Every so often, there’s a geopolitical event that ought to incense you, scare you, or maybe shock you. But it doesn’t. Instead, it’s just so flabbergasting that you are rendered nearly blind, deaf, and dumb, powerless to do anything except gaze at the computer screen in an open-mouthed stupor and say “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, Vladimir Putin said what?”
If you missed it, the little czar made quite the continental power play a few days ago, claiming the North Pole for Russia. If that seems like a bit of a stretch, it is; Vladimir, however (who must win the award for World Leader with the Most Fitting Name), and his team of geologists, have asserted that the Lomonosov Ridge, an underwater continental shelf that runs through the area, is an extension of Russian territory. Ergo, the North Pole belongs to Russia. Your move, homicidal Santa Claus.
The Lomonosov Ridge is an 1,800 kilometer oceanic ridge that extends from the New Siberian Islands to Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic and rises up to 3,700 meters above the seabed. Here ’tis:
Russian geologists back from an Arctic expedition to the Ridge are advancing the claim that it is linked to Russian territory and therefore falls under Russian jurisdiction. At present, no country has such jurisdiction; the Arctic is governed by the International Seabed Authority, and the five Arctic countries (Canada, Norway, Denmark, Russia, and the U.S. of A., baby) control an “exclusive economic zone” that extends no further than 200 miles beyond their respective continental shelves. Scientists estimate that the disputed territory has 10 billion tons of gas and oil deposits (double that of Saudi Arabia), as well as significant mineral wealth, plus elves. In case you were wondering what the international scientific community has to say, I think this quote from Sergey Priamikov, the international co-operation director of Russia’s Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute in St Petersburg, sums it up nicely: “Frankly, I think it’s a little bit strange. Canada could make exactly the same claim. The Canadians could say that the Lomonosov ridge is part of the Canadian shelf, which means Russia should in fact belong to Canada, together with the whole of Eurasia.”
I have to hand it to Putin – his presidency expires next year (technically), but the old bear shows no signs of going soft on us. A little less than a year ago, we had his, ah, muted reaction to the assassination of dissenting journalist Anna Politkovskaya (calling her influence “extremely insignificant” 4 days after her death), the mysterious January ’06 explosions that destroyed part of the natural gas pipeline in Georgia and left the country without heat during a record-cold winter after Georgia affirmed its pro-NATO course and desire to expel the Russian military presence there, the refusal to hand over to British authorities the prime suspect in the polonium-210 affair, and the recent dust-up over the American-Polish missile shield. You’d think with all that, Putin might take a pass on rattling the Russian sabre again over the North fricking Pole.
I see the North Pole grab (hereafter referred to as “The Santa Gambit”) as indicating one of three things:
1. Putin is beginning to slide comfortably into a roiling pool of megalomania. Think about it. The guy enjoys an approval rating of nearly 80%, faces virtually no serious criticism from within his borders (mostly because people who do criticize his administration end up getting shot or poisoned), and is surrounded by yes-men so adroit, they’re planning on re-writing the constitution so that he can keep on truckin’. If I lived in circumstances like that, it’s quite likely that I’d wake up one day and go “Well shit, what’s to stop me from claiming the North Pole?” And then I would try to purchase a flying car.
2. The Santa Gambit is Vlad’s strategic plan to grab not all of the Pole, but more of it than he already has. Denmark and Canada also claim that their territories are contiguous to the Lomonosov Ridge, and of course America will have something to say about this as well. Putin might not have any serious belief that he’s going to actually get the entire North Pole, but his aggressive statements about planting the Russian flag on the Arctic seabed could be a way to leverage his already worrisome behavior into some sort of compromise between the five Arctic countries and the International Seabed Authority that gives Russia more access to the oil reserves beneath the waves. The other nations might decide it’s better to let Russia have more than they currently do rather than run the risk that a petulant Putin will order a fleet of attack subs to start patrolling the area, maritime law be damned. (Personally, this would be fine with me, since the Russians seem to have a problem keeping their subs from blowing up and killing everybody on board.)
3. Putin just slipped up. Rather than going crazy, he’s simply overreached, his vaulting ambition o’erleaps itself. He’s riding high on the oil boom of the past several years, he’s crushed most of his political opposition, he has Russia back on the world stage in a big way. So like President Bush deciding that Iraq would be a good idea given the runaway success in Afghanistan, Putin has been eyeing the oil and mineral wealth in the Arctic for a while and has decided to go for it. After all, this is the guy who has picked up Jacques Chirac’s banner of multipolarity and wants very much to make Russia the global energy powerhouse. So Putin’s just doing this because he thinks he can, and because it’s a strategic fit with his vision for Russia. Fortunately, the idea of the international community giving Russia sovereign control over such a vital piece of the globe is patently ridiculous, and Vladdy will certainly be rebuffed, his armor chinked. Putin’s “I’ll do whatever I damn well please” roll comes to an end.
In the end, not getting the North Pole might work out for the best. After all, it’s a big job, managing territory that expansive. Losing out would just give Putin a chance to show some real global leadership and tackle a problem that affects all of us like, oh I don’t know, the sorry state of Russian nuclear security. Just a thought, Puter.