Russia’s Gains in the Great Arctic Race
In 2007, a ceremonial (titanium) Russian flag was planted on the seabed at the North Pole. Then Canadian Foreign Minister Peter MacKay quipped “this isn’t the 15th century, you can’t go around the world and just plant flags.” Russia’s flag, planted thousands of feet underwater, is quite the signal. The issue of extant overlapping international seabed claims for the North Pole might seem benign, especially when compared to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and tensions over Taiwan. However, there are major geopolitical ramifications stemming from this simmering and complex challenge.
Russia has used the international rules for over two decades to secure rights in the North Pole seabed. In February 2023, Moscow quietly secured a major win in the Arctic seabed legal battle. Yet, this significant legal gain comes in the midst of an international security context that is quite different from when Moscow planted its flag at the bottom of the ocean. The Arctic was a place of few avenues for cooperation and coordination between Russia and the West, and this ceased to be the case following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Without guardrails to facilitate dialogue and engagement, and perhaps incentives for Moscow to continue to adhere to the international legal regime of the Arctic, it is possible that the region is set to face its most challenging era yet.
To date, Moscow has adhered closely to the rules of game in the “race” to claim the seabed (and the riches) of the North Pole. The race refers to the converging strategic interests from Arctic-rim states: Russia, the United States, Denmark, Canada, and Norway. These interests include access to and use of emerging global transportation corridors, the future of data routes via submarine cables, preeminent satellite basing opportunities for both military and scientific purposes, as well as access to (and potentially control of) Arctic resources (living and non-living).
Russia has cleared the scientific burden of proof required to have its extended continental shelf claim legitimized. Decades of scientific research, Arctic missions, and information exchanges with Denmark and Canada have resulted in the U.N. Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf dubbing the majority of Moscow’s claim to an extended Arctic continental shelf to be “valid.”
But why would Russia use legal means to gain in the Arctic, rather than the use of force? It is curious that this default mechanism of the Russian Federation — the use of force — has not been used to lay claim to and secure control of the vast seabed mineral wealth of the Arctic. Instead, an arduous legal process has been President Vladimir Putin’s preference. Two curiosities arise from the commission’s recommendation in Russia’s favor. Why has Moscow studiously adhered to international rules and norms in the Arctic, while at the same time failing to do so in Ukraine? Further, what will Russia do with this legal victory — specifically now that Arctic cooperation and dialogue are all but frozen as a direct result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? Can — and will — Canada and Denmark continue to work with Russia in deconflicting their own extended continental shelf claims in the Arctic, or does Western unity in the Arctic face future challenges in terms of cohesion?
Russian Arctic (Seabed) Claims 101
The U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea allows coastal states to essentially establish the outer limits of their continental shelves beyond the limits of 200 nautical miles. A Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf recommendation goes so far as to deem submissions to extend a continental shelf as simply valid or not. In most cases, the commission seeks further scientific data to assist with their recommendations.
In the case of overlapping claims, as is the case with the Arctic Ocean seabed, the commission simply makes a recommendation as to the validity of a claim. It does not award it. Such discussions are left to overlapping claimants to negotiate, and to agree or disagree amongst themselves.
Three states — Russia, Denmark, and Canada — hold viable sovereign right claims to this area of the Arctic. In each case, their respective continental shelves extend well into the Arctic Ocean. The United States, however, has not ratified the Law of the Sea Treaty, so has been left on the sidelines when it comes to staking an extended continental shelf claim.
But this is a lengthy process. In most cases, it takes decades for the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf to consider extended continental shelf claims. Of course, a state is merely securing special (sovereign) rights to the seabed and subsoil area. Even then, the commission’s recommendations aren’t legally binding, either. However, if Russia (or any state) were to enact the recommendations as its delimited continental shelf, then the result is final and binding on all U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea parties.
Nonetheless, Russia has certainly gone to the trouble of jumping through the commission’s hoops. In 2007, then Russian Natural Resources Minister Yuri Trutnev stated that Moscow’s extended continental shelf claim was about securing Russia’s claim to the vast mineral wealth of the Arctic seabed and subsoil. Official Russian estimates show that up to 5 billion metric tons of hydrocarbon resources fall within Moscow’s claimed extended continental shelf.
