Parachuting In

By Howard, Roger | The World Today, April 2010 | Go to article overview

Parachuting In


Howard, Roger, The World Today


Russia's armed forces are expected to try to seize international headlines in the coming weeks by dropping a team of specially trained parachutists over the North Pole. Moscow claims to be 'peacefully' commemorating the first airborne landing there made by two Soviet scientists, Vitaly Volovich and Andrei Medvedev, in May 1949. But much more is at stake: questions of power and energy.

tHE KREMLIN REGARDS THE HIGH NORTH AS PART of its national sphere of influence and the parachute drop is intended to send that clear and simplemessage to both the outside world and the Russian public. This was also the motive behind a deepwatermission in August 2007 by two miniature submarines that descended to the depths of theArcticOcean to take geological samples fromthe seabed and leave behind ametal Russian flag.

Russia may want to rely on shows of military force to stake its claim to areas of the High North for the simple reason that its legal case, under international law, may prove less than watertight.

Although it has automatic sovereign rights over a belt of sea that stretches for up to two hundred nautical miles from its coasts, it can also potentially stake a claim over a much larger area. But to do this, it must demonstrate that 'the natural prolongation of its land territory' - its outer continental shelf - extends beyond that two hundred-mile limit.

If it can do so, then Russia could claim sovereign rights over any natural resources found in an area reaching up to three hundred and fifty miles from its coasts. This would extend all the way fromits northern-most territory, the Franz Josef Islands in the Barents Sea, to theNorth Pole.

A CASE OF EVIDENCE

But proving that its continental shelf stretches beyond the two hundred-mile limit can present any country with a daunting scientific challenge. Russian experts have spent years trying to demonstrate that their continental shelf merges with the Lomonosov Ridge, a massive underground rock formation akin to a submerged mountain range, which runs under the ArcticOcean.

But when in 2001 Russia tried unsuccessfully to persuade the United Nations of its claim, it was asked to resubmit its case with more compelling evidence. It is quite possible that Russian geologists have failed to find the convincing scientific data that the UN requires: many experts remain sceptical that the submarine expedition, for example, would have yielded any important new information.

In this scenario, Moscow would want to rely on shows of military force instead of legal mechanisms to warn the outside world away from a region it regards as its own backyard. Such exercises and bellicose statements risk fuelling considerable international mistrust with the four other states that border the Arctic Ocean: the United States, Canada, Norway andDenmark (Greenland).

Finding the geological evidence couldprove tobe a very lengthy and perhaps ultimately unrewarding process, and the Kremlin might fear that, in the intervening period, other countries could step into the void. Even if it does find such evidence, the UNcould conceivably take years to deliver its verdict.

Russia knows that, unless it can claim these waters as its own, then they will remain an area of 'high seas' over which it would enjoy the same rights as any other country. Moscow is a signatory of the main legal text on this point, the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea, and this states that any resources found in 'the Area' of high seas are 'the common heritage ofmankind'. …

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