The race for Pole position: An international grapple over the Arctic sea bed

Critics say Vladimir Putin is eyeing a land grab of the Arctic seabed, but mapping experts say that is wrong. They argue the waters are owned by no one and any claims can be settled amicably under international law.

First it was Crimea then Ukraine, the Baltic states are definitely on the radar and now it is the turn of the Arctic.

Variations of “is nowhere safe from Vladimir Putin’s extension plans?” filled newspaper columns across the globe.

The catalyst? A submission filed by the Russian foreign ministry with the United Nations that, if granted, would give Russia control over more than 1.2 million square kilometres of the Arctic seabed.

The move would extend Russia’s territory by about 650 kilometres underwater from its shoreline.

“Russian claim heats up battle to control Arctic sea floor,” reported the magazine of The American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Danny Lewis, writing for, said that “Santa Claus could soon become a Russian citizen – and it’s all because of global warming”.

A large part of the Arctic’s appeal lies in the promise of resources that are believed to be locked deep in its ocean floor and could become more accessible with climate change.

A recent assessment by the United States’ Geological Survey says the region is estimated to hold 13 per cent (90 billion barrels) of the world’s undiscovered conventional oil resources and 30 per cent of its undiscovered natural gas.

Greenpeace responded to the news of the Russian bid, which was filed on August 4 with the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, by warning of the environmental risks associated with the region’s exploitation.

“The melting of the Arctic ice is uncovering a new and vulnerable sea but countries like Russia and Norway want to turn it into the next Saudi Arabia,” said Greenpeace Russia’s Arctic campaigner, Vladimir Chuprov.

“Unless we act together, this region could be dotted with oil wells and fishing fleets within our lifetimes.”

Despite Mr Chuprov’s warning, commentators on the region have used strategic concerns to frame the story and much has been made of Russia’s recent initiatives and military manoeuvres in the region.

In November last year, Russia extended long-range bomber patrols over the Arctic and in March the Kremlin launched a five-day military exercise that involved 38,000 service personnel, more than 50 surface ships and submarines and 110 aircraft.

Less than a month later, a senior member of Russia’s defence ministry revealed plans for a permanent military force in the area.

“New challenges and threats to military security require the armed forces to further boost their military capabilities,” Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu, said. “Special attention must be paid to newly created strategic formations in the north.”

If that wasn’t enough, last month Russia announced that it would strengthen its naval forces in the Arctic as part of a new policy.

“Its ultimate goal is as much about establishing a new power base in the north as it is about gaining an advantage in the rush for resources,” said James Henderson, a senior research fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies.

A notable exception to this assessment can be found in the work of experts associated with the IBRU, the Centre for Borders Research at Durham University in the United Kingdom.

The centre focuses on questions of boundary delimitation, many of which are researched and understood through the production of maps.

The IBRU is now recognised as a global centre of expertise by politicians, policymakers, energy companies and those involved in mineral extraction.

One of the IBRU’s most recent publications is a map – Maritime Jurisdiction and Boundaries in the Arctic Region – which not only reflects the latest Russian bid for the seabed but also identifies known claims and agreed boundaries, plus areas that could be claimed in the future by the US, Canada, Denmark and Norway. For the map’s author, Martin Pratt, a former director of the IBRU, the map shows that: “Despite the headlines, there is no race to secure control of the Arctic Ocean.

“There is an established process for defining rights over seabed resources enshrined in international law and so far all Arctic states have followed that process scrupulously,” Mr Pratt wrote in an opinion piece for New Scientist.

“It is also worth noting that however the continental shelf is divided, the water and ice of the central Arctic Ocean will remain high seas, owned by everyone and no one.”

It is an assessment with which Caitlyn Antrim, executive director of the Rule of Law Committee for the Oceans, agrees.

“You can call it a land grab if you want but it is in accordance with international law that was adopted specifically with the understanding that the Arctic states would be making large claims in the region,” Ms Antrim wrote in a recent online forum on the map’s relationship to geopolitics in the Arctic region.

