Analysis and Commentary
Battle for the Arctic
© RIA Novosti. Valeriy Melnikov

Battle for the Arctic

On February 9, Russia will make a revised application for a vast swathe of the continental shelf in the Arctic Ocean. The country plans to include the whole of the Arctic sector adjacent to its shores in its exclusive economic zone.

Russia already submitted a claim to expand its economic zone in the Arctic in 2001, but it was turned down for lack of evidence. After that, field geological and geophysical studies of the Mendeleyev and Lomonosov ridges, a bathymetrical survey and essential seismic studies were conducted for over a decade.

In October 2014, as part of the application preparation procedure, the last Arctic expedition was completed — specifically, geological and geophysical studies of depressions in the Podvodnikov and Amundsen basins. They were conducted aboard the Akademik Fyodorov expedition vessel, accompanied by the Yamal nuclear-powered icebreaker. The high-latitude expedition crossed the North Pole, where no such studies had been done before.

In August 2015, a revised application was submitted to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf.

Recovering the Arctic within Soviet boundaries

Moscow sacrificed the sovereignty of its Arctic sector in 1997, when it ratified the 1982 international Convention on the Law of the Sea. From 1926 until that point, its sovereignty extended to the entire area from the North Pole to its mainland within the longitudinal boundaries as, since the 1920s, the entire Arctic had been divided into national sectors among five countries — Russia, the United States, Norway, Canada and Denmark, while legal certainty had been reserved only in relation to lands and islands, but not water areas.

The convention limited the northern territories and water areas of the Arctic states to the coastal shelf, setting its length at 200 nautical miles (370 km). The rest of the Arctic area was declared international. Each country had full sovereignty only over the 12-mile coastal area, with the 200-nautical-mile shelf zone considered to be an economic zone, where free shipping and navigation is allowed but where a corresponding state has exclusive rights to the use of mineral and biological resources.

Each of the five countries has the right to claim an extension of its economic zone if it can prove that the seabed beyond its boundaries is a natural extension of the mainland.

As Natural Resources and Environment Minister Sergei Donskoi explained, Russia's new application does not alter the Concept of the Outer Limits of the Russian Continental Shelf that was approved by the government in February 2000. The area of the seabed that is being claimed is outside the 200-mile zone within the entire Russian polar sector and includes the North Pole and the southern edge of the Gakkel Ridge.

Thus, Russia seeks to incorporate the entire former Soviet Arctic sector into its exclusive economic zone. The updated application includes an underwater area of about 1.2 million sq km, stretching for more than 350 nautical miles from the shore.

Repository of the future

The international Arctic space beyond the 200-mile shelf zones attracts the attention not only of Russia but is also to some extent being claimed by Denmark, the United States and Canada. The area is believed to hold up to 30 percent of undiscovered natural gas reserves and 15 percent of the world's oil reserves. Russian experts estimate hydrocarbon resources in the area included in the application that is submitted to the United Nations at 4.9 billion metric tons of equivalent fuel.

According to academician Alexander Khanchyuk, coordinator of the Russian Academy of Sciences' Arctic program, so far, only 5-6 percent of the forecasted reserves have been proven. Strategic metal reserves there are also huge and comparable to the explored portion of oil and gas resources.

However, these resources cannot start being used any time soon. Usually, between 30 and 40 years pass between the start of exploration work and the development of deposits, he said.

Another factor is the oil price, which has now fallen to almost $30 per barrel. With the current level of technology, experts put the production cost of a barrel of Arctic oil at $120. In other words, its production today would be an extremely money-losing undertaking.

Potential conflict area

The Arctic areas beyond the economic zones of the five states have an international status and are part of the world's oceans. However, on the one hand, there are potential mineral reserves there, and, more importantly, the Arctic is strategically attractive as an area where the European, Asian and North American coasts converge and where the shortest transport routes can pass from one part of the world to another (above all, the Northern Sea Route). On the other hand, there is the legal possibility for each state to expand its shelf zone with "no man's" areas, the delimitation of which, as the Russian application notes, has yet to be finally settled.

In December 2014, Denmark filed a claim for a section of the shelf north of Greenland and this section overlaps the areas included in Russia's application. Canada is also preparing to make an application that may include areas that are being claimed by Russia.

The heads of Arctic states and governments anticipated a possible clash of interests before, so in 2008, their foreign ministers signed a declaration pledging to resolve such issues in a spirit of goodwill and compromise through bilateral negotiations.

Meanwhile, countries that do not have a direct access to the Arctic Ocean have started to show growing interest in the Arctic. In particular, it has been proposed that the Arctic status be reviewed as, due to global warming, its ice will soon have to be treated as a seasonal phenomenon. The United States has also recognized that a global race for the right to exploit Arctic natural resources is already underway.

Russia tends to regard this flurry of activity as a potential challenge and threat to national security. Anticipating possible tensions, the country has taken steps to build up and modernize its military forces in the Arctic, which, in turn, arouses concern in the West.

At the same time, the new redivision of the Arctic that is happening in the form of attempts by the coastal states to extend their shelf zones in a sense points to the return to the former sectoral principle of division in this part of the world. However, whereas in the past, this division was based on agreements between the five states, today it is happening with the participation of the entire international community, which makes it far more legitimate. This, in turn,  is conducive to regional stability. As the coastal countries' claims to expand their shelf zones are granted, tensions will ease.

A measure of responsibility

Russia's intention to extend its exclusive rights to its former Arctic sector as a whole is devoid of short-term pragmatism. Rather, it concerns status and steps geared to the future, suggests Alexei Portansky, professor at the World Economics and International Relations Department of the National Research University Higher School of Economic.

"To start developing Arctic oil and gas fields, Russia will need to drastically improve mining technology. Here is a simple example. Today, Russian deposits are depleted faster than abroad, because the oil recovery factor in Russia is 25-30 percent, while in the West it is 40-50 percent, and there are plans to increase it to 70 percent in the near future. This goes to show how much work has yet to be done on our oil extraction technology," he said.

Arctic oil is expensive, and it will be impossible to skim the cream off the fields there, leaving them essentially underdeveloped, as this will be extremely unprofitable. A lot of time will be needed for this. In addition, it is important to remember that Arctic development will require cooperation with Russia's foreign partners, as well as a serious inflow of foreign investment, the expert said.

Russia occupies a unique position in the Arctic. No other country has such infrastructure in this part of the world or such an icebreaker fleet. It is another matter that Russia's Arctic economy will have to be considerably restored, which will also take a great deal of time and money.

Finally, economic activity in northern latitudes today will have to be conducted in an entirely different way than a couple of decades ago. The international community sets high environmental standards for the preservation of this harsh, but vulnerable part of the planet.

"If Russia's claim is granted, the country will be watched very closely and intently, especially regarding the methods and means of its economic activity there. Any damage caused to the Arctic environment will be irreparable, and this will affect the entire world," Portansky said.

Naturally, the extension of the Russian Arctic zone will create a significant groundwork for the future and considerably boost the country's status, which is also important in today's difficult situation. It is not only a prestigious, but a crucial and costly burden.

Vladimir Ardayev