Developments concerning the Arctic region have been a recurrent theme in politics this April. Russian President D. Medvedev and Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg reached a breakthrough agreement on the demarcation of the long-contested maritime border between Russia and Norway in the Barents Sea and the Arctic Ocean, and Russian Prime Minister V. Putin visited Franz Josef Land where he stated that geopolitically Russia's deepest interests are linked to the Arctic. Russian First Deputy Prime Minister V. Zubkov stressed Russia's commitment to further energizing its two transit projects implemented jointly with Canada - the Arctic Bridge and the Polar Air Routes – and praised the Canadian expertise in creating industrial clusters in the north-eastern regions.
The signing in Oslo of the agreement on the maritime delimitation between Norway and the Russian Federation in the Barents Sea and the Arctic Ocean brought to an end the protracted dispute over a 75,000 square km of territory located between Norway's Svalbard and Russia's Novaya Zemlya. As a part of the deal, Russia consented to a shift of the 1926 demarcation line which linked directly the edge of the Kola Peninsula border and the North Pole, and Norway accordingly tamed its own territorial claims.
The two countries plan to cooperate in the development of the impressive Arctic shelf deposits of energy resources. For Norway, such projects open opportunities to diversify away from the increasingly depleted hydrocarbon resources in the North Sea, while Russia is keenly interested in the Norwegian companies' advanced technologies of offshore extraction of mineral resources.
The Russian-Norwegian agreements concerning the Arctic open a new phase of the race for the resources of the region. The five Arctic-shore countries – Canada, the US, Denmark, Norway, and Russia – are equally interested in extending their Arctic territories and need a consensus legitimizing the contours of their possessions. Last year, the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf endorsed Norway's description of the seabed outside of its established border, thus allowing the country to widen its economic zone in the Arctic by 235,000 square km. Much earlier – already in 2001 - Russia submitted an analogous bid premised in the theory that the Lomonosov and Mendeleev ridges should be regarded as integral parts of its shelf.
The existing international maritime law provides Arctic countries with legitimate reasons to debar others from their respective sectors of the region. On top of disputes among the Arctic Council peers, the general practice is likely to meet with resistance from other countries - for example, from China which maintains 26 research expeditions in the framework of its own Arctic program.
The deposits contained in the Arctic – the part of the world which is believed to hold over a quarter of the global resources of oil and natural gas - are indeed a serious prize. It motivates the Arctic countries to advance ownership of greater economic zones in the region, leaving those not blessed with direct access to it explainably displeased.
Russia intends to deploy a special group of armed forces in the Arctic to ensure the security of its part of the Arctic Ocean. By 2016 the Arctic is supposed to start serving as Russia's “strategic resource base”. The corresponding document of the Russian Security Council – Fundamentals of Russian Federation Policy in the Arctic Till 2020 and Beyond – envisages the dispatch to the Arctic region of a group comprising general-purpose troops as well as other forces and military formations capable of maintaining security under a broad range of political and military conditions. Discussing the plan while on Franz Josef Land, V. Putin said: "Here Russia's security and defense capabilities are provided for”. He mentioned that the region hosts Russian navy bases and strategic aviation patrol routes, and is important economically due to its natural resources. The Shtokman field is located at a distance of 300 km from the Barents Sea shore, and the Northern Sea Route also lies in the Arctic. V. Putin visited a border guard station on Franz Josef Land and watched the forces of the Russian Border Guard Service and Ministry for Civil Defense, Emergencies, and the Elimination of Consequences of Natural Disasters exercise jointly in the Arctic specific conditions.
The current bold initiatives in the Arctic can be regarded as an indication of Russia's determination to advance its interests in the region. Notably, ecology ranks high on Russia's Arctic agenda. V. Putin called for a major cleanup after inspecting a site of past economic and military activity on Franz Josef Land. According to available estimates, up to 250,000 barrels containing 40,000-60,000 tons of fuel, some 1,000,000 empty fuel barrels, plus aircrafts, radar stations, trucks, and buildings abandoned after the collapse of the USSR still remain in the archipelago. It is widely recognized that the fragile Arctic environment is facing a considerable threat. The truth highlighted recently by the Eyjafjallajökull vulcano eruption is that the environment of the planet's North must be taken seriously.