Vienna, June 27 – Moscow appears ready to expand the size of its economic exclusion zone in the Arctic Sea by an area more than three times the size of Germany, an action that could give the Russian Federation new economic opportunities given global warming but that is certain to increase tensions among the polar powers.
Yesterday, in an article published in the “Murmanskiy vestnik,” Russian scholars who have been conducting research on the seabed of the Arctic reported that the continental shelf north of European Russia is 1.2 million square kilometers larger than previously assumed (http://www.b-port.com/info/smi/mv/?issue=2855&article=54288).
Under international law, Moscow can declare this enormous area an economic exclusion zone – meaning that only Russian firms can exploit it – even though a significant portion of this undersea area is situated more than 200 kilometers from the Russian coastline.
That would give Russian firms the opportunity to develop without competition petroleum fields estimated to contain nine to ten billion tons of fuel, although Russian experts said that the costs of extracting it under harsh northern conditions would be high and possibly prohibitive in the short run (http://www.nr2.ru/economy/126037.html).
That the very least, such a Russian claim – and it has not yet been made officially – would put Moscow on a collision course with the four other “Polar Powers” – the United States, Canada, Denmark and Norway – who operate under a 1982 UN Law of the Sea accord, which all except the U.S. have ratified.
During the 1990s, Moscow backed away from some of the more extravagant and scientifically unsupported Soviet-era claims to economic control of the Arctic basin. But now, especially if it follows up on this research, one Russian expert said, Moscow will again be claiming all “the so-called polar possessions of the USSR.”
The research that would underlie such a claim was conducted over the last several years by scientists working on a Russian atomic-powered icebreaker, in the air, and on a drifting polar ice station. Russian agencies say that these investigations will continue, quite possibly leading to more claims (http://www.globalrus.ru/news/784067/).
So far, Russian scientists and Russian officials have released few details about their specific findings, but those are likely to tumble out in the coming days, especially as the governments of the four other powers press for data that could change the nature of economic and power relationships in the Arctic basin.
And that is all the more likely because at least one Russian military expert has already gone on record in the latest issue of “Natsional’nyye interesy” about what Moscow’s security interests in that region require both generally and as part of the international war on terrorism (http://www.pravaya.ru/leftright/472/12696?print=1).
UPDATE ON JULY 4 -- Yesterday, President Vladimir Putin approved a plan by the Russian government to conclude a treaty with Norway delimiting the Barents Sea (http://www.ng.ru/printed/79877). Given the timing of that announcement, it may be that Russian officials decided to play up the possibility of expanding Moscow's claims in the Artic to put press on Norway to accept or at least move towards the Russian position.
UPDATE ON JULY 14 – Yesterday, Gazprom signed an accord with France’s Total petroleum giant to develop gas fields in the Arctic, something that will give Moscow an even larger footprint there and thus exacerbate relations between the Russian Federation and Norway whose Statoil and Hydro companies had hoped to partner with Gazprom (http://lenta.ru/articles/2007/07/12/shtokman/ and http://www.km.ru, July 12).