Skip to main content

The Non-Issue of Russia’s Arctic Continental Shelf

Non-Issue of Russia’s Arctic Continental Shelf

September 14, 2017

By Morgane Fert-Malka

Territorial disputes in the Arctic usually feature in popular media within a narrative of a “race for resources” or militarization on the world’s “last frontier.” This article, not for thrill-seekers, is about a dispute of the tedious kind: the delimitation of the continental shelf in the five Arctic coastal states—Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the United States. These five states are wrangling over the geographical boundaries of their respective national jurisdictions, for the purpose of exploring and exploiting the soil and subsoil of maritime areas outside their Exclusive Economic Zones.

Much more than saber-rattling, muscle-flexing, and other demonstrations of force, the dispute involves legal subtleties and ambiguities, collection and discussion of bathymetric and seismic data, and many years of negotiation in a semi-closed format. Because of its complexity and technicality, the process is unfit for sensational accounts and is often misrepresented in the news. A continental shelf cannot be “won over” by sending armed troops to occupy the bottom of the ocean. Moreover, asserting jurisdiction on a portion of the continental shelf does not affect freedom of navigation or other laws that apply to the water column and airspace above it.

That said, the delimitation of the Arctic continental shelf is one of the last, and the most important, outstanding territorial disputes in the region. Its smooth resolution will be critical for the future of regional governance and the development of international maritime law. It is thus important to get the facts straight, especially regarding Russia, whose behavior in the Arctic arouses such strong reactions from the international community.

A Lengthy Process with High Stakes

Since the 1940s, a specific segment of international maritime law—the continental shelf doctrine—has evolved, defining the rights of coastal states on the submerged landmasses adjacent to their coastline. It is now established that coastal states have the exclusive rights to explore and issue drilling licenses, as well as collect taxes on these activities, far into the ocean, provided that they do not encroach on the ocean’s deep seabed, recognized as common heritage of humankind, and that they reach agreements with their neighbors on bilateral boundaries in an orderly manner. Therefore, to establish definitive jurisdiction, states need to prove, first, that the area in question is the natural prolongation of their continental landmass (delineation of the continental shelf). More often than not, two or more states can legitimately claim the same area, so the process has a second dimension: the drawing of boundary lines through diplomatic negotiation or litigation (delimitation of the continental shelf).

In the Arctic, such state jurisdiction could extend up to and beyond to the North Pole. At the moment, three states—Canada, Denmark, and Russia—are claiming the North Pole, and several other areas of the Arctic seabed are disputed. It is still unclear where the final boundaries will run after the parallel and intertwined processes of delineation and delimitation are completed. The decision will depend not only on “hard” scientific data but also on the involved states’ legal and diplomatic strategies. The uncertainty lies first in the fact that beyond broad principles, there is no absolute and readily applicable method to delimit and delineate the shelf; to some extent, the rules are being made in the middle of the game. Second, the game is so complex that states are constantly suspecting each other of cheating.

This still does not leave room for military confrontation, however. Because the dispute is legal and diplomatic in essence, its resolution depends, on the one hand, on international law and the willingness of states to follow, specify, and affirm it; and on the other hand, on the political capital that the countries’ elites have invested at home. In Russia, these stakes are high.

Fossil Fuel and Geopolitics

Russia’s current interest in the Arctic Ocean’s seabed can be explained by the confluence of two distinct processes: Russia’s historical northward drive, in which “Arcticness” became a defining element of national identity, and its political economy’s reliance today on fossil fuels and mineral resources.

Fossil fuels are a foundation of the contemporary Russian state, both as the main driver of the country’s economy and as a key component of the state’s geopolitical positioning. If fossil fuels were important to Russia merely as a source of revenue, then the search for new deposits farther north and farther offshore would be understandable, as traditional onshore sites are being depleted. But this does not account for the search extending as far north, and as far offshore, as it is. Most expected offshore oil, gas, and other mineral reserves are located in undisputed areas closer to the coast, and no extraction project would be viable in the disputed ones, so the economic rationale alone is not enough to justify the Russian state’s investment in securing access to them. In these cases, prospects for oil and gas development, even in the very long term, matter to Russia as a sign of geopolitical power. This explains why the state is offering subsidies and putting pressure on the fossil fuel industry to stretch farther northward. The clientelist relationship between political and industrial elites reinforces this tendency: In exchange for subsidies and licenses, the fossil fuel industry contributes to the Kremlin’s patriotic agenda.

In short, like other major political projects in Russia, the continental shelf delimitation process makes little economic sense. It is rather about geopolitical prestige and the opportunity to spend state money on data collection, diplomatic expenses, and far-fetched drilling projects. Spending money makes the bureaucracies look busy, and creates patronage opportunities.

Legitimate Interests and Legal Debate

Whether or not the project benefits the country’s economy and society as a whole is doubtful, but it is a question for the Russians to decide and a matter of sovereign policy. At the international level, however, there is no doubt that Russia is entitled to maximize its continental shelf claims in the Arctic, and there is nothing strange about a state looking to augment its geopolitical standing by using provisions of international law to extend its jurisdiction on the continental shelf. The commentators who infer “aggressive” or “expansive” intentions from Russia’s prompt and self-confident, but entirely substantiated, submissions in 2001 and 2015 to the U.N. Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) have clearly misunderstood the nature of the game.

These submissions attest to the fact that Russia not only scrupulously follows the provisions of international law but also pioneers them. Russia’s eagerness to submit first to the CLCS looks like a sign of good faith—there is no inherent advantage to acting early in this case, and it indicates a willingness to follow established international procedures. Russia is also actively involved in diplomatic negotiations with the other Arctic states whose claims overlap, or may overlap, with their own.

Russia has followed the rules so closely that the most patriotic commentators in the country—both the philistines and the finest specialists—have suggested that it is trying too hard, to its own detriment. Their main concern revolves around the failure of the U.S. to ratify UNCLOS, which some in Russia see as a deliberate move by Washington to circumvent the rules to which all other Arctic coastal states have bound themselves. They argue that after Russia, Canada, Denmark, and Norway delimitate their continental shelves, the U.S. plans to “swoop in” in “grab what is left”—including the central part of the Arctic Ocean with the symbolically critical North Pole. The only way forward for Russia, they say, is to divide the central Arctic Ocean into sectors, like a pie, rather than follow the rules of UNCLOS and the CLCS procedures.

Still, most mainstream experts fiercely reject this mode of thinking, as do the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Natural Resources, which are strongly and consistently committed to the CLCS track. Should the CLCS eventually reject the Russian submission, however, the political climate in Moscow might change in favor of a more hawkish line. In order to keep the delimitation process orderly, the U.S. should be transparent with other Arctic states in its plans regarding its continental shelf. Commentators everywhere would be well advised to drop the narrative of a “race” for Arctic resources, which fuels the most harmful conspiratorial discourses about Russia’s activities in the region and empowers those within the country who would rather defy international law.



Morgane Fert-Malka is a French freelance political analyst based in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and Copenhagen. She focuses on Russia’s Arctic policies and on international relations in the Arctic. In addition to her doctoral research on Russian decision-making processes in the Arctic, she is committed to deciphering the complex and fascinating issues of international Arctic governance for the broadest possible audience. Twitter: @CuriousArctic.

[Photo courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard]

This article first appeared on the World Policy Institute website.