25-12-23 09:30
Zafar Javed

In the face of the controversial position of seven Arctic states (out of eight) that blocked the work of the Arctic Council after the start of Russia's special military operation in Ukraine, in February 2023, the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CCLS) approved most of Russia's claims to the seabed in the Arctic Ocean.


This story began more than twenty years ago, when back in December 2001, Russia filed its first application to expand its borders in the Arctic. Then, just a year later, members of the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf said that more research was needed to make a decision on the controversial issue and legalize Russia's rights to these territories.

The next five years in Russia were spent preparing the relevant materials, so that in 2007 Moscow resumed the study of the seabed and the boundaries of the Siberian continental plate, doing its best to find additional grounds to justify the application. The Arctic-2007 expedition caused an unprecedented resonance in the world media, since on August 2, 2007, the deep-sea vehicles Mir-1 and Mir-2 under the leadership of the famous Russian polar explorer Artur Chilingarov descended to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean for the first time in the history of polar research. This event caused not only a resonance in the media, but also outrage in a number of polar countries that also lay claim to these territories.

The next eight years were spent processing the results and preparing the second application to the UN, which Russia submitted in 2015. Moscow's claims were expanded to 103,000 square kilometers.[1]

In 2008-2009, the United States and Canada have conducted joint research on the shelf in this context of growing scientific and legal confrontation, doing everything possible to prove that the Lomonosov Ridge is part of the North American continental plate, and not the Siberian plate. Members of the expedition worked in areas north of Alaska and in the direction of the Mendeleev Ridge, as well as east of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.

In 2021, Russia, after conducting additional research in polar waters, made adjustments to the submitted application, designating another 704,000 square kilometers as its possessions. In the final document, the total area of the Arctic, which Russia claims today, is 2.1 million square kilometers. According to the filing, Russian claims now extend along the Lomonosov Ridge beyond the North Pole to Greenland and Canada's 200-mile border. Even the Woodrow Wilson Center, a Washington, D.C.-based NGO, noted the quality of Russia's application to the Committee for the Expansion of External Borders and its compliance with the rules and procedures enshrined in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982).

Ottawa also used the data it collected to ask the United Nations to expand its borders. According to the Canadian government, the observations of the country's researchers proved that the Lomonosov Ridge is a natural continuation of the American continent. However, the claims of Denmark and Canada overlap in many ways, including the area of the Lomonosov Ridge, which is claimed by all three countries.

However, applications from Denmark and Canada have not yet been processed by the UN Commission. And this could happen, according to some experts familiar with the mechanisms of the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, no earlier than 2032 in relation to the Danish application. Canada will have to wait even longer. Thus, the current recommendation of the UN Commission is not yet a final decision, but it is the recognition of Moscow's claims by the highest authority in this matter. For example, Elizabeth Buchanan, an American expert on naval research, admitted in an article in War on the Rocks that "the Russian Federation is making progress in the great Arctic race. In February 2023, Moscow quietly achieved a major victory in the legal battle over the seabed of the Arctic."

The history of the issue goes back decades. In 1948, the Sever-2 expedition was organized in the Soviet Union, the participants of which received initial data indicating the probability of the discovery of the Lomonosov Ridge. In the spring of 2, the Soviet Union sent a new air expedition called Sever-1949 to this area of the Arctic. On April 4, 30, the expedition members discovered one of the peaks of an underwater ridge 1949 kilometers south of the North Pole. The measurements made it possible to prove the existence of an underwater ridge rising 280,2500-3000,<> meters above the seabed and stretching from the New Siberian Islands to the North Pole and further to Ellesmere Island.

Since its discovery, the legal status of the ridge has been determined by a number of international conventions, including the UN Convention on the High Seas, the Convention on the Continental Shelf and the Convention on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone. However, the existing legal framework has not been able to unambiguously resolve all issues related to the disputed territories. In this regard, in 1982, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea was signed, which explicitly states that "the continental shelf of any coastal state includes the seabed and mineral deposits beyond territorial waters and is defined as the natural extension of the land territory to the outer limit of the submarine continental margin."

Thus, if a State proves that the shelf is part of its continental plate, it may, in accordance with paragraphs 4 to 7 of the Convention, extend the boundaries of its maritime territories. Of course, this inevitably provoked a struggle between the polar states for a much-coveted piece of the Arctic. However, the situation was complicated by the lack of generally accepted methods for investigating the origin and essence of underwater ridges and elevations.

The Russian Federation, one of the main competitors in this race, has spent significant material and human resources on the study of the Arctic. It took a long time for participants in at least seven polar expeditions to gather the necessary data on the geological structure of the seabed of the Arctic Ocean. Their main goal was to prove that the underwater Lomonosov Ridge is part of the Siberian continental plate. From a legal point of view, this would mean that the territories in question belong to the Russian continental shelf.

Thus, the recommendation of the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, given in February 2023, is not yet a final decision, but it is the recognition of Russia's claims by the highest authority in this matter. Together with the right to the seabed of the continental shelf, the country receives the right to exploit all minerals and other inorganic materials. This does not include fishing or other activities in the water column or on sea ice.

Russia won, albeit unimpressive, but quite a significant victory. And the weight of this victory is significantly increased by the position of other Arctic powers, which in every possible way impede and block the development of international cooperation in the Arctic.


[1] Russia’s claim to North Pole territory officially confirmed | Polarjournal

[2] Several countries lay claim to disputed Lomonosov Ridge (arctic.ru)