Russia, the Arctic, and the Healthy Nature of the International Order

The Arctic tends not to get a lot of headlines. But here in Canada, it’s a big deal. Or at least it is rhetorically speaking. Canadians like to think of themselves as a wintery, northern people – as Gilles Vigneault sang: ‘Mon pays ce n’est pas un pays, c’est l’hiver.’ We get all emotional about the north, and pump ourselves up with stirring speeches about defending our sovereignty. After which, we then do nothing – at least until the next time somebody else does something we don’t like in the Arctic. At that point, we make some more stirring speeches, before slinking off back to our local Timmy’s in Toronto or some other place as far from the Arctic as we can get without actually ending up in the United States.

And so it is that the Canadian press was none too happy this week when the Russian Federation deposited its latest submission to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf to advance its claim to a large portion of the Arctic Ocean seabed. ‘That’s our Arctic Ocean seabed, you wretched Russians! How dare you?”

The Commission in question is a product of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), that gives states the right to exclusive exploitation of the seabed up to 200 nautical miles from their continental shelf. To claim such a right, however, states have to provide the Commission with scientific evidence of where the continental shelf extends under the sea. If they can satisfactorily show where the shelf goes, then the UN will approve the claim. If they can’t, then the UN won’t.

This is a well-recognized procedure under UNCLOS, and Arctic nations have been spending the past few years busily surveying the Arctic seabed in order to promote the case that their own continental shelf extends outwards far from the coastline – the further the better, because the further the shelf goes, the more of the seabed can be claimed.

Particularly important is the status of the Lomonosov Ridge, a massive formation that stretches across the Arctic from Russian waters to Canadian ones. Russia, Canada, and Denmark (Greenland) are all seeking to prove that the Ridge is an extension of their own continental shelf. Whoever wins the argument gets the grand prize – control over a huge chunk of the Arctic Ocean.

Russia submitted its first claim to the UN Commission back in 2001, but was told to go away and do more research. Having done so, it submitted its new evidence in 2015, and has now further updated its submission, all backed up with new scientific evidence. The latest Russian bid has some Canadians fuming, as it expands Russia’s claim over Arctic waters by about 750,000 square kilometers compared to the original submission.

“This is a maximalist submission. You cannot claim any more,” complains Robert Huebert, an Arctic expert at the University of Calgary. “In effect, they’re claiming the entire Arctic Ocean as their continental shelf … they’re claiming the entire Canadian and Danish continental shelf as their continental shelf,” adds Huebert.

This is true in the sense that Russia is clearly pushing its claim as far as it thinks the science will allow. But it’s hardly alone in doing so. In 2014, for instance, Denmark submitted a claim to the UN Commission that has been described as “an unexpectedly massive demand … [that] stretch the demand as much as legally possible all to the way to Russia’s exclusive economic zone.”

Canada in turn presented its submission to the UN in 2019. Adam Lajeunesse of St Francis Xavier University noted in response that, “There was [some conjecture] that we would sort of do a quid pro quo and stop our claim at about the pole as a means of facilitating a political settlement. But like the Danes, we’ve gone well over the North Pole and are claiming an enormous chunk of the Arctic continental shelf.”

Russia, therefore, is only following where others have already gone. Furthermore, it seems pretty confident in the validity of the scientific evidence it has amassed. That, though, will be a matter for the Commission to determine. In the meantime, what’s interesting about all this is the manner in which Russia has operated.

For as Whitney Lackenbauer, a circumpolar expert at Trent University, notes, ‘Russia is playing by the rules. And for those of us who are concerned about Russia’s flouting of the rules-based order, I actually take a great deal of comfort in seeking Russia go through the established process in this particular case. … I’m not worried about Russia’s action as an Arctic coastal state seeking to determine the outermost limits of its extended continental shelf.”

Lackenbauer hits the nail on the head. Western leaders regularly accuse Russia of wanting to destroy the international order. But reality is rather different. On occasion, when vital interests are at stake, the Russian Federation flouts the rules, just as other powers do. But most of the time, it operates within them. The Arctic is a case in point. Google ‘Russia, Arctic, aggression’, and you get all sorts of headlines, such as ‘What is behind Russia’s aggressive Arctic strategy?’, ‘Meeting Russia’s Arctic aggression’, ‘Arctic aggression: Russia is better prepared for a North Pole conflict than America is’, and so on. Yet, in practice, the Russian Federation has entirely respected the ‘rules-based international order’ as far as the Arctic is concerned. It’s an example that should give pundits pause to thought.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has declared that Arctic territorial issues ‘can be tackled solely on the basis of international law, the International Convention on the Law of the Sea, and in the framework of the mechanisms that have in accordance with it been created for determining the borders of states which have a continental shelf.’ This is what is happening. It’s an illustration that, for all the talk of the collapse of the international order, international law continues to operate and most states respect it most of the time. Instead of focusing on the few cases when the opposite happens, international affairs analysts might usefully pay a bit more attention to the instances when things work the way they should. If they did, their analyses might be less alarmist, and also rather more realistic.

