Arctic Watch: Negotiations Over the North Pole

During a September 7 government meeting last week with Russian president Vladimir Putin, Sergei Donskoi, the Russian minister for natural resources and the environment, signaled interest in starting negotiations with Denmark to settle an ongoing maritime delimitation dispute concerning a 210,000 square mile area in the Arctic Ocean that includes the geographical North Pole.

Source: CIA.

Russia, Denmark (via Greenland), and Canada have worked since the late 1990s to claim the underwater Lomonosov Ridge under Articles 76–85 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Russia had a claim rejected by the Commission on Limitation of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) in 2001 for lack of scientific evidence. A Danish submission was made in 2014, followed by a resubmission of the Russian claim in 2015. Canada made a partial claim in 2013, but a more expansive Canadian submission is in the cards, most likely in 2018. After a lengthy process, which is likely to take more than a decade, CLCS will present an evaluation of the claims’ scientific validity, but the final delimitation depends on political negotiations among the three countries.

This announcement and initiative came as a surprise although similar negotiations have previously been used to settle disputes in the Arctic before a CLCS evaluation. The Russian government has gone to great lengths to publicly highlight its 2015 CLCS submission and its first public hearing this summer, which Minister Donskoi attended. Perhaps Moscow does not wish to wait for the lengthy CLCS process to play out, preferring to start political negotiations before CLCS finalizes its evaluation. But what has been very encouraging is that the Russian government has followed international legal (i.e., CLCS) procedures so closely, in contrast to its actions in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine.

Though Russia has crucial economic interests in the Arctic (most importantly oil, gas, and shipping) that depend on cooperation with the West (Russia’s Arctic energy exploration have been impacted by the imposition of Western sanctions), the areas in question have little geostrategic value for Moscow beyond their symbolic importance for the Russian public, as the vast majority of oil and gas deposits are far from the disputed areas. The main challenge for the Kremlin likely will be to convince the Russian public to accept negotiations and an eventual compromise. Over the past decade, Russia has increased nationalistic and historic sentiment around the Arctic and the North Pole, from the planting of a Russian flag on the seabed near the North Pole in 2007 to a 2015 Russian scientific mission to the North Pole where Russian Orthodox priests sprinkled holy water and the Arctic was declared “Russia’s Mecca.”

On September 12, Danish foreign minister Kristian Jensen rejected Moscow’s offer of bilateral talks for now. It is believed the minister’s rejection is to allow time for Canada to submit its claim and eventually to join trilateral talks. A bilateral Russian-Danish agreement would be of little value, as it would still be disputed by Canada. Because these negotiations will determine ratios and principles for delimitations, the basis of any agreement will depend on CLCS’s results. Substantial talks will therefore have to wait until the Canadian government has reached a position on the issue.

The Russian offer, however, creates an opportunity to begin trilateral negotiations once Canada is ready, which would be sooner than hitherto expected. It would be an advantage for Denmark to settle the issue as soon as possible before CLCS presents its evaluation due to challenging sequencing. Because Russia made its first submission in 2001, CLCS will evaluate the Russian claim within the coming five years, while the Danish evaluation will be ready five to ten years later. Though the CLCS evaluation does not give Russia legal right to the territory, it carries important symbolic and political consequences. Danish diplomats fear that it will be a lot harder to convince the Russian public of the benefits of negotiations and compromise, once they have already been told for several years that CLCS has accepted the Russian submission. This situation can be avoided if an agreement is reached before Russia’s CLCS evaluation is completed. Perhaps the Kremlin shares the same analysis and is concerned about public sentiment.

For now, the new Russian course signals that negotiations can commence sooner than previously expected and perhaps socialize this concept with the Russian public.

Jon Rahbek-Clemmensen is a visiting fellow with the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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