Analysis & Opinions - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Russia’s Arctic Shelf Bid and the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, Explained

| Mar. 02, 2023

On February 6, 2023, the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) issued recommendations with regard to the Russian submission in respect of the Arctic Ocean. Russia subsequently accepted the Commission’s recommendations, bringing its two-decade bid to extend its continental shelf close to an end. This development sends an important positive signal in times of unprecedented political disturbance in the Arctic region.

The new recommendations are mostly favorable to Russia: the CLCS agreed with Russia’s arguments that the Mendeleev-Alpha Rise, the Podvodnikov Basin, and the Lomonosov Ridge are natural extensions of its continental shelf, and recommended using the points proposed in Russia’s submission to establish the outer limits of the continental shelf in these submarine areas. However, the Commission rejected evidence submitted by Russia as insufficient to prove the continental nature of the Gakkel Ridge, and therefore advised Russia to make a partial revised submission in respect of its continental shelf in the southern part of Amundsen Basin (see Para 73 and 120 of Russia's submission).

Russia, determined to solve this issue quickly, filed a revised submission on February 14, accepting the Commission’s conclusions. There is a chance that the final recommendations will be issued during the upcoming CLCS plenary session in March 2023, thus putting an end to the Russian endeavor that has lasted more than twenty years. 

Russia filed its initial bid in 2001 - the first nation-applicant in the CLCS’ history – but the Commission recommended that Russia revise the submission, which it did in 2015 after years of extensive field research and additional data collection. In 2021, Russia submitted two Addenda to the 2015 submission (see Figure 1 for the evolution of Russia’s submissions). Among the other states with access to the Arctic Ocean, Norway applied in 2006 and became the first Arctic country to receive favorable recommendations in 2009. Denmark/Greenland and Canada submitted applications with regard to the Arctic Ocean in 2013-2014 and 2019 respectively – these submissions are yet to be considered by CLCS.  The United States, being a non-party to UNCLOS, although treating most of Article 76 as customary international law, has not applied to the Commission. 

Still, the process of delineating the continental shelf in the Arctic Ocean is far from over. First, the five Arctic coastal states must wait for the CLCS to issue recommendations on the pending submissions. Given the long queue of applications from around the world, this could likely take a decade or more. Because the submissions of Russia, Denmark, and Russia converge and overlap near the North Pole (see Figure 2), they will have to find compromise through (lengthy) boundary negotiations. Only then will the exact outer limits of each state’s continental shelf be clear. The seabed areas beyond these boundaries will constitute the so called “Area,” where all exploration and exploitation activities fall under the governance of the International Seabed Authority.  

At the same time, this latest development is a significant positive signal in time of political turbulence in the Arctic and beyond, demonstrating the enduring commitment of the Arctic states, including Russia, to international law and the orderly settlement of disputes. In particular, Russia’s willingness to accept the Commission’s decision on the Gakkel Ridge should alleviate fears that Russia might contest or ignore unfavorable CLCS recommendations, exacerbating tensions in the region.  

It is also worth noting that, while the seabed area around the North Pole may have symbolic value, success in extending one’s continental shelf does not bring immediate economic benefits. Most of the Arctic’s oil and gas deposits are located within the coastal states’ 200 nm Exclusive Economic Zones. Offshore drilling in high latitudes, let alone the most remote area around the North Pole, is extremely challenging and could only become economically viable if energy prices rise substantially – an increasingly unlikely scenario in light of the global shift toward renewable energy. Taken all together, allegations of “scramble for the Arctic” seem unfounded. 

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Todorov, Andrey.“Russia’s Arctic Shelf Bid and the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, Explained.” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, March 2, 2023.