thinning ice.


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