Vienna, February 16 – The Russian Duma is preparing legislation that will define the northern sea route as a Russian domain in which Russian inspectors will have the power to board and expel ships that do not meet Russian standards, a measure that constitutes the latest step in Moscow’s campaign to assert its control over parts of the Arctic Ocean far beyond its coastline.
At the end of last week, Artur Chilingarov, who advises President Dmitry Medvedev on polar issues, told the media that the new law will “help regulate shipping along a route” that is expected to become busier as global warming causes it to be ice free for longer than the two months each year at the present time (www.regnum.ru/news/1123977.html).
Not only will the legislation, which is to be reviewed by the Russian transportation ministry before any vote, define the route, the presidential aide said, but it will also create a group of inspectors to ensure that no ship using this route discharges “environmentally harmful” substances into the waters.
In addition, the law will set standards that ships using this route must meet, allow Russian government officials to board any ship on this route for inspections, and apparently reserve to Moscow the right to say which ships and hence which nation’s ships can make use of what promises to be one of the more important transit routes in the future.
As it has in the past, Moscow is presenting its plan as reflecting its concerns about environmental protection, but other Arctic powers are likely to see this proposed legislation as something else: as a unilateral Russian claim to a sea route that passes through international waters and thus as a direct challenge to the rights of others to freedom of the seas.
And that in turn is likely to lead to more controversies in the future, however much the international media and the governments most directly involved have either ignored or played down the significance of this report. For a useful exception, see www.barentsobserver.com/russia-prepares-law-on-northern-sea-route.4557561-116320.html.