The battle for Arctic begins!


More than 40% of the federal budget revenues of the Russian Federation come from hydrocarbon trade. Due to the fact that the resource capacity of already developed deposits will sooner or later end, geologists are constantly conducting exploration works in search of new deposits of minerals. Many states around the world have already adopted national strategies for the development of renewable energy sources, green energy and hydrogen energy, meant to gradually replace coal, oil, natural gas and even nuclear power plants. However, Russia does not share the commitment to high environmental standards and tends to exploit well-established practices of extracting energy resources and getting proceeds from them. Instead of the clean ecology of tomorrow, Moscow prefers the net profit today.

The Arctic is a deposit of huge reserves of hydrocarbons. Until now, due to the extremely harsh environmental conditions of the Far North, comprehensive exploration of the Arctic shelves has not been carried out. However, in view of the gathering pace of global warming, the operation conditions in the Arctic began to change.

Generally, ongoing melting of polar ice and the rise in the level of the world’s oceans cause concern in many states, primarily island from Great Britain to Japan. For example, addressing this issue the authorities of Indonesia even decided to move the capital of the state from the island of Java (where Jakarta is located) to the island of Kalimantan. However, Moscow is quite satisfied with the new climatic reality, since it should make the development of the Far North more feasible. At the same time, the Kremlin is pinning special hopes on the future development of the Arctic shelf.

Certain difficulties in this regard are caused by the fact that some continental shelf territories in the Arctic do not fall under clear jurisdiction of any of the five coastal states – the USA, Canada, Russia, Denmark, and Norway. According to the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea, the territorial waters of the state are belt of coastal waters extending at most 12 nautical miles, and the exclusive economic zone is a 200-mile territory from shore. At the same time, the state’s water area extends to the shelf only, while the extended continental shelf of the Arctic zone was recognised international. However, any country is entitled to claim its national jurisdiction over the seabed and its subsoil beyond 200 miles, provided it can prove that their shelf effectively extends beyond this distance.

While the Arctic was generally considered as a “land of ice horror” (as defined by Norwegian polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen), the coastal states held off on aggravating relations around this region. However, after global warming began, the situation changed dramatically. Today they want to clearly state their shelf boundaries, as well as expand their national sectors in depth of the extended continental zone.

By the way, unlike Russia, the USA has not joined the aforementioned UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. On the other hand, recently the Russian parliament adopted a law on the supremacy of the Constitution of the Russian Federation over international law. Thus, nothing prevents Washington or Moscow from putting forward further new claims to the Arctic spaces.

According to the US Geological Survey, about 22% of the world’s undiscovered hydrocarbon resources lie under the ice of the Arctic, with 84% of the resources at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean and only 16% on the land territory of coastal states.

In any case, it was Russia in 2001 that became the first of the five Arctic countries to apply to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf requesting to expand the boundaries of its shelf in the Arctic beyond the standard limit. Back then the UN rejected this application, relying on the lack of evidence. In response, the Russian Federation organized a number of expeditions designed to study in detail the structure of the ocean floor in those areas to which it claims, and in 2015 it submitted a corresponding application again.

In 2020, the aforementioned UN Commission indicatively recognized the validity of geological arguments about the attachment of a part of those Arctic territories claimed by Moscow to the Russian continental shelf. In the event that the UN Commission fully satisfied the request of the Russian Federation, the area of the Russian shelf would increase by 1.2 million km (for comparison, approximately the same area is occupied together by France, Germany and Poland).

Meanwhile, Moscow does not hide the fact that it is of utmost important for Russia to prove that the underwater Lomonosov Ridge, which is especially rich in hydrocarbon deposits, is of continental origin, associated with its territory. Still this is contested by Canada and Denmark. Copenhagen believes that the Lomonosov Ridge is a sunken part of Greenland.

In turn, the United States is trying to buy Greenland from Denmark all the time, starting from 1946 (back then it was promised $100 million in gold) and ending with of President Donald Trump’s offer in 2019. At the same time, if during the Cold War the United States were interested in a military base and airfield on a strategically located island, today they do not hide that they are deeply interested in the extraction of hydrocarbons near the Greenland coast.

The dispute between Denmark and Canada over the uninhabited Hans island, located in the centre of the Kennedy Strait, has become quite famous for its curiosity. Since the width of the strait in that place is 35 km, the island lies within the territorial waters of both Denmark and Canada. According to the tradition, which roots back in 1984, the navy sailors of both countries alternately land on the island, dismantle the opposing side’s flag and set their own, making sure to kindly leave alcoholic drinks as a gift to their rivals: the Danes leave schnapps, and the Canadian sailors – whiskey.

Several maritime boundaries in the Arctic Ocean are objects of minor contradictions. That is a border between the United States and Canada in the Beaufort Sea, as well as the border between Denmark, Iceland and Norway in the Greenland Sea.

On the other hand, the dispute between Moscow and Oslo over the use of the Spitsbergen archipelago is very serious. In 1925, Oslo officially declared Spitsbergen to be a part of the Kingdom of Norway. Later (in 1947), the Soviet Union got the Norwegian parliament to recognize that the USSR was a state with special economic interests in Spitsbergen. Further, the closer to the present day, the more tense relations between the two countries become over the polar archipelago and its shelf zone.

Quite representative became the recent news about the exploration of the Arctic shelf in the Russian Federation which is no longer controlled by any research institute (geology or oceanography), but by the Russian special service, the FSB. This news was preceded by no less impressive – V. Putin gave the order to completely renew the fleet of nuclear submarines to protect the North of Russia. It is also expected that in the nearest possible time the Kremlin will make a decision on the construction of a new series of icebreakers to ensure Russia’s interests within the Northern Sea Route. In addition, the Russian Federation has created Arctic Trefoil military base on the Alexandra Land (part of the Franz Josef Land archipelago), which has become the northernmost military base in the world! In general, everything indicates that Moscow is more than serious about the issue of access to Arctic resources and is not going to concede in to anyone.

We should bear in mind that the Russian Federation’s chairmanship in the Arctic Council – an international structure, which includes 8 countries – the USA, Canada, the Russian Federation, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Finland, Sweden, as well as 6 organizations of the indigenous peoples of the Arctic falls on 2021-2023. Undoubtedly, Moscow will not miss the chance to promote an advantageous agenda for it during the three years of its presidency.

Today, the battles for the Arctic are taking place with diplomatic smiles during protocol meetings, forums and conferences. So far, these events address the issues of climate change, the development of shipping, environmental safety, protection of the interests of the indigenous peoples of the North, etc. However, it can be assumed that the faster the polar ice melts, the tougher the nature of the negotiations will be, as they concern in fact the most important topic – access to the wealth of the Arctic.

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