Moscow Russia formally staked a claim on Tuesday to a vast area of the Arctic Ocean, including the North Pole. If the United Nations committee that arbitrates sea boundaries accepts Russia’s claim, the waters will be subject to Moscow’s oversight on economic matters, including fishing and oil and gas drilling, though Russia will not have full sovereignty.
Under a 1982 United Nations convention, the Law of the Sea, a nation may claim an exclusive economic zone over the continental shelf abutting its shores. If the shelf extends far out to sea, so can the boundaries of the zone. The claim Russia lodged on Tuesday contends that the shelf extends far north of the Eurasian land mass, out under the planet’s northern ice cap.
Russia submitted a similar claim in 2002, but the United Nations rejected it for lack of scientific support. So this time, the Kremlin has offered new evidence collected by its research vessels. It even dispatched a well-known Arctic explorer, Artur N. Chilingarov, to take a miniature submarine to the sea floor directly below the North Pole, scoop up a soil sample and plant a Russian flag made of titanium there.
In a statement posted on its website, the Russian Foreign Ministry said the claim would expand Russia’s total territory on land and sea by about 1.2 million square kilometers, or about 463,000 square miles.
“To base its claim, Russia in this region used a broad range of scientific data collected over many years of Arctic exploration,” the statement said. “Submitting the claim to the commission is an important step in formulating Russia’s right to the Arctic Shelf in accordance with the United Nations convention on the Law of the Sea.” Russia has set its sights northward for a long time. Under Stalin, the Kremlin claimed a huge pie-shaped section of the Arctic Ocean extending from its eastern and western borders to the North Pole.
For years nobody else paid much attention to boundaries in the high latitudes of the Arctic Ocean, populated only by polar bears, walruses, seals and the occasional explorer. But global warming is changing that fast, as wider and wider areas of the Arctic become free of ice for all or part of the year. Russia has oil drilling projects in the Kara Sea, a part of the ocean already under its undisputed control, and Royal Dutch Shell plans to drill north of Alaska in the Chukchi Sea this summer. Drilling even farther north now seems plausible.
Denmark submitted an expanded claim of its own to the United Nations last year, seeking control of economic activity around the North Pole and asserting that the area is part of the continental shelf jutting north from Greenland, not Russia.
The claims are aimed at a section of the Arctic Ocean known as the doughnut hole, a Texas-size area of international waters encircled by the existing economic zone boundaries of shoreline countries. Conservation groups have opposed any claims to the waters of the doughnut hole, saying they would bring harmful oil drilling and fishing. They point to a recent international accord to ban commercial trawling in the area as the better way forward in the far north.
Greenpeace issued a statement on Tuesday by its Russian Arctic campaigner, Vladimir Chuprov, saying “the melting of the Arctic ice is uncovering a new and vulnerable sea, but countries like Russia and Norway want to turn it into the next Saudi Arabia.”
Russia is the largest country in the world by area, and it grew larger last year by annexing the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine. The Russian Foreign Ministry statement said the United Nations commission should expedite the review of its claim, placing it before those of other countries, because it was first filed in 2002. The ministry said it expected a decision by autumn.