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17 Sep, 2008 07:06

Russia plots course in race for the Arctic

Russia's Security Council has met to work out the country's strategy in the Arctic. The region contains an estimated 25 per cent of the world's remaining oil and gas. Russia is among those keen to claim it.

According to the United Nations’ Law of Sea, any state with an Arctic coastline that wishes to stake a claim to the region must lodge its submission with the UN's Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf.

And that is exactly what Russia intends to do.

The country's specialists want to prove that the Lomonosov ridge, a vast underwater mountain range that runs underneath the Arctic, is an extension of the Siberian continental shelf.

Should they succeed – it would be the icing on the Arctic cake. But whether Russia's claim cuts any ice with the UN is anybody's guess – as the other contenders will certainly not give up without a fight.

“The challenge for Russia is that its Arctic neighbours have long started to formulate their own Arctic strategy, while Russia needs a great deal of inter-ministry and inter-departmental coordination in order to come up with a solid strategy in terms of diplomacy, geology and economy. It's for that reason that the Security Council wants to set up some very specific goals and then an action plan,” political analyst Mikhail Troitsky said.

Successful expedition

In August 2007, Russia's Arktika expedition scored a spectacular success. It achieved the first crewed descent to the North Pole's ocean floor, bringing fame and recognition to the crew.

But it also began a 5-way tug of war.

Russia, Canada, the USA, Norway and Denmark are now fighting for the right to claim the ocean bed as their own.

And while the subject matter may be ice cold – the debates are heating up.

“Canada’s government understands the first rule of Arctic sovereignty: use it or loose it,” Canada's PM Stephen Harper has said.

Treasure hunt begins

With the Arctic icecap melting rapidly, surrounding countries are increasingly anxious to stake a claim to the wealth that lies beneath the ocean floor.

According to scientists, the Arctic seabed holds at least 9-10 billion tonnes of fuel equivalent, which equals Russia's total oil reserve. The prospects of developing these vast resources are leading to disputes among the Arctic Five (Russia, Canada, USA, Denmark and Norway) about how to share the spoils.

Under the United Nations’ Law of the Sea, the territory of a country with an Arctic border extends 200-350 nautical miles into the ocean, but the nations concerned interpret the rules differently, leading to disputes on how to divide the seafloor.

The Canadians have always been keen on dividing the Arctic by “the sectoral principle”. This would draw borders from the tips of the national territories straight along the meridians until the North Pole.

This variant would secure Russia 5.8 million square metres of Arctic while giving Canada the second biggest piece.

For obvious reasons, this idea does not suit the United States, which is yet to ratify the UN convention on the Arctic. Washington is demanding a slice stretching 600 miles from Alaska.

Russia accepted UN limitations in 1997 but is now beginning a campaign to prove that the Lomonosov ridge, a vast underwater mountain range running underneath the Arctic, is an extension of the Siberian continental shelf. 

The scheme has the backing of the secretary of the Russian Security council, who has called for the claim to be submitted to the UN's Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf.

In his address to Russia’s Security Council, President Medvedev called for a new law that will define Russia’s continental shelf border.

“It's our obligation and our duty to posterity; we should reliably, and for a long-term perspective, secure Russia's national interests in the Arctic region,” he said.

Apart from the Big Five, more than twenty other countries have staked a claim on the energy resources that lie buried beneath the Arctic shelf.