Arctic Geopolitics – Russia’s territorial claims, UNCLOS, the Lomonosov Ridge

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Article by: Leonhardt van Efferink, December 2011

Tags: Arctic Geopolitics Russian territorial claims UNCLOS Lomonosov Ridge Exclusive Economic Zones Baselines Flag Planting Navy

Leonhardt van Efferink

Leonhardt van Efferink

Leonhardt van Efferink is Editor of ExploringGeopolitics, Founding Director of GeoMeans Analytical Skills Development and PhD student at Royal Holloway, University of London.

He holds Master’s degrees in Geopolitics, Territory and Security (King’s College London) and Financial Economics (Erasmus University Rotterdam).

Some circumpolar countries have recently put forward new territorial claims in the Arctic, or consider doing so in the short-run. What drives these new claims? This article attempts to answer the question by discussing the regional state actors, the effects of climate change and the importance of UNCLOS for the territorial claims.

It then focuses on Russia’s Arctic claims, by analysing the country’s relationship with the Arctic, its foreign policy and the way the claims have been put forward in the international political arena.

Readers of this article are advised to consult these maps: – Arctic Ocean Map

International Boundaries Research Unit – Arctic maritime jurisdiction map

Le Monde Diplomatique – Arctic map

The Arctic actors

The Arctic is generally understood to comprise all territory and water (ice) north of the Arctic Circle (Howard 2009). The region has a harsh climate and is therefore sparsely populated, but derives its appeal from its strategic location and natural resources (Roucek, 1983). Five countries border the Arctic Ocean: Russia, the US, Canada, Denmark (Greenland) and Norway (Svalbard). Besides these circumpolar countries, Finland, Iceland and Sweden are considered Arctic countries as well, because their territory lies partially north of the Arctic Circle.

During the Cold War, the Arctic was mainly seen as a strategic area. Consequently, countries defined it mostly in military terms: a strategic site for submarine voyages, bombing routes and early warning systems (Roucek, 1983). According to Heininen and Nicol (2007, p. 147), USSR president Mikhail Gorbachev’s call for Arctic cooperation set in motion a process in which the “emphasis shifted away from maritime definitions of the region to a broader political and environmental constituency.”

In 1996, the Arctic Council was established by the Arctic countries and organisations of indigenous people (Heininen and Nicol, 2007). The organisation aims to protect the regional environment and promote sustainable development and stresses the importance of multilateral agreements. The regional interests of the body´s members differ widely. The US has refused to discuss security issues with Arctic Council, explaining why the organisation is still largely focused on environmental issues. The US feels least involved in the Arctic as a region and is mainly interested in those issues that relate directly to Alaska’s territory, its strategic interests and resource exploitation (Heininen and Nicol, 2007).

Moreover, the US is the only member state of the Arctic Council that has not ratified UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, see part 2). President Clinton signed the convention in 1994 and President George W. Bush expressed his support for the requisite move by Congress in 2009 (Howard 2009, the White House 2009). Nonetheless, some influential politicians who refer to ‘American exceptionalism’ have managed to block ratification by Congress.

Circumpolar countries could use UNCLOS to claim a larger share of the Arctic seas, but a unique geography makes it hard to apply the established legal framework in the region (Borgerson 2008). All five circumpolar countries were involved in a territorial dispute in the Arctic until September 2010 (IBRU 2010). The US is involved in three of them. It is in conflict with Canada over the status of the Northwest Passage (US: an international strait, Canada: internal waters), has a border conflict with the same country in the Beaufort Sea and one with Russia in the Bering Strait.

Climate change

Climate change has had an enormous impact on the perceived economic potential of the Arctic as a whole and country’s territorial claims in particular. Climate change (or global warming) is the commonly used name for a process that concerns a significant rise in the global temperature since the 1980s (Henson 2008).

