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A recent mission by a Russian nuclear submarine to the floor of the Arctic Ocean has threatened to reignite the media narrative that regional disputes over the right to unlock the economic potential of the Arctic could result in military confrontation. But it is their mutual economic interests that mean that the five Arctic coastal states are motivated to pursue legal and diplomatic avenues to achieve their aspirations, and have no desire to jeopardise the status quo.

During the Russian operation, known as Arktika-2012, geological material was collected from one of the two underwater mountain ranges that extend from the Russian landmass towards the North Pole. Russia wants to prove that the Lomonosov and Mendeleev ridges are extensions of Russia's continental shelf and part of the Eurasian plate, which, according to the current legal framework, would allow Russia exclusive rights to any potential future resources under the seabed. The details of the project were intended to remain secret, but in November 2012 several news stories about the submarine appeared, citing a Russian defence ministry source.

Despite efforts to build good regional relations among Arctic countries, Russia's neighbours do have concerns about its increasing military presence in the Arctic and its sometimes assertive, anti-Western rhetoric. However, considered in the wider context of Russia's post-Cold War military re-development, its Arctic positioning is not as confrontational as it may seem.

The Arctic is a key part of Russia's reassertion of what it sees as its rightful place in international affairs, and it has far greater territory, presence and capability in the Arctic than its neighbours. Rich in hydrocarbons, the region was highlighted in Moscow's Arctic policy of 2008 as the country's primary source of energy for the twenty-first century: approximately 15% of the country's GDP and 25% of its exports come from there, while 80% of the gas in the Arctic lies within Russia's exclusive economic zone (EEZ). There are major on-shore gas installations, and plans to further develop off-shore drilling, though these have met with some logistical difficulties with international partners. Along with hydrocarbons, maritime transport is a major economic development priority. The Northern Sea Route, the new shipping route most likely to become commercially viable in the coming decades as the summer ice recedes, and promises to connect Europe and Asia, runs through Russia's territorial waters or EEZ. However, the lack of infrastructure along the route will hold back the development of commercial shipping.

The planting of a titanium Russian flag on the floor of the Arctic Ocean during a previous mission, Arktika-2007, created a powerful image, but it had no legal significance. It did, however, pique international interest in the Arctic and encouraged a media narrative about competition over the region's territory and resources.

The objective of Russia's latest mission, Arktika-2012, was to prove that its landmass extends to the North Pole by drilling into the sea floor to collect rock samples for scientific analysis. In September, the Kalitka, a Losharik-class nuclear-powered auxiliary submarine, was used to guide the Kapitan Dranitsyn and Dickson ice breakers in drilling three boreholes at two different sites on the Mendeleev ridge, collecting over 500kg of rock samples.

This was the first known mission for the Kalitka. Equipped with space-station-grade air and water regeneration systems, the submarine can remain submerged for months. During this operation, it remained 2.5-3 kilometres below the surface for 20 days. (Though the battery-powered civilian Mir stations used in the Arktika-2007 expedition can also operate at such depths, they can only stay submerged for 72 hours.) It was mounted to the underside of a larger nuclear-powered auxiliary submarine (the Orenburg, a redesigned Kalmar or Delta III stretch) to transport it to the drilling site and was supported by the larger boat during the operation.

Continental-shelf claims and maritime borders
In collecting the geological samples, Russia was responding to a request by the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) that it submit supporting evidence for its claim to a broad continental shelf that extends beyond its landmass under the Arctic Ocean.

The five Arctic coastal states - Russia, Canada, the United States, Norway and Denmark - in 2008 issued a joint statement, known as the Ilulissat Declaration, committing to settling territorial claims diplomatically, using existing legal mechanisms. The primary legal body for maritime border delimitation in the Arctic is the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which rules that maritime countries' EEZs extend 200 nautical miles from their shore. The CLCS covers continental-shelf claims beyond that zone, up to a maximum of 350nm.