Moscow’s occupation and annexation of Crimea has attracted enormous attention and much criticism, but its efforts to get the international community to declare a much larger area of the Arctic Ocean Russian coastal waters and thus an exclusion zone have not.
That may be about to change. Moscow has just filed a revised request with the International Commission on Continental Shelf Boundaries, a UN body, and asked that the commission grant Russia the right to an economic exclusion zone in the Arctic far beyond the current 350 miles from its shores (tass.ru/politika/2162910).
The Russian government made a similar request in 2001, but after three years of study and controversy with the other Arctic powers – Norway, Denmark, Canada and the United States – the commission rejected that application. Now, on what it says is new research over the last decade, Moscow is applying again.
If Russia gains control over a large part of the Arctic, that will have significant economic and political consequences.
The Russian argument is that various undersea mountains and plateaus are part of its continental shelf and therefore naturally part of its coastal waters. But the other Arctic powers and others, including China, have disputed that, arguing that these subsea features are separate and independent from any continental shelf.
Two things make this case especially serious now. On the one hand, investigations carried out by each of the five Arctic countries suggest that about 30 percent of the world’s natural gas reserves and 15 percent of its oil are under the Arctic Sea. If Russia gains control over a large part of the Arctic, that will have significant economic and political consequences.
And on the other, global warming means that the Northern Sea route from Asia to Europe via the Arctic Ocean is now open for a much longer time each year than was the case only a decade ago. How it will develop depends in important ways as to whether it remains an international waterway with free passage for all or Russian coastal waters Moscow will control.
Moscow’s original request included not only areas in the Arctic Ocean but also the Sea of Okhotsk, but this one does not because Moscow has already won on that point. In March 2014, the UN agreed to recognize that sea between Kamchatka and the Russian mainland as Russian waters, something that Moscow has used to squeeze out Chinese, Korean and Japanese fishing.
The Russian application says that Russia has held consultations with three of the four other Arctic powers but not with the US. It adds that Moscow will hold talks with the US as well “after the adoption by the Commission of the recommendations according to the filing of the Russian Federation.”
In another move to put pressure on the UN and its member countries to agree to its request, Moscow says that it has included this issue on the preliminary agenda for the next UN General Assembly meeting this fall, a meeting Vladimir Putin will attend and address, according to the Kremlin.