RD Exclusive: Valery Konyshev analyzes why U.S. ratification of the United Nations Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) probably would not improve Russian-American relations and alleviate tendencies toward the militarization of the Arctic.

The Russian Arktika class nuclear powered icebreaker “50 Years of Victory” sails through the Arctic Ocean. Photo: Press Photo

Last December, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the expansion of Russia's military presence in the Arctic. The move came after Canada had signaled its intention to make a territorial claim to the North Pole and surrounding waters.

"We will not only reopen the military base, but will also restore the airfield to working order and make it possible for emergency services, hydrologists, and climate specialists to work together to ensure the Northern Sea Route will be secure and effective," Putin announced at a meeting of Russian defense officials.

Russia's national interests in the Arctic are significant, because the Arctic region is destined to become a new source of Russian natural resources in the future. As a result, Russia's Arctic policy is aimed at gradually establishing political and social economic conditions to realize this goal.

The foreign policy component of the strategy is to protect Russia's economic interests and maintain security. Among the most important goals in Russia's foreign policy are to establish territorial borders (especially as related to the continental shelf), to arrange for joint exploration of resources in the border areas, and to use polar transport routes for international traffic.

For Russia, which has no real allies in the Arctic, it is necessary to build a cooperative relationship with the United States, which is one of the most influential members of Arctic regional policy. The U.S. and Russia have no pressing conflicts over the Arctic, although Russia has not yet ratified the agreement on dividing up territory in the Bering Sea. In addition, Russia still has to negotiate with the United States on fishing rights in the Chukchi Sea, on setting the delimitation line from the exclusive economic zone (200 nautical miles) to the North Pole, and on the conditions of use of the Northern Sea Route.

The situation is complicated by the fact that the U.S. is the only one of the five Arctic coastal states that has not ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea of 1982 (UNCLOS), the largest, and likely one of the most important, legal agreements in history that attempts to create a unified regime to govern the rights of nations with respect to the world's oceans and shelf zones. What are the perspectives of ratification? Can the ratification contribute to improvement Russian-American relations in Arctic and prevention of militarization of the region?

Perspective of the U.S. ratification of UNCLOS: Pros and cons

The attitude of the U.S. political leadership and the U.S. Congress towards ratifying the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea of 1982 has been contradictory for many years. In recent years, the number of its supporters has grown. However, there is still an influential opposition in political circles and in the U.S. Congress that makes the following arguments:

- Almost ¾ of the planet has been placed under the control of international organizations.

- The convention limits the sovereignty of the United States and the freedom of navigation, including restricting military and intelligence activities.

- It would decrease profits for American companies that are developing resources on the continental shelf.

- The convention was adopted to favor the third world and with the support of the Soviet Union in order to reallocate resources and rights.

- Ratification would create a dangerous precedent, in which any resource that is not yet under some national jurisdiction could be declared collective property (Antarctica, outer space, the Internet).

- U.S. domestic law, which takes precedence over international law, never limited the extent of the continental shelf, so ratifying the convention would not be advantageous.

Representatives of the extreme right in the United States Senate have taken an openly negative stance. They are supported by many Republicans that are trying to put pressure on Barack Obama on other issues.

Supporters of ratification emphasize that the situation has changed dramatically. The U.S. removed the most important controversial issues by adopting amendments to the Convention in 1994, that, among other things, invalidated provisions on financial contributions and compulsory transfer of technology to developing countries for drilling beyond the 200-mile zone (international seabed area).