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Far North turf war: Who really rules the Arctic?

Five countries lay claim to territory around the North Pole. Some of those claims conflict, while other countries, like China, want the Arctic to be deemed an international zone. So far, the Arctic has remained peaceful, but as countries scramble for resources, how long will that peace last?

As polar ice melts away, rising temperatures are unlocking oil, trade routes and the potential for conflict in the Far North.

“It’s the opening chapter of what’s going to amount to be a very long story, and people are playing nice and working together — for now,” says Robert Huebert, a University of Calgary professor and expert in circumpolar relations and defence policy.

Five countries claim territory around the North Pole: Canada, Russia, the United States (through Alaska), Norway and Denmark (through Greenland).  Some claims conflict, while other countries like China want the Arctic to be deemed an international zone.

Polar ice has been steadily decreasing as high temperatures lead to longer summer melts. The U.S. Navy published a study last December suggesting summers in the Arctic could be ice-free as early as 2016, with regular shipping routes expected by 2030.

Meanwhile, 13 per cent of the world’s undiscovered oil and a third of its untapped natural gas lies in the Arctic, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

That leaves countries scrambling for resources and trade routes. Canada recently asserted a claim over the North Pole, following Russia and Denmark. The Arctic has remained peaceful, with each state respecting United

Nations rules on international waters.

But co-operation broke down this month. Canada, the U.S. and Norway cancelled joint military operations with Russia following the country’s invasion of Ukraine.

“This is going to cause a pushback on the side of the Russians, in the Arctic region specifically,” Huebert says. “It contains two of the most powerful states in the international system that are increasingly having different interests.”

Huebert noted that Russia’s involvement in Crimea was partially a response to the Western military alliance NATO seeking closer ties with Ukraine. All other Arctic countries are NATO members. Huebert says further

NATO expansion could lead to a Russian pushback, and Canada is not well equipped.

“As the Arctic is more and more integrated, you’re going to see other events spilling into it.”


Canada has a small Arctic military presence, with a training centre opened last year that only holds 150 soldiers. A Nunavut military base was announced in 2007, but construction has yet to start. “Canada’s very good at plans, but not so much at execution,” says Huebert.

The UN has led a decade-long process for countries to extend their borders over parts of the frozen Arctic if they can prove that seabed ridges extend from their mainland.

Last December, Canada was about to submit its claim when Prime Minister Stephen Harper asked researchers to include the North Pole. Experts aren’t sure why the original claim didn’t include the pole, which lies near a large oil patch.

The next day, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his country would expand its already large military presence.

Michael Byers, an Arctic expert and professor at the University of British Columbia, says Canadians have little to worry about.

“There is no immediate reason for concern, and no reason to change Canadian Arctic policy — which focuses heavily on co-operation.”


Russia has claimed a large portion of the Arctic, including the North Pole. The government expects the Arctic to be Russia’s primary resource base by 2020.

“We see the Russians moving very strongly on supporting and increasing their claim to the Arctic,” Huebert says. “They’re the ones who put the most money into revitalizing their military capabilities.”

Russia has 10 military bases along the Northern Sea Route, a government-charted trade route spanning Russia’s entire north. The country has modernized its submarine fleets, built new icebreakers and is considering a separate military branch solely for protecting the Arctic.

“Western countries are doing something to improve their military capabilities, but it’s not on the same scale as what the Russians are doing,” he says.

Huebert says that Russia will probably act belligerently toward other countries, such as by flying planes into other countries’ airspaces, but would likely not invade other countries.

“You won’t see direct military action per se, unless something really goes bad somewhere else,” he says.


Denmark is claiming an area that includes the North Pole. It also claims islands that Canada has previously claimed.

In 2005, Denmark occupied Hans Island, an unpopulated island on the border of both countries. Most analysts interpret this as a test of how well Canada defends its claims.

Greenland remains an autonomous part of Denmark that receives billions from Copenhagen each year. Danish governments have said that Greenland’s independence hinges on it becoming economically self-sufficient.

In 2010, a large oil patch was found near the Canadian border in an area previously covered by ice. Denmark has since increased its military presence in the area, with regular coast guard and air patrols.

The largest estimated Arctic oil deposit lies just east of Greenland, near Iceland. “The Danes are wondering if they can get any of this oil lying offshore,” says Huebert. “They’re also looking at how China’s ingratiated itself with Greenland and Iceland.” The Chinese government has invested in mining and oil exploration in both countries.

Everybody else

  • Norway has made a claim to an area also claimed by Russia, which includes some oil reserves.

  • The United States hasn’t made any territory claims. The U.S. wants the Northwest Passage to be an international trade route. It has a military base in Greenland and a large submarine fleet.

  • China has invested heavily in Arctic industry projects and wants the zone to remain neutral.

  • France is the only non-Arctic state with an official Arctic ambassador. French companies are exploring oil projects in the Arctic, and France runs two Arctic research bases.

  • Germany says an Arctic trade route could make Europe less dependent on Russian gas.

  • Finland and Sweden are not part of NATO; Huebert says they may move closer to the alliance if Russia further invades Ukraine. This would further encircle Russia and likely provoke military action.

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