Give the Kremlin credit for ambition. Just weeks after its invasion of Georgia ignited a major conflict in the Caucasus and dramatically altered the status quo in the 'post-Soviet space', the Russian government appears to have set its sights on another strategic prize.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told a meeting of his National Security Council on 17 September that his government had decided to make the acquisition of a greater stake in the Arctic a cardinal national priority. "Our first and main task is to turn the Arctic into a resource base for Russia in the 21st century," Medvedev told the assembled officials.
The reasons are both economic and ideological. First and foremost, the Russian government is in dire need of financial ballast. Over the past month, the Kremlin's uncompetitive business practices, coupled with its military adventurism in Georgia, have led to a massive crisis in investor confidence.
Capital flight has skyrocketed, tipping the scales at an estimated USD15 billion to date and spurring domestic fears of inflation. Simultaneously, the Russian stock market has tanked, losing nearly a fifth of its value and bringing back memories of the bad old days of the late 1990s, when Moscow was on the economic ropes.
However, the Arctic may just be the antidote to these ills.
In recent years, climate change has made more and more of the region accessible to oil and natural gas exploration, and oil companies have wasted no time in moving in.
What they have found has only whetted international appetites. According to some estimates, the area may turn out to hold as much as a quarter of the world's shelf hydrocarbon reserves. This goes a long way towards explaining why Russian officials have increasingly become convinced that it is an economic game-changer.
As Medvedev has put it, exploiting the Arctic's resource wealth "is directly tied to solving the long-term tasks of the state and its competitiveness on global markets".
A greater stake in the Arctic is also intimately related to Russia's increasingly assertive regional behaviour. Moscow's recent incursion into Georgia was a bellwether of sorts for the concept of a 'Greater Russia' and the outward expansion of the country's territorial borders.
The sorry denouement of that conflict, and the West's apparent impotence in the face of Russian aggression, has done little to dampen such yearnings in Moscow. And the acquisition of the Arctic fits neatly into that narrative, which is why it has resonated with Russia's increasingly nationalistic policy elites.
Of course, Russia's plan requires a substantial rewriting of existing international law. The Arctic currently lacks its own legal regime, relying instead upon the rules and regulations contained in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Under these rules, each of the 'Arctic Five' nations — Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the United States — is allowed to stake a claim to roughly 200 miles of Arctic territory beyond its demarcated northern border. The rest is considered part of the 'global commons', over which no nation can claim sovereignty.
However, Russia has fiddled with this formulation, arguing that the so-called Lomonosov Ridge, a massive undersea geological formation in the Arctic Ocean, is in fact part of its sovereign continental shelf and that Moscow is solely entitled to its resources. That position is contested by Canada and Denmark, which claim to have evidence that the ridge is rightly part of the North American continent.
Last summer, the Kremlin even undertook a scientific excursion to solidify its claim, complete with an official flag planting. Back then, observers mocked the effort, branding it an empty gesture.
In retrospect, it appears to have been a savvy opening gambit in a co-ordinated Russian political strategy to alter the existing status quo in the Arctic.
Moscow has since made other moves, announcing plans for renewed naval patrols of Arctic waters and declaring the region to be part of its zone of 'security'.
Western nations, which are currently preoccupied with the unfolding global financial crisis, still appear inclined to treat these steps as mere bluster. But all the available evidence suggests that the Kremlin's claims are real and its intentions deadly serious.
Russia may have pledged not to carry out a "unilateral partition" of the Arctic, but if left unchallenged legally and politically, Russiaʼs plans are liable to ratchet up military tensions with North America and intensify competition for resources in the world's already-tight energy markets.
And all that could bring the spectre of a new cold war a good deal closer.