A recent mission by a Russian nuclear submarine to the floor of the Arctic Ocean has threatened to reignite the media narrative that regional disputes over the right to unlock the economic potential of the Arctic could result in military confrontation. But it is their mutual economic interests that mean that the five Arctic coastal states are motivated to pursue legal and diplomatic avenues to achieve their aspirations, and have no desire to jeopardise the status quo.
During the Russian operation, known as Arktika-2012, geological material was collected from one of the two underwater mountain ranges that extend from the Russian landmass towards the North Pole. Russia wants to prove that the Lomonosov and Mendeleev ridges are extensions of Russia's continental shelf and part of the Eurasian plate, which, according to the current legal framework, would allow Russia exclusive rights to any potential future resources under the seabed. The details of the project were intended to remain secret, but in November 2012 several news stories about the submarine appeared, citing a Russian defence ministry source.
Despite efforts to build good regional relations among Arctic countries, Russia's neighbours do have concerns about its increasing military presence in the Arctic and its sometimes assertive, anti-Western rhetoric. However, considered in the wider context of Russia's post-Cold War military re-development, its Arctic positioning is not as confrontational as it may seem.
The Arctic is a key part of Russia's reassertion of what it sees as its rightful place in international affairs, and it has far greater territory, presence and capability in the Arctic than its neighbours. Rich in hydrocarbons, the region was highlighted in Moscow's Arctic policy of 2008 as the country's primary source of energy for the twenty-first century: approximately 15% of the country's GDP and 25% of its exports come from there, while 80% of the gas in the Arctic lies within Russia's exclusive economic zone (EEZ). There are major on-shore gas installations, and plans to further develop off-shore drilling, though these have met with some logistical difficulties with international partners. Along with hydrocarbons, maritime transport is a major economic development priority. The Northern Sea Route, the new shipping route most likely to become commercially viable in the coming decades as the summer ice recedes, and promises to connect Europe and Asia, runs through Russia's territorial waters or EEZ. However, the lack of infrastructure along the route will hold back the development of commercial shipping.