Why Russia’s latest attempt at a land grab is a farce

August 27, 2015
A ship loading iron ore manoeuvres in the Norwegian Arctic port of Narvik

A ship loading iron ore manoeuvres in the Norwegian Arctic port of Narvik October 9, 2014. REUTERS/Alister Doyle

In the wake of Moscow’s aggression in Ukraine, many of Russia’s neighbors in the Arctic are feeling antsy. Yet some observers’ attempts to blast Moscow’s recent claim to 463,000 square miles of the Arctic as an aggressive “land grab,” evidence of another Obama administration foreign policy failure, or the creation of a next “front” in a New Cold War don’t ring true.

This is less about President Barack Obama and more about Russian President Vladimir Putin and his efforts to consolidate power at home. Russian living standards are falling and the state budget is shrinking — due in part to the global isolation Moscow faces from its Ukraine policies. So, the Kremlin is increasingly resorting to theatrics and trying to “stick it to the West” in any way it can in an attempt to divert public attention from growing social and economic problems.

It is unlikely Russia will really succeed in this expansive territorial claim. Russia is just one of several Arctic states claiming territory — including the natural resources — through the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. This convention allows littoral nations to establish an exclusive economic zone more than 200 nautical miles off their coast if they prove this area lies over a natural extension of that country’s continental shelf. Denmark, for example, submitted a claim to the United Nations last December; Canada is expected to do so soon.

Moscow made a similar claim in 2002, but was rejected by the United Nations for lack of scientific evidence. So, for the past decade Russia and other Arctic states have been mapping their coastlines to try to prove their continental shelves extend up to the North Pole. Because the science here is not exact, the United Nations will have to mediate between competing national claims.

When making this claim, Russia abided by international law — in contrast to its 2014 illegal annexation of Crimea and the subsequent war in Ukraine.

One obvious reason Russia and the other nations are making these claims now is that global warming has opened up the Arctic. There has been greater human activity, including oil and gas exploration, new shipping lanes that can reduce sea transit times between continents and adventure tourism in the far north. All could prove lucrative.

Russia’s Arctic gamble, however, is also an attempt to focus the Russian public’s attention from the Ukraine war — which isn’t going terribly well — and the growing problems at home. The Kremlin’s grand plans for establishing Novorossiya in Ukraine have collapsed. Russian proxies now control only two small separatist statelets.

They do so only with active help of the Russian military, which has given up all pretense of non-involvement in Ukraine. Russian mothers, who remember Chechnya and Afghanistan, are nervous about their sons being sent off to a third futile war in a generation. The Kremlin is increasingly worried about the political toll such casualties might have on Putin’s hold on power. Because problems abound for the Kremlin.

The Russian economy is shrinking, hammered by a combination of weak oil prices and Western sanctions. It is confronting inflation and local budget deficits, as well as popular grumbling. Russian liberal elites are unhappy that the relationship with the West has gotten so toxic. Conservatives are displeased that the Ukraine war has not led to a decisive victory for Moscow. Meanwhile, China, now struggling economically, is clearly not going to be the economic lifeline that the Kremlin hoped for.

In addition, Russia’s Arctic claim is another instrument in the Kremlin’s tool-kit for standing up to the West. Consider, all the other Arctic states are either European or North American — and have joined in levying sanctions on Moscow. So this claim is a win-win for the Kremlin: If the United Nations sides with Russia, the Kremlin can present it as a victory for Putin’s foreign policy; if it rejects Russia’s claim, the Kremlin can spin it as yet another example of the West undermining Russia.

The United States need not be alarmist about Russia’s Arctic claim or its ambitious plans for the region. Moscow’s bark — for example, a new Arctic Commission to promote economic development and ambitious plans to increase its military footprint there — is likely to be a lot worse than its bite.

Because the money to implement all these ambitious plans is not there. The Russian economy is projected to shrink by 4 percent to 5 percent this year and again in 2016. When it again starts to grow, its pace is likely to be anemic. Cut off from international credit markets by Western sanctions, Russia cannot pony up or borrow the funds it needs to develop the region.

Western sanctions have also sharply reduced Moscow’s ability to attract foreign investors. Western oil majors, for example, are explicitly blocked by the sanctions regime from working in the Arctic. Yet Russia needs the oil industry’s cash and resources to follow through on its ambitious plans.

