Thursday, January 30, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Struggle over Arctic Not as Imminent as Many Imagine, Moscow Scholar Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 28 – Claims by Russia, Denmark and Norway to portions of the Arctic Ocean and its mineral-rich seabed have sparked concerns about possible economic and even military conflicts there in the near term, but according to a Moscow scholar, such concerns are overblown at least in the short term.

            In “Nezavisimaya gazeta” yesterday, Andrey Zagorsky, a professor at MGIMO and editor of the 2013 report on “International Cooperation in the Arctic,” argues that the claims Russia and the other Arctic powers are unlikely to have the immediate consequences many have suggested in recent months (

            The claims advanced by Denmark and Canada at the end of last year as well as past and future claims by the Russian Federation – a new one is currently being finalized -- will be considered by the international Commission on Continental Shelf Boundaries, and that body works extremely slowly, Zagorsky points out.

             Consequently, even if their claims do overlap – and the Moscow scholar notes that neither Norway nor the United States have filed any that could – the commission, which was set up by the International Court in 1969 and formalized by the 1982 UN Law of the Sea Convention, is not going to make a decision anytime soon.

            Just how long a process this is likely to be, he continues, is that the November claim by Denmark is the 68th claim filed with the commission and the December Canadian one is the 70th. Over the last twelve years, the Commission has considered and made recommendations only on 17. Eight are being studied by sub-commissions, and 45 more are simply waiting their turn.

            The Arctic littoral countries are not the only states that are interested in the division of the sea and its bed, he continues. Some have suggested that 12 countries will be involved in this process, and others 20 or even more, although it is far from clear just what they will be claiming or contesting.
            According to Zagorsky, “backers of the theory of competition for mastery over the Arctic resources are going to be disappointed. These resources are much more modest than the predictions about them. Extracting them would be more difficult and expensive, and in the near term, they hardly will be available to the world market.”

            Moreover, he says, “international law does not leave a place for disputes about right to resources of the Arctic shelf.” Littoral states have the right to exploit resources on their adjoining continental shelves, and those shelves can, if the evidence warrants, be extended, but only under the terms of the Law of the Sea convention.

            Indeed, there are far fewer delimitation disputes than many suggest. The only unresolved sea border among the Arctic powers is between Canada and the United States, the MGIMO scholar says.  “Russia in this sense is in a comfortable position: it does not have any disputes with the neighboring states of Norway or the US.”

            Even on issues of the use of the Northern Sea Route, there are far fewer disputes than many think. The only serious one at present is between Canada and Russia, on the one hand, and other maritime powers, on the other, over the use of waters within what are the territorial waters of those countries as defined by Article 234 of the Law of the Sea convention.

            But Zagorsky continues, “the expectation of an approaching ‘battle’ for resources has given rise to discussions about the danger of the militarization of the region.” But in fact, he says, there currently are no real competitors to Russia’s Northern Fleet and there are more reasons for cooperation than conflict.

            “In the last two years,” he notes, “the US has ceased to conduct military exercises in Alaska,” on the basis of Washington’s conclusion that “the best means of resolving problems of security in the Arctic is the strengthening of cooperation with its partners, including Russia” on the basis of the 1990 accords that Russia has ratified but the US has not.

            Zagorsky concludes that “the preservation of Arctic ecosystems, joint scientific research, cooperation of coast guard forces, and the development of rescue services ... [show that] the potential for cooperation of our countries is much greater” than any basis for competition of narrowly drawn national interests.

            This article has at least two audiences: a Russian and a Western one.  Zagorsky’s words appear designed to undercut the arguments of those in Moscow, including Vladimir Putin, who want to build up a Russian military presence in the Arctic in order to dominate the exploitation of natural resources there.

            But his argument is also directed at the West and could have one of two means. On the one hand, Zagorsky appears to believe that much Western commentary about the Arctic is also overblown and should be dialed back.  And on the other, he may hope to lull the West into complacency by suggesting that there is nothing to worry about in the Arctic for the time being.


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