Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Moscow Should Act Unilaterally if UN Doesn’t Rule in Its Favor on Arctic Seabed, Russian Lawyers Say

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 9 – For the past five years, Moscow has sought UN recognition of its claims that much of the Arctic seabed with its enormous natural resources is part of Russia’s territorial waters because the floor represents an extension of Russia’s land mass ( and

            It has made sufficient progress in advancing its claims at least in part because the most powerful opponent of Moscow’s notion, the United States, has not ratified the Law of the Sea convention and thus is not a participant in the UN-supervised process (  

            But given the deterioration in Russia’s relations with other Arctic powers, who include the Europeans, and others with a direct interest including China and Japan, the Russian government appears to be getting nervous about the outcome of the UN process and to be thinking about unilateral action if its claim is rejected or further delayed. 

            Moscow had expected that the UN Commission on the Borders of Continental Shelf areas would reach a final agreement by early next year. But now its confidence in a favorable ruling appears to have ebbed; and given the Putin constitutional amendments that make Russian law superior to international law, some are thinking about a unilateral move.

            Lawyers at Russia’s Foundation for the Defense of Investors Rights in Foreign States say that Moscow does not need UN approval for its claims, however nice that might be, but can simply declare that the seabed belongs to Russia (

            Their arguments are not those of some independent or marginal group. Since February 2018, lawyers from this foundation have been part of a foreign ministry working group established by Vladimir Putin on Arctic issues; and the lawyers say they are now preparing an analysis with their recommendations for the Kremlin leader.

            If Moscow acts unilaterally in this way, other countries may or may not recognize its claims. And those that do not, including many Arctic powers like the US, may test Russia’s claims, potentially setting off a serious conflict in the high North that would no longer fall under the Law of the Sea rules.

            That could lead not only to a serious confrontation in that region but also undermine the Law of the Sea rules elsewhere as other countries that disagree with one or another rulings based on that international accord may feel free to stake out independent claims, moves that could further unravel yet another matrix of international law.   


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