Putin’s new Arctic great game

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WHEN Vladimir Putin calls for international dialogue and personally hosts the resulting conference, you know he means business.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 01/09/2010 (4478 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

WHEN Vladimir Putin calls for international dialogue and personally hosts the resulting conference, you know he means business.

September’s whimsically titled The Arctic: Territory of Dialogue International Forum, to be held in Moscow to discuss the Arctic’s mineral resources, represents a strategic move by Russia in the new Cold War.

If we were in any doubt the race is on for the Arctic’s energy riches, just check out this year’s conference season. In March, Canada hosted a summit of Arctic Ocean foreign ministers from the littoral nations — Canada, the U.S., Russia, Denmark and Norway. Billed as "Canada finally taking its Arctic initiative seriously," it hit the international headlines only when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticized the organizers for excluding indigenous peoples, including those from Iceland, Finland and Sweden.

AP Photo/Alexei Druzhinin, Pool When Vladimir Putin calls for international dialogue and personally hosts the resulting conference, you know he means business.

Why more talking shops?

In June, the Adam Smith Conferences hosted the Russian Arctic Oil and Gas conference in Moscow. But with the Arctic Council already supposedly the carriers of the torch for the new international Arctic "arrangements," why inaugurate yet another series of international talking shops?

One major clue comes with the priority of the organizing group, the Russian Geographical Society (RGS), and with those invited as speakers and guests. The RGS, historically, is far better-known for its environmental rather than energy concerns, as a review of its new "The Arctic" website confirms. According to Svetlana Mironyuk of the Ria Novosti, the news agency micromanaging the September conference, it will be "the first large project of the revived Russian Geographical Society."

And, while Prince Albert of Monaco, who is the Aspen Institute’s Arctic commissioner, and Icelandic President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson are both honorary guests, it appears they and Putin will be the only invited statesmen. According to Mironyuk, this underscores the point Putin wants to make, that Arctic territory disputes are matters to be left to the "explorers and scientists." Making the call for international dialogue in an address to the RGS in mid-March, Putin began with the politics: "There has been much ado around the Arctic region. You know how the (Russian) flag was erected (on the seabed) and how negatively our neighbours reacted to this. Nobody has stopped them erecting their own flags. Let them do it. But we work under the rules established by the United Nations and in line with maritime laws."

Putin soon moved to other more esoteric matters, making an impassioned plea… to save the polar bears. "The number of polar bears continues to decline," Putin said. "In fact, they are on the verge of extinction. Of course, this must not be allowed, and the polar bear should be preserved not only in zoos, but in wildlife also."

Leaving aside that polar bears are actually currently thriving, one can only gasp that the Russian PM has apparently suddenly "found environmentalism." Am I being a little cynical? Or is Putin’s building an international case for Russia as the key "Defender of the Arctic Environment" all about further bolstering Russian geographical claims? You call it.

Meanwhile, if Russia is serious about taking the initiative in reducing growing tensions over Arctic territorial and mineral rights and potential future conflict, then there are plenty of tensions around to defuse. Russia and the U.S. have yet to resolve a long-standing demarcation dispute in the North Pacific; the U.S. and Canada are arguing over large areas of the Beaufort Sea; Denmark is wrangling with Canada over claims in Greenland; and there’s Norway’s claim to a massive portion of Russia’s continental shelf in the Barents Sea.

Then there are, of all things, China’s Arctic claims.

Currently on a worldwide metals and energy shopping spree, China clearly has no intention of being dealt out of the Great Arctic Energy Game. Beijing has already gained observer status at the Arctic Council and has opened research stations in Norway at Spitzgen. It also owns the world’s largest, Soviet-bought, icebreaker, with which it already plies Arctic waters. China has a keen interest not only in gaining stakes in new oil and gas fields, but also has a strategic interest in newly navigable Arctic waterways that could significantly reduce the length of China’s westbound trading routes.

With around 15 per cent of the world’s total hydrocarbon reserves at stake, Putin appears to be positioning Russia as the "house dealer" at the new Arctic-energy table. He has a credible case. The RGS claims 80 per cent of the "Arctic land" is governed by the Russian Federation and Canada. And a U.S. study in June 2009 by California geologist Donald Gautier has acknowledged that Russia, with the longest Arctic border and its army of nuclear icebreakers, does indeed "own the rights" to most of the Arctic’s energy riches. Dr. Gautier stresses: "Russia is already the world’s largest producer of natural gas, and so our findings suggest that the undiscovered resources are going to have the effect of more or less reinforcing that Russian strategic strength with respect to its natural-resource potential."

No wonder Putin perceives an unprecedented opportunity to offer international seats to attend his Arctic Great Game — or risk being dealt out.

But, like any new-frontier pioneer, Russia is going to need partners to overcome the enormous technological challenges that lie ahead. Putin is no fool. By taking the round-table diplomatic initiative as the leading Arctic energy power and chief protector of the Arctic environment, the new "green" Putin reveals he believes that "jaw-jaw" — on Russian terms, of course — is better for business than "war-war."

The conference this month — and your correspondent will be in attendance — thus amounts to an invitation to interested parties to give an international blessing to the betrothal of the Russian and the polar bear. Kismet, so Putin might believe, given that "Arctic," from arktos, is the Greek word for bear.

 

Peter C. Glover is the international

columnist for Troy Media.

 

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