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Originally published Saturday, September 14, 2013 at 3:24 PM

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Russia to patrol newly ice-free Arctic shipping lanes

Russia’s military said it planned to sail regular naval patrols along shipping lanes in its territory in the Arctic Ocean that opened to commercial vessels only in the past few years as Arctic ice began melting at a record pace.

The New York Times

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MOSCOW — Russia on Saturday announced an initiative to address climate change. But it had nothing to do with smokestacks.

Russia’s military said it planned to sail regular naval patrols along shipping lanes in its territory in the Arctic Ocean that opened to commercial vessels only in the past few years as Arctic ice began melting at a record pace.

The Ministry of Defense announced the move after a flotilla led by the flagship of the Russian Northern Fleet — the Pyotr Velikiy, or Peter the Great — completed a trip across the Arctic Ocean last week to great fanfare at home, where the news media presented the voyage as an example of Russia’s proud naval heritage.

The ship sailed through most of the once fabled Northeast Passage, a voyage that the military said marked the start of regular patrols to protect the thousands of miles of coastline suddenly open to other countries’ ships on a regular basis.

Russian leaders said several years ago that the country would beef up its military presence in the waters to deal with what it considered a new threat, including from drug smugglers and illegal migrants who can now reach its northern shores.

James Collins, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, said the new patrols were logical.

“This is the Russian coastline, after all,” he said. “There isn’t anybody else going to look after it.”

But the earlier announcement about naval patrols had raised concerns in other nations hoping to stake claims to nearby resource-rich waters beyond the shipping lanes that fall within Russia’s “exclusive economic zone.” They worry about any military buildup near newly ice-free waters beyond Russia’s economic zone that are being disputed.

Disquiet over the Russians’ possible intentions in the Arctic have mounted since 2007, when a Russian expedition used a nuclear icebreaker and a minisubmarine to set a titanium flag on the seabed under the North Pole, which is well beyond what the world recognizes as Russia’s economic zone. That move looked to other Arctic nations like the first move in a grab for resources, although Russia said it was a scientific expedition.

Deciding who is entitled to the oil riches below disputed Arctic waters is expected to take years, and it will be based in part on complicated scientific findings about where various countries’ continental shelves end. Where the shelves end helps determine how far a country’s claims to undersea resources can extend.

Climate change has already had profound changes in the Arctic. Three years after the first commercial crossing in 2009, 46 ships sailed the route in 2012, which had the warmest summer on record in the Arctic. About 400 vessels are expected to cross this season.

The route shaves thousands of miles and many days off the traditional means of sailing between Asia and Europe south through the Suez Canal, though it is open only a few months in the summer.

Russia, along with other Arctic nations, has made territorial claims to the ocean’s disputed waters under a 1982 law of the sea treaty that covers subsea resources such as oil. The U.S. Geological Survey has estimated the Arctic holds 25 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and natural gas.

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