Denmark could be Russia’s best choice of Arctic partner in the resolution of many strategically important issues, including the regaining of the Soviet Arctic sector.

An iceberg melts off Ammassalik Island in Eastern Greenland, Denmark. Photo: AP

2015 is shaping up to be a key year in Russian Arctic policy. Moscow is due to submit an application to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) for approximately 500,000 square miles of Arctic shelf.

The application is not new. Russia’s previous proposal was returned on June 28, 2002 for follow-on revisions. Moscow hopes that the evidence it has collected over the past 13 years to back up its rights to the Arctic shelf will suffice for the CLCS this time around. But the Kremlin does not rule out that the United States and Canada will try to obstruct Russia’s renewed application. The question as to how Russia will respond and which Arctic countries it will try to recruit as allies remains open.

It was against this backdrop that a significant event took place at the end of last year. On Dec. 15, Denmark filed an application to the CLCS for nearly 350,000 square miles of Arctic shelf. The CLCS has partially satisfied Copenhagen’s claims to offshore regions before, including south of the Faroe Islands (2010), south of Greenland (2012) and in northeast Greenland (2013). The commission has yet to specify a time frame for Denmark’s latest application.

Moscow’s reaction to the Danish application was muted. The Russian Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment simply announced that it would examine the proposal. However, since Denmark’s position objectively mirrors Russia’s, 2015 could be the time for Moscow and Copenhagen to strike up a mutually beneficial Arctic dialogue.

Russia’s Arctic priorities

At the heart of Russia’s Arctic policy is the desire to regain the Soviet Arctic sector. In 1925-26, Canada and the Soviet Union created the two largest Arctic sectors, whose domains stretched from the extremities of both countries' western and eastern coasts on the Arctic Ocean to the zones' converging azimuths in the North Pole region. In 1933-34 similar steps were taken by Norway and Denmark in carving out two smaller Arctic sectors. The United States was left with the smallest sector, for which reason from 1928 Washington refused to recognize the division of the Arctic into sector, although in practice did not oppose it.

For Russia, it is also important to retain control of the Northern Sea Route (NSR), which connects Murmansk and Chukotka. As early as 1934 the Soviet Union declared it to be one of the country’s internal transport arteries. Later, in 1965, Moscow stated its exclusive right to open and close ports along the NSR. Other Arctic powers never recognized the Soviet Union's (or Russia’s) exclusive rights to the NSR, while Sweden and Norway actively opposed it. Stockholm claimed that an 1878 Swedish expedition led by Nils Nordenskjold made the first complete passage, while Oslo asserted that Norwegian polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen was the first to master the route in the early 1890s. The Americans supported Sweden and Norway in the dispute.

The situation changed after the entry into force of the 1994 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which essentially delimited the boundaries of the Arctic countries at 12 miles from the coast, each with a special economic zone of 200 miles. Thus, the Convention objectively abolished the division of the Arctic into sectors.

However, the Convention left open the option to revive the concept of Arctic sectors. Countries simply had to prove that the shelf of the Arctic Ocean (primarily underwater mountain ranges) was an extension of their continental platforms. Such possibility had special importance for Russia. Moscow fears that the abolition of the division of the Arctic into sectors challenges its right to the NSR. At present neither Sweden, Norway, nor even the United States can forcefully dislodge Russia from the NSR. But through UN channels, they can raise the issue of access to Arctic Ocean ports that they feel entitled to enter.

Moscow is also concerned that neither the United States nor Canada ever recognized the Soviet Union’s de facto apportionment of a separate East Siberian Sea, considering it to be part of the Chukchi Sea, which, according to the U.S.-Russian agreement of 1867, is international waters. Russia fears that the White House is laying the legal groundwork to internationalize the eastern branch of the NSR. Of even greater concern to Russia is the fact that the other four Arctic countries are members of NATO. The North Atlantic Treaty of 1949 provides for a mutual response to aggression against any member. The agreement, however, does not stipulate how the doctrine of mutual assistance would operate if a conflict was triggered by a NATO member. But it cannot be ruled out that the NATO countries would seek to coordinate their Arctic policy through common institutions in Brussels.

Russia searches for a partner to support its Arctic claims

20 years ago, Moscow hoped to keep the division of the Arctic into sectors intact. To do so, it had to prove the special status of the Arctic Ocean, which is covered by ice all year long and not suitable for year-round navigation.

The Arctic Council was set up in 1996 to achieve that goal. However, back then the United States managed to enlist the support of Norway, Denmark, Sweden and even Finland (which prior to defeat in the Winter War of 1940 was also an Arctic power). They jointly ensured that the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea also applied to the Arctic Ocean.

Ever since, Russia has been searching for a privileged partnership on Arctic matters with a country that recognizes its right to the NSR and the Soviet Arctic sector. Moscow was ready to support similar claims from its partner in return.

The ideal candidate was Canada, with its claim to the second largest Arctic sector. Canada also has a counterpart to the NSR — the Northwest Passage, which Ottawa considers its own. Other Arctic countries (primarily the United States and Denmark) do not recognize Canada’s exclusive right to this shipping lane.

The winter of 2002 did in fact see an intensive dialogue take place between Moscow and Ottawa on the mutual recognition of their Arctic sectors (Russia’s application to the CLCS was filed precisely one year previously on December 20, 2001). Ottawa seemed to concur. However, in exchange the Canadian side demanded recognition of its sovereignty over the North Pole, which it has claimed since 1951. The Kremlin declined, since recognition of Canadian sovereignty over the pole would be symbolic recognition of Canada as the leading Arctic power. The fledgling Russian-Canadian alliance fell apart in March 2002.

Russia’s next bet was on Norway. Back in the fall of 2006, the two sides began to work more closely within the framework of the Arctic Council. On September 15, 2010, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg signed the Treaty on Maritime Delimitation and Cooperation in the Barents Sea and the Arctic Ocean. A key condition of the treaty, signed in Murmansk, was the halfway split of a disputed zone (covering about 175,000 square kilometers) in the Barents Sea, and the recognition of both countries’ exclusive fishing rights within their respective sectors.

Russia and Norway acted according to the principle of “sacrifice a little for the sake of a lot.” Moscow made some major concessions to Oslo on the division of offshore areas, the island of Spitsbergen and fishing. In exchange, Russia expected Norway to recognize the NSR as an internal transport artery of Russia. In addition to the NSR, Moscow also hoped that Oslo would support its claims to the Soviet Arctic sector.

But the “Norwegian strategy” failed to deliver the expected dividends. At the 2nd Arctic Forum in Arkhangelsk on Sept. 22-23, 2011, it became clear that despite Moscow’s concessions, Oslo did not recognize Russia’s exclusive rights to the NSR or support Moscow’s claim to the Arctic sector. Under the guise of talks on “joint Arctic development,” Norway drew Russia into negotiations on the partial internationalization of the NSR. On key issues of Arctic policy, Norway remained in line with the United States.

Moscow and Copenhagen: possible convergence

Denmark appears a more promising partner in this regard. Russia has no disputed border areas with Denmark, as it does with Norway and the United States. And neither is Copenhagen actively contesting Moscow’s rights to the NSR, as are Oslo and Stockholm.

Russia and Denmark have no disputes over status comparable to the Russian-Canadian North Pole controversy. The only real issue in bilateral relations relates to the Lomonosov Ridge (Denmark considers it to be an underwater extension of Greenland, Russia the Siberian continental platform). However, there is considerably less friction than with Canada or Norway, not to mention the United States.

A Russian-Danish convergence would strengthen Moscow’s position in the Arctic. There are three potential areas of cooperation. The first is to resist the internationalization of the Arctic Ocean, which is championed by the United States and Norway, having been allocated the smallest Arctic sectors back in the 1930s. Russia and Denmark, on the other hand, both lay claim to large tracts of shelf in polar waters. Special status for the Arctic Ocean would allow them to secure sizeable portions of Arctic shelf. Therefore, Copenhagen is naturally keener than Oslo to preserve some form of division of the Arctic into sectors.

Division into sectors is also of interest to Canada. However, dialogue between Ottawa and Moscow is blocked by Canada’s uncompromising stance on the North Pole. Copenhagen’s position here is more give-and-take. Denmark has a stake in the division of the Arctic’s underwater mountain ranges, yet acknowledges the infeasibility of establishing unilateral control over circumpolar regions.

The second is to preserve the neutral status of the North Pole. In 1951 the International Court of Justice ruled that the pole could become Canadian territory if within 100 years no other party were able to prove its rights to it. The issue of the continental shelf allows Ottawa to raise the question of North Pole ownership ahead of time. The response could be a Russian-Danish joint effort to secure its international status.

The third relates to economic projects. Over the past five years Russia has been trying to involve Norwegian business in joint exploration projects in the Arctic. Although the strategy has yielded some results, joint business projects with Oslo always touch upon the internationalization of the NSR. Danish business could offer a viable alternative. Denmark is only an Arctic power thanks to Greenland, and hence geographically the NSR is not a priority.

But antagonisms do exist between Russia and Denmark. The latter is a member of NATO, which immediately restricts its capacity to cooperate with Moscow. Nevertheless, Copenhagen could be Russia’s best choice of Arctic partner in the resolution of many tactically important issues. Although Russian-Danish collaboration may be a bumpy ride, against the backdrop of failed talks with Canada and Norway, an agreement with Denmark could reap real Arctic dividends for the Kremlin.