The Arctic was not seen until recently as a promising location for resource exploration and large-scale shipping transit (Borgerson 2008). Perceptions started to change in the 1990s when melting of the Arctic ice accelerated as a result of higher temperatures. In 2007, the sea ice cover was nearly 50% lower than in the 1950s and 1960s (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Norway 2010). A key driver behind recent and expected territorial claims in the region, the melting of the Arctic ice cap may potentially ease the exploration and exploitation of mineral resources in the region’s subsoil. Technological progress in recent decades has also helped in this respect (Howard 2009).

Awareness (both in the region and in countries such as China and Japan) of the resource potential of the Arctic rose enormously after the U.S. Geological Survey published its estimates of Arctic hydrocarbon reserves in 2008. These estimates suggested that the region holds 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30% of the world’s undiscovered natural gas (USGS 2008).

Despite these positive estimates, massive new exploration and exploitation activity is very unlikely in off-shore areas in the coming decades. First, doubts have been raised about the reliability of these estimates (Howard 2009). Second, technology is still inadequate to build the necessary floating production structures, tools to drill for oil and pipelines that can deal with the tough conditions in many off-shore areas (Anderson 2009). Third, the costs of off-shore exploration and exploitation in some Arctic areas may be prohibitively high, requiring an unrealistic (although not wholly impossible) oil price to make production profitable (Howard 2009). These limitations do not alter the fact that perceptions of the Arctic resource potential have a large impact on territorial claims.

The melting ice has also increased the potential for navigation of two previously impassable shipping routes (Emerson 2010). The Northwest Passage runs through northern Canada (Anderson 2009) and was navigable for the first time in August 2007 (Dodds 2007). The Northern Sea Route is located north of the Russian mainland. The potential benefits of these routes are enormous, as traditional shipping routes that currently go through the Suez Canal or Panama Canal can be shortened by thousands of miles (Anderson 2009). The actual benefits will however remain limited in the coming decades as an all-year ice-free Arctic is very unlikely (Emerson 2010). Moreover, different types of moving ice, some potentially very dangerous, will remain a frequent impediment for many ships using these shipping lanes (Anderson 2009).

Readers of this article are advised to consult these maps: – Arctic Ocean Map International Boundaries Research Unit – Arctic maritime jurisdiction map Le Monde Diplomatique – Arctic map

United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)

Before discussing Russia’s territorial claims in the Arctic, we need to understand on the relevance of UNCLOS for the Arctic. UNCLOS stands for United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The treaty was signed in 1982 and implemented in 1994 (Emerson 2010), and had been ratified by 160 countries as of March 2010 (UN 2010).

UNCLOS is important for the Arctic because of the region’s large water areas. UNCLOS gives every coastal state the right to a territorial sea that provides them with more or less unqualified sovereignty over sea, seabed and subsoil. The sovereignty regime is virtually the same as for land territory and internal waters. The breadth of a territorial sea is at most 12nm, measured from baselines that normally coincide with the low-water coastline. For the Arctic with its possibly substantial off-shore hydrocarbons reserves, the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) is an important concept. UNCLOS stipulates that a coastal state is entitled to an EEZ that can usually not extend beyond 200nm from the same baselines. Its EEZ provides a state with “sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring and exploiting, conserving and managing the natural resources, whether living or non-living, of the waters superjacent to the seabed and of the seabed and its subsoil…” (UN 1982, p. 43). The coastal state has limited sovereignty over an EEZ as other countries have here the right of navigation, overflight and fishing.

UNCLOS (1982, p.53) notes that a coastal state has a continental shelf that “comprises the seabed and subsoil of the submarine areas that extend beyond its territorial sea throughout the natural prolongation of its land territory to the outer edge of the continental margin.” The continual shelf of each state extends to at least 200nm from the earlier mentioned baselines. If a country argues that its continental shelf extends beyond 200nm from the earlier mentioned baselines, it must submit evidence to substantiate such a claim to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS). This case should be done within 10 years of a country ratifying UNCLOS. The CLCS recommendations in this regard are final and binding. A country could have an interest in a continental shelf of more than 200nm stems because of the related exclusive right to explore and exploit the resources of the subsoil. The potential benefits are somewhat reduced by the (contentious) condition that the country concerned needs to share the revenues from resources found in the extended part of the continental shelf with other signatories of UNCLOS.

