Russia Lays Claim To The Bering Strait

Throughout most of modern history, the Arctic experienced little of the geopolitical wrangling between nations but, in recent decades, that has changed.  Technological advancement and thawing ice have brought the region into play for Canada, Denmark (Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Russia, and the United States. 

The Arctic holds 30% of the world’s undiscovered natural gas and 13% of oil.  In addition, the Arctic is known to contain copious quantities of gold, platinum and zinc.  Current estimates put the total value of these untapped resources at $30 trillion, a value 20 times larger than the current gross domestic product for all of Russia. 

So it is easy to see why Putin is determined to control these resources.   In recent years, Russia has used its unrivaled fleet of icebreakers to revamp Soviet-era airstrips, radar facilities and other military installations at various Arctic locations.  He has also had new airbases constructed, deployed anti-ship and ground-to-air missiles, established 4 new Arctic brigade command units, and opened 16 ports.

Russia has also ratified new policy decrees that will open a path for them to build even more infrastructure, launched a constellation of new satellites to ensure their ability to control the region as well as helping surveyors find these valuable resources, and are building additional heavily armed military icebreakers.   

In addition to the above, their 84-point plan is designed to enable them to improve transportation through the Northern Sea Route, and build a military presence capable of blocking out all other nations that have a claim to the resources. 

The Northern Sea Route, running along Russia’s Arctic coast from the Kara Sea to the Bering Sea and then down into the Pacific Ocean, is the main focus of these efforts. Through this route, Russia can ship Arctic gas and oil to energy-thirsty Eastern countries weeks faster than the time needed to ship it westward around Europe and through the Suez Canal. In the case of China, the thirstiest country of all, the Northern Sea Route slashes shipment durations by some 15 days.

In 2013, just 3.9 million tons of cargo passed through the Strait. By last year the combination of thawing ice and Russia’s increasing development of the route had boosted that volume to 26 million tons.  The new measures aim to expand it to 80 million tons by 2024, and 160 million tons by 2035.

In March of last year, Russia flexed their muscles by requiring that any foreign vessel transiting the route they have carved out to request passage from Moscow 45 days in advance, pay exorbitant transit fees and allow a Russian maritime pilot aboard the ship.  Any ship that fails to obey would be apprehended and perhaps “destroyed.”  And even if a foreign ship follows all the requirements, Russian officials say they can reject any transit request without explanation.

The unlawful aspect of these Russian regulations concerning the Bering Strait, which lies between Russia and the United States, is more than troubling. 

According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, waters within 200 nautical miles from a given country’s coast constitute that nation’s exclusive economic zone, which the nation has control over.  Unfortunately straits used for international navigation are expressly exempted.

While the US has never ratified the treaty, Reagan’s 1983 Ocean Policy Statement announced the intention of the US to generally follow the convention’s rules.  However, without ratification, the US lacks the capacity to legally challenge contentious territorial claims or proposed amendments changes to the Treaty.  These include China’s 9-dash line claims in the South China Sea and Russia’s claim to the Arctic undersea Lomonosov Ridge and the Mendeleev-Alpha Rise and the Chukchi Plateau as extensions of the Eurasian continent.

As it now stands, Russia is claiming that all of the Northern Sea Route, including the Bering Strait, is subject to its regulations.  U.S. Coast Guard Cmdr. Sean Fahey warned that “the rights and freedoms  all states enjoy to operate ships and aircraft in the maritime domain” might soon become “the most important strategic issue” in the Arctic.

And because of Russia’s ever increasing number of icebreaker vessels, military bases and other installations, it may soon be able to enforce its regulations for the entire Northern Sea Route even if other Arctic countries dispute their lawfulness. We should expect Russia’s control over the Northern Sea Route and the entire region to only get tighter.

“There seems to be this misconception among lawmakers and voters that Vladimir Putin is a rational, civil man that the United States government should recognize as an ally. As such, they do not see Russia as an immediate threat; …. Vladimir Putin is a thug who is responsible for the death and political prosecution of hundreds – if not, thousands – of his own people. At the very least, the United States should be extremely cautious when dealing with Russia. Given the chance, Putin and his regime won’t hesitate to throw our country under the bus, or even launch some type of military assault.”  Jayson Veley, News Target

Source:  The U.S. and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea by Ian Beck, International Policy Digest;  Russia Tightens Grip on Arctic by Jeremiah Jacques, the Trumpet;  Inside the military base at the heart of Putin’s Arctic ambitions by Mary Ilyushina and Frederik Pleitgen, CNN; Russia submits revised claims for extending Arctic shelf to UN, RT

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