Diplomacy comes to the fore in Russia’s Arctic strategy

I’ll be traveling this week and next, so it’s time to dig up some more Oxford Analytica articles to keep things lively while I’m gone. This one is about the Arctic and was originally published in late October, 2010.

SUBJECT: Shifts in Russia’s diplomatic and international legal strategies in the Arctic region.

SIGNIFICANCE: During most of the late 20th century, the Arctic region was primarily a zone of military interests, used by both NATO and Soviet strategic forces as bases for their nuclear submarines and as testing grounds for intercontinental ballistic missiles. With the end of the Cold War, the Arctic initially lost its strategic significance. This has changed in the last decade thanks to a combination of accelerating climate change and a rapid increase in energy prices.

ANALYSIS: The US Geological Survey estimates that up to 20 percent of the world’s remaining oil and natural gas reserves are located in the Arctic, and a relative increase in energy prices compared to the historical average has made the exploitation of these remote and technically difficult resources more cost-effective. Russia’s natural resources ministry has stated that the parts of the Arctic Ocean claimed by Russia may hold more petroleum deposits than those currently held by Saudi Arabia.

Furthermore, climate change has led to rapid melting of the polar ice cap, which has improved access to the area. While talk of new northern shipping routes coming to dominate transnational economic flows remains just talk for now, previously ice-covered areas are now accessible for natural resource exploration.

Legal status. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which came into effect in 1994, allows countries to claim a 200 nautical mile (nm) exclusive economic zone that extends beyond their twelve-mile territorial boundaries. Large parts of the Arctic Ocean could thus be claimed by more than one country. Several multi-national corporations are aiming to explore for natural resources in these legally contested areas, though this is complicated by the lack of a legal regime for energy exploration in this region.

Furthermore, UNCLOS grants states exclusive rights to extract mineral resources on their continental shelves up to a distance of 350 nm from shore. This has led to disputes over whether various underwater mountain ranges should be considered extensions of the continental shelf:

  • Moscow has claimed that the Lomonosov and Mendeleyev Ridges are extensions of the Russian continental shelf. In December 2001, Russia submitted a claim to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, arguing that a large sector of seabed under the Arctic Ocean, extending to the North Pole, was an extension of the Eurasian continent. According to the claim, Russia should have the exclusive right to explore for natural resources in this area.
  • The Commission ruled the following year that additional research was necessary to substantiate the claim, which remains unresloved.

Energy Exploration. Russia’s main goal in the Arctic is developing energy resources. According to a policy document approved by President Dmitry Medvedev in September 2008, Russia views the Arctic as a strategic resource base. Russia has already put in place plans to exploit resources in this region — most significantly the Shtokman natural gas deposit, which contains 3.8 trillion cubic meters (tcm) of natural gas. Development of Shtokman is to be carried out by a consortium among:

  • Gazprom,
  • France’s Total,
  • and Norway’s Statoil.

However, because of the current oversupply of natural gas to Europe as a result of the global recession, development of the field has been postponed until 2016.

Territorial Claims. The authorities assess that there are significant natural gas and petroleum reserves on the Lomonosov Ridge and in the Barents Sea, near the maritime border with Norway. In order to ensure access to these resources, the government believes it must resolve maritime territorial disputes with the four other states with claims to Arctic waters:

  • Norway,
  • Denmark,
  • Canada, and
  • the United States.

Until recently, the only boundary agreement to which Russia was a party was with the United States.

‘Facts on the Seabed’. In order to press its claims to the Lomonsov Ridge, Russia launched a scientific expedition in 2007 that included a State Duma deputy who placed a titanium Russian flag on the sea bottom near the North Pole. Around the same time, Russian officials began openly to discuss increasing the military presence in the Arctic. These actions prompted concern in other countries that Russia was prepared to defend its claims by force. In the end, these concerns proved unwarranted as Russian rhetoric quieted down and its leaders began to focus on negotiated solutions to territorial disputes in the region.

Maritime boundary settlement. The Russian government has recently focused on reaching agreements with neighboring Arctic states to delimit maritime boundaries. Since the potential boundary between Russia and Denmark (via the latter’s sovereignty over Greenland) is small, the main focus has been on Canada and Norway.

