Within the first two weeks of the new year, a number of Western media and think-tanks disseminated information about Russia’s possible denunciation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). At first glance, it seemed that the West intended to “prick” Russia, twisting news feeds and hinting to upcoming changes in the legislative framework. Others illustrated this event through the prism of Russia’s rivalry with the United States, namely through the attempts of the two superpowers to “prowse” the expanses of maritime international law.
However, the news about Russia’s alleged denunciation of the UNCLOS convention scattered from the fields of the international forum The Arctic: Present and Future, which was held in December 2023 in St. Petersburg, Russia. Since the author of this commentary participated in the event, suggest clarifying what exactly was discussed on the sidelines of the forum and how the media - both Russian and Western - often take the opinions of individual experts out of context, exaggerating their significance and passing them off as the real state of affairs.
The panel discussion in St. Petersburg, where one of the 450 deputies of the Russian parliament’s lower house on a tight time frame slightly touched upon the issue of Russia’s participation in UNCLOS, does not allow to infer the government priorities in the Arctic region in the long term. Hasty conclusions are dangerous due to their simplicity to the detriment of facts and credibility.
It is obvious that Russian experts increasingly seek to compare and contrast the experience of the USSR and Russia as its successor in the development of the Arctic, in attempts to understand how justified was the rejection of principle dividing the Arctic on the basis of sectors. They say the abandonment of this principle in the 1990s resulted in situation that Russia lost quite a lot of maritime territories, which later, as it turned out, were rich in hydrocarbons and solid minerals on the shelf. That is, there are many natural deposits on the shelf, and technologies for determining the volume of these deposits have become available relatively recently. Therefore, Russia is trying to substantiate its claims in the Arctic based on the principle of the continuation of the continental shelf, or rather, this is Russia’s legal right, being a party to the UNCLOS. By the way, Norway, Denmark, and Canada also enjoy this right in the Arctic.
Strengthening claims to the continental shelf in the Arctic Ocean is, indeed, a general trend in the maritime policies of the Arctic countries.
The question of whether any Arctic state can make a submission to the Committee on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) remains open and depends on the interpretation of Article 76 of the Convention. Having not acceded to the Convention, the United States interpret this article as a norm of established customary law; Russia and other states party to the Convention consider the article a new law. The issue will be resolved as soon as the first precedent occurs. In the meantime, at the end of 2023, the United States announced claims to an extended continental shelf in the Arctic, without filing a submission to the CLCS. This emphasizes the ambiguous attitude of the US towards UNCLOS: on the one hand, the country shows adherence to its principles, but on the other, it does not participate in the work and does not receive recommendations from the CLCS member parties, including those who are identified as US allies.
What matters is that Russia is not going to throw all the outputs overboard walking away from the UNCLOS. It encompasses, among other things, carrying out unique complex geological and geophysical expeditions on research and nuclear icebreakers though ice up to 3 meters thick! Let us recall that Russia made its first submission to the Committee on the Limits of the Continental Shelf to extend the Arctic shelf in 2001, and clarified later in 2015, which was almost completely approved in 2023, even against the backdrop of Moscow's rising economic and diplomatic isolation.
It is also fair to recognize that the expansion of the shelf aligns with policy of the Arctic states to limit the foreign presence in the Arctic region. Certainly, this requires fundamental scientific data collection and analysis to justify every decision on a particular section of the continental shelf. In Russia, this work was carried out by the honored scientist in the field of marine geophysics and oceanology, professor Ivan Glumov. The author of more than 125 esteemed scientific publications, he was Vice-Chairman, Member of the CLCS until the very last day of his life, December 20, 2023.
Russia's adherence to UNCLOS, sometimes called the Constitution for the World Ocean, is certainly meaningful. Recently, scientists at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences came to the same conclusion, noting that the Arctic is a convenient platform for testing a new type of international relations, thanks to UNCLOS. It is necessary to consider that a significant part of the norms of the Convention are norms of customary international law codified in its text. Such norms, unlike any treaty norms, are mandatory for execution by all members of the international community, including those not ratifying in the Convention itself.