Foreign Relations & International Law

Russia's Lawful Land Grab

Michael Knapp
Thursday, August 11, 2016, 2:37 PM

While substantial ink has been spilled (and continues to be spilled) over Russia’s de facto annexation of Crimea and South Ossetia, comparatively little attention has been paid to the Russia’s attempted expansion in the Arctic Ocean.

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While substantial ink has been spilled (and continues to be spilled) over Russia’s de facto annexation of Crimea and South Ossetia, comparatively little attention has been paid to the Russia’s attempted expansion in the Arctic Ocean. In 2007, Russian scientists stirred controversy when they planted a Russian flag on the seabed at the North Pole, and in February 2016, Russia made a claim to an additional 1.2 million square kilometers of continental shelf. This week, a U.N. commission began reviewing that claim.

As the Arctic has become more accessible—due to both advancing technology and reduced ice coverage—the vast natural resources beneath the region's seabed have attracted competing claims from various Arctic nations. But instead of the sabre rattling that has characterized the disputes in the South China Sea, all parties, including Russia, are adhering to an established legal and scientific review process under international law. The legal issues here are quite different from those in the South China Sea. But these claims are not unimportant: at stake is potentially trillions of dollars' worth of oil, gas, and mineral wealth lying beneath the ocean.

Under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), a nation may claim rights to seabed mineral wealth beyond its exclusive economic zone if the continental shelf extends beyond the 200-mile zone. In this zone, sometimes called the “outer shelf” or the “extended continental shelf,” a nation has rights to “the mineral and other non-living resources of the seabed and subsoil,” though it has no exclusive rights to the water—or to air columns above the seabed. The extent of a claim turns on oceanographic features: wherever the continental shelf "ends" (legally, if not geologically), so too does the claim.

In essence, UNCLOS provides that a nation has a claim to the continental shelf extending from its shores; the rules then define what constitutes the continental shelf according to a formula based on either the seabed slope or sediment thickness. UNCLOS also limits continental shelf claims to the greater of 350 miles from land or 100 miles from the 2,500m isobath. No maximum applies, however, to “submarine elements that are natural components of the continental margin.”

The rules governing claim validity are complex and claims must be supported by extensive hydrographic data. UNCLOS provides not only the governing rubric, but also an elaborate claims procedure and a body of experts to evaluate the technical aspects of submitted claims. This body, the United Nations’ Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS), conducts a review of the scientific evidence supporting a claim and ultimately validates or rejects that evidence.

This is not Russia’s first claim; CLCS rejected Russia's 2001 submission because it lacked sufficient scientific support. Now, 15 years later, Russia has supplemented its claim with new hydrographic data gathered from over a decade of research. Other nations have similarly been collecting data, at great expense, to support their own pending claims.

The Russian claim is that two undersea ridges, the Lomonosov Ridge and the Mendeleev Ridge, are in fact extensions of the Russian land mass. By claiming the Lomonosov Ridge, Russia is claiming rights up to and beyond the North Pole. Denmark has already submitted a claim including the North Pole, and Canada plans to submit a claim including the North Pole in the next few years.

Unlike the hotly contested maritime territorial disputes that continue to unfold in the South China Sea, these claims have been met almost with a shrug. Even as arctic nations increase their military presence, they are vowing to adhere to the established process. As the head of the Canadian UNCLOS project explained, “Some people may think it is a land grab, but really it is a science-driven process.”

Because the United States is not a party to UNCLOS, it cannot make its own submission to the CLCS. Beyond that, the failure to join UNCLOS also "denies the United States any right to review or contest other claims that appear to be overly expansive.” The CLCS may take years to finally rule on Russia’s submission. But when it ultimately does, the United States will be unable to complain.

Michael Knapp is a graduate of Harvard Law School, where he was an Articles Editor of the Harvard Law Review. Prior to law school he was an officer in the Marine Corps and deployed once to Afghanistan. He graduated cum laude from Dartmouth College with a B.A. in Government (International Relations).

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