Norway was particularly important because of a long-standing bilateral dispute over a 175,000 square kilometer area in the Barents Sea. The area was originally disputed because of conflicts over fishing rights, though it became more significant in recent years because of the probability that there are significant oil and gas deposits in the region. According to Russian estimates, the recoverable resources stand at 39 billion barrels of oil and 6.6 tcm of natural gas.

Russian-Norwegian cooperation. In an accord reached in September 2010, the two sides decided to divide the disputed territory more or less equally. In addition, both countries agreed to cooperate in developing the region’s natural resources and to share any mineral deposits that cross the delimitation line. Both sides plan to begin exploring for natural resources in the region once the treaty is ratified by their respective parliaments, something that was impossible while the dispute was unresolved.

The settlement of this dispute, long considered the most serious in the Arctic, has given impetus to other bilateral negotiations. In the days after the signing ceremony, Canada and Russia jointly announced that they will abide by the decisions of the UN in solving their dispute over the Lomonosov Ridge. This has engendered optimism that various territorial claims that have been (or will soon be) filed with the UN by all five Arctic states can be resolved in an orderly and peaceful manner.

Outlook. The coming years are likely to see an increase in the number of disputes over territorial claims in the Arctic. Russia is allied with Canada, Denmark and Norway in seeking to divide the region into territorial sectors, though many disagreements remain about where the lines should be drawn. They are opposed by the United States and a number of states outside the region (including the United Kingdom, China, and Sweden) that seek to establish an open-access regime modeled on Antarctica’s. Russia has been active in settling its disputes with the other regional powers in the hope of reaching a settlement without the involvement of outside actors.

CONCLUSION: Though Russia remains keenly interested in the Arctic, it will pursue its regional ambitions via negotiations and peaceful dispute resolution. Unilateral posturing and talk of building up a Russian military presence — which featured prominently in Russian Arctic policy just three or four years ago — have now fallen by the wayside, in part because the authorities regard a cooperative approach as more conducive to exploration of and investment in Arctic natural resources.

2 thoughts on “Diplomacy comes to the fore in Russia’s Arctic strategy

  1. The United States does not support a system based on the Antarctic model. All five of the arctic states have agreed to use the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea as the basis for determining sovereignty. The sector approach lost repute in the early 20th century and is now addressed more by academics than politicians. Equidistance lines and historical boundaries will be the basis for resolution (recognizing that in some cases the sector lines have historically stood as boundaries). But boundary agreements will all be special cases whose final details will be negotiated between neighboring states within the limits of the territorial sea, the EEZ and the continental shelf as defined in UNCLOS. With the Norway-Russia and US-Russia agreements in place, the Russian Federation has eased its situation for development of its EEZ considerably. The determination of the outer limit of its extended continental shelf awaits the submission of additional data to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf and the recommendation of the Commission regarding Russia’s proposed boundary in 2013 or 2014.

    I also note that UNCLOS allows claims to the continental shelf beyond 350 nautical miles as long as the claims are not to “ridges.” In 1980, the United States, in consultation with other arctic states, made clear in the plenary session of the LOS Conference that the Chukchi Plateau is not a ridge and therefore is not subject to the 350 mile limit. Rather, it is limited by the alternative based on the 2500 meter isobath. In the case of the United States, the claim in the Arctic may extend outward 600 miles or more while being consistent with the LOS Convention. The debate over the Lomonosov Ridge is over whether it is geologically a ridge or a natural extension of the continental material. This awaits review of the scientific evidence before that decision can be made. Division of the Lomonosov Ridge between Russia and Canada will be decided between the two states in light of the evidence and the decisions of the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf.

  2. One other point: the exploration for, and exploitation of, mineral resources of the seabed beyond the extended continental shelf falls under the International Seabed Authority established by the LOS Convention. While there seems little likelihood that oil and gas will be found in commercially attractive quantities beyond the extended shelf in the Arctic, it is possible that hard minerals, possibly polymetallic sulphides, might be found near the Gakkel Ridge in areas beyond national jurisdiction. If so, claims to such mineral resources will be governed by the rules, regulations and procedures of the ISA.

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