“This was clearly laid out before the provisions were formally adopted into the Law of the Sea Convention. Not only have Denmark and Norway made claims in the far north, Canada has been preparing theirs for a couple years and the US is ready to submit a shelf boundary as soon as we join the convention.”

Philip Steinberg, the director of the IBRU, has also written of the map’s ability to counter what he sees as misleading popular rumours of a new Cold War and Russian aggression in the region.

“In one reading, the IBRU Arctic map may ‘prove’ that there is a ‘scramble for the Arctic’ but the map may also be read as testament to the world’s commitment to the rule of law and the orderly settlement of disputes,” Mr Steinberg wrote in The Conversation, a website for the academic community.

As far as he is concerned, the contest for the Arctic as it is understood in many news and media reports is largely a myth.

“It just isn’t really happening,” he said.

“There’s very little contested land space in the Arctic. The only place that’s debated is this tiny island between Canada and Greenland called Hans Island but that’s basically a useless rock.

“In terms of maritime space there are a few more questions but there’s nothing really serious and to the extent that they are being contested, it’s being done within the rules of international law.”

Despite the conviction of the experts such as Mr Steinberg, Ms Antrim and Mr Pratt, the publication of the IBRU map has not been without criticism.

“In view of the claims recently made by Russia to protect Russian-speaking people in Ukraine, immediately before launching a covert, military invasion, I find the Steinberg analysis naive in the extreme,” was one of the comments in The Conversation to Mr Steinberg’s article.

Mr Steinberg said he understood the ambiguities and limits surrounding the document, which is why the decision to publish it was not taken lightly.

“Maps are dangerous,” he said.

“Every map simplifies a complicated situation and every simplification is selective which means that, by making a map, you are quite consciously telling a partial story.

“When you place a map within a broad narrative of ‘here are countries fighting for turf’, it becomes very easy for a map like this one to become misinterpreted.”

For Mr Steinberg, the potential for misunderstanding the latest IBRU map results not just from the complexity it masks and the many ways in which it can be interpreted but also from the fact that it is a map of the Arctic.

“Seabed claims and mapping are going on all around the world but you never hear anything about them,” he said. “I think a lot of the reason the Arctic is getting such attention is because for so long it has been a different kind of place where different rules apply.

“What’s happening is we’re trying to take these relatively standard rules that were drawn up by the United Nations for dividing access to the world’s oceans and we are playing them out in this place that has always been imagined as somehow special.”

These ambiguities are explored by Mr Steinberg and his fellow authors Jeremy Tasch and Hannes Gerhardt in their latest book, Contesting the Arctic: Politics and Imaginaries in the Circumpolar North.

In it the authors identified six narratives that have come to define the popular and political understanding of the Arctic throughout its history.

“The ‘contestation’ in the title refers to the contest over what kind of space the Arctic is,” Mr Steinberg said.

“Is it a space of nothingness, a terra nullius, is it a space of pristine nature or is it a space of indigenous livelihoods?

“These are all discourses that filter into political debates both within and between countries.”

The authors go on to identify a seventh discourse that Mr Steinberg believes is the one that is now playing out in news reports and even in the IBRU map.

“The seventh discourse is the image of the Arctic not being anything special, just another chunk of space where land is controlled by countries and where oceans, even though they’re frozen, belong to everybody but with certain specific economic rights reserved for coastal nations.”

The result, Mr Steinberg believes, will be the “normalisation of the north” and the incorporation of the Arctic, a place he believes to have unique geophysical, environmental and anthropological properties, into the world system as a place that is no different from anywhere else.

“You should always think twice before issuing a map, particularly one like this because there is a history of misinterpretation,” Mr Steinberg said.

“But I think that making a map that is ambiguous, because of its complexity, might make people think more about these spaces.

“In that sense, a map is an ideal tool of education.

“Ideally, education doesn’t give answers, it leads you to ask questions.”

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