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Moscow intends to expand its Arctic zone

January 28, 2013, 17:01 UTC+3 Alexandrova Lyudmila

Russia intends to expand its Arctic zone by means of other Russian territories. The bill “On the Arctic zone of the Russian Federation,” developed by the RF Ministry of Regional Development and published for expert discussion, deals with inclusion in the Arctic of part of Karelia and the city of Vorkuta (Komi Republic). The document is to set for the Arctic separate state regulation of the economy, which will promote its development and at the same time preserve the environment. The new initiatives are put forward in the conditions of the continuing struggle of the major developed countries for the natural resources of the Arctic shelf.

The bill itself, the Kommersant newspaper specifies, so far has very little specifics: it paraphrases the strategy and some federal laws. The RF Ministry of Regional Development did not provide a detailed comment on the bill, admitting that it is “quite raw” and will be seriously refined.

One of the authors of the bill – Federation Council member Yuri Neyelov said that the law will allow Russia in the foreseeable future to begin the development of the Arctic shelf, rich in oil and gas reserves.

The Arctic, according to conservative estimates, currently has 25 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas reserves, as well as deposits of gold, silver, iron ore and coal. Russia owns more than 5 million square kilometres of the Arctic territories, of which more than 4 million are promising in terms of oil and gas reserves.

In recent years, the Arctic region has been increasingly attracting the attention of various countries. The boundaries of the Arctic shelf have not yet been finally determined. It is claimed by five Arctic coastal countries (Russia, the United States, Denmark, Norway and Canada), as well as in that or other way by more than 20 countries that believe that the Arctic should be jointly used by all countries, like Antarctica.

Russia believes that it has every reason to claim for the extension of its northern possessions, because the country has the largest gateway to the Arctic, and a considerable part of the country is located in the Arctic region.

RF President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly said that Russia intends to expand its presence in the Arctic. According to him, the modern border infrastructure, meteorological stations, the system of monitoring of natural and biological resources will be deployed in the region. He emphasised that Russia will firmly and consistently defend its geopolitical interests.

At present the Arctic territory is regulated by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea of 1982, under which the coastal states have control over the continental sea shelf. At the same time, no country has the right to establish control over the Arctic, but the states that have access to the Arctic Ocean may declare an area extending 200 miles from the coast their exclusive economic zone. This zone can be extended by another 150 nautical miles if the country proves that the Arctic shelf is an extension of its land territory.

Therefore, Moscow is trying to scientifically substantiate that the underwater Lomonosov and Mendeleyev Ridges are the continuation of the Siberian continental platform. In 2001, a similar bid was rejected for lack of evidence. In August 2007, a polar expedition led by renowned polar explorer Artur Chilingarov embarked on the mission to collect the evidence. According to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea of 1982, if the commission recognises the claims justified, it will expand the 200-mile exclusive economic zone of Russia by another 150 miles, or 1.2 million square kilometres.

It is important for Russia to “stake out the claim” for its boundaries as soon as possible in order to safely develop technologies for extracting oil and gas in permafrost. If Russia gets the rights to the Lomonosov Ridge, it can outrun Canada and the United States in the fight for “the treasures of the Arctic,” experts say. This would give Russia control over 60 percent of all hydrocarbons that can be found in the region.

Russia’s claims to the shelf are fraught, however, with serious frictions with other countries, primarily the United States and Canada, and Moscow is taking measures.

Back in 2008, then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev approved the “Principles of State Policy in the Arctic up to 2020 and Beyond.” This document, among other things, sets the task to “create a grouping of general-purpose troops (forces) of the RF Army, other troops, military formations and agencies in the RF Arctic zone that can ensure military security in different military-political situation conditions.”

In 2011, the Russian authorities announced plans to create the special Arctic forces. First, a motorised infantry brigade will be deployed in Pechenga on the Kola Peninsula. Second, a powerful group of four nuclear missile submarines of the Borei project armed with the Bulava missiles is being created in the RF Northern Fleet. Finally, a fighter aircraft base will be equipped in Tiksi (Yakutia).

One of the main advantages of Russia in the dispute over the Arctic is its world’s most powerful icebreaker fleet (nine of the world’s ten nuclear icebreakers). It is the only country that can provide icebreaking support to commercial and military convoys.

Russia’s State Atomic Energy Corporation Rosatom has announced plans to upgrade the country’s icebreaking fleet. In 2014, the first universal icebreaker of the new generation is to be commissioned, and in six more years - the second.

With all the contradictory forecasts, most scientists agree that economic activity in the northern latitudes will soon become easier. And it will make shipping on the Northern Sea Route more promising. The Rotterdam - Yokohama route is 7,345 miles (13,600 km) long, which is by one third shorter than the route through the Suez Canal - 11,205 miles (20,750 km). And it is Russia’s trump card: on the most difficult part of the route merchant and passenger ships can pass the Northern Sea Route only if accompanied by Russian nuclear icebreakers.