East vs. West in the Arctic Circle

Traveling through the chilly landscape around the arctic city of Murmansk, Russia, it quickly becomes clear that this barren region is, in fact, a strategic centerpiece in President Vladimir V. Putin’s vast armory. The overland road from the Norwegian border passes by miles and miles of double-row fences of ice-crowned barbed wire, warning signs and surveillance cameras. Many of the gray, silent settlements along the way appear to be less towns than military installations, with soldiers in long, thick coats trotting through the streets.

But to grasp the full military import of this place, the Kola Peninsula — Russia’s northwestern-most territory — you would have to look down on it with thermal imaging from high above. Instead of ice, you would see a long stretch of land bathing in the relatively warm waters of the Gulf Stream. The Kola Peninsula is a gigantic marine pier, guaranteeing Russia’s naval fleet access to the Atlantic and offering a hub for operations in an area of the world that might well become the next crisis zone between Russia and NATO: the North Pole.

The area around the pole is not yet divided up among its adjacent states. Its waters — and potentially rich natural resources — are claimed by Russia, as well as by three NATO members: America, Denmark (via Greenland) and Canada. Many of these claims overlap.

It’s not a purely lawless region: The United Nations Law of the Sea includes rules for settling such claims, largely based on how far the continental shelf of the respective country extends below the sea. These rules are supported by the White House, but they have yet to be ratified by the United States Congress, because Republicans are reluctant to leave the decision over America’s economic borders to a United Nations body.

Some Republicans are convinced that, after the invasion into Ukraine, Russia’s military buildup in the High North is preparation for yet another land grab. “The Russians are playing chess in the Arctic and our administration still seems to think it’s tick-tack-toe,” said Senator Dan Sullivan, Republican of Alaska, accusing the Obama administration of a “strategic blunder.”

Whatever his intent, President Putin has indeed ordered the Russian military to increase its capabilities in the North. Russia is building six new bases, refurbishing old runways from the Cold War era, constructing new icebreakers, and putting modern submarines with nuclear warheads into service.

Few know for sure just how symbolically important the North Pole is to Mr. Putin. In 2007, the Kremlin had a submarine place a metal Russian flag on the seabed, right at the pole. Was it just a photo op? Legally, the gesture no more makes the pole Russian than Neil Armstrong’s 1969 flag makes the moon American.

Then again, the Arctic presents a huge strategic opportunity for Mr. Putin to make gains against the West. Russia, the largest country on earth, has one big geostrategic disadvantage: limited access to the world’s oceans. Its Black Sea fleet, stationed in Crimea, could in case of conflict be denied passage through the Bosporus, whose gatekeeper, Turkey, is a NATO member. Mr. Putin’s Baltic fleet would meet the same obstacle in the Skagerrak, the strait between Denmark and Norway. But the Arctic is open territory — and, in a time of melting ice caps, open sea as well.

The Russians, of course, see things differently. Policy makers and analysts in Moscow say Russia is not on the offensive, but on the defensive. NATO has repeatedly proved that it doesn’t stick to international rules, Nikita Lomagin, a professor of political science at the European University at St. Petersburg, told me. Thus, he said, Mr. Putin does not believe he can count on “soft security” alone. And the modernizing of the Northern Fleet, with its nuclear-missile submarines, was partly a reaction to NATO’s missile defense shield.

Both sides might be justified; that’s not the point. A Russian proverb says that the past is unpredictable. And indeed, the “Arctic pivot” is reviving Cold War stereotypes at a time when East-West communication is practically nonexistent. Russians and the West should bear in mind how easily political uncertainties can become rigid convictions.

Confidence-building measures — treaties, regular dialogue, joint commissions on global challenges — helped defuse one Cold War. We need new measures, now. The world can’t expect Mr. Putin to take the first steps, so it’s up to America to show sobriety and to avoid giving Russia any pretext for military action. Moscow’s propaganda machinery performed masterfully in the Ukraine crisis; it can easily do so again. For the United States, ratifying the Law of the Sea would be one splendid pre-emptive strike.

Jochen Bittner is a political editor for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit and a contributing opinion writer.

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