Russian objection to U.S. territorial claims off Alaska complicates maritime relationship

a fogbow
An Arctic “fogbow” is seen from the deck of the Coast Guard cutter Healy during the 2016 Hidden Ocean mission to an Arctic Ocean region known as the Chukchi Borderland. (Photo provided by Caitlin Bailey/Global Foundation for Ocean Exploration)

New U.S. claims to seabed territory off Alaska have run into an obstacle: an objection from the Russian government.

The Russian government, which has staked territorial claims to most of the Arctic Ocean, is challenging the U.S. claims made in December to sovereignty over 520,400 square kilometers of extended outer continental shelf in the Arctic Ocean – an area bigger than California — and another 176,330 square kilometers in the Bering Sea.

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The U.S. does not have the right to make such claims because it is not a party to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, Russia’s delegation argued at a meeting in Jamaica last month of the International Seabed Commission.

“We categorically reject the selective approach of the United States of America to the use of international law, with an emphasis on its rights and a complete disregard for obligations,” the delegation’s statement said. 

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said the Russian objection is puzzling because the claims made in December by the U.S. State Department did not overlap any territory claimed by Russia. 

“I don’t know whether they would do it other than just to be obstreperous. But that wouldn’t be surprising,” she said at a Thursday news conference in Anchorage.

Whatever grounds Russia might cite, its objection is an example of how the U.S. is at a disadvantage because it has not ratified the Law of the Sea treaty, under which such claims are adjudicated, she said.

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A map of North America and the oceans around it shows the extended continental shelf areas that the U.S. government is preparing to claim as its national territory. The Arctic Ocean holds the largest swath of extended continental shelf area to which the U.S. plans to make claims. (Map provided by U.S. State Department)

The U.S. is still allowed to submit a claim without ratifying the treaty, she said. However, “we’re not, basically, at the table to defend it,” she said.

“It’s kind of like going to court and just hoping that the pleading that you filed is going to be rock-solid and all of your cites are going to be just very conclusive, but you don’t have the ability to argue your case as the attorney that drafted that,” said Murkowski, who worked as a lawyer before holding public office.

Murkowski in November, along with several colleagues, introduced a resolution seeking Senate ratification of the Convention on the Law of the Sea. It was her third official attempt to get the Senate to approve the treaty.

As with all outer continental territorial claims, the U.S. claims made in December concern only the seabed, not the ocean above it. The claims could affect future economic activities, such as deep-sea mining or the placement of fiber-optic cables.

The U.S. claims in the Arctic add to a series of claims made by other Arctic nations that date back several years.

Russia’s claims, as amended in 2021, extend from the Eastern Hemisphere to the Western-Hemisphere side of the North Pole, based on its interpretation of the continental shelf.  While the U.N. Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf approved most of the claimed territory, other areas claimed by Russia overlap and conflict with territorial claims made by Canada and by Denmark on behalf of Greenland.

When it comes to even existing U.S. territorial rights, there have been some conflicting signals from Russia. An effort in the Russian Duma aims to sever the U.S-Russia Bering Sea boundary agreement that dates back to 1990, when the Soviet Union still existed. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has tried to counter that effort, defending the agreement as valid and a benefit to the nation.

Lisa Murkowski
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, speaks at a news conference held Thursday in her Anchorage office. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

One high-ranking Russian official has even raised the specter of leaving the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Russia has taken more aggressive actions in the Bering Sea and Arctic in recent years. In a now-notorious 2020 incident, a Russian warship crew confronted some U.S. pollock fishermen and ordered them to move. And there have been more military operations, including exercises in the Bering and Chukchi seas last September that drew U.S. Coast Guard scrutiny.

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Asked about new doubts cast by some Russian officials about recognition of the existing Bering Sea maritime border, Coast Guard Lt. Commander Jed Raskie told the North Pacific Fishery Management Council on Thursday that he has not yet seen any follow-through on those sentiments. There has been no detectable action “that has signaled that they’re going to proactively challenge that,” Raskin told the council, which is meeting this week in Anchorage.

Cross-border cooperation between the U.S. Coast Guard and its Russian counterpart has deteriorated but not ended entirely, he told the council.

“The communications between us and the Russian Border Guard are relatively low right now, and that’s because of the strained relationship between the two nations,” said Raskie, who is based in Juneau. “We still have very good contact, and we maintain good communications just to make sure that if something that becomes an issue with either safety, life at sea or pollution, we would, obviously, be able to contact them proactively for that.”

In the first three months of 2024, there were no observed incursions by foreign vessels, from Russia or elsewhere, into U.S territory in the Bering Sea, Raskie said. But this is a slow time of year for fishing in that part of the Bering Sea, and things may change in the summer and fall along the maritime boundary, he said.

“I think the answer is we’ll see what happens over the next few months. And we’re standing by,” he told the council.

Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman for questions: Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and X.

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