Don't let Russia create a 'Caribbean' in the Arctic

Yogi Berra wisecracked that “it’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future,” but even the legendary baseball philosopher could have seen this one coming: Russia covets absolute control of events along its Arctic frontier. The ice retreats for longer each year, rendering polar waters increasingly navigable. Ice-free waters beckon to navies and merchant fleets, offering a convenient, shorter and cheaper pathway between ports of call. Moscow is pondering how to manage the new normal of heavy traffic along its northern periphery.

Over at Eurasia Daily Monitor, Pavel Felgenhauer has compiled an invaluable roundup of debates within the Duma and officialdom over what rights and privileges to claim in the Northern Sea Route, the sea lane that skirts along Russian coastlines between the Barents and Bering seas.

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Deliberations have taken on sinister overtones. Judging from the official and news sources Felgenhauer catalogs, Moscow appears poised to enact laws and regulations that go far, far beyond what the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea — the closest thing the world has to a constitution governing the world’s oceans and seas — permits in a coastal state’s “territorial sea” the 12-nautical-mile belt of water that lies just offshore.

For example, Putin & Co. evidently will assert jurisdiction over foreign shipping farther offshore than the law of the sea allows, where the Northern Sea Route widens beyond 12 nautical miles. Worse, Russia may reserve the right to bar “innocent passage” through the territorial sea — a right explicitly affirmed by the convention — for any reason. Or, for no reason at all. And, worst of all, partisans of the forceful approach want to sink any craft that defies Russian mandates while traversing the Arctic seaway.

One hopes sobriety will prevail in the end. But if Moscow embraces even some of these measures and gets away with it, it will have set a dangerous precedent: that a strong coastal state may amend or annul the law of the sea by fiat because it wants to, and because it boasts sufficient armed might to enforce its policies.

Or rather, it will have reinforced the precedent set by China, which asserts title to most of the South China Sea — including waters and stretches of seabed allocated to fellow Southeast Asian states for fishing and undersea mining. Last November, Russia struck a Chinese note, laying claim to the Sea of Azov, an inlet in the Black Sea. And now its Eye of Sauron has alighted on the Arctic Ocean.

And why not? If the international community lets one coastal state abridge the freedoms enshrined in the law of the sea, there is no reason in principle why other would-be hegemons shouldn’t follow suit. The law of the jungle — the law that might makes right — could return to the nautical realm over time if China and Russia make good on their ambitions. That prospect should goad the seafaring world to band together against lawlessness. Whether it does remains to be seen.

But there’s more to this story than legal opportunism. Great powers commonly display a proprietary attitude toward waters that lap against their seacoasts. Nor is this a peculiarly Russian, European or Western thing. It straddles historic epochs and civilizational boundaries. During their imperial heyday, Romans referred to the Mediterranean Sea breezily as mare nostrum, meaning “our sea.” Persians took pride in the fact that the Gulf bore their nation’s name; so do their Iranian descendants. Ditto for India and the Indian Ocean, and China and the China seas.

Examples are legion.

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One of the most compelling comes from 19th- and early 20th-century U.S. history, the age of the Monroe Doctrine. A confluence of events around the turn of the century prompted Americans to assert special prerogatives in the Caribbean Sea basin. At the time, it was becoming plain that a canal finally would be dug across Central America, shortening voyages between Atlantic and Pacific seaports by thousands of miles. Meanwhile, Caribbean governments were taking out loans from European banks that they could not or would not repay. After a default, common practice was to dispatch the fleet to seize the debtor country’s custom houses and reimburse the bankers out of its tariff revenue.

Washington fretted that Europeans might build naval bases on the territory they occupied after a default — and afterward menace traffic bound to or from the canal. Strategically-minded U.S. leaders blanched at this prospect. Consequently, they asserted a right to intervene in Caribbean finances to prevent Europeans from ensconcing warships in America’s backyard in defiance of the Monroe Doctrine. President Theodore Roosevelt made it formal in 1904, announcing a “corollary” to the doctrine whereby the United States would exercise an “international police power” as a last resort when “chronic wrongdoing” or governmental “impotence” threatened to bring hostile navies to America’s door.

In other words, this rising great power claimed the right to mediate between Latin American governments and European great powers, and to project naval force within its near abroad to forestall threats from the sea. China and Russia are merely doing the same, right? Well, no. Washington was meddlesome at times. By the 1920s, in fact, the State Department disavowed the Roosevelt Corollary because it stoked such rancor in Latin America. But the United States never claimed sovereignty — ownership — over the Caribbean or Gulf of Mexico the way Moscow appears set to claim sovereignty over the Northern Sea Route and perhaps beyond.

Russian ambitions vastly outstrip fin de siècle America’s.

Will Russia get away with it? Will the Arctic become its frigid Caribbean, a saltwater preserve where Moscow makes the rules and others obey? Maybe. But the smart money argues against it. Consider the geopolitical setting. In power-politics terms, the Arctic Ocean resembles the South China Sea or Caribbean Sea — semi-enclosed bodies of water populated by one musclebound coastal state and a host of outmatched neighbors — less than it resembles the Mediterranean Sea. The Mediterranean is an expanse ringed by multiple great powers alongside not-so-great seafaring states. Balance prevails for the most part.

So it is in polar waters. NATO members, including the United States itself, comprise much of the Arctic rim. Their capacity to defy bullying vastly outstrips that of ASEAN in the South China Sea, let alone the revolution-wracked Caribbean states of Roosevelt’s day. NATO allies can push back — if they will.

The warlike talk emanating from Moscow could prove galvanic, inducing allied capitals to rouse themselves and harness their immense diplomatic and military potential to defend freedom of the sea. Felgenhauer quotes Adm. James Foggo, the commander of U.S. naval forces in Europe, who last month declared that the Arctic Ocean is “nobody’s lake.”

Just so. Now prove it.

James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College, coauthor of “Red Star over the Pacific” (second edition newly released), and author of “A Brief Guide to Maritime Strategy” (forthcoming this November). The views voiced here are his alone.