By Eugene Gerden
Russia plans to beat Canada and the US in the race for Arctic hydrocarbon resources by establishing control of over 60% of them via recognition of its right to the Lomonosov Ridge by the special UN Commission which may take place as early as 2021.
According to earlier statements by Dmitry Medvedev, a member of the Russian Security Council, Russia is planning to “more vigorously defend its claims for the development of Arctic mining fields” amid the attempts of rivals to limit its access to these resources.
Needless to say, the main interest of Russia in the Arctic is related to the Lomonosov Ridge, an underwater ridge of continental crust under the Arctic Ocean that spans 1,800 km from the New Siberian Islands over the central part of the ocean to Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago and which, in addition to Russia, could also be considered as an attractive region by Canada and Denmark.
Most analysts believe Russia’s policy in the Arctic can be seen as expansionist. The country’s desire to strengthen its position in the region is also demonstrated by its political maneuvers in the past. Several years ago Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Franz Josef Land about 1,000 km from the North Pole. According to analysts, he was probably emphasizing that this resource-rich region belongs to Russia.
Russia’s interest in the Arctic was officially declared in the country’s national security strategy until 2025. Political interest in this issue rose sharply in 2007. The strategy is built on the concept of an energy superpower, which was openly backed by Putin in 2006.
Despite the refusal of the UN Commission for Maritime Law to recognize Russia’s right for the Lomonosov Ridge as far back as in 2001, due to lack of scientific evidence, next year Russia will be ready to submit a new application, which, according to some Russian scientists, will contain irrefutable evidence that the Lomonosov Ridge is an extension of the Russian continental platform and does have oceanic origin, as stated by some Western scientists.
Details of the application have not yet been disclosed, but, according to scientists of the Russian Science Institute of Oceanology, recognition of the scientific findings of the Russian geologists, which are expected to be contained in this application, might disprove well-established scientific hypotheses.
A positive decision by the UN regarding this issue will allow Russia to expand the outer limits of its Arctic continental shelf up to 1.2 million km2 and start development of oil and gas fields in the Chukotka – Murmansk – North Pole triangle.
The current status of the Arctic is regulated by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea of 1982, in accordance to which no country has the right to establish its control over the Arctic. However, for having an access to the Arctic Ocean, some countries may declare an exclusive economic zone which would stretch over 200 miles from their shores. This zone can be extended for another 150 nautical miles if the country proves that the Arctic shelf is an extension of its land territory. Due to the complexity of identification of the outer limits of continental shelf, so far no country has established such boundaries.
Russia has not stopped in its attempts to become the world’s first country that will be able to draw such boundaries. At present, it is continuing with hydrographic and geological surveys of the Arctic Ocean being conducted with the use of some oil and gas offshore platforms, looking at samples from the sea bottom.
In addition, the Russian government is considering starting the operation of a new space system, enabling it to monitor meteorological observations in the region from space that would aid mineral exploration.
Moreover, part of Moscow’s plans are to establish a separate force in the region to ensure the safety of the Russian Arctic territory “in various military-political situations.”
According to Artur Chilingarov, the man who planted a Russian flag on the seabed under the North Pole in 2007 (thereby unleashing an open competition for the Arctic among current claimants), Russia intends to restore the Soviet network of polar stations and to reinforce its claims to Arctic resources with the help of its icebreaker fleet.
“Russia will not leave the Arctic and we will build up our economic and scientific presence in the region,” said Chilingarov. “I am confident that our claims are absolutely legitimate.”
Evidence of Russia’s determination to outrace its competitors is its ever increasing spending on Arctic projects. According to sources close the Russian government, investments in the coming years may reach US$195 billion.
Apart from the purely populist activities and prior to filing a new application to the UN, Russia has gained support of its position from Norway – one of the former rivals in a dispute over the Arctic shelf – which occurred through an earlier approval by the Russian parliament of a bilateral agreement with Norway. The agreement determined the status of approximately 175,000 km2 of a maritime region in the Barents Sea and Arctic Ocean, earlier considered a disputed territory.
In order to bring Norway on its side in the competition with Canada and Denmark, Russia decided to make concessions to this country, (which has great influence in the UN), with regards to fisheries.
