Russia is poised to make another land grab. This time it’s an island. But don’t get too alarmed. The island’s in the Arctic. No one lives there. And it may not even be an island at all.
But that hasn’t kept the Moscow media from trumpeting the discovery of a new “island,” which Russia is now claiming as its own.
The small piece of land lies north of Siberia in the Laptev Sea. It was first spotted last year by crewmen in two Russian military helicopters, who dubbed it Yaya Island.
Last month, a Russian naval ship completed a survey of Yaya Island. According to the crew’s report, the sandy dot in the sea rises to a height of one (count ‘em, one) meter above sea level and covers a whopping 500 square meters. (To put that in perspective, Bill Gates’ island has 12 times the square-footage of Yaya.) While Moscow is ecstatic over this addition to the Federation, the annexation of Yaya Island appears to be more of a PR stunt than a substantive acquisition.
For starters, it’s not clear that Yaya even qualifies as an island. The U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), in a section that reflects customary international law, defines an island as a piece of land surrounded by water and which remains above water at high tide. If Yaya’s meter-high sands sink below the waves at high tide, it is a mere “low-tide elevation,” not an island. Alternatively, it might fall into the legal definition of a “rock”—a piece of land that cannot sustain human habitation or economic life and is unaffected by tides.
So far, only the Russians have visited Yaya. Is it an island, an elevation or a rock? On the basis of currently available information, it’s not possible to make a final determination.
If Yaya does qualify as an island, some perks apply. Under UNCLOS, an island is entitled to a territorial sea of 12 miles. “Low-tide elevations” and rocks are not.
But even if Yaya’s claim to islandhood turns out to be legit, it’s not clear that Moscow gains anything other than bragging rights by annexing it. Russia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) already gives Moscow rights to any economic productivity in the waters extending 200 nautical miles from Russia’s shoreline—an area which encompasses Yaya and its putative territorial sea. At most, the annexation would extend Russia’s territorial waters slightly.
That’s where the PR comes in. In announcing completion of the survey, Moscow added that the navy ship had also surveyed the waters “for uses in the interests of the Russian Defense Ministry.”
The minute territorial expansion association with Yaya would have no practical impact on commercial shipping or any military operations in the area. The Kremlin is simply using the annexation as way to signal competitors that it remains committed to militarizing the Arctic.
The Arctic is a region of vast commercial promise, with natural resources that include immense reserves of energy. Russia clearly views the region as vital to its national interest and is trying to expand its footprint however and wherever possible. But the West’s interests there are just a vital.
The U.S. and our NATO allies would do well to take immediate steps to get in the game. They’ve already lost a lot of ground to the Russians—and I don’t mean Yaya.
Daniel Kochis is a researcher in The Heritage Foundation's Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy.