The Battle for the Great Bear

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Russia is pursuing its strategy of "energy equals power" on three fronts: Europe, Central Asia and the Arctic Circle. The first two are closely linked. Wishing to maintain European dependence on Russian gas, Moscow seeks to control the sources -- for example, by signing exclusive deals with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan for gas supplies. Europe and Russia both agree that diversity is a good idea, except that Europe wants diversity of sources whereas Russia only wants diversity of pipelines. The main pipeline not under Russian control, the BTC pipeline that runs from Azerbaijan through Georgia to Turkey, was shown to be vulnerable during the Russia-Georgia clash in August. Russia's plans to establish military bases in the breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia will only make that region seem increasingly unreliable.

Russia is also looking north. In 2009, Moscow must file its claim to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea demonstrating that its continental shelf extends far beyond the 322 nautical kilometer zone to encompass most of the Arctic Circle and its immense oil, gas and mineral wealth now made more accessible by global warming. Russia has threatened to withdraw from the treaty if its claims are not recognized. The rhetoric has been heated: "We will not surrender the Arctic to anyone," declared State Duma Deputy Artur Chilingarov, who led the 2007 expedition that placed a titanium Russian flag on the ocean floor under the North Pole at a depth of nearly 4,267 meters. The Kremlin has openly stated its intention to make the Arctic into a main strategic resource base in the 21st century. In 2004, the state security services created an Arctic directorate and established border guard stations in the area. In late January, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer called for a NATO "military presence" in the Arctic. Russia's Security Council has said that in the resolution of the Arctic's many problems "military force is not out of the question."

But military clashes may not be the real problem either. Drilling for oil and gas and mining for gold and diamonds in the Arctic -- and transporting these goods through the Northwest Passage -- pose other threats. Thirteen nuclear reactors from Russian submarines and decades worth of nuclear waste have been dumped in these waters. In the Soviet era, 138 nuclear tests took place in the Arctic region. The environmental organization Bellona warns that "when the drill bits hit the ocean floor, there is the danger of disinterring a vast portion of the Soviet Union's irresponsible nuclear legacy."

In Greek, Arctic means "Great Bear." Russia has already staked its claim on the great bear on and under the Arctic ice. Though its tactics can sometimes be objectionable, Russia at least has an energy strategy.

Factories shut down and more than a dozen Europeans froze to death as a result of the Russia-Ukraine gas war in January. The United States and NATO may not recognize a Russian sphere of interest in Central Asia, but they will discover how real it is when they begin moving supplies to Afghanistan through alternate routes across Uzbekistan and other countries. As an Arctic country, the United States needs to ratify the Law of the Sea (it is the only one of the five countries that hasn't done so). But what it really needs is an energy policy as comprehensive as Russia's. So far, U.S. energy independence rhetoric has soared with the price of gas, and it has fallen with it. The United States should be grateful to Russia for a challenge that makes it get real.

Richard Lourie is the author of "The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin" and "Sakharov: A Biography."