Hamburg — TRAVELLING through the chilly landscape around the arctic city of Murmansk, Russia, it quickly becomes clear that this barren region is, in fact, a strategic centrepiece in President Vladimir V. Putin’s vast armoury. The overland road from the Norwegian border passes by miles and miles of double-row fences of ice-crowned barbed wire, warning signs and surveillance cameras. Many of the gray, silent settlements along the way appear to be less towns than military installations, with soldiers in long, thick coats trotting through the streets.

But to grasp the full military import of this place, the Kola Peninsula — Russia’s north-western-most territory — you would have to look down on it with thermal imaging from high above. Instead of ice, you would see a long stretch of land bathing in the relatively warm waters of the Gulf Stream. The Kola Peninsula is a gigantic marine pier, guaranteeing Russia’s naval fleet access to the Atlantic and offering a hub for operations in an area of the world that might well become the next crisis zone between Russia and NATO: the North Pole.

The area around the pole is not yet divided up among its adjacent states. Its waters — and potentially rich natural resources — are claimed by Russia, as well as by three NATO members: America, Denmark (via Greenland) and Canada. Many of these claims overlap.

It’s not a purely lawless region: The United Nations Law of the Sea includes rules for settling such claims, largely based on how far the continental shelf of the respective country extends below the sea. These rules are supported by the White House, but they have yet to be ratified by the United States Congress, because Republicans are reluctant to leave the decision over America’s economic borders to a United Nations body.

Some Republicans are convinced that, after the invasion into Ukraine, Russia’s military buildup in the High North is preparation for yet another land grab. “The Russians are playing chess in the Arctic and our administration still seems to think it’s tick-tack-toe,” said Senator Dan Sullivan, Republican of Alaska, accusing the Obama administration of a “strategic blunder.”

Source: East vs. West in the Arctic Circle – The New York Times