Nonetheless Moscow’s moves should be a wake-up call for Washington to focus on its own Arctic strategy. The United States has the second-largest Arctic population after Russia. However, Washington cannot claim an exclusive zone off the coast of Alaska because it never ratified the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea,, which dates back to 1982. Because it never signed on to the convention, Washington has limited say in the U.N. body that mediates these claims.

For years, the United States has under-invested in capabilities to navigate and patrol the Arctic. It has only two active polar icebreakers in its Coast Guard fleet. Only one of them, commissioned in 1976 and already past its 30-year service life, has the capability to patrol the Arctic year round. Overall, the United States has fewer icebreakers than Russia, Finland, Sweden or Canada.

Instead of focusing on Russian posturing, the United States should concentrate on its major challenge — becoming a real Arctic state by first funding and building modern icebreakers.

Otherwise, Russia’s claim will not matter. Because the United States will lack the basic ability to navigate the changing Arctic over the long term.

28 comments

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Why do we have this dross spouted constantly, of course Putin is no saint and yes he wants to take land and protect his borders and country’s future. But does the writer really believe that people can not see the hand of America in all of this going back over a decade.

Posted by Moties001 | Report as abusive

For sure, the main-stream-media is by now so convinced of the people’s abject stupidity, they sincerely believe we’ll believe anything penned by a journalist however clueless to realpolitik. The proof in the pudding is their assertion that Putin has acted any differently in protecting Russia’s interests than the USA would in protecting its own.

Posted by RogerDaguerre | Report as abusive

Mr. Stronski… This will undoubtedly come as a SHOCK to you, but your readers are not as oblivious to the realities of world politics as you seem to believe… In Russia’s realm of influence, Putin will protect Russia’s interests… Surprised?

Posted by Heimdallr | Report as abusive

Russia continues to slide economically, under Putin. Russia’s economy is now smaller than Italy’s. That is worth repeating. A country taking up 12 time zones of this planet produces the same value of goods and services…. as Italy.

GDP per capita in Russia is now less than Greece and Czech Republic. Russia is a ghetto nation and many places in Russia do not even treat their raw sewage any more. It is literally becoming the world’s toilet under Putin’s poor management.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Here’s with our daily dose of american-sponsored anti-Russian propaganda. The sad fact is that some people will actually believe some of this.

Posted by steve84 | Report as abusive

With its historic fact based platform Reuters expect a rather more factual piece about this important topic. This authors’ bias served, not to inform the readership, rather to embarrass them.

Posted by baglanboy | Report as abusive

While the world grows and moves on, Putin is fumbling around struggling to win Chernobyl back. That’s about all that’s in Ukraine. He looks like an idiot and the world is laughing at him. He has the Russians believing he’s someone. He’s like the drunk dad who never leaves the house, but takes off his shirt a lot :)

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Russia’s state of low GDP will work in its favor in preserving the resources for the long-term sustenance. The article itself, has little to no credibility.

Posted by Mottjr | Report as abusive

“Russia’s state of low GDP will work in its favor in preserving the resources for the long-term sustenance.”

Yes, that’s what the American Indians thought too. So keep thinking that. Meanwhile China and Europe will just be ‘surveying some resources on your soil.’ While all 4 billionaire Russian oligarchs take the money and run.

long-term sustenance. Haha. Look around you.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

In the mood to boo both sides. What the author says about Russia’s crony-capo politics and economy may well be true. But most Russians probably feel more “attached” to the Arctic physically and historically than Americans.
There is a good topographic map at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arctic_oce an so one can see the extensive areas of continental shelf to say 100m depth, and dubious claim by Russia based on the ridges toward the North Pole.
The USA seems to do badly by the UNCLOS rules, with little Arctic coastline, and a narrow shelf, Canada does much better.
But USA not in UNCLOS so not ruled by law, so has to go for Wild West law of the gun ?

Posted by Neurochuck | Report as abusive

Not the GDP – try comparing the debt-levels and you’ll see Russia at comfortable 18% while US at over 100%.

