Raider seizure of the Arctic shelf: the U.S. stays true to itself


The session of the Council of the International Seabed Authority (ISA) held in Kingston (Jamaica) at the end of March gave an occasion to remind the world community that arbitrary interpretation of international law by the US administration is fraught with confrontation and conflicts. Taking into account the issues of the forum, the Russian Foreign Ministry considered it appropriate to send a note of protest to the United States, accusing it of unilaterally changing the outer limits of the continental shelf.

The fact is that in December 2023, Washington moved the limits of its continental shelf beyond the agreed 200 nautical miles from the baselines from which the width of the territorial sea is measured. The U.S. cartographic aggression affected seven areas of the world’s oceans, namely in the Arctic, Atlantic, Bering Sea, Pacific Ocean, two areas in the Gulf of Mexico, and off the Mariana Islands. The increment of the U.S. continental shelf will be about one million square kilometers, mainly in the Arctic and the Bering Sea.

The Americans’ arbitrariness has no other purpose than to obtain strategic, primarily economic and commercial benefits. Meanwhile, as the Russian Foreign Ministry noted, these areas, in accordance with the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, are proclaimed «the common heritage of mankind».

Concerns that the U.S. may not have time to secure its pre-eminent rights to the Arctic subsoil were voiced long ago in a New York Times article that attributed Washington’s hegemonic aspirations to Moscow and Beijing:

«As the polar ice melts, Russia, already the largest Arctic power, wants to make the region its own. At the same time, China has its own ambitious plans to create a ‘Polar Silk Road’ there».

The National Strategy for the Arctic region, which is being put into practice by the Obama-Clinton-Biden administration, is based not on the idea of partnership with respect for the interests of other parties and willingness to seek compromise, but on the idea of uniting with allies in order to «be friends against someone». The document names these «some»: China, which has ambitions to build a logistics route in the northern seas, and Russia, which has long been actively exploring the Russian Arctic.

In order to engage Ottawa in a joint military-strategic campaign in the Arctic, Washington has softened its age-old objections to Canada’s exclusive rights to exploit the Northwest Passage. The passage is a sea route across the Arctic Ocean along the coast of North America through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.

According to Robert Huebert, a professor at the University of Calgary and a leading expert on Arctic disputes, for at least four decades Britain, Germany, France, Belgium, Japan, Singapore and Russia (earlier the USSR) have regularly challenged Canada’s claims to control the route. In August 2022, while receiving NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated: «The Northwest Passage is Canadian waters, period».

You can say whatever you want, but any claim to sole possession and exploitation of any part of the world’s oceans must be supported by arguments.

How are the limits of the continental shelf determined? A member country of the Arctic Five submits an application to a specially created structure under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea called the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS). Its experts assess the legitimacy and validity of the application.

Although the Commission’s verdict is not «binding», if its arguments are scientifically impeccable and are accepted by the countries of the Arctic region, then boundary delimitation becomes de facto universally accepted. To date, Russia, Norway, Denmark, and Canada have agreed to this procedure and follow it.

Everyone should follow Russia’s example. The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment analyzed a model of the Earth’s crust, which made it possible to establish that the underwater ridge in the Arctic Ocean, named after Lomonosov, is an integral part of the adjacent continental shelf of the Russian Federation. In April 2019, the CLCS recognized the geological belonging of this part of the Arctic territories to the extension of the continental shelf of Russia.

«Despite the fact that the main border issues have been resolved, there are disputes between Russia and the United States (as well as between the US and Canada) about the legal status of the Northern Sea Route and the Northwest Passage, namely the definition of the Arctic straits and the arrangement of direct baselines», — Roman Zhilin, Head of the Arctic community, explains the nuances and complexities of relations within the «Arctic Five» (Russia, the United States, Denmark, Canada and Norway).

The high-level expert emphasizes that «These disagreements are of particular importance, as they affect both the shipping regime and the definition of territorial sea and exclusive economic zone boundaries».

The Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum of circumpolar states (established in 1996) with a mission to promote cooperation in the Arctic in the areas of environmental protection and sustainable development of the region, has also been plagued by controversy. In March 2022, the Western Arctic states initiated a politicized and counterproductive «temporary freeze» of the Council’s full-scale activities. But even under these conditions, Russia, in accordance with the principle of biennial rotation, continued to responsibly fulfill the functions of the Council’s chairmanship.

In February 2024, against the background of further politicization of the activities of this body, Russia suspended its annual contributions to the budget of the Arctic Council. As the Russian Foreign Ministry explained, the suspension will be in effect «until the resumption of practical work in this format with the participation of all member countries».

Returning to the U.S. claim to extend its continental shelf to an area twice the size of California, it is important that Washington did not even think of formalizing this in the form of an application to the CLCS and waiting for its decision. The Biden administration simply announced to the other four countries participating in the Arctic cooperation agreement that it was raiding the area. Rebecca Pincus, director of the Polar Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., made no effort to hide the U.S.’s true motives:

«This is U.S. sovereignty over the seabed, and so whether it’s seabed mineral extraction or oil and gas leases or cables or whatever, the U.S. is declaring the boundaries of its Extended Continental Shelf (ECS) and will have sovereignty over those decisions».

What are these «seabed minerals»? Beyond the Arctic Circle, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that there are hydrocarbon deposits with reserves of about 90 billion barrels of oil and 1,670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. According to James Kraska, professor of international maritime law at the U.S. Naval War College, 50 different minerals, including lithium and tellurium, and 16 types of rare earth elements can be mined in the U.S. continental shelf.

There is another factor to consider: the Arctic warms up four times faster than the rest of the globe, which will result in significantly easier access not only to energy and mineral deposits, but also their transportation.

The U.S. State Department unashamedly claimed that the decision to extend the continental shelf «is about geography, not resources». In this case, it is appropriate to recall the aphorism of former US President Bill Clinton:

«If they tell you it’s not about money, it’s about other people’s money».

It is necessary to consider, as Igor Shatrov, deputy director of the National Institute for the Development of Contemporary Ideology, explained it:

«Since the Americans have not signed the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, their opinion, from the point of view of international law, is legally null and void».

This will hardly stop the descendants of the multilingual North American conquistadors, who in the mid-19th century halved Mexico, taking in the course of the war the territories that now make up the American states of Texas, California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, as well as parts of Colorado, Oklahoma and Kansas. In accordance with established pirate tradition, the United States always proceeds from the imperial principle: «What is ours — is ours, and what is yours — it remains to be proven».


For every action, even more aggressive in nature, there is a counteraction. In December 2023, according to Nikolai Novichkov, a member of the State Duma Committee for the Development of the Arctic and the Far East, parliamentarians began studying countermeasures in response to the activation of unfriendly states seeking to use «the historical space of the Russian Arctic for their own military and economic purposes without consulting Russia». Moreover, the State Duma does not rule out the denunciation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea as it relates to the Arctic!