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  • Russia's Arctic Claims: Neither LOST nor Forgotten

    The Arctic is becoming the “wild west” of the 21st century, and the Russians have been quick to claim a good part of it as their birthright. The Russian state is after 380,000 square miles of this final frontier, which may store an estimated one-quarter of the world’s untapped hydrocarbon reserves. Moscow is expected to submit its claim to the United Nations for arbitration under the Law of the Sea Treaty (LOST) within the next couple of months.

    Russia’s scramble for the Arctic’s minerals was on display for all to behold when Artur Chilingarov, a renowned explorer and Deputy Chairman of the Duma, planted a titanium Russian flag beneath the North Pole in 2007 under Vladimir Putin’s orders. Putin also went on a mission to the High North to track and tag polar bears, highlighting Russia’s Arctic policy priorities.

    Russia initiated its claim through the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) in 2001—six years earlier. To boost this claim, this July the Russian research ship Akademik Fyodorov, accompanied by a nuclear-powered icebreaker, set off to prove that the Siberian continental shelf connects to underwater Arctic ridges by completing underwater mapping of the area in question. If confirmed, this may boost Russia’s claims to the Arctic continental shelf. Other members of the Arctic Council—the U.S., Canada, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, and Finland—may stand to lose if the CLCS approves Russian claims in the High North.

    Moscow has an unquestionable head start on the rest of the world, and it is not shy about investing in its ambitions. At least six new icebreakers and Sabetta, a new year-round port on the arctic shores—costing $33 billion—are on the agenda, but Prime Minister Putin has said the Kremlin is “open for a dialogue with our foreign partners and with all our neighbors in the Arctic region, but of course we will defend our own geopolitical interests firmly and consistently.” Or as they said in Soviet times, “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is negotiable.”

    The Arctic is of vital geopolitical importance not just to Russia, but to the entire world. It has enormous quantities of hydrocarbon energy and other natural resources, and as the Arctic is no longer completely icebound, in summertime it may become an important transportation route vital to U.S. national security.

    Despite this, at present the U.S. has made virtually no effort to strengthen its position in the frozen final frontier. The chief concern is America’s lack of icebreakers—even Canada and Finland have more than the United States. Icebreakers are vital to exploring the Arctic and enforcing one’s sovereignty there. As of 2010, Russia had 29 icebreakers in total and was building more. The United States had two (including one that is obsolete), with no plans to expand. The Heritage Foundation has exposed this problem extensively:

    The United States has significant geopolitical and geo-economic interests in the High North, but the lack of policy attention and insufficient funding have placed the U.S. on track to abdicate its national interests in this critical region.

    The United States must strengthen its position in the Arctic and make its interests clear to friend and foe alike. Washington should reach out to the Arctic Council members to block Russia’s expansion plans at the U.N. Meanwhile, the U.S. should fund and build its icebreaking squadron and deploy it in Alaska.

    Russia’s Arctic aspirations are a serious geopolitical challenge for U.S. and allied interests. America’s security and economic prosperity in the 21st century will depend on U.S. ability to access polar waters and the Arctic Ocean bed.

    Posted in International [slideshow_deploy]

    3 Responses to Russia's Arctic Claims: Neither LOST nor Forgotten

    1. Caitlyn Antrim says:

      A couple technical comments to start with. First, the Russian claim will be submitted to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, an autonomous body elected by members of the Law of the Sea Convention, not the UN. Second, the Commission not an arbitral panel, it is a panel of experts in geologic sciences who will review the claim for conformity to the rules set out in the Law of the Sea Convention. If the panel finds that the claim meets the conditions and limits set forth in the LOS Convention, the panel will give it their approval.

      While there may be debate between Russia, Denmark and Canada over rights to parts of the Lomonosov Ridge based on its geologic features and heritage, the claim is not a challenge to the United States since we already have a maritime boundary agreement in the Arctic with Russia; Norway has a boundary agreement with Russia as well. Current geological projections by the USGS place the large majority of prospective oil and gas within the Russian EEZ where there is no challenge to national authority, though both Russia and the US may eventually find exploitable resources in the margin beyond 200 miles.

      In a recent paper, Steven Groves of the Heritage Foundation recommended that the United States make a unilateral claim to the continental margin beyond our 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone, which would seem to give Russia a blessing to claim the margin outside their EEZ. In contract, this article proposes that the US try to get other Arctic states to work through the LOS Convention's Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (of which we cannot be a party as long as we remain outside the Convention) to oppose a Russian claim that is expected to be made in conformity to the provisions of the Convention, correcting the shortcomings of its 2001 submission. Both proposals from the Heritage Foundation seem to advocate abandoning the rule of law in the Arctic in favor of a regime of unilateral claims, creating a business environment that the US oil industry claims would be detrimental to exploitation.

      I believe that the US needs to make a strong commitment to conservation and development in our Arctic, and adding new icebreaking capacity is a critical step to that end. Beyond that, I don't see how either this article's recommendation regarding challenging Russian claims to the arctic shelf or the recommendation by Steven Groves for a unilateral US claim would be preferable to simply joining the LOS Convention and working to ensure that all claims to the extended continental shelves are in conformity with the Convention, whose continental shelf provisions were negotiated by the US to support future US claims to the entire Chukchi Plateau several hundred miles beyond our 200 mile EEZ in the arctic.

    2. Matt says:

      UN Convention on the Law of the Sea
      The complete UN Convention on the Law of the Sea with all articles, annexes, state parties, accession dates, reservations and objections in one book. Keep it on your desk for quick reference! http://www.amazon.com/United-Nations-Convention-L

    3. Caitlyn Antrim says:

      The book on Amazon is not complete – it does not contain the 1994 Agreement. It also has some significant errors: it lists the United States as a signatory of the Convention in 1982. The US did not sign the Convention, it only signed the final act, not the convention itself. This only signified that the US took part in the negotiations and could, if it wanted, participate as an observer in the preparatory commission that followed (the US declined to participate as an observer).

      There are copies of the Convention available that include the Agreement on Implementation, and the UN's website has the full convention as well as up to date, and correct, data on signatures and ratifications.

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