Enjoying my morning tea the other day, my attention was caught by an Arctic headline in our local newspaper.
When the Arctic makes its way into a publication I read rather for its regional flavour than international current affairs, I get the feeling there are certainly things afoot. Or is it just that stories involving Russia and any possible military conflict appeal to the public at the moment? The story was the latest sabre-rattling by Vladimir Putin, saying Russia would be stepping up its military presence in the Arctic to defend the country’s geopolitical interests.
The Kremlin chief has been turning into a bit of a public enemy number one here, with the arrest of the “Arctic 30″ and refusal to comply with the international maritime tribunal, the pressure on the Ukraine to keep away from the EU and the publicity of the treatment of homosexuals in the run-up to the winter Olympics. Now the big, bad Russians are sending soldiers up to the North Pole, that iconic supposedly untouched frozen waste at the top of the planet, which belongs to no country. Not so far anyway.
We remember how a Russian submarine planted its flag on the seabed under the North Pole in 2007. Back in 2001 Russia submitted a claim to extend its nautical borders to the UN commission on the limits of its continental shelf. In the meantime, the rapidly warming climate has increased the international race to get at Arctic resources and develop an infrastructure to profit from increased shipping through the area.
I do find it a matter of concern that Russia is re-opening military bases in the Arctic and has sent warships up there for the first time in more than 20 years. Luke Harding in the Guardian links Russia’s renewed interest in the region directly to Putin’s ascent to the Kremlin in 2000. In contrast to the policies under Dmitry Medvedev, “Putin’s Arctic rhetoric has been hawkish”, Harding writes. The same can be said of Canada’s conservative prime minister Stephen Harper. Canada has just submitted its claim to the UN Commission and says it will actually be laying claim to the North Pole soon. As current chair of the Arctic Council, Canada has been stressing the need to develop the region. This week I talked to a Canadian colleague, who was flabbergasted by the latest Canadian antics concerning the High North. His scepticism was based on what he sees as a huge discrepancy between the might of Putin’s Russia and a Canada with limited military resources.
Let us hope that military power is not what will decide the struggle for the North Pole and the Arctic in general. If the countries put as much effort into reducing emissions and developing climate-friendly technologies as into military developments – and I am thinking of political rhetoric and pr as much as actual spending – the Arctic might be able to continue to be the remote, frozen area at the top of the world with its unique ecosystems preserved for future generations.