On several occasions recently Canada has scrambled some jets to make sure Russian bombers do not penetrate its airspace in the Arctic. This sounds ominous. What gives?
It is all about the central international seas of the Arctic Ocean, about the size of the Mediterranean. With the summer melting of the Arctic ice, the matter of ownership of the extensive oil, gas and minerals of the seabed there is of increasing interest. Is it really an international region, or do coastal Arctic nations have legitimate claims to parts of it, beyond the current 200 miles of their EEZs? The stakes are high.
The question itself is simple enough. The Lomonosov Ridge extends from the Siberian coast of Russia, more or less through the North Pole, to the coast of Canada and Greenland. If the Ridge is an extension of the Russian continental shelf, then Russia can claim a greater portion of the Arctic Ocean as part of its EEZ. If the Ridge is an extension of the Canadian shelf, then Canada can do the same. On the other hand, if the Ridge isn’t attached to either continent, then it is an oceanic ridge, and the Canadian and Russian claims won’t hold up.
In 2001, Russia submitted its claim to the Lomonosov Ridge to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, and was told to resubmit when they had some better evidence. Now Russia has announced it will submit a new claim by 2013.
For the past several summers, Russia has sent its nuclear powered research vessel, the Akademik Fyodorov, into the Arctic to examine and map the Ridge in detail. Last summer it carried about 70 researchers, along with its small submarine, and spent almost three months at work. Evidence is certainly accumulating.
Meanwhile, Canada intends to submit a claim to the UN at about the same time, hoping to convince the same Commission that the Lomonosov Ridge is really an extension of Canada’s Ellesmere Island.
Not surprisingly, things are heating up politically. Russia plans to send a couple of brigades into the region. Canada’s Prime Minister Harper, who seems to have a special interest in the Arctic, has said “Canada is an Arctic power, and will continue to exercise our sovereignty”. NATO is showing interest, expecting warships will come from different sources once the ice melts sufficiently in summer, and that NATO ought to be there to defuse tensions.
Canada and Russia do in fact agree on one thing: NATO has no reason to be in the Arctic. Since, almost alone in the world, the US still hasn’t ratified the UN Law of the Sea, it is uncertain what role, if any, it can have in the upcoming sovereignty decisions – perhaps NATO is its proxy.
Russia emphasizes it is adhering to the rule of law. Last September, Norway and Russia resolved their dispute over 176,000 km2 of Arctic Ocean that straddles their EEZs, agreeing to joint development of straddling deposits of oil and natural gas.
Anton Vasilev, Russian ambassador at large for the Arctic, referring to its recent agreement with Norway as a useful precedent, said “All problems will be resolved the same way. No blood, no conflict. Professionals quietly at work on the basis of international law. Full stop. And we shall do it.”
Russia is acting, and sounding, relatively rational. It is time for Canada – and its Prime Minister – to do the same.
And yet we once had a dream that the development of the Arctic would be different, that we had learned so much about how not to develop marine ecosystems that the Arctic would be treated as the sanctuary it deserves to be, that its obvious fragility would protect it from ‘business-as-usual’ development.
We can now only hope that cooperation and the Rule of Law truly are sufficient to prevent the Arctic Ocean going the route of pretty well every other piece of the world’s seas.
There still remains the opportunity to do better this time, and not continue to be forced to try to make the best of bad times.