Breaking the Ice: Potential U.S.-Russian Maritime Conflict in the Arctic
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The primary argument against the potential for conflict in the Arctic is that political leaders are appealing to international institutions to resolve disputes before they become militarized. A corollary to this argument is that, via the trappings of economic interdependence, Russia’s need for advanced technology to locate and exploit its potentially vast reserves of hydrocarbons will sufficiently weigh in Moscow’s political calculus to prevent Russia from taking militarized action against neighbors to defend its political-economic claims in the region. Given the reality of political objectives, actions, and intentions, coupled with the dearth of reliably interdependent economic ties, this chapter has exposed these “mitigating factors” against conflict as little more than wishful thinking.
While it is undeniable that the Arctic states are using international institutions focused on Arctic issues, they appear to do so out of political convenience—not out of a commitment to peaceful cooperation. The participating nations all actively pursue a combined environmental and safety agenda with their partners through the Arctic Council. Its charter, however, explicitly bans the organization from discussing issues related to military security, a point reinforced by the Ilulissat Declaration of the five Arctic states: that no legal enforcement regime other than the UNCLOS is needed in the region.
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Meanwhile, Russia’s actions and rhetoric in the Arctic leave no room to deduce anything but a firm and committed intent on the part of its leadership to secure its claims. There have been scant, if any, peaceful actions undertaken by the Putin and Medvedev administrations to back up their peace-seeking rhetoric. Calls for diplomatic resolution of territorial disputes in the Arctic and for working “within existing international agreements and mechanisms” have only been operationalized through agreements to cooperate on search and rescue efforts and on (competitive) scientific exploration and research for submission to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS), a forum that has no binding authority to settle such disputes. All the while, however, Russia’s ambitious militarization of the Arctic has been clearly reinforced with explicit rhetoric proclaiming its intent to defend its national security interests. For Russia, the natural resources in the Arctic are a national security asset of strategic importance.
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While it is undeniable that the Arctic states are using international institutions focused on Arctic issues, they appear to do so out of political convenience—not out of a commitment to peaceful cooperation. The participating nations all actively pursue a combined environmental and safety agenda with their partners through the Arctic Council. Its charter, however, explicitly bans the organization from discussing issues related to military security, a point reinforced by the Ilulissat Declaration of the five Arctic states: that is, no legal enforcement regime other than the UNCLOS is needed in the region.216
To that end, the UNCLOS does indeed provide conflict resolution mechanisms for territorial disputes and continental shelf claims, but Russia exempted itself from discussing such matters in UNCLOS fora when it acceded to the Convention. Moreover, while the United States continues to observe the UNCLOS as customary international law, it remains outside the Convention and is unable and unwilling to use its dispute resolution mechanisms.
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Based on the methodology established for this analysis, it can be reasonably assessed that conflict in the Arctic is likely. To put this another way, with a score of 18 out of 24 possible points, there is a 75 percent chance that maritime disputes involving the United States and Russia will occur in the Arctic necessitating the show or use of force to achieve a political objective. It should be reiterated that this assessment is acknowledged to be an analytically subjective conclusion and that the intervals of measurement are notably coarse. The evidence presented in this analysis, however, supports this conclusion. Policy-makers should take care not to discount the physical indicators and declared policies of other Arctic nations when judging the seriousness of their intent to protect their various claims in the region. Advocates of a “Pax Arctica” involving regional cooperation ignore the more pragmatic factors underlying international relations and the actual limits of international institutions and economic incentives in restraining actors’ behavior in an anarchic system.
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Finally, in the longer term, the gradual opening of Arctic waterways to commercial traffic on a seasonal basis by 2030 will increase the need for persistent and pervasive constabulary patrols by all Arctic nations in order to regulate this activity. Not only will more ice-capable patrol vessels be required, but so too will be a robust logistics infrastructure, to include basing, transportation, supply, and communications. This third window for conflict in the Arctic will probably occur in the 2030 to 2045 time frame. The increase in commercial traffic activity will heighten tensions in U.S.-Canadian relations if a political compromise on the status of the Northwest Passage has not been reached, keeping in mind that the ultimate status of Russia’s Northeast Passage would be likewise affected. As Canada is extremely sensitive to matters of Arctic sovereignty and Russia is are unlikely to welcome unrestricted movement through its backyard, it should be expected that the same nationalist sentiment that erupted in the Sino-Japanese row over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands would likewise be manifest in these cases as well, leading to a quick, and potentially intense, confrontation involving the United States, Russia, and Canada.
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Secondly, as mentioned previously, Article 4 of the Convention asserts a ten-year limit for Parties to submit “excessive” continental shelf claims to the CLCS for adjudication. Adjudication, however, only provides an internationally recognized delineation of the claim and not a final delimitation where such a claim may be disputed by a state with an opposite or adjacent coast. Such disputes must be settled by mutual agreement of the contesting parties, or submitted to one of the aforementioned bodies for a binding resolution.
In the case of Russia in particular, upon acceding to the UNCLOS in 1997 and in accordance with Article 298 therein, it declared that it
"does not accept the procedures, provided for in Section 2 of Part XV of the Convention, entailing binding decisions with respect to disputes concerning the interpretation or application of articles 15, 74 and 83 of the Convention, relating to sea boundary delimitations, or those involving historic bays or titles; disputes concerning military activities, including military activities by government vessels and aircraft, and disputes concerning law-enforcement activities in regard to the exercise of sovereign rights or jurisdiction; and disputes in respect of which the Security Council of the United Nations is exercising the functions assigned to it by the Charter of the United Nations.151
In effect, Moscow declared that it would accept delimitation of disputed boundaries only on a bilateral basis, negotiated outside the UNCLOS regime. Russia’s pending resubmission152 to the CLCS of its excessive continental shelf claims has been interpreted as merely a diplomatic maneuver of convenience to gain recognition for its claims and not an earnest effort to use the UNCLOS as a peaceful dispute resolution mechanism.