Polar Role-Reversal

Among the world turmoil occupying us in this run-up to the 2014 Christmas period, one alarming development that you may well have missed was Denmark’s filing of a formal claim on Monday to the area of the North Pole. For some years – and particularly now that the melting of the Northern icecap is laying them bare – the considerable oil & gas natural resources said to be just under the Arctic Sea floor have piqued the interest of those countries lying along its periphery in trying to extend their sovereignties as far as possible into that area, consistent with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

You’re right, Denmark does not itself border the Arctic Ocean; what does is Greenland, whose foreign and defense policies Denmark still controls, even as it otherwise enjoys self-government. Indeed, it is an underwater ridge that extends from Greenland through the Arctic area that constitutes the legal basis for Denmark’s claim.

So now we have this self-reflective comment from the website of DR, or Danmarks Radio, the Danish government-owned national TV and radio network.

You could say this is a bold, even audacious, move and those interests it challenges directly (aside from the well-known seasonal actors – Hello Santa!) are mainly Canada and Russia. Particularly Russia, as we realize from this quote in the linked DR piece from a Danish journalist who has written extensively about the Arctic:

This is a gigantic piece of the sea-floor that Denmark and Greenland are now claiming. This extends – and this is the surprising thing – the entire way over to Russia’s nautical border. Danish politicians have therefore chosen to use all means provided to them by the UN’s oceans commission.

It is a surprise; this is Denmark we are talking about here. Or, as the comedian Craig Ferguson just put it:

The Danes are causing a bit of trouble. The kingdom of Denmark claimed the North Pole as their own. Hey, you can’t just reach out and take something if you want it, Denmark. That’s Russia’s job.

Indeed. That DR Nyheder tweet literally reads “Russia as meek as a lamb in the Arctic – we are the aggressive ones.” How could this be? This is Putin’s Russia we are talking about, after all, and the Danes, whose neighbors haven’t had anything to complain about since Viking times.

Could it have something to do with the very recent drastic weakening of Putin’s geopolitical position brought about by the collapse of the oil price and the ruble? Is the lack (so far) of Russian reaction the first sign we have that these troubles will likely tone down Russia’s behavior after all? Not according to Jakob Busk Olsen, who wrote this DR piece; he instead reckons that Russian decision-makers are too aware how the region is so hostile to man that absolute lack of conflict is necessary for anyone to be able to safely make the substantial investments (in offshore drilling platforms, etc.) to exploit those resources. Better to not rock the boat.

And why is Denmark acting so aggressively to safeguard to itself access to those presumed oil and gas deposits, when that country is among the world’s pioneers in transitioning away from fossil fuels? The key thing to remember here is that the Kingdom is actually acting on behalf of its semi-ward Greenland; it clearly would like to be rid of its remaining obligations there, but Greenland will eventually be able to stand on its own feet economically mainly with its own trousseau of fossil-fuel assets.

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