Oleg Khlestov, a former vice president of the Russian International Law Association commented: “This agreement goes beyond the bilateral relations between Russia and Norway and opens up additional opportunities for cooperation among the Arctic states. Russia gets a definite advantage in the struggle for the Arctic shelf prior to of re-examination of its application in the UN. Certainly, resolution of this issue in the Western Arctic has a positive impact for Russia.”
According to Dmitry Abzalov, a leading Russian Arctic expert, due to this agreement, Canada may have to deal with a European alliance of Russia and Norway in the competition for Arctic resources.
At the same time, in addition to Canada and Russia, Denmark could be also considered as one of the main bidders for the Arctic shelf, also thanks to its strong presence in the UN Commission for Maritime Law which will decide the status of the Arctic after receipt of applications from all the claimants – probably by 2021.
For Denmark’s claims of 62,000 square miles of Arctic territory, it has allocated about US$500 million to achieve this goal. In contrast to Russia, Denmark insists that the Lomonosov Ridge is an extension of its territory. Several years ago Denmark held its own research mission to the Arctic to collect data for an application to the UN. Of course, Denmark itself is not an Arctic nation; however, Greenland, the world’s largest island, is an autonomous Arctic territory within the Kingdom of Denmark
According to the results of this mission, Danish geoscientists stated that the Lomonosov Ridge, which passes under the North Pole, is an extension of the North American and Greenlandic tectonic plates, but not the Eurasian plate, as claimed by Russia.
Meanwhile, the majority of Russian experts believe that the main competition for Arctic resources will take place between Russia and Canada, which compete for economically attractive regions in the northern areas of the shelf, primarily for oil and gas. The presence of oil and gas in the central Arctic is less likely.
There is a possibility that after Norway, Moscow could reach a similar agreement with Denmark, thus significantly increasing its chances for success.
Anatoly Tsyganok, a Russian energy columnist, believes an agreement between Russia and Denmark might be signed regarding the establishment that the Lomonosov Ridge is an extension of both Greenland and the continental shelf of Siberia. Both sides could agree on mutually beneficial terms. This will allow Russia to establish the control over the largest part of Arctic energy resources.
Currently, a considerable part of Russian gas production takes place in the Arctic (the Yamal Peninsula, north of the Arkhangelsk region), while gas-rich Shtokman field (3.8 trillion m3 of gas), is located in the Barents Sea.
At the same time, Russia and Canada should take into account those states which do not have direct access to the Arctic, but also claim rights to its resources; namely, Sweden, Finland and China. As well, the United States (Alaska) is insisting on establishing a regime of common use of the total Arctic region.
It is obvious that the sectoral separation of Arctic, as proposed by some countries (including Canada and Russia), would not be beneficial for the United States, which would gain the right for only 10% of Arctic territories via Alaska.
Ideally, the US would prefer to develop the Arctic regions, based on direct agreements with the governments of other Arctic claimant countries, whose undersea shelf is prospective for exploration. In this case, the US will not have to discuss the details of such agreements with third countries; that is, other claimants without direct access to the Arctic Ocean. Therefore, Washington still hopes to lobby the possibility of the development of the Arctic shelf in accordance with the international agreements.
However, the U.S. does not have a navy capable of ensuring the country’s interests in the region.
It is expected that Russia will continue its struggle for the dominance in the Arctic. There is a possibility of new legal attempts by Moscow, (based on historical and geographical traditions of Russia’s presence in the Arctic), to acquire these controversial territories. At the same time, in the case of a failure of legal actions, Russia may focus on economic and military efforts for strengthening its Arctic presence.
Currently, Russia is ready to explore the Arctic in accordance with international law, but if the UN does not recognize Russian rights to the North Pole, there is a possibility Russia may even withdraw from the Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Anyway, the competition for Arctic resources will only increase, mainly due to the continued melting of Arctic ice. In September 2019, the area of ice cover in the Arctic was 4.7 million km2, which is 600,000 km2 less compared to 2007. Such trend could be considered as encouraging in terms of further development of the Arctic shelf.
According to scientists, most of the Arctic resources are located at a depth of less than 500 metres, which means that they are available for drilling and mining, although this would require some improvements in available technologies.