Russia’s Arctic Policy: What Happens Next?

Over the past decade, Russia has invested billions of dollars into restoring Soviet Arctic air and naval bases in hopes of expanding Russian territory, a potential flashpoint in U.S.-Russia relations. These investments suggest that Russia is positioning its military as an indemnity in order to illicitly extract priceless natural resources under the melting ice. The crux of the issue rests in the Russian claim that the Lomonosov Ridge is a continental shelf rather than an oceanic shelf. Redefining the Lomonosov Ridge as a continental shelf would extend Russia’s territory by 1.2 million square kilometers. The United States should counter Russia’s claim by filing a case to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (U.N.C.L.O.S.) for additional exploration concerning the Ridge, calling for arbitration measures in coordination with Canada and Denmark.

Former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, the former Chair of the Arctic Council, supports Arctic Council policies aimed to prevent members’ diplomatic relations from deteriorating. Conflict resolution to prevent violent territorial disputes is a major concern for Kerry. He argues that “what’s going on in the Arctic,” will affect U.S. national security policy, stating that the potential “for a global race to exploit the resources of the [Arctic] region” already exists.

Russia already planted the Russian flag on the Arctic seabed in hopes of reinforcing its questionable discovery that the Ridge is part of the state’s continental shelf. Under the U.N.C.L.O.S., a state is entitled to an exclusive economic zone within 200 nautical miles of its coastline. Subsequent to Russia’s dubious scientific breakthrough, Canada and Denmark each argued that the Ridge constituted part of their territories. Meanwhile, America maintains that the Ridge is part of the oceanic shelf in hopes of invalidating Russia’s claim, which would benefit Russia’s economy.

As the ice melts, the 1,670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, 90 billion barrels of oil, and 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids below the surface will become available for extraction. The Russian economy relies on the extraction of these minerals from Siberia, but depletion of these nonrenewable resources prompted the government to look elsewhere. Sustaining its Arctic bases will cost Russia $100 billion per annum. Russia must expect some sort of profit from such a large investment in a peaceful region. Considering the role of oil and natural gas in Russian exports, it is no surprise the Kremlin turned its eye northwards to maintain productivity.

According to U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for Energy Transformation Melanie Nakagawa, “working through the Arctic Council with our Russian counterparts has really been a great example of that type of collaborative spirit that really have [has] been brought to the US by the Arctic” in October 2016. Two months later, however, Dmitry Peskov, Press Secretary for President Putin, remarked that nearly “every level of dialogue with the United States is frozen… We [Russians and Americans] don’t communicate with one another, or [if we do] we do so minimally.” With government officials from both countries completely disagreeing with one another, it seems that there is more ambiguity than high-level bureaucrats realize (or care to publicly disclose).

It is important to note that singling out Russia will lead to further international disputes. Exclusion in international politics, sanctions, and joint military exercises escalate tension and would undoubtedly be interpreted as Western aggression. Russia already submitted a claim to the U.N.C.L.O.S., citing scientific proof that the Ridge is oceanic. In order to avoid a surge in Russian resource extraction in the Arctic or a violent East versus West confrontation, the United States should consider a four-pronged approach.

This strategy relies on America opening up a multilateral exploration of the Lomonosov Ridge. First, the U.S. should ratify the U.N.C.L.O.S., a necessary preceding action before following subsequent steps. Second, the U.S. should submit a case to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, concerning rules and norms of the Law of the Sea Treaty that Russia is violating. Third, working in tandem with Canada and Denmark, the U.S. should counter Russian plans by developing a public messaging campaign during the litigation developments. The final course of action deals with an international summit to deter Russian aggression in the region. This summit, comprised of Arctic Council members, will prioritize the status quo – no boundary changes. By adhering to this strategy, Russian intentions in the Arctic can be curbed and pacified.


Author: Jordan Cassel