The Arctic Claim

An area twice the size of France, loaded with an estimated quarter of the world’s oil and gas deposits (which are becoming increasingly feasible to access as global warming causes the ice caps to melt) as well as other minerals such as gold and diamonds, Russia’s recent flag-planting stunt on the Arctic seabed is at once outrageous, comical, and impressive.


It is on the one hand an outrageous gesture for Russia to assert its claim to the Arctic in this manner, showing a transparent disregard for international law, and an openly provocative and belligerent projection of power. Russia, just like the other five Arctic Circle countries, have a legitimate claim to pursue in this territory, but here are rules, procedures, and legal structures for nations to navigate in regards to these kinds of territorial disputes. Consistent with the militarism and imperial exceptionalism which characterizes the rest of Moscow’s energy diplomacy, this attempt at annexation reveals a contempt for its neighbors, consolidating Russia’s re-emergence as “a global troublemaker.” The dispute goes like this: as established by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a nation can lay claim to the underwater mineral assets of its own continental shelf, so each of the five Arctic Circle nations have a 200-square-mile economic zone. Russia set out on this expedition to collect geological samples to prove that the Lomonosov Ridge connects to their continental shelf, an enormous claim which could give them control over an area as large as Europe between their Northern coastline and the North Pole. Canada on its behalf is arguing that the Northwest Passage amounts to an inland sea, thereby under Canadian sovereignty (Ottawa is going all out to pay for the icebreaking vessels necessary to stake this claim). There was also a nearly comical aspect of geopolitical theater. The meticulously organized media event of Russia planting the flag is totally unmatched by any other country, including marathon television coverage and a personal phone call from rock star arctic explorer Artur Chilingarov to Vladimir Putin. The rhetoric of all public statements on the matter has so far exceeded belief: “The Arctic is ours and we should demonstrate our presence,” said Chilingarov. Such are not the words of an exploratory mission to gather evidence, but rather a crystal clear claim. Canada’s response has so far been the most vigorous: “This isn’t the 15th century. You can’t go around the world and just plant flags and say, ‘We’re claiming this territory.’ … There is no threat to Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic … we’re not at all concerned about this mission — basically it’s just a show by Russia. … The question of sovereignty of the Arctic is not a question. It’s clear. It’s our country. It’s our property. It’s our water … The Arctic is Canadian,” said Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay. (Siberian Light points out the hypocrisy behind this one, as Canada planted its own flag just two years ago). But as law professor Eric Posner argues in the Wall Street Journal, this dispute will likely be settled by power, not international law, so it would seem that Moscow is probably just chuckling in response to the Canadian bluster:

Russia’s expression of power is credible; Canada’s is not. Canada cannot prevent other countries from sending ships up the Northwest Passage, as the U.S. has demonstrated from time to time for just this purpose. The melting of the Northwest Passage will significantly shorten the sea route between oceans, as well as open up access to energy resources. The U.S. does not want Canada to reap all the benefits of control of the passage, but this is a side show. The real threat is the Russian bear, not the Canadian beaver. The world is divided into two types of space: areas controlled by states and areas that are uncontrolled. Oceans are mostly uncontrolled, with the significant exception of territorial seas, where states have been able to exert some control with naval resources. International law has long recognized states’ control over their coastal seas (which extend about 12 miles), which means they can block and regulate foreign shipping in those areas. The high seas, however, are free to all. The major naval powers have always advanced the principle of freedom of the seas for the simple reason that their naval forces dominate them. But “commons” are subject to overexploitation, and overfishing has been the predictable consequence of uncontrolled oceans. Predictable and unavoidable: If no one can control the oceans, then the problem cannot be solved by giving a country nominal title to them. Where a state can exert control, it is best for it to do so, because this avoids the commons problem. It is in the world’s interest for Canada to control the Northwest Passage, even if it will profit and has the formal power to keep the rest of the world out. Canada has an interest in protecting the passage and exploiting its resources, which the rest of the world can purchase. But given its military weakness, Canada cannot have this control without the support of the U.S.


Built in 1987, the Akademik Fedorov is a much admired icebreaker that allowed Russia carry out the polar mission. Canada and the United States are scrambling to purchase similar vessels.

Lastly, the Arctic mission is impressive from the standpoint of Russian technology. No other nation could match the polar flotilla which, at great personal risk to the crew members, cut through hundreds of miles of thick ice to send down two mini-subs more than 4 kilometers below the surface (interestingly, one of the subs carried two foreigners, the Australian eccentric Mike McDowell, and the Swedish pharmaceuticals millionaire Frederik Paulsen). As the Economist reported, “For outsiders used to stories of Russian bungling and backwardness, that was a salutary reminder of the world-class technical clout and human genius the Kremlin can still command.” Perhaps it was not unreasonable that when Chilingarov returned to the surface, he spoke with the awed reverence of just having landed on the moon. Russia certainly has come a long way since Stalin’s polar fiascos (the sinking of the Chelyuskin), but it is such as shame that these celebrations of Russian ingenuity and accomplishment seem to always occur within a context of confrontation and hostility.