Last spring (April 2019), after almost 20 years of Russian lobbying, a subgroup of the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf declared that much of the Arctic seabed is an extension of Russia’s land mass and thus a potential exclusion zone. If that ruling is confirmed by the entire commission, now slated to make a decision in February 2020, Moscow’s claims to the Arctic will have gained significant international backing. Not surprisingly, Russian officials at the time were jubilant and expressed confidence that the UN body would soon rule in its favor and give new weight to Moscow’s claims that its continental shelf includes an additional 1.2 million square kilometers in the Arctic, something that would give Moscow international backing for its efforts to assert control over much of the Northern Sea Route.
But some Western experts suggested that Russian enthusiasm and expectations immediately following the UN commission subgroup’s declaration may have been overstated. Michael Byers of the University of British Columbia, for one, said that the international commission is in the business not of defining borders, but rather of ruling on the validity of geological data presented to it. This reality suggests that the issue is likely to remain far from politically resolved, whatever the full commission rules early next year. Yet, Moscow believes that a commission decision is critical to its interests and will give Russia a strong hand in the region, especially since the body is part of the Law of the Sea legal regime, of which Russia is a member but the United States is not.
Precisely how much importance Russia attaches to the commission decision, and how much work Russian officials and scholars have been conducting to ensure a favorable outcome, was on display a week ago (October 21), at a meeting in St. Petersburg of the Russian government’s Naval Collegium. The assembly was chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov and involved governors, regional officials and businessmen, as well as senior commanders of the Russian navy, the Military-Maritime Fleet.
Borisov told the group the defense ministry has assembled “exhaustive data” showing that the continental shelf extends from the Russian coastline much further into the Arctic Ocean than most experts and governments had assumed earlier. He further alleged that Russia’s additional bathymetric and gravitational studies provide “sufficient” basis for the UN commission to rule in Moscow’s favor. Admiral Nikolay Yevmenov, the commander-in-chief of the VMF, concurred and provided additional details.
He said that the Ministry of Defense and especially the navy have been mapping the floor of the Arctic Ocean in the vicinity of the Russian shoreline since the 1950s. But new technologies mean that Russian experts now have an accurate picture of the seabed—one that supposedly proves Russia’s continental shelf extends deep into the Arctic, far deeper than that of any other country, thereby including almost the entire Northern Sea Route. The admiral added that Moscow has now created a digital database for the central portion of the Arctic basin and that this supports Russia’s claims because it is based not on estimates and speculation, as are the assertions of others, but rather on precise bathymetric information.
According to the naval commander, this database was significantly expanded “in the course of complex research in the Arctic Ocean in 2019,” research that he says made use of the “most up-to-date” technologies available to ensure that the Russia data would fully conform to the needs of the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. Among these efforts, Yevmenov said, was a research voyage of “more than 5,600 miles” by the Russian research ship Academician Fyodorov.
Even before the Commission makes a decision, Moscow is acting as if it already has the approval in hand and suggests that recognition of its database means recognition of its political and economic claims. Aleksandr Krutikov, the deputy minister for the development of the Far East and the Arctic, said that by the end of this year, his agency would present draft legislation governing access to the seabed on Russia’s expanded continental shelf in the Arctic Ocean. Such legislation, he said, will ensure the balanced development of the region through 2035 and make sure that it is Russia, rather than any other country, that will profit.
Three things remain uncertain, however: first, the UN commission may not give Russia everything it wants, accepting only part but not all of Moscow’s expansive claims. Second, and more importantly, other countries, including the US, China and Japan, may not accept the interpretation of any ruling, insisting instead that a geographic ruling is not a political or economic one. And third—and most crucially—Moscow may have to defer to others because it lacks the funds at present to develop the Arctic seabed on its own. Next February’s meeting is thus important, but it may not be the turning point Russia hopes for.
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