23 thoughts on “Russia, the Arctic, and the Healthy Nature of the International Order”

  1. Canadian governments have endemically paid little attention to its Arctic region, done little to develop it or support the locals. At’s A Fact Jack!. Russia could quite rightly tell Ottawa to go pound sand.

    As for that blowhard ‘international order’ it’s AKA ‘American toadies’. And Canada is most certainly a client toadie of the U.S. Russia should just say that very loud and clear. In any case, it’s fait accomli time, meaning the Russians should just go and do what they want on the ground and ‘what’re you going to do about it bub’.


    1. If, in the end, pure “science” of geology backs Russia’s claim, then America will declare science is “fake news” and disinformation. Ministry of Truth will write its own science.


    2. No quite right, John. In terms of resource extraction, the GC has done a lot (infrastructure development, training, and jobs for locals are other matters). Canada’s resource exporting industries have long preferred fly-in fly-out. Russia’s development in the North is the result of Soviet investments and deliberate settlement policies. Those are incompatible with neo-classical economics, but perfectly possible once a modern monetary theory lens is applied to public finance and money creation.


  2. And speaking of that “rules based order”, its major proponent the US isn’t even a party to UNCLOS ( International Convention on the Law of the Sea)


  3. Google ‘Russia, Arctic, aggression’, and you get all sorts of headlines, such as ‘What is behind Russia’s aggressive Arctic strategy?’, ‘Meeting Russia’s Arctic aggression’, ‘Arctic aggression: Russia is better prepared for a North Pole conflict than America is’, and so on.

    I think it’s a general rule of thumb that if you try to look for keywords for a narrative, you’d get results that support that narrative. Although I suspect that in Google’s case there’s also heavy-handed attempts to censor out any results it doesn’t like – particularly those that contradict the CIA’s narrative.


      1. I tried Googling plain&simple “Russia Arctic” and what came back was not too bad: “Russia’s Arctic activity to increase with fresh strategy and more capability tests” from Defense News, “Russia Claims Continental Shelf in Arctic Ocean” from Moscow Times and “Russia’s anti-hypersonic missile radar to enter combat duty in Arctic by July” from

        I wonder how much Google’s top picks for a user are affected by that user’s reading habits?

        However, I got the same “Meeting Russia’s agression…” as a top pick using your query, Yalensis!


      2. Lola, it is shocking that the algorithm did not “evolve” in the time between my search and your search!
        Please don’t me started on the bogusity of “AI” algorithms. I still believe there is a little man sitting in the box and pretending to be a robot…


      3. Try qwant:

        1. Why does Russia claim the Arctic as its own? – Russia Beyond

        2. Russia Claims Continental Shelf in Arctic Ocean – The …

        what a difference a search engine makes


      4. Thanks, peter, I never even heard of qwant! Thank goodness there are alternatives to google. Google probably just shares same server with CIA.


      5. I got the same thing in google but completely different results with DuckDuckGo and Yandex. These last two were very different from each other.

        I like to use a couple of search engines when I really am seriously searching for something.


  4. P.S. – I don’t know if wordpress will let me post this link to youtube. If not, just google “Jimmy Dore Russia weaponizing” to find this show. This is one of the funniest take-downs I have seen of all the Russia-Gate hysteria. Jimmy and Aaron Mate go through just about everything that Russia ever “weaponized”, and it’s hilarious (my personal favorite: the giant squid that Russia weaponized):

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jimmy and Aaron Mate go through just about everything that Russia ever “weaponized”,
      I love Aron too, he is great. But how language could be weaponized seems to leave him slightly puzzled. 😉


      I would assume I have mentioned the Canadian 2014 publication before around here. Lytt had discovered Saakashvili on Foreign Policy.

      Russia’s Next Land Grab Won’t Be in an Ex-Soviet State. It Will Be in Europe.
      First he came for Georgia, then for Ukraine. Vladimir Putin’s next target is likely to be a non-NATO nation in the EU.
      By Mikheil Saakashvili | March 15, 2019, 6:46 AM; foreign Policy

      Does the bold passage ring a bell?

