Don't Fight Putin Over the North Pole

Putin is lashing out because he's worried that Western countries are ganging up on him in the Arctic.

Putin fears a power play.

Photographer: ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/AFP/GettyImages

It's tempting to link incidents like the averted collision between a passenger airliner and a Russian spy plane not far from Copenhagen to the to the conflict over Ukraine. But Russia's growing military activity in the Nordic region, and the subsequent uptick in close encounters between Russian and NATO forces, may have just as much to do with another tug-of-war, one that began long before Kiev's attempted break from the Russian sphere of influence.

Control over the Arctic's uninhabited expanses of ice is far more important than it might sound. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the Arctic holds 22 percent of the world's undiscovered, technically recoverable resources, mainly oil and natural gas. Climate change makes those resources easier to get at, and it also creates the prospect of relatively inexpensive sea transportation between Europe and Asia, an opportunity that all of the region's powers would like to claim for themselves.

Unsurprisingly, Russia has repeatedly been at loggerheads with two Nordic countries, Denmark and Norway, as well as Canada and the U.S., over title to the vast territories beyond the Polar Circle. Notably, Russia angered its Arctic neighbors in 2007 by planting its flag on the seabed. But in 2008, the dispute appeared to enter a peaceful phase. In 2008, the five Arctic nations agreed to an arbitration process under the oversight of the United Nations, in which the parties would file formal claims for pieces of continental shelf.

Yesterday, Denmark became the first country to file a claim for the North Pole. Its submission argues that some underwater mountain ranges, including the Lomonosov ridge which Russia claims as its own, are all "morphologically continuous with the land mass of Greenland." The huge island, of course, is part of Denmark that has lately grown increasingly independent. For Denmark, fighting to extend Greenland's shelf and thus its natural wealth is a way to show the islanders that it's worth sticking with Copenhagen. Canada, for its part, has also become assertive in recent months: last August, it dispatched icebreakers to map part of an Arctic seabed also claimed by both Denmark and Russia. It, too, will sometime soon submit its own geological evidence that the disputed seabed is Canadian. 

The Ukraine crisis has overshadowed these developments for the global audience, but not for the Kremlin. At the height of the international uproar over the Crimea annexation, on April 22, Russian President Vladimir Putin held a meeting of his Security Council that was dedicated to the Arctic. "Given the circumstances," he said, "we need to take additional measures so as not to fall behind out partners, to maintain Russia's influence in the region." That, according to Putin, includes "regular joint exercises and trainings" involving different branches of the Russian armed services. 

Though Western countries' assertive moves in the Arctic adhere to the 2008 agreement they struck with Russia, they worry Putin. He understands that Russia's role as aggressor in Ukraine has weakened its negotiating position when it comes to the Arctic. His relationship with Western leaders is frosty, and he has reason to believe that they're willing to strike deals behind his back rather than involve him in informal negotiations. Invoking Russia's military strength may be the only way to remind Western partners that Russian needs to be reckoned with when the Arctic wealth is divided. That may be one reason why the Nordic region is seeing so many Cold War-style incidents.

It would be wrong for Western powers to assume they can use Russia's weakened economic and diplomatic position to pull ahead in the Arctic race. Putin feels besieged and obliged to fight -- or at least project a willingness to fight -- on every front. That is an accident waiting to happen. If re-engaging with Russia on Ukraine appears problematic now, the West could be proactive in telling Putin it's still committed to a transparent process and a peaceful resolution of the Arctic disputes. Indeed, if the West wants to defuse tensions in northern Europe, it should start by talking to the Kremlin about issues other than Ukraine.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.