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.