      I liked this Canadian look into the history and the larger geo-political-melting-ice-and assumed 25% of not yet discovered oil resources. Canadian Arctic sovereignity, then and now …

      On Strategic Culture, Brian Cloughley looks critically at present American/Nato military affairs or manoevers in the larger geopolitcal, economic, military setting:
      Setting the Scene for Global Destruction. Now It’s the Arctic
      Brian Cloughley, April 13, 2021

      In a world already aflame with conflict, one of the most recent threats to peace is growing in the Arctic, where the U.S. is intent on increasing its military capabilities. Forward deployments and operations have so far included flights over the Barents Sea by USAF B-1 Lancer strategic bombers based at Ørland in Norway, where the large air base “is important not only for Norway, but also for NATO. The air station is the base of F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter, F-16 fighter aircraft, B-1B strategic bombers, Westland Sea King search and rescue helicopters and a location for E-3A Sentry AWACS…”

      The ominous focus of Washington on the Arctic is allegedly justified by Russia’s legitimate improvement of its defence facilities in its own sovereign territory. The Pentagon’s official position is that “Obviously we’re watching this, and as I said before, we have national security interests there that we know we need to protect and defend.” The spokesman then declared (presumably being unaware of the U.S. strategic bomber deployment and other military operations), that “nobody’s interested in seeing the Arctic become militarized.”

      The Arctic has always been an important region but has assumed greater significance since global warming resulted in extensive ice-melt and opening of seaways including what is now called the Northern Sea Route or NSR. The Arctic Bulk commercial group, based in Switzerland, describes the NSR as “a shipping lane between the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean along the Russian coast of Siberia and the Far East, crossing five Arctic Seas.” Further — and never mentioned by the Pentagon or the U.S. media — the NSR is located entirely within Russia’s Exclusive Economic Zone.

      On April 5 the Pentagon announced that “the region is key terrain that’s vital to our own homeland defence and as a potential strategic corridor between the Indo-Pacific, Europe and the homeland — which would make it vulnerable to expanded competition.”

      But then, we are told Biden is going to meet with Putin or at least planning to??? … Be sure to check the Group’s website. Passage through the Russia economic zone would save close from 40-60% percent of time. To get e.g. LNG gas to Europe.


      1. Jimmy and Aaron are wonderful, but they are obviously not Russia experts. They didn’t get the bit about “weaponization of Russian language” (referring to Donbass and/or Latvian situations), nor even “weaponizing of disability” at Eurovision song contest. Aaron, who is a very knowledgeable journalist, struggled with that one, but clearly what the Russophobes were referring to, was the case of Russian singer Samoilova.
        Comedian Ron Placone also does silly Putin jokes for cheap laughs. But that’s okay, I forgive them. They are not specialists in this arena, but they are trying hard to be edgy, and their hearts are in the right place.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. I am not so familiar with Jimmy, once in a while links to him and I watch it. The other guy I didn’t even bother to look up, maybe subconsciously (?), since you didn’t bother to name him.

        I also have to admit, in the field of political satire, or what we call Kabarett over here, I am obviously more familiar with the good ones over here. 😉


  5. Why be so concerned about Russian claims when some in the USA maintain that the waters of Hudson Bay are international?

    And why not, indeed, for they claim that the Northwest Passage consists of international waters?

    So one day, you Canadians might well see USN warships cruising around the bay, displaying their right to “freedom of navigation”, albeit that the international Convention on The Law of the Sea provides for Exclusive Economic Zones of up to 200 miles from the shores of states that have a coast, in which zones a coastal state has the sole power to regulate offshore fisheries and mineral extraction activities.

    All of Hudson Bay appears to be within Canada’s EEZ and Canada can exclude foreign fishing and mineral extraction activities in those waters.

    “Oh no it isn’t!” say some, maintaining that the bay is an inlet of the Arctic Ocean.

    Yeah, right!

    And the Black Sea is an extension of Lake Michigan?


    1. Speaking of boats swimming around wherever they please: Yesterday I saw news reports that the Americans decided not to enter the Black Sea after all. I don’t know if this is true or not. It is factual that the Americans had previously informed Turkey they would be sending 2 boats in, which would swim around until May 4. The 2 boats, if I am not mistaken, were the USS Donald Duck and the USS Teddy Roosevelt.

      Then Russians started scrambling their boats and planes in a Black Sea-ward direction; then, after this effective chest-pounding, all of a sudden the Americans allegedly chickened out, “No, we’re not going sailing into the Black Sea, who said we were sailing into the Black Sea?”

      Some people believe (=Highly Likely!) that Americans had given greenlight to Ukraine to attack Donbass on some secret date (late April, early May), thus all the scrambling; and Zelensky making his Great Tour of Qatar and Turkey and so on. Then, according to the same theorists, Sultan Erdoğan was the guy who vetoed the plan; and then Americans got cold feet too, at the thought of their prize boats being sunk on the first day of the war.

      So, now back to Square #1. At least, that’s the theory among the cognoscenti.

      War can be so much fun, so long as nobody actually gets hurt!


      1. Patrick Armstrong has two great links via his latest Sitrep.

        These two links remind me of our larger exchanges or me of your Ukrainian and Ukrainian language articles:

        HOW TO FIX UKRAINE. My idea (link). Dmitry Orlov’s more interesting suggestion.<link)

        You gotta admit, that Patrick’s analytic excerpt is quite good?


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