The Arctic: Where the U.S. and Russia Could Square Off Next

A closer look at Moscow's claims in the northern seas

A U.S. Coast Guard crew in the Arctic Ocean. (Reuters/Kathryn Hansen/NASA)

In mid-March, around the same time that Russia annexed Crimea, Russian officials announced another territorial coup: 52,000 square kilometers in the Sea of Okhotsk, a splotch of Pacific Ocean known as the "Peanut Hole" and believed to be rich in oil and gas. A UN commission had recognized the maritime territory as part of Russia's continental shelf, Russia's minister of natural resources and environment proudly announced, and the decision would only advance the territorial claims in the Arctic that Russia had pending before the same committee.

After a decade and a half of painstaking petitioning, the Peanut Hole was Russia's.

Wikimedia Commons

Russian officials were getting a bit ahead of themselves. Technically, the UN commission had approved Russia's recommendations on the outer limits of its continental shelf—and only when Russia acts on these suggestions is its control of the Sea of Okhotsk "final and binding."

Still, these technicalities shouldn't obscure the larger point: Russia isn't only pursuing its territorial ambitions in Ukraine and other former Soviet states. It's particularly active in the Arctic Circle, and, until recently, these efforts engendered international cooperation, not conflict.

But the Crimean crisis has complicated matters. Take Hillary Clinton's call last week for Canada and the United States to form a "united front" in response to Russia "aggressively reopening military bases” in the Arctic. Or the difficulties U.S. officials are having in designing sanctions against Russia that won't harm Western oil companies like Exxon Mobil, which are engaged in oil-and-gas exploration with their Russian counterparts in parts of the Russian Arctic.

In a dispatch from "beneath the Arctic ocean" this week, The Wall Street Journal reported on a U.S. navy exercise, scheduled before the crisis in Ukraine, that included a simulated attack on a Russian submarine. The U.S. has now canceled a joint naval exercise with Russia in the region and put various other partnerships there on hold.

This week, the Council on Foreign Relations published a very helpful guide on the jostling among countries to capitalize on the shipping routes and energy resources that could be unlocked as the Arctic melts. The main players are the countries with Arctic Ocean coastlines: Canada, Denmark (Greenland), Norway, Russia, the United States (Alaska)—and, to a lesser extent, Finland, Iceland, and Sweden. These nations have generally agreed to work together to resolve territorial and environmental issues. But some sovereignty disputes persist, including American opposition to Russia's claims to parts of the Northern Sea Route above Siberia.

Here's CFR's infographic on where the Arctic's shipping and natural-resource potential is, and where the "Arctic Five" are most at odds with each other (you can even layer summer sea ice onto the map!):

"Few countries have been as keen to invest in the Arctic as Russia, whose economy and federal budget rely heavily on hydrocarbons," CFR writes. "Of the nearly sixty large oil and natural-gas fields discovered in the Arctic, there are forty-three in Russia, eleven in Canada, six in Alaska, and one in Norway, according to a 2009 U.S. Department of Energy report."

"Russia, the only non-NATO littoral Arctic state, has made a military buildup in the Arctic a strategic priority, restoring Soviet-era airfields and ports and marshaling naval assets," the guide adds. "In late 2013, President Vladimir Putin instructed his military leadership to pay particular attention to the Arctic, saying Russia needed 'every lever for the protection of its security and national interests there.' He also ordered the creation of a new strategic military command in the Russian Arctic by the end of 2014."

Ultimately, the remarkable international cooperation we've seen in the North Pole may continue even amid the standoff in Ukraine. This week, for instance, government officials from the eight members of the Arctic Council, including Russia and the United States, went ahead with a summit in Canada. "The Russians have been quite cooperative in the Arctic during the past decade," international-law professor Michael Byers told The Canadian Press, "probably because they realize how expensive it would be to take another approach, especially one involving militarization."