Russia ratified the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1997 and, like all signatories, was afforded 10 years from ratification to file an extended continental shelf claim. While it had until 2007 to make a claim, Moscow rushed to submit in 2001. This submission to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf proposed an outer limit right up to the (geographic) North Pole. But the commission requested further scientific evidence to support Russia’s claim.
In 2015, Russia provided the evidence to the commission via a partially revised submission. However, the claim no longer fell short of the North Pole. Moscow had undertaken enough research and now garnered adequate evidence to claim some 1.2 million square kilometers of the Arctic seabed. Russia sought validation of sovereign rights to an area akin to “the size of France, Italy, Germany and Spain combined.” While awaiting the deliberations of the commission, Moscow revised its submission in 2021. It presented the commission with an addendum that essentially enlarged its claim even further to both Canada’s and Denmark’s (by way of Greenland) exclusive economic zones.
On Feb. 6 2023, the commission handed down its recommendations in response to Moscow’s extended Arctic continental shelf submission. Deliberating on information provided by Russia’s partially revised submission of 2015, as well as the 2021 addendum, the commission found the vast majority of the claim to be valid (approximately 1.7 million square kilometers of seabed). Some 300,000 square kilometers of the expansive claim did not pass the scientific threshold for recommendation. Yet, less than a week later, on Feb. 14, Russia submitted further scientific evidence related to this part of the submission.
Choppy Waters Ahead
Some argue that the commission’s recommendation in favor of Russia essentially brings the Arctic Ocean seabed dispute “close to an end.” Yet, Moscow has already openly stated that this recent recommendation will “not be the last word in the discussion about Arctic seabed rights.”
Indeed, Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf submissions are dealt with in an orderly manner — first come, first served. This means that the Danish and Canadian extended continental shelf submissions related to the Arctic are at least a decade away from consideration. It was long expected that all three states would continue to exchange notes and maintain a position of non-prejudice towards each other’s extant submissions sitting with the commission. However, significant geopolitical shifts in the Arctic spilling over from the Russia-Ukraine War have injected uncertainty into the resilience of international law in the Arctic.
Indeed, the region’s central governance forum, the Arctic Council, suspended work with Russia in March 2022. This no doubt has had implications for regional dialogue. While the Arctic Council is not mandated to deal with military security or strategic concerns, it was a key forum to exchange dialogue and cooperate with Moscow. Of interest is the fact that the fate of the key Arctic agreement regarding strategic concerns — the 2008 Ilulissat Declaration — has not been broached by Arctic-states.
It is the Ilulissat Declaration that textualizes the intent of Arctic states to cooperate on the “delineation of the outer limits of the continental shelf” — ensuring the “orderly settlement of any possible overlapping claims.” Given the agreement turns on “mutual trust and transparency,” it is highly likely that the good intent encapsulated is now well and truly resigned to history. The Arctic is past the point of no return in terms of circumpolar trust, respect, and dialogue.
Indeed, on Feb. 27 2023, Putin signed into law amendments to Russia’s Arctic Strategy. Despite much pundit fanfare — although utterly expected by Arctic wonks — reference to engagement specifically via (and with) the Arctic Council, once found in section 16(a), was nixed. Now, Russia will engage in the Arctic on a merely bilateral basis with other states. A window was left open to engage actively in research and “scientific, technological, cultural and cross-border cooperation.” Some good news.
No amendment was made to section 16(b) of the strategy — Moscow maintains that the Arctic Council is assigned “the role of a key regional association coordinating international activities in the region.” Furthermore, it is worth noting that no amendments were made to Russia’s strategy regarding the maintenance of interaction with Arctic states on “the issue of delimitation of the continental shelf.” Therefore, in formal policy, Russia apparently intends to remain committed to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf processes and the general spirit of Arctic-rim cooperation.
Russia’s adherence to the international legal framework in the Arctic is nice in theory, but its actions in Ukraine suggest that Moscow could easily have a change of heart. The commission’s recommendation essentially legitimizes a vastly extended Arctic continental shelf for Russia. This has dual utility to Putin: domestically, the “win” can also be used as a public narrative to illustrate Moscow’s rightful destiny as the preeminent Arctic power.
