In advance of Russia’s assumption of the two-year rotating chairmanship of the Arctic Council in May, Moscow is calling on the United Nations to approve its claims to even more of the Arctic seabed, including territories also claimed by Denmark and Canada. Furthermore, President Vladimir Putin is pushing for the development of infrastructure along Russia’s Arctic littoral to better position the country to exploit these areas if the UN recognizes Moscow’s right to them, or possibly to use its own forces to unilaterally lay claim to them. It remains uncertain whether the UN will grant Russia’s latest request—it has not accepted Moscow’s repeated claims over the last two decades. And it is doubtful that Moscow will be able to meet the increasingly ambitious Artic development plans that Putin outlined in his address, on April 21, to the Russian parliament. Instead, Russia’s claims at the UN are likely to be resisted by the other Arctic powers, with the first flashpoint possible as soon as next month, at an Arctic Council ministerial in Reykjavik, where both the United States secretary of state and the Russian foreign minister will be present. At the same time, many in the Russian government are, at best, lukewarm about the Kremlin’s plans; and that half-heartedness—along with the enormous price tag and the threat of environmental disaster—may block the grand initiative from moving forward.
On March 31, the Russian government filed two new submissions to the UN body overseeing sea borders regarding Moscow’s claim that the Gakkel Ridge, the Lomonosov Ridge, and the Canadian basin are all part of its continental shelf and subject to Russian rules. Canadian and Danish analysts immediately expressed outrage because, in the words of one Canadian expert, the Russians are “in effect claiming the entire Arctic Ocean as their continental shelf,” ignoring the rights of Canada and Denmark, and setting the stage for conflicts among the Arctic countries. The UN rejected smaller Russian claims in 2001. In 2015, it asked for more information, but until 2019, Russia had not provided the requested data. Now, it has and is asking for even more. (Because such UN decisions fall under the Law of the Sea accord, the US is not directly involved—while Washington signed that international agreement, it has never ratified it.)
The centrality of the Arctic and of such claims and plans in Russian thinking was highlighted last week (April 14) by discussions at the influential Russian Geographic Society and again this week (April 21) during Putin’s address to the Russian parliament. At both events, the Kremlin leader said that development in the Russian High North, along the Arctic littoral, has been discussed “for a long time,” but “now is the time for its launch.” He called for the construction of new railways across the region. His hope is that Moscow can not only exploit the natural resources on land, but be in a position to support both the Northern Sea Route (a pathway that is becoming ever more important because global warming is reducing ice cover) and Russia’s aspirations to pump oil and natural gas from the Arctic seabed it is now claiming as exclusively its own.
The obstacles to this are enormous. On the one hand, a single railway bridge of the dozens that would have to be built for this Arctic line to open is estimated at a billion dollars. The entire project would cost tens of billions of dollars the Kremlin does not now have or force it to cut back on other programs. And on the other hand, those who stand to lose, including the Russian navy, are opposed given their needs to jumpstart their floundering construction projects. Others in Moscow object because they believe this would lead to more environmental disasters.
One indication that Moscow is far from united behind either claims on the Arctic seabed or Putin’s ideas on how Russia should proceed was the recent decision to delay the bi-annual Arctic Forum conference. That St. Petersburg meeting had been expected to showcase Russia’s claims and outline its agenda before Moscow assumed the chairmanship of the Arctic Council next month; and it was certainly intended as well to orchestrate international support for Moscow’s claims at the UN on the Arctic seabed. But now, Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Trudnev said, the meeting will take place only next spring, almost half way through Russia’s chairmanship and thus at a time far less useful from the Kremlin’s point of view.
Russia will assume the chairmanship; that is set in stone. And it will certainly seek to promote its positions there by expanding the Council’s secretariat as well as holding future experts’ and ministerial meetings in the Russian High North and even, according to one suggestion, at the North Pole, which would be part of Russia’s exclusion zone if the UN accepts Moscow’s position. But if the UN turns down Moscow, as it may do, by asking for more information not only from Russia but also from Canada and Denmark, that could open the way to a more serious crisis, possibly even a military one, given Putin’s anti-Western stance.
At the end of last year, in a move not much noted at the time, lawyers from Russia’s influential Foundation for the Defense of Investors Rights in Foreign States argued that Moscow does not need UN approval for its claims, however nice that might be, but can simply declare that the seabed belongs to Russia and act accordingly. Were that to happen, other Arctic powers, including the United States, would be forced to respond. Failure to react would permit Moscow to claim that its assertion of power had been accepted as a fait accompli. Put another way, a tough Western reply could spark a serious conflict; but silence and inactivity could lead to the demise of much of the international law governing maritime operations and open the way to more assertions of control by littoral states such as China in the South China Sea.
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