The opening of the new frontier can be traced to a calm morning in August 2007, when a pair of Russian submersibles dropped 14,000 feet to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean and planted a flag made of titanium at the North Pole. Images broadcast around the world of the Russian tricolor on the seabed drew quick condemnation in the West.
It had been one of the hottest years on record, and just a month later scientists monitoring the ocean by satellite announced that sea ice had shrunk to the lowest extent ever witnessed. "It was the largest Arctic ice loss in human history and was not predicted by even the most aggressive climate models," said Jonathan Markowitz, a professor of international relations at the University of Southern California. "This shock led everyone to suddenly understand that the ice was rapidly disappearing, and some nations decided to start making moves."
Today Russia has become, by most measures, the dominant power in the Arctic. It has the world's largest fleet capable of operating year-round in extreme northern waters and maintains dozens of military bases above the Arctic Circle. The U.S. maintains one base in the Arctic, an airfield, on borrowed ground in northern Greenland.
Russia has stationed new troops in the north, increased submarine activity, and returned warplanes to Arctic skies, where they now routinely buzz NATO airspace. But Markowitz and several other researchers told me Russian activity in the north was a mirror more of internal plans than of global ambitions.
Two million Russians inhabit the country's Arctic territory, which has several large cities, including Murmansk and Norilsk. The combined Arctic populations of Canada and the U.S. equal less than a quarter of that number. In the U.S., the largest Arctic town, Utqiagvik, formerly Barrow, is home to just over 4,000 people.