Any Western pushback on the commission’s ruling, or rejection of agreed legal avenues for delimitating overlapping claims, would also be used to bolster Russia’s “us versus the West” strategic mindset. Validating Russia’s Arctic submission might also assist in attracting traditionally risk-adverse foreign investment and engagement from states far beyond the Arctic — like China and India.
Our Arctic Horizon
Arctic security has taken an interesting turn with Russia securing validation of much of its extended continental shelf claim, particularly given the fact that this development occurs against a backdrop of a potentially irreversible break in circumpolar Arctic cooperation and dialogue, and at the same time that Russia is waging war elsewhere.
Ongoing bilateral negotiations between Russia and its Canadian and Danish counterparts might yet continue and prevail. States may continue to “wait it out,” at least for a decade or so, to receive all of the commission’s recommendations on the outer limits of the Arctic continental shelf. Or there could be a peaceful settlement of this issue. However, for this to happen, all three states would first need to adequately delimitate their claims in order to kick off any potential extraction of seabed and subsoil reserves. But this would of course require a considerable reduction in Russia’s claim.
However, the primacy of this resource-rich seabed to Russia’s overall national security planning does invite apt incompatibility into the cooperation scenario. Russia’s current Arctic Strategy (Strategy for Development of the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation and Provision of National Security for the Period up to 2035) was tabled in 2020. In this document, the delineation of Russia’s extended continental shelf is framed as fundamental to national economic security. It states the shelf area “contains more than 85.1 trillion cubic meters of … gas, 17.3 billion tons of oil … and strategic reserves for the development of the mineral resource base of the Russian Federation.”
Of course, extracting seabed resources at the North Pole would no doubt require technology and capital, as well as a viable long-term (30 years plus) export market and customer base — both of which are tangible at best right now. And the conquest of the Arctic seabed is about more than resource (living and non-living) rights or filling state coffers. Geographically, an increasingly active and physically present Moscow at the North Pole in effect brings the “enemy” much closer to America’s polar “gate.”
The extraction of resources also presents emerging opportunities to draw states that are also at odds with the United States into the Arctic picture. Of course, states like China do much more than invest in resource projects — they have the domestic legislation and capability to protect state investments as strategic interests with military deployments. A situation in which Russia facilitates an increased footprint of Beijing in the Arctic, right at America’s back door, is at best concerning given that China could legitimize an active military presence in the Arctic arena.
In the event of a conflict scenario, Russia is unmatched when it comes to Arctic capability. Moscow operates some 40-plus icebreakers — with more on the way — should it require polar muscle to push the other North Pole seabed claimants out. The United States has only two Arctic-capable icebreakers (Polar Star and Healy), both of which are increasingly prone to breakdowns and fires.
Putin’s Russia appears interested (not least given the aforenoted Arctic strategy revisions) in maintaining dialogue with Denmark and Canada as overlapping Arctic seabed claimants. Further, as the Arctic Council chairmanship rotates from Moscow to Norway, Oslo’s agenda appears rather focused on the survival of the council as the premier forum for circumpolar diplomacy. Norway has so far avoided calls to keep Moscow out in the cold — with Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre recently stating: “people are cutting Russia out of the map as if it is no longer there. It is.” Evidently, Western unity in the Arctic is facing a precarious future state of cohesion. Of course, the region’s “known unknown” is whether Russia will return to the Arctic Council table at all.
Against the backdrop of the shattering of European peace, Russia’s next steps in the Arctic could very well sink indefinitely the notion of “high north, low tension.” This specific Arctic saga has no clear end point, and this also underscores the complexities of international law in action: Russia is at once a rule-breaker in one theater and rule-abiding and rule-centric (for now) in another. Navigating this duality will require agile diplomatic abilities and at least a baseline of circumpolar dialogue. Let’s hope that Moscow plans to pick up the phone.
Dr. Elizabeth Buchanan is a non-resident fellow of the Modern War Institute at West Point and a First Sea Lord Five Eyes fellow with the Royal Navy Strategic Studies Centre. Her book Red Arctic was published on March 24, 2023, with The Brookings Press. Views are her own. @BuchananLiz
Image: The Kremlin