The Arctic is emerging as a key locus of both competition and cooperation between Russia and the United States. The reduction in the ice cap creates new possibilities for sustainable resource extraction and shipping while at the same time posing vexing environmental and governance questions.
Russia’s primary Arctic policy objective has thus far been to promote and protect its claims to continental shelf territories beyond the 200 nautical mile economic exclusion zone provided by the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which governs such claims, in order to exploit the potential natural resources located there.
Explorer and Duma deputy Artur Chilingarov’s 2007 planting of the Russian flag on the North Pole seabed served to symbolically reinforce Russia’s claims to the area. Russia has since continued to gather data to support its claims and made noises that it is preparing to defend them militarily. However, Foreign Minister Lavrov later walked back these statements, insisting Russia was “not planning to increase [its] armed forces’ presence in the Arctic.”
For now, Russia is moving forward with the claims process created by UNCLOS. Contrary to public perceptions of a Russian grab for Arctic riches (created largely by the Chiligarov expedition), Russia appears to be working within the established international framework for resolving Arctic disputes.
The United States must be ready to defend its interests in the region, but it should simultaneously pursue new modes of cooperation with the four other circumpolar states—Russia, Canada, Denmark, and Norway. As part of this effort, the administration should intensify its bilateral cooperation with Russia on a range of Arctic issues.
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