Putin calls for 'trust' in developing a thawing Arctic

MOSCOW -- "Mutual trust" will be the key to developing the vast resources of the Arctic and protecting its fragile ecosystems, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said today.

"In the final analysis, the future of the Arctic will be resolved by our willingness to look together for responses to joint challenges," Putin told attendees at an international Arctic conference hosted by the Russian Geographical Society.

Putin's speech came days after Russia settled a 40-year dispute with Norway over the two countries' shared boundary in the Barents Sea. But the emphasis on cooperation didn't stop the prime minister and other top Kremlin officials from defending their plans to move aggressively to expand Russia's Arctic footprint.

In recent months, Russia has announced plans for a massive cleanup of military and industrial sites in its Arctic territory, floating nuclear plants designed to power future Arctic development and an expedition that will deploy a floating research station to the far north next month.

"Here our citizens live and work," Alexander Bedritsky, Putin's top climate change adviser, said Wednesday. "Russia's Arctic sector is inhabited by 1.5 percent of the country's population, but it accounts for 11 percent of its GDP and 22 percent of its exports."

Bedritsky also said that he is confident that the United Nations will approve Russia's bid to extend its continental shelf and expand its share of the resource-rich Arctic seabed.

Undersea ridge still under three-nation dispute

A major contested area is the Lomonosov Ridge, a massive underwater mountain range in the Arctic Ocean that Canada, Denmark and Russia are seeking. The U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea allows member nations to submit claims to extend their maritime boundaries beyond a 200-mile exclusive economic zone. The requisite is that a country show that its continental shelf extends beyond that point.

Putin said today he has "no doubt" that remaining disputes over boundaries between Arctic nations can be resolved.


Michael Byers, a professor of international law at the University of British Columbia, said the Lomonosov Ridge fight will eventually boil down to science.

"Under Article 76 of UNCLOS, the issue of the extended continental shelf is not something resolved by power or politics," he said. "You cannot change the shape or the sediments of the seabed. Those are scientific facts."

Interest in the Arctic has grown in recent years as the effects of climate change have become more apparent there. Scientists say ongoing warming is poised to bring Arctic summers free of sea ice by the 2030s, opening long-sought shipping routes, tourism and energy exploration.

The far northern region has warmed twice as fast as the global average, and its once-sturdy cap of sea ice has thinned and shrunk dramatically over the last several years.

Conferees from more than 15 nations

"Nowhere else on Earth are we seeing such dramatic changes in the surface of the Earth as we are seeing in the Arctic Ocean," said Olav Orheim, senior adviser to the Research Council of Norway and one of more than 300 scientists, government officials and businesspeople from more than 15 countries who attended the Arctic conference in Moscow this week.

The U.S. government sent its senior Arctic official, Julie Gourley of the State Department.

Experts here largely dismissed the idea that the ongoing Arctic thaw could spark global conflicts.

"The Arctic is changing," said Steven Bigras, executive director of the Canadian Polar Commission. "This whole region was once seen as inaccessible, harsh, but today it's changing in another direction. It's seen as a region of economic opportunities, a place to invest in."

Realizing those hopes will require Arctic nations to seek cooperation, not confrontation, he said, calling the recent Russia-Norway agreement a positive sign.

Meanwhile, polar explorer Artur Chilingarov, who made headlines in 2007 when he led a Russian expedition that planted a flag on a contested portion of the Arctic seafloor, sounded a note of conciliation.

"Not long ago, the Arctic was a platform for confrontation of two world systems, but today the situation is changing. The Arctic states are a very good example of cooperation and neighborly relations," Chilingarov said. "Our country is also striving to collaborate in the Arctic."

Lauren Morello's travel expenses were paid for by the Russian Geographical Society. The group had no say in the content of this article.

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