Putin thinks of the past when talking Ukraine – but the Arctic is where he sees Russia’s future

Vladimir Putin is a history buff, and he has made all sorts of historical allusions when talking about Ukraine over the past few days.

First, there's the use of the word "Novorossiya," a historical region of the Russia Empire that is now part of Ukraine. The Russian president has referred to Novorossiya in passing before, but the use of it now in official statements seems to be new. Putin also compared Ukraine's offensive to the Siege of Leningrad, a monumental event in Russian history and one that shaped Putin's life personally – his older brother died during the siege, which lasted more than two years and left more than a million dead.

These references are important. Putin has often appealed to history when justifying his present day actions. His world view is clearly affected by nostalgia for the Russian Empire of Peter the Great and the horrors suffered by Russians in the 20th century resonate with him. However, another reference made Friday may actually be the most revealing – for it shows not just how Putin views the past, but also how he views the future.

Speaking at a Youth Camp outside Moscow, Putin broke away from talking about Ukraine, and indicated that Russia's future really didn't really lie to its west, but instead in the north. "Our interests are concentrated in the Arctic," the Russian president said, according to Reuters. "And of course we should pay more attention to issues of development of the Arctic and the strengthening of our position [there]."

For the world, Putin's comments should serve as a reminder that before the whole Ukraine crisis blew up, the Arctic Circle was the issue causing tension with Russia. And even if we forgot about that, Putin hasn't. The Arctic means a lot to Russia. Much of the country's northern land mass sits in the Arctic circle, and Russia is one of just eight countries that sits on Arctic Council, a supranational organized devoted to the region (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and the United States are the others).

The issue has been there for decades: Under the last years of the Communists, for example, Russia had laid claim to vast areas of the Arctic Circle. But until recently it had been on the back burner. Nature has changed that. As the ice caps in the Arctic began to melt, the oil and gas reserves underneath suddenly became realistically accessible. These reserves are thought to be huge: The United States Geological Survey has estimated that the Arctic Circle currently houses 22 percent of the undiscovered, technically recoverable resources in the world. For a country as dependent on natural resources as Russia, those are tempting figures.

The melting ice also presents new opportunities in transport. Russia's northern edge could become one of the most important shipping routes in the world, the fabled "Northeast Passage" (or as Russia refers to it now, the Northern Sea Route), if it is ice-free for significant chunks of the year. The route cuts the distance between east Asia and western Europe by a third, the Economist notes. It would have major implications for world trade – and Russia, too, if it can control it.

The problem is that Russia isn't the only country trying to exploit the Arctic for its own gain. Unlike Antarctica, which is considered politically neutral, there are all manner of competing borders. The biggest issue is that while all countries are allowed exclusive economic zones (EEZ) within 200 nautical miles from their coastlines as part of the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, countries can also make claims for natural resources based on extended continental shelves. These claims have to be ratified by the U.N. and they often overlap.

Russia hopes to claim a vast continental shelf for itself and everything that comes with it – and it isn't scared of provocation. In 2007, a submarine planted a Russian flag on the seabed 14,000 feet under the North Pole, apparently hoping to claim 460,000 square miles of the Arctic shelf and enormous amounts of gas and oil that they likely contain. The move drew rebukes from other Arctic powers, notably Canada, Russia's main rival in the Arctic. "This isn't the 15th century," Canadian Foreign Minister Peter MacKay said at the time. "You can't go around the world and just plant flags and say 'We're claiming this territory'." Russia has brushed off criticisms, claiming it is no different than America planting a flag on the moon in the 1960s.

While the Ukraine crisis captured attention, these Arctic issues have rumbled on in the background. Russia plans to submit its evidence for an extension of its continental shelf to the United Nations next year, and it will almost certainly be disputed by other nations. There are numerous signs that countries with claims to the Arctic, notably Canada and Norway, are increasingly shifting their military attention to the north. Putin's comments on Friday suggest Russia is paying attention.

“The Arctic plays a very important role for us with regard to guaranteeing our security – unfortunately that’s the case,” Putin said, according to Bloomberg. “The U.S.’s attack submarines are concentrated there near the Norwegian coast. I remind you that the flight time to Moscow of rockets from these vessels is 15-16 minutes. But our fleet is there. A significant part of our submarine fleet.”

Russian news agency Ria Novosti reported Putin told his audience said his country would only act in accordance with international law with the Arctic. The events in Ukraine show that Putin is willing to go to surprising, worrying lengths to get what he wants, however. And for Putin, the history buff, the Arctic seems to be one area where he wants to make history.

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.
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