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NYT: A Heads-Up on Russia's Role in Arctic

Author: John Vinocur
December 7, 2009

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John Vinocur of The New York Times examines news developments in the Arctic and explores Russia's goal of building a "comprehensive presence" in the area.

It doesn't seem like anyone took much notice, but last week marked the 50th anniversary of an exemplary international success - the signing of the Antarctic Treaty that turned the global Deep South into a demilitarized zone "forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes."

Exemplary, yes, in the sense that the United States, the Soviet Union, and dozens of other eventual signatories came to an agreement in the middle of the Cold War to rule out pushing and shoving over a potentially strategic area. It's a commitment the world has adhered to for a half century.

The example may stop there. When it comes to the High North - and the prospect of the Arctic with its sea lanes and vast energy reserves opening for the first time as a result of the region's warming - no similarly ambitious regime looks anywhere at hand.

A couple of weeks ago, at the first Halifax International Security Forum, sponsored by the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the Canadian government, there were questions to a panel of military, diplomatic and shipping experts about whether a greater sense of urgency and a less piecemeal approach wouldn't be appropriate before the ice melts.

There are unresolved and overlapping territorial claims. There is a dispute between the North Americans about whether an operational Northwest Passage, joining the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, is a Canadian or an international waterway. And there is concern that a three-year-long Russian mapping mission of the Arctic seabed will have an unnecessary military escort. (To do what - defend it against attacking seals?)

But there is nothing wide-reaching and specific planned to fend off militarization or address the Arctic's unique and growing environmental problems.

As for the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, sometimes described as a sufficient framework for Arctic governance, Neil Hamilton of the W.W.F. Arctic Program said last year it had failed to address climate change.

Indeed, the U.S. Senate has never ratified the convention's work. The fact is also that some Americans dealing with the issue who acknowledge the possibility of a "strategic revolution" in the Arctic say there is no need to focus on it for another 10 years.

Following this line, the Antarctic Treaty - and, tacitly, its essential prohibitions - have been referred to as not analogous to the Arctic's circumstances because the High North is a frozen sea with continents around it, as opposed to Antarctica's frozen land mass surrounded by water. Besides, you hear, back in 1959 there was a different notion of the regions' potential.

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