Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has called for “a zone of peace” in the Arctic as Russia and its polar neighbours scramble to stake their claims to the region’s energy-rich seabed.
“We think it is imperative to keep the Arctic as a zone of peace and cooperation,” Putin told international participants on Thursday at the first Arctic Forum in Moscow, which stressed the eye-watering potential for offshore development.
“We all know that it is hard to live alone in the Arctic,” Putin said, calling for foreign capital to exploit the Russian Arctic.
“We have heard futuristic predictions threatening a ‘battle for the Arctic’,” he said. But “the majority of scary scenarios about the Arctic do not have any real basis.”
Opening the two-day conference a day earlier, Iceland’s President Olafur Grimsson had called for an end to “Cold War” tensions over the Arctic, saying the time for such a struggle had passed.
Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the US are locked in a race over how to divide Arctic resources and shipping routes as scientists predict that global warming could leave it ice-free by 2030.
Over one quarter of the earth’s untapped energy riches are believed to be buried in the sea floor under the North Pole.
But in a nod to environmental concerns raised by many forum participants, Putin pledged Russia would protect the region’s fragile ecology.
“Not one industrial project in the Russian Arctic will be undertaken without consideration for the strictest ecological demands. This is a key position of the Russian Federation,” Putin vowed.
The clamour to claim to the Arctic floor hinges on the sovereignty of the Lomonosov ridge, an underwater mountain range stretching from Greenland to Russia.
Last week, Canadian foreign minister Lawrence Cannon voiced confidence his nation would win the territory.
“We will exercise sovereignty in the Arctic,” he told his Russian counterpart in talks in Moscow.
The five Arctic states must make their case for claiming the Lomonosov ridge as an extension of their continental shelf within 10 years of ratifying the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Only the US has yet to ratify the treaty.
Canada plans to submit its bid by 2013, while Russia this week said it would spend two billion roubles ($A67 million) on research to bolster its claim, rejected by the UN in 2002 for lack of evidence.
Russian natural resource minister Yury Trutnev said Russia would prove its right to a swathe of Arctic territory holding an estimated 100 billion tonnes of oil and gas.
But Putin stressed that the UN would ultimately rule over the overlapping Arctic claims.
“Very serious economic and geopolitical interests intersect in the Arctic, but I have no doubt that all the problems existing in the Arctic, including over the continental shelf, can be resolved,” he said.
Russia and Norway this month resolved a 40-decade old dispute over the energy-rich Barents Sea in a sign both are eager to fix their nations’ northern borders and push on with more offshore production.
Russia’s economy is already heavily developed north of the Arctic circle due to its Soviet industrial legacy.
The region is inhabited by 1.5 per cent of the population, but accounts for 11 per cent of its gross domestic product and 22 per cent of its exports, the Kremlin adviser on climate, Alexander Bedritsky, said at the forum.
By Bedritsky’s estimates, some 20-25 per cent of the world’s hydrocarbon resources are found in the Arctic Circle.
“I think major oil and gas production in the (Arctic) marine environment is probably 5-10 years away, so that’s why now we have to put into place the (ecological) rules,” Bill Eichbaum, vice-president of WWF’s marine and Arctic policy program, told AFP.