Posted by Mottjr | Report as abusive

Russia bashing is not in the interest of the US. We need to do better than that. This article seemed one-sided and full of derogatory remarks about Russia. This is not helpful. Russia should be engaged, and what they say should at least be considered. This knee-jerk reaction to such a powerful country seems foolish. In my opinion, the failed relationship with Russia is the number one failure of Obama’s Presidency.

Posted by Cleveland2012 | Report as abusive

Russia has much to offer. Just not under the stagnant leadership of Putin. He is their GW Bush. Admired by many unintelligent jingoistic fans at home, but really a backward step in world leadership and national development.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

As far as Russian debt goes, that too is increasing under Putin. His promises to far flung rebels are starting to look like Ronald Reagan in the 80’s. Next Putin will be paying the Mujahideen in rockets, just to get the U.S. out of Afghanistan. So that he can have another go.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

“Admired by many unintelligent jingoistic fans” I guess that means nearly 90% of Russians are unintelligent and jingoist. Sounds like something that came out of the piece of drivel originating these commentaries.

Posted by vare1402 | Report as abusive

“One obvious reason Russia and the other nations are making these claims now is that global warming has opened up the Arctic”

Really? Forbes says otherwise

http://www.forbes.com/sites/jamestaylor/ 2015/05/19/updated-nasa-data-polar-ice-n ot-receding-after-all/

Posted by evilhippo | Report as abusive

Nice try, evilhippo. But ice measurement is best left to scientists, not bankers :) Ice pack coverage in arctic waters is now 1.35 million square km less than the 30- year period of 1980-2010:

http://nsidc.org/arcticseaicenews/

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Well at least the Russian troll’s English is improving, but sadly, their grasp of reality is not.

Posted by ReverendJim | Report as abusive

American propaganda at highest level!!

Posted by yoyo54654654 | Report as abusive

All I can say is nobody reading Reuters should ever say anything about RT being biased. Seriously, this biased a report would make the ChinaTimes proud.

Posted by SR37212 | Report as abusive

Russia is a busted flush run by a dictatorial, murderess, tyrant on a massive ego trip!
Whatever the West may or may not have done , this known murderer, even on British soil’ should be cast out in the wilderness’ with his corrupt country for decades to come’ or until somebody does the World a big favor in removing this very likely cause of WW3.

Posted by cmas1998 | Report as abusive

The only farse seen globally, is the desperate propaganda of defense trolls and the dance to their tune, of the few uninformed.

Posted by Mottjr | Report as abusive

Nah, don’t give Obama a pass. He’s the worst president in American history.

Posted by Matthew73 | Report as abusive

Field Marshall Montgomery(Monty), said that the first rule of war is don’t march on Moscow. But that is exactly what the USA is doing. There are no Russian tanks in Mexico, but there are American tanks in Ukraine.

Einstein said Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the universe.

You would think that after the stunning US invasions of Iraq Afghanistan Libya and now Ukraine that the US has enough blood on its hands, but no, now the US wants Russia?

Fools, you will all die.

Posted by Sinbad1 | Report as abusive

This Stronksi is associated with the Carnegie Endowment? Well, that explains his obsessive hatred of all things Russian…

Posted by Big_Gazza | Report as abusive

Nobody is marching on Moscow because nobody has to. Moscow has managed to topple itself. The smart Russians have left for other countries. The smart money is in smarter countries. Russia is left beating its chest in the sad Ukrainian mud. Petty border skirmishes while Putin sinks Russia into further poverty and disrepair.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Dear World, not everything is caused by Obama or the US. That is assigning us way more power in Putin’s mind than appears realistic. Putin does what Putin wants. I can only hope that the Russian people will eventually get the leadership they deserve in order to develop to their potential, both economically and culturally. Russian culture is unique, worth sharing with the world and worthy of respect, most certainly by their own leadership. But, their history is full of catastrophic and deadly failures at the top, so at some point I hope Russians reach the limit of their tolerance of more of the same.

Posted by diane440 | Report as abusive

It is like one thief calling another a thief or like the Indian saying that thieves gather together periodically to divide the villages amongst them to loot. They too have morals rules set by themselves as fake UN, IMF, and the continental shelf extension so on so forth, whatever the rules as long as they benefit them all at the cost of rest of the world.

Posted by moriganti | Report as abusive