The Arctic Sea Competition and Key Strategic Challenges for Europe (Part One)


By Caroline Mükusch
German Correspondent, Second Line of Defense

11/18/2010 – The opening of the Arctic raises simultaneously energy security, environmental questions, and strategic competition.  There are five states which claims based on extensions of their rights under international law to parts of the Arctic region: Norway, Denmark (Greenland), Russia, Canada and the United States.  Norway, Russia and Canada have been the most proactive in shaping an Arctic policy.  The United States is playing the role of the reluctant participant.  For Europe as a whole, it is essential to shape an effective proactive role, which embraces energy, security, environmental and military factors.

(Credit image: image:

For some years, the Arctic Ocean increasingly has become the focus of international interests. In particular the competition for resources – notably oil and gas – has significantly raised the importance of this area for the future global economy.

Experts estimate that the Arctic – in its high northern latitudes of Russia, Norway, Greenland, United States, and Canada – holds about 22 percent of the world’s undiscovered conventional oil and natural gas resource, about 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered natural gas resources, about 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil resources, and about 20 percent of the world NGL resources.

The U.S. Geological Survey posits that approximately 90 billion barrels of oil, 1,669 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids are in the Arctic. Over 400 already discovered oil and gas fields north of the Arctic Circle provide a projected 240 billion barrels oil and oil-equivalent natural gas.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that more than 70 percent of the undiscovered oil resources occur in five provinces of the Arctic Area: Arctic Alaska, Amerasia Basin, East Greenland Rift Basins, East Barents Basins, and West Greenland–East Canada. More than 70 percent of the undiscovered natural gas is estimated to occur in three provinces: The West Siberian Basin, the East Barents Basins, and Arctic Alaska. Approximately 85 percent of these undiscovered oil and gas resources are estimated to be located offshore.

Not surprisingly, the Arctic is becoming an area of great national and international interest for politics, economy, and science. (Russia warns of war within a decade over Arctic oil and gas riches.) An international race for the Arctic has emerged, including the possibility of the use of armed forces. Although Russia seems to be ahead after it planted its country’s flag on the North Pole’s seabed in 2007, Norway, Greenland, Canada, and the U.S. also claim rights to this region.

The Arctic’s Status Quo
No country completely owns the geographic North Pole or the region of the Arctic Ocean. Russia, Norway, the United States, Canada, and Denmark via Greenland, the surrounding Arctic states, have claims based on the 200 nautical mile economic zone around their coasts.  And these states are trying successively to extend their territorial sovereign rights around the North Pole in order to exclusively exploit all natural resources within its economic zone.

Upon ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a country has ten years to make claims to extend its 200-mile economic zone. Norway (ratified the convention in 1996), Russia (1997), Canada (2003) and Denmark (2004) claim their right to certain Arctic territories. Since 1982, the U.S. Senate has failed to ratify the convention.

This effort finally led to the re-development of northern military and security capabilities of almost all Arctic neighbor states. For instance, Norway’s main defense policy focuses on northern security.  The Norwegian navy currently is building a new class of ice-strengthened frigates.  Russia also is rebuilding the strength of its naval forces, currently building its submarine force to be stationed in its northern bases.

Although, all of the main Arctic states contend that the improvement of their northern military is only being done to provide an ability to respond to the expected increase in activity in the Arctic, some Arctic states are increasing their Arctic capabilities with weapon systems that are obviously designed to fight and not to act in a coast guard-type capability.

(Credit image:
(Credit image:

Beyond that, due to the accelerated melting of Arctic ice vast areas of sea are opening up which in turn is transforming the untouched and previously iced Arctic to an increasingly globalized maritime area attracting not only trade and energy transportation traffic, but tourist cruises as well. The Congressional Research Service remarked that an ice-free Northwest Passage could cut shipping routes between Europe and Asia by 3,000 to 4,000 miles. [1]

Hence, unresolved disputes over international borders in the Arctic and a latent conflict level raise the question: Who controls the Arctic (maritime) region?

According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea there are three control areas:

  • Territorial water zone – 12 nautical miles from the baseline – allows coastal states to set laws, regulate use, and use any resource.
  • The contiguous zone – a further 12 nautical miles beyond the 12 nautical mile territorial water limit – allows coastal states to continue enforcing laws in four specific areas: pollution, taxation, customs, and immigration.
  • The exclusive economic zone – 200 nautical mile – allows coastal state to control over all living and non-living resources in this zone.

If Arctic states can prove that they have an extended continental shelf they can extend their control over the ocean soil and subsurface beyond the exclusive economic zone.  The imprecision of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea makes it possible for a single state to control almost the Arctic Ocean’s entire seabed.

For instance, Russia, Canada and Denmark are claiming the Lomonosov Ridge.  They argue that it is in each case their continental shelf.  The Lomonosov Ridge, which has the size of Germany, France, and Italy combined, runs some 1,800 kilometers across the Arctic Ocean, stretching from Siberia over the North Pole to Canada’s Ellesmere Island.

Access and control of the Arctic sea are of critical importance to nations’ interests.  In essence the state that controls the Northwest Passage controls who enters these waters and under which conditions.  This authority would shape future transit routes, oil and gas exploration rights, economic development, protection of minorities, and military strategies – training missions and missiles positioning.


[1] (Compare: Moens, Alexander; Dowd, Alan (2010), Meeting Russia’s Arctic Aggression,  The Mark 08/11/2010.