Russia’s territorial claims

So how can we best make sense of the importance of the Arctic for Russia, the country’s recent actions in the region and the claim that Russia submitted to the CLCS in 2001?

The Arctic was already high on the political agenda of the Soviet Union by 1930 due to its large share in the country’s landmass, its strategic location and its large resources reserves (Dodds 2007). Russia’s new national security strategy, implemented in 2009, centres on energy security. The related report argues that Russia will defend its access to oil and gas reserves in particular regions including the Arctic, and does not exclude military means in that respect (McDermott 2009). The presence of natural resources explains why the Russian government considers the Arctic a top priority. This perception is partially based on the fact that Russia’s ruling elite considers oil and gas the country’s most effective foreign policy tool (Trenin 2009). Furthermore, revenues from the energy sector are required to compensate for the lack of growth and reforms in other sectors, making the Russian economy increasingly energy dependent (Trenin 2009).

In recent years, Russia’s navy and air forces have become more active in the Arctic beyond the country’s EEZ (exclusive economic zone). In 2007, Russia re-introduced a Cold War practice where its strategic bombers fly over the Arctic Ocean (Borgerson 2008) and warplanes move along or just over the borders with other Arctic countries (Howard 2009). In 2008 the Russian navy resumed its patrol missions in the Arctic Ocean after a gap of 20 years (Borgerson 2009). An action that did not involve the military but nevertheless made global headlines took place in August 2007, when a Russian scientific expedition managed to plant a titanium flag on the seabed under the North Pole at a depth of 4,000m (BBC 2007; Dodds 2007). The official aim of the expedition was to search for geologic evidence to support Russia’s territorial claim. The flag planting ritual has been a practice for claiming territory for centuries and has already been conducted several times in the Arctic (Dodds 2007). A multilateral military action took place in the Arctic in June 2010, when Russia and Norway held their first joint military exercise since 1994 (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Norway 2010).

In his ‘Munich speech’ in February 2007, Russian President Putin rejected the US tendency for unilateralism and its claim to world dominance. He further stressed the importance of international law and political (as opposed to violent) solutions to conflicts (Washington Post 2007). Although some of Russia’s recent actions defy Putin’s remarks (e.g. Russian-Georgian war in 2008, see Ó Tuathail 2008), Russia’s Arctic strategy has embraced multilateral initiatives (Arctic Council) and international law (UNCLOS).

Russia submitted a case to the CLCS to claim Arctic territory in 2001, based on UNCLOS. The commission nonetheless refused to make a decision and requested additional geological evidence to support the claim (Howard 2009). The claim states that Russia has a continental shelf in the Arctic that extends beyond 200nm from the relevant baselines. It is assumed that the submerged mountain ranges known as the Lomonosov Ridge and the Mendelev Ridge are natural extensions of the country’s landmass (Howard 2009). The related territorial claim includes the location where the North Pole is assumed to be located (Dodds 2007).

International lawyers have stated that it is very difficult to prove that the two ridges are part of any continental shelf (Dodds 2007). Canada and Denmark consider basing a territorial claim on the Lomonosov Ridge as well, possibly leading to a new border dispute. On the other hand, Russia and Norway signed an agreement in September 2010 to settle their border dispute in the Barents Sea (BBC 2010).

In all, Russia’s recent actions regarding the Arctic reflect its appreciation of international law and a willingness to negotiate to settle border disputes while concurrently revealing a tendency to use military activity and strong language to bolster its territorial claims.


This brief analysis of Arctic geopolitics does not pretend to do fully justice to the many complexities that characterise this region. However, I hope it has clarified a couple of key regional issues:

  • All circumpolar countries were involved in border disputes over the past few decades.
  • Climate change and the related melting of the polar ice cap will not swiftly result in easily navigable, all-year open shipping routes and abundant opportunities for new oil and gas exploration in the region.
  • UNCLOS, an international legal framework to set maritime boundaries, does not offer tailor-made, widely accepted solutions to the remaining Arctic border disputes.
  • Russia’s policies towards the Arctic apply both international law and military means.


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