The Arctic is Russia's mecca, says top Moscow official

WASHINGTON — Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin has sparked a diplomatic incident with Norway after a trip to the Arctic that saw him land on Norwegian territory. Norway summoned the Russian ambassador in Oslo after Rogozin posted pictures on social media of his visit, which included a stop in Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago, en route to a Russian facility near the North Pole.

Rogozin made this triumphant declaration on his Twitter account.

As a result of sanctions slapped on Russia over its intervention in Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea last year, Rogozin is one of a number of senior Moscow officials blacklisted by the United States, the European Union and Norway — which signed on to the sanctions even though it's not part of the E.U.

"We have earlier this spring clearly expressed to the Russian Embassy in Oslo that people on the list are not wanted in Svalbard. It is therefore regrettable that Rogozin has been on Svalbard," a spokesman from the Norwegian Foreign Ministry told reporters.

Russian authorities countered (and Rogozin retweeted) that the visit was sanctioned by a 1920 treaty that provides its signatories, including Russia, with free access to the archipelago.

Whatever the case, Rogozin's trip to the icy north takes place in a heated moment. Earlier this month, all five Nordic countries — Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland — agreed to expand defense ties, specifically aimed at hedging against growing threats from Russia, which include a spike in air and sea incursions by Russian jets and vessels.

"Russia's leaders have shown that they are prepared to make practical and effective use of military means in order to reach their political goals, even when this involves violating principles of international law," the countries' defense ministers wrote in a joint statement.

"There is increasing military and intelligence activity in the Baltics and in our northern areas. The Russian military is challenging us along our borders and there have been several border infringements in the Baltics," the statement read, a telling sign of wider regional fears.

Neither Finland nor Sweden are members of NATO, and they have spent decades carefully avoiding any official position that could be considered antagonistic to Russia, a vast neighbor to the east. But the perceived expansionist tendencies of the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin has led to a new climate of wariness and confrontation.

That isn't helped by the rhetoric of Rogozin, an outspoken nationalist who is hawkish about Russian claims in the Arctic, which rub up against those of four other countries abutting the Arctic Ocean — the United States, Canada, Denmark (through its administration of Greenland) and Norway. It's believed that huge energy reserves lie beneath the Arctic seabed.

Rogozin says the Arctic is "a Russian Mecca" not because it should be a site for pilgrimage, but because it's central to Russian geopolitics.

In 2012, he warned that the Arctic would be a linchpin for Russia's future security and that Russia's Arctic "interests" had to be reinforced. "It's crucially important for us to set goals for our national interests in this region," Rogozin said. "If we don't do that, we will lose the battle for resources, which means we'll also lose in a big battle for the right to have sovereignty and independence."

Rogozin's agenda is grand historical. Last year, he wrote a forward to a Russian book on how the country lost its territories in North America and Alaska in the 19th century. You didn't have to read between the lines to hear echoes of Moscow's current irredentism.

"Russia giving up its colonial possessions makes it necessary to look in a different way at our diplomacy in the era of Gorbachev and Yeltsin, trading away pieces of the Soviet Empire," Rogozin wrote, gesturing to the fracturing of the Soviet Union into independent states, including Ukraine.

Last year, Moscow asserted a claim to an additional 500,000 square miles of Arctic territory, based on analyses conducted by geologists in Russia that its land shelf is directly connected to underwater mountain ridges that project deep into the Arctic.

Such a claim is a matter of contentious debate and will probably shadow this week's meeting of the Arctic Council, a bloc of eight countries that sit at the top of the world. It's to be chaired by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry; his Russian counterpart will not be in attendance.