Putin tries to claim the North Pole. Can he do that?

Russia has petitioned the United Nations for exclusive control over almost half a million square miles of the Arctic.

Mikhail Klimentyev/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/Reuters
Russian President Vladimir Putin visits the Moskvarium center of oceanography and marine biology at the Exhibition of Achievements of National Economy (VDNH) in Moscow, Russia, August 4, 2015.

Russia, led by President Vladimir Putin, has petitioned the United Nations for exclusive control over 463,000 square miles of the Arctic Ocean, including the North Pole. Russia has pulled all the stops this time, claiming they can prove their right to an