Approaches to Russia’s North Pole Ambitions

The Soviet Nuclear Icebreaker 'Arktika' was the first surface vessel to reach the North Pole (1977). © Wikimedia Commons.

Benjamin Sacks

The open sea may be international waters under maritime law, but large swaths of the world’s oceans fall under the influence of major powers. The United States and Japan dominate Pacific affairs, thanks to their control over various island groups and the importance they attach to the Pacific economy. Similar situations exist for the United Kingdom in the South Atlantic and France in the western Indian Ocean. Several states contest the strategically important South China Sea. The Arctic Ocean has long been Russia’s backyard, home to historically prominent naval and merchant shipping lanes, vital fishing grounds, and home to some of its surviving indigenous peoples.

In 2007, however, Russia’s influence in the Arctic became a controversial issue when two submarines, Mir-1 and Mir-2 planted a Russian flag on the seabed below the North Pole. The Guardian reported that Moscow’s act ‘prompted ridicule and skepticism among other contenders…with Canada comparing it to a 15th century land grab’. The flag-planting was largely ceremonial, but it did indicate Russia’s ambitions to tap into the region’s vast suspected oil and rare earth minerals reserves.

Fortunately, Arctic tensions between local states have not escalated since the 2007 episode. But Russia’s behavior did pique the interests of a number of think-tanks and policy institutes, both intrigued and concerned about what Russian actions could mean for the future of international maritime law, as well as US-Russian and European-Russian relations. In ‘Polar Partners or Poles Apart?’, Leonhardt A S van Efferink (Royal Holloway, University of London) discussed the position of two important American institutes: the Brookings Institution and the Heritage Foundation. The article, published in the March 2012 issue of The Geographical Journal, compared the two institutes’ visions. While not choosing one side or the other, van Efferink suggested that the divergent futures could lead to either an ‘inclusionary’ or ‘exclusionary’ region (7).

The Brookings Institution, he argued, sought to remove the Cold War ethos from the Arctic control issue. While acknowledging the US Geological Survey’s 2008 estimate that the Arctic held roughly thirteen per cent of the planet’s undiscovered oil and thirty per cent of undiscovered natural gas (tremendously high figures, if true), the report stressed that collaboration, neutrality, and mutual good faith should be paramount for all parties involved (5-6).

The Heritage Foundation’s standpoint follows a so-called ‘neo-Realist’ perspective, unsurprising given its conservative roots. Their report holds that the United States should take action in the Arctic to limit Russia’s growing influence in the region and quell any designs for Russian Arctic oil production (7-8). Whichever course the Arctic issue eventually follows, it will be vital to international interests, not just the Arctic’s neighbours, that it be dealt with in a cautious, responsible, and ultimately beneficial manner.


Tom Parfitt, ‘Russia Plants Flag on North Pole Seabed‘, The Guardian, 2 August 2007.

Leonhardt A S van Efferink, ‘Commentary: Polar Partners or Poles Apart? On the Discourses of Two US Think Tanks on Russia’s Presences in the “High North“, The Geographical Journal 178.1 (Mar., 2012): 3-8.

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