By Sean Rayment, Defence Correspondent
Last Updated: 12:23AM BST 18 May 2008
Canada Claims : Russia is annexing Artic area for Oil Reserves.
The battle for “ownership” of the polar has accelerated with the disclosure that Russia has sent a fleet of nuclear-powered ice breakers into the Arctic.
It has reinforced fears that Moscow intends to annex “unlawfully” a vast portion of the ice-covered Arctic, beneath which scientists believe up to 10 billion tons of gas and oil could be buried. Russian ambition for control of the Arctic has provoked to double to $40 million (£20.5 million) funding for work to map the Arctic seabed in support its claim over the territory.
The Russian ice breakers patrol huge areas of the frozen ocean for months on end, cutting through ice up to 8ft thick. There are thought to be eight in the region, dwarfing the British and American fleets, neither of which includes nuclear-powered ships.
Canada also plans to open an army training centre for cold-weather fighting at Resolute Bay and a deep-water port on the northern tip of Baffin Island, both of which are close to the disputed region. The country’s defence ministry intends to build a special fleet of patrol boats to guard the North West Passage.
The crisis has raised the spectre of Russia and the West joining in a new cold war over the Arctic unless the United Nations can resolve the dispute.
Liam Fox, the shadow defence secretary, told Telegraph: “Four of the five Arctic powers are Nato members, yet Nato seems ill-configured to be able to respond to the sort of activities we have seen from the Russians. We need to ensure Nato has the will and the capability to deter Russian activity that contravenes international laws or treaties.”
Jonathan Eyal, of the Royal United Services Institute, said the dispute could simmer for years. “The message from Vladimir Putin is that Russia will no longer be shackled to treaties signed by Yeltsin when he was half drunk or when Russia was on its knees,” he said. “This dispute is not only about oil reserves which might or might not exist, it is about the control of sea lanes. Russia’s movements could pitch it into a serious territorial dispute with the US for the first time.”
Tension in the Arctic is also being heightened by the revival of Russian Cold War-era manoeuvres. Hardly a week passes without Russian aircraft over-flying the North Pole, simulating strikes on “enemy” bases and shipping.
The crisis erupted last year when a Russian submarine crew planted a flag on the Lomonosov Ridge, a 1,240-mile stretch of seabed that Moscow says is Russian. Derided at the time as a stunt, the move focused attention on the race for the Arctic’s hidden treasures.
No country owns the Arctic Ocean or the North Pole, but under the 1982 UN Law of the Sea Convention, each country with a coast has exploitation rights in a limited “exclusive economic zone”. On ratification of the convention – and America has yet to ratify it – each country has 10 years to make claims extending its zone.
Russia rivals Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest oil producer and is estimated to have the largest natural gas supplies. Energy earnings are funding a $189 billion (£97 billion) overhaul of its armed forces.