Why US must keep a close eye on Russia's plans for the Arctic

“The North Pole is Ours!” read the headline of Rossiiskaya Gazeta -- the Russian government daily newspaper of record -- on May 20. In today’s circumstances of heightened tensions with the West, Vladimir Putin needs victories, which may also make the country less pragmatic and more concerned about identity politics and symbols.

Against that context, we have the most significant physical event on our planet since the end of the last ice age is taking place today – the opening of the Arctic. Activity in all the high north is likely to continue to increase, together with fish stocks and pursuing fishing fleets migrating farther north. Access to staggering amounts of hydrocarbon and mineral resources, of which Russia deeply depends, will expand. New maritime shipping routes can reduce shipping times, costs and accelerate ties among commercial centers and Indigenous populations will be affected profoundly and rapidly.

All these facts are grounded in the reality that the Arctic is primarily a maritime environment, with Russia’s viable north coast coastline prominent. International legal regulation of the maritime Arctic is derived from agreements among the relevant coastal countries and global international treaties, such as the Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Russia, one of eight Arctic Council member nations and a signatory to UNCLOS, will face directly the changes, challenges, opportunities and responsibilities of this evolving strategic territory.

After years of promises to fulfil the process of settling the outer limits of the continental shelf in the Arctic Ocean, and subsequent postponements, Russia finally completed works on the partly revised application and sent it to the U.N. Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS). The Russian authorities are convinced that after years of scientific examinations, the nation has now all the necessary data to prove that an impressive chunk of the Arctic continental shelf encompassing up to 1.2 million km2 should be under Russia’s control.

The recent claim has been seen by some media and commentators as yet another ominous sign of an expansionist and revisionist Russia, attempting to undermine the existing status quo by reshuffling borders.

Certainly, the Russian government continues to highlight the geopolitical importance of the Arctic and the need to establish a central control over the region. Likewise, policy implementation has been set in motion resulting, among numerous other projects, in the off shore Joint Ventures with Exxon-Mobile, Statoil and others, which stand prominent as examples of the Arctic region’s economic importance to Russia, this as western Siberian oil reservoir key economic engine for Russia, is well past peak production on shore.

How Russia will react in case the CLCS recommendation is not seen as satisfactory, is hard to predict. According to the Russian submission – and as broadly expected, – the claim to the parts of the polar region of the Arctic Ocean and the Lomonosov Ridge overlaps “substantially” with the claims made by Denmark, and most probably with the Canadian claim, which is yet to be submitted. In case of overlapping claims though, bilateral or multilateral negotiations between the parties involved will have to take place, and the whole process is likely to take many years.

The Russian submission proves though that Russia is interested in following the orderly legal path and international cooperation at least as long as it serves Russia’s interests best. Indeed, by pursuing the legal path in the Arctic, Russia has a lot to gain. As a large country with an extensive coastline, Russia is one of the main beneficiaries of the UNCLOS regime, both in terms of exclusive economic zone and continental shelf. Considering the possible significant reserves of natural resources in the off shore area, it is key to get hold of the continental shelf rights. According to the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources, the region may contain 5 billion tons of oil equivalent. The country’s leadership believes that the development of the Arctic may contribute to reviving the whole national economy.

Yet, the expected future economic boom in the Arctic remains uncertain given high cost of development enormous investments and advanced, often foreign technology, needed. Moreover, to make the Arctic energy exploitation and international shipping along the Northern Sea Route a success Russia needs a close cooperation and good relations also with Western countries as users, investors, and providers of know-how. Given the tensions and sanctions, the development has been rather moving in the opposite direction.

A strong leadership by Arctic nations, including stronger engagement of the U.S., is needed to maintain regional stability and effectively engage Russia on a spectrum of areas. In this group, the United States stand out as a global maritime power and an Arctic Nation, which is yet to recognize by actions and investments that the Arctic region is an increasingly important geo-strategic space. The U.S. acceding to UNCLOS, coupled with meaningful confidence building efforts, would be a clear and unambiguous step in the right direction.