A two-day meeting taking place in Moscow this week may turn out to be just another talking shop, but it could also be the start of something much more significant. The subject is co-operation in the Arctic, a title which puts the most positive spin on what might more realistically be termed cut-throat competition for a slice of territory believed to be rich in natural resources.
The question of exactly who controls what and where national demarcation lines might run has taken on a new urgency because of two quite separate developments. Modern technology has made prospecting and drilling possible deeper and in lower temperatures than before, and the shrinking of the polar ice cap, which is making the north-east passage navigable in summer, is making the region more accessible.
Nine years ago, in what might be seen as its opening gambit, Russia submitted a territorial claim to the UN for the underwater Lomonosov Ridge. That was rejected for lack of evidence, but three years ago a Russian expedition planted a titanium flag underneath the North Pole, in a bold statement of its intentions. Moscow has also announced a major national research project designed to support its case.
This week's meeting, at which all those countries with claims to Arctic territory are represented – but at a research and consultative, rather than official government, level – can be seen as the opening of a parallel track, based more constructively on fact-finding than land-grabbing. As such, it is in line with Moscow's efforts to present a friendlier face to the world and its new emphasis on co-operation. This in turn may reflect the Kremlin's recognition of its own relative international weakness.
That Russia has an acute sense of its own self-interest, however, cannot be ignored. With an economy heavily dependent on natural resources and mineral reserves in more accessible regions becoming harder to exploit, it has at least as great an interest as any of its Arctic neighbours in maximising the area under its control. But, in a positive sign, this week's agenda also stresses the ecological aspect – the imperative to preserve this pristine region for future generations.
It must be hoped that this forum is the opening of a continuing international discussion, rather than a one-off event entrenching rival claims. But it is even more to be hoped that a spirit of co-operation and respect for the environment will somehow manage to prevail over the potentially destructive scramble for resources.