Moscow’s Determined Plans to Upend International Accords in Antarctic Facing Problems

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 17 Issue: 165

Vostok Station, one of Russia's scientific research stations on Antarctica (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Global warming is progressively opening up not only the Arctic but the Antarctic, and the geopolitical contests between Russia and other countries are now intensifying in the South as well as the North, with numerous governments increasingly seeking to exploit the resources heretofore locked up in the inhospitable polar regions. In so doing, these states are progressively challenging the international legal regime governing access to Antarctica that was established during the Cold War, in 1961, and is set to expire in 2048. Many countries—and Russia very much among them—feel the treaty had unfairly negated their perceived claims to Earth’s southernmost continent and its surrounding waters. At present, Moscow is in a far weaker position in the Antarctic than it is the Arctic; and clearly, all the problems it has had in advancing its interests in the High North are already being repeated in the South Pole. Nonetheless, Russia believes three key factors may allow it to gain the upper hand in the coming months.

First of all, Russian commentators argue, Moscow has both international law and, in most instances, China on its side, an “alliance” that they believe can be brought to bear to neutralize the position of Western countries (Svobodnaya Pressa, October 26). Second, at least up to now, the global contest in the Antarctic is about fishing rather than the extraction of resources from the seabed. The latter not only requires much higher capital investment and technological knowhow but is also explicitly banned by the Antarctic treaty. So with more players involved in the South than there are in the North, Moscow-based observers believe their government can use this diversity against the major Western powers, which have benefited the most from the 1961 accords that Russia and many other countries view as an outdated relic of the Cold War. And third, as it has already shown in the case of Arctic delimitation, Moscow will utilize the mechanisms provided by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), to which it is a signatory but the United States is not. And if it does not succeed through international law means, Russia is prepared to act unilaterally and bully others to achieve its objectives (, November 9).

President Vladimir Putin and other senior Russian leaders signaled last January that they do not believe the current legal regime in the Antarctic region treats Russia fairly and want the 1961 accords to be replaced by new arrangements that give it “an equal partnership” there (RIA Novosti, January 29;, January 31; see EDM, June 9, 24). The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic a month later reduced public discussion of what Moscow plans to do. Yet despite the problems it has caused for the Russian economy and political system, the novel coronavirus has not distracted Moscow’s attention to the region around the South Pole.

The Russian government has continued to build ice-ready ships and complain about what it sees as discrimination against Russia as far as the current accords are concerned. But all throughout, in the Antarctic, Moscow has faced all the same problems and more that challenge its activities and planning in the Arctic: budgetary stringencies, cost and time overruns in the construction of ships, shifts in international demand because of the pandemic, and widespread corruption in Russian shipyards (, September 27, 2018; Kommersant, February 10, 2020).

Western analysts have focused on these problems in the Arctic while generally failing to consider the ways in which the same problems are going to affect what Moscow can do in the Antarctic. Illustratively, a Russian ship heading toward Antarctic waters—the 32-year-old nuclear-powered container ship Sevmorput (which in English translation means “the Northern Sea Route”)—has become stranded off the coast of Angola for the last several weeks. Moscow had hoped to use the presence of this vessel in the southern polar ocean to bolster Russia’s regional position. But mechanical problems apparently endemic to its other ice-ready vessels interrupted the Sevmorput’s voyage south (The Barents Observer, November 15).

Russian officials have not acknowledged the malfunction, but a staffer at St. Petersburg’s Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute posted on the social media site VKontakte that “there is a breakdown on the ship, as I understand it, and divers are trying to fix it.” His words suggest something went seriously wrong with the shaft, the propellers or other parts of the vessel’s power train (, October 14)—that is, problems quite similar to those suffered in recent months by Russian ships operating in Arctic waters (see EDM, September 29; The Barents Observer, November 17).

The mechanical failures with the Sevmorput, regardless of what they turn out to be, cast an especially dark shadow on Moscow’s efforts because that ship was intended to supply new modules for buildings at the Russian research station in Antarctica that Moscow established in 1957. The Kremlin clearly had hoped this mission would symbolically embody Russia’s plans for a new and expanded presence in the Antarctic and, hence, back up its claims in the region. But instead, the breakdown of the nuclear-powered cargo vessel off Africa only highlights the problems Moscow has long faced operating in the polar regions.

Obviously, Moscow is not about to give up, especially as it has the world’s largest fleet of icebreakers—one that is larger than those of the US, China and other Arctic powers combined. So despite the failure of the Sevmorput, Russian diplomats will almost certainly try to step up their efforts to force a renegotiation of the 1961 Antarctic Treaty and probably seek to do so via the UNCLOS provisions in order to exclude the United States. Indeed, one should expect Moscow to ever more boldly declare that if the international community does not accede to Russia’s demands regarding the South Pole, the country will simply act unilaterally to defend what it believes are its inherent rights.

That sets the stage for heightened conflicts at the diplomatic level, but it also has the potential to trigger more direct conflicts on the ground and especially in the seas around Antarctica. If Moscow can fix the Sevmorput quickly, both are likely to happen sooner. If it cannot, there may be a delay but not necessarily a shift in Russia’s overall strategy.