Арктика и Север (Dec 2020)

The Northern Sea Route: Problems of National Status Legitimization under International Law. Part II

  • Pavel A. GUDEV

Journal volume & issue
Vol. 41, no. 41
pp. 112 – 126


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The second part of the paper shows that the regime of navigation in the Arctic, particularly on the NSR, defended by Russia today, is much more liberal than that which existed in the Soviet years: up to the Gorbachev’s 1987 Murmansk speech the Soviet Arctic was a closed sea region for foreign navigation. Permissive order of passage established today at the level of Russian national legislation applies only to civil ships, and in the framework of the 1982 Convention, measures to protect the marine environment from pollution from ships cannot be applied to warships, military auxiliary ships, and ships on the state non-commercial service. However, the presence on the Northern Sea routes of water areas with the status of internal historical waters, including several Arctic straits, plus the special legal status of the Arctic, which is not limited exclusively to the 1982 Convention, allows Russia to insist on the applicability of the permit regime also to foreign warships. This approach is based mainly on the two states’ practice with the longest coastline in the Arctic: the USSR and Canada. Navigation along the NSR in today’s ice conditions is not yet possible without passing through the waters of the Russian Arctic Straits, whose waters are classified by the USSR as internal on historical legal grounds. Although under the 1982 Convention, they can be conditionally regarded as international, the lack of permanent transit through them makes it possible not to recognize them as such. However, the Russian Federation’s task to turn the NSR into an international shipping route may lead to a weakening of the current legal position. A similar situation may arise concerning the enforcement of Article 234 “Ice Covered Areas” of the 1982 Convention, which gives the Arctic countries additional rights in the field of navigation control. Lack of ice cover in the Arctic during most of the year can significantly strengthen the position of Russia’s opponents, who insist on a too broad interpretation of this article on our part. Finally, climatic changes may lead to the NSR becoming more latitudinal, and then the Russian Federation will lose any legal grounds to regulate navigation.