Why are Russia’s efforts to establish its Arctic extended continental shelf frequently seen as threatening? Why do Western media so often respond with headlines like “Moscow Pushing Even More Expansive Claims on Arctic” and “You cannot claim any more: Russia seeks bigger piece of Arctic Ocean seabed”?01 Why do articles claim that the overlapping continental shelves of Russia, Greenland and Canada “could open the way to a more serious crisis, possibly even a military one”?02 Why are the actions of other Arctic coastal States not subject to the same level of scrutiny? And why are these questions so rarely asked?
On March 31, 2021, Russia filed two addenda with the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (the Commission), revising its 2015 submission pertaining to the Arctic Ocean.1 Russia’s proposed extended continental shelf (ECS) now stretches from its exclusive economic zone across the Arctic Ocean to the exclusive economic zones of Canada and Greenland and extends farther into the Canada Basin, crossing a portion of a line set in the 1990 Agreement between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Maritime Boundary.2 Yet contrary to popular perceptions, there is no need for alarm. Russia is not acting aggressively, it is not violating international law and, in filing a more expansive ECS, its behaviour is little different from that of its Arctic neighbours.
Russia’s actions are consistent with its obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which specifies rules and regulations governing the world’s oceans. The UNCLOS specifies that beyond 200 nautical miles from shore (i.e., beyond the exclusive economic zone), a coastal State has sovereign rights over the seabed and sub-sea floor, where its continental shelf extends as a natural prolongation of its land territory.4 Responsibility for delineating the ECS rests with the coastal State and the UNCLOS outlines steps in the delineation process that are important to legitimizing the outer limits of an ECS. Russia has adhered to the UNCLOS requirements. It conducted scientific research and related its data to the provisions in the UNCLOS. In 2000 it became the first country in the world to file a submission with the Commission, whose subcommission is currently reviewing Russia’s proposed ECS. Thereafter, the Commission will make recommendations to Russia, which will establish its ECS on the basis of these recommendations and in concert with negotiations with neighbouring States.5 Russia revised its Arctic submission in 2015 and again in 2019, which is fine since there are no limits to the number of times a country may file revisions.
Russia’s 2021 decision to expand the area included in its Arctic ECS must be seen in the context of the actions of its Arctic neighbours, particularly Canada and Denmark/Greenland. In 2013 then Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that Canada’s Arctic submission would include the North Pole,6 an announcement that undermined relations with Denmark and Russia.7 Denmark and Canada had an agreement that Canada would not delineate an area that included the North Pole.8 Scientific data would allow Canada’s ECS to stretch east of the Lomonosov Ridge and Greenland’s ECS to extend west of the Lomonosov Ridge; however, the countries agreed that Canada’s submission would not extend east of the Lomonosov Ridge and Greenland’s ECS would not extend west of the Lomonosov Ridge. The agreement was consistent with the pledges made by all five Arctic coastal States in the 2008 Ilulissat Declaration, to cooperate in the delineation of their respective Arctic ECSs, and to commit to the orderly settlement of overlapping ECSs.9
When Denmark made its submission pertaining to the area north of Greenland in 2014, it included the North Pole, as expected; however, its proposed ECS area was over 150,000 square kilometres larger than originally anticipated.10 The outer limit of its continental shelf was expected to stop at the equidistant line; however, it includes the Lomonosov Ridge from the 200 mile exclusive economic zones north of Greenland and Ellesmere Island all the way to Russia’s exclusive economic zone and westward to include portions of the Alpha Ridge. Canada’s decision to include the North Pole contravened its agreement with Denmark, causing the latter to rethink its strategy and defer to Greenland’s preference for a more extensive ECS.
When Canada made its Arctic submission in 2019, it included the North Pole but, unlike Denmark/Greenland, Canada stopped well short of Russia’s exclusive economic zone. Overlaps in the ECSs of Canada, Greenland and Russia were expected; however, the Danish/Greenlandic and Canadian submissions and now Russia’s 2021 addenda ensure that they are much larger than originally anticipated. Canada is likely to follow the examples set by Denmark/Greenland and Russia and file a revision to its 2019 submission, extending its proposed ECS to Russia’s exclusive economic zone.
Russia’s second addendum includes an extension into the Canada Basin that crosses the line established in the 1990 agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union delimiting their respective territorial seas and exclusive economic zones in the Bering and Chukchi Seas as well as in parts of the Arctic Ocean. The agreement was ratified by the US but not by the Soviet Union, which collapsed shortly after the agreement was negotiated; hence, it is not a treaty in force, although the US considers it part of customary international law and both parties have respected the treaty since its inception. It establishes a maritime boundary extending “as far as permitted under international law.”11 “International law” includes the UNCLOS norms pertaining to “sovereignty, sovereign rights or jurisdiction with respect to the waters or seabed and subsoil.”12
In August 2021, the United States issued a communication stating that it does not object to the Commission reviewing and making recommendations related to the information in Russia’s second addendum as long as “such recommendations are without prejudice to the establishment of the outer limits of the continental shelf by the United States of America, or to the delimitation of the continental shelf between the Russian Federation and the United States of America.”03
The Commission is a scientific body responsible for providing recommendations pertaining to the outer limits of the continental shelf. It has no mandate to resolve overlapping maritime boundaries. Responsibility for resolving overlapping ECSs rests with the States involved. When making their submissions in 2014, 2015 and 2019, respectively, Denmark/Greenland, Russia and Canada secured bilateral assurances from their neighbours, in which the latter acknowledged the existence of overlaps and stated that they did not object to consideration by the Commission while, at the same time, declaring that the Commission’s recommendations would not prejudice either the delineation or the delimitation of their own ECSs.13
In short, Russia’s Arctic submissions are consistent with international law. To accuse Russia of behaving aggressively in filing the latest addenda is hypocrisy: Its actions are similar to those of Denmark/Greenland and Canada. The overlaps in the proposed Arctic ECSs of Russia, Denmark/Greenland and Canada are huge and there will be additional overlaps when the US makes its submission; however, identifying overlaps is not the same as saying that there is conflict or the threat of violence. Resolving overlaps will likely be time consuming but they will ultimately be resolved using legal channels, as is the case with other Arctic maritime boundaries involving these countries. The five Arctic coastal States continue to carry out dialogue, collaborate and respect the Ilulissat Declaration. Fears of impending conflict are ill-founded. There is a legal regime in place and its rules are being observed by all Arctic coastal States.
Elizabeth Riddell-Dixon is Professor Emerita of Political Science, Western University, London, Ontario
01 Paul Goble, “Moscow Pushing Even More Expansive Claims on Arctic.” Eurasia Daily Monitor 18(65)(2021). jamestown.org/program/moscow-pushing-even-more-expansive-claims-on-arctic/; and Emma Tranter, “‘You cannot claim any more:’ Russia seeks bigger piece of Arctic Ocean seabed”. CBC News. (April 12, 2021). www.cbc.ca/news/canada/north/russia-arctic-ocean-canada-united-nations-continental-shelf-1.5983289
02 Ibid., page 4.
03 United States Mission to the United Nations, Diplomatic Note. (New York, August 2, 2021), p.2. www.un.org/depts/los/clcs_new/submissions_files/rus01_rev15/20210802UsNvUN.pdf
1 CLCS.1.REV.2015.LOS.Add1(Continental Shelf Notification)1 April 2021 www.un.org/depts/los/clcs_new/submissions_files/rus01_rev15/20210401UnNvAs0021e.pdf
2 Agreement between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Maritime Boundary, (Washington, signed June 15, 1990). www.un.org/Depts/los/LEGISLATIONANDTREATIES/PDFFILES/TREATIES/USA-RUS1990MB.PDF
4 UNCLOS, Article 76(1). https://www.un.org/depts/los/convention_agreements/texts/unclos/unclos_e.pdf
5 UNCLOS, Article 76(8).
6 Steven Chase, “Harper Orders Redraft of Arctic Claim: Bureaucrats Told to Revise Proposed UN Submission So That It Protects Geographic North Pole Against Rival Russian, Danish Assertions,” Globe and Mail, December 4, 2013; and “Address by Minister Baird to Media Concerning Canada’s Continental Shelf Submissions” (Ottawa: Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada, December 9, 2013). www.international.gc.ca/media/aff/speeches-discours/2013/12/09a.aspx?lang=eng
7 Ron Macnab, “How Harper Froze Out Scientists and Triggered an Arctic Debacle,” Chronicle Herald, June 17, 2015.
8 Martin Breum, “Is Harper’s Pole Claim an Arctic Deal-Breaker?” Arctic Journal Opinion, December 19, 2013; and Cold Rush: The Astonishing True Story of the New Quest for the Polar North, (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2018), p. 207.
9 Arctic Ocean Conference, Ilulissat, Greenland, May 28, 2008, p. 2. Available at arcticportal.org/images/stories/pdf/Ilulissat-declaration.pdf
10 See Marc Lanteigne, “Arctic Sovereignty: More Lines on the Ice,” The Arctic Journal, December 16, 2014.
11 Agreement between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Maritime Boundary, Article 2(1).
12 Ibid., Article 4.
13 The diplomatic notes pertaining to the 2014 Danish/Greenlandic submission, 2015 Russian submission and 2019 Canadian submission are available at www.un.org/depts/los/clcs_new/commission_submissions.htm