Tag Archives: Arctic

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.

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

Three headlines

Three headlines have caught my eyes this week, all of them deserving a short commentary:

  1. Russia claims the North Pole.  The Russian government has just submitted a revised claim to parts of the Arctic Ocean, including the North Pole, in accordance with the process laid out by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). You can read the executive summary of the claim here. To my surprise, so far the media here in Canada have been remarkably fair in their coverage of the issue. The Ottawa Citizen, for instance, cited Arctic affairs expert Professor Michael Byers saying that, ‘Russia showed surprising restraint in its new Arctic claim compared with Denmark’s provocative bid last year, and diplomats should be relieved that Russia has chosen to follow to international rules in its submission and not create tension in the area.’ Indeed, in putting forward its claim, Russia is following the procedure laid out by UNCLOS, and the matter is now in the hands of the United Nations. There is no cause for alarm.
  2. Russians are dying more and giving birth less. The last decade saw a significant improvement in Russia’s demographic situation, with Russians living longer and having more children. But, according to the Russian statistical service Rosstat, this trend has now been reversed. The death rate in the first quarter of 2015 was 5.2% more than a year previously, while the birth rate was 5.7% less. According to the Deputy Minister of Health, Veronica Skvortsov, ‘This is not because the population is getting older. The death rate is increasing among young people, aged 30 to 45 … For the first time in years the number of suicides and alcohol poisonings … have increased. This is a big problem.’ It is not clear yet whether this is a one-off or the start of a new negative trend, but either way it is undoubtedly bad news.
  3. Robert Conquest has died. During the Cold War, when the true nature of the Soviet Union’s communist regime remained disputed, the works of British historian Robert Conquest were revelatory. Books such as The Great Terror, The Nation Killers, and The Harvest of Sorrow exposed the enormous extent of Stalinist repression, and ensured that public opinion in the West would remain resolutely anti-Soviet. Like many other Cold Warriors, however, Conquest didn’t manage the transition to the post-Soviet era very well. Documents from newly opened archives revealed that some of his claims were exaggerated, but rather than accept this, he clung to his original position. As a result, his reputation suffered somewhat. Still, despite its faults, his work provided the foundation on which a generation of historians built. As a young man, I found his books enthralling, and they helped to inspire me to become a historian myself. Conquest was one of the giants of Soviet studies, and his death is a great loss to the field.

Glædelig Jul

What nationality is Santa Claus? The answer to that question depends on who owns the North Pole, which is currently a matter of considerable dispute. Every year the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) tracks Santa’s sleigh as it travels south into Canada from the Arctic. Yet NORAD never dispatches any jets to intercept this obvious breach of Canadian airspace. This presumably reflects the belief that the Pole is Canadian. Indeed, in December 2013 Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird told reporters that, ‘We have asked our officials and scientists to do additional and necessary work to ensure that a submission for the full extent of the continental shelf in the Arctic includes Canada’s claim to the North Pole.’

But Canada is not the only country claiming the Pole. In the past 12 months, journalists, politicians, and academics alike have leapt with zeal on the ‘Russian aggression in the Arctic’ bandwagon, referring often to a 2007 incident when Russian scientists planted a titanium Russian flag on the seabed beneath the North Pole . ‘Russia Is Trying To Bully Their Way Past Canada Into Arctic Sovereignty’, pronounced Vice News in January 2014.  ‘Russia’s aggressive gambit to seize territory in Europe has amplified the need for Canada to fortify its claims to potentially disputed territory in the Arctic’, said Professor Aurel Braun of the University of Toronto in September. ‘Since Mr. Putin returned as President of Russia in 2012, but particularly in the past year, Russian claims to the Arctic have multiplied’, he added.

In fact, claims to Arctic waters are being determined by a well-established legal procedure, in which countries present scientific evidence to the commission established under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Making claims under this procedure is not evidence of any form of aggression. Furthermore, Russia has entirely followed this procedure. The Canadian government, by contrast, hasn’t, as shown by Baird’s statement staking a claim to the North Pole despite a total lack of evidence that the Canadian continental shelf extends that far. As James Manicom, a research fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, put it: ‘I don’t think the prime minister, and the Prime Minister’s Office, are literate in deep-sea geology. So if they decided it was important to claim the seabed underneath the North Pole, then they have interfered with an otherwise pretty clear scientific process.’

In any case, Russia isn’t the competitor that Canada really has to worry about. In early December this year, the Danish government submitted scientific data to the UN in support of a claim to the North Pole, on the grounds that the Lomonosov Ridge under the Arctic Ocean is an extension of Greenland’s continental shelf. Experts suggest that the Danish claim is much more credible than those of Russia and Canada. ‘Preliminary work has shown … that Denmark would actually have the strongest claim to encompass the North Pole within its region,’ Ron McNab, formerly of the Canadian Polar Commission, told CBC News.

Santa, it appears, is probably Danish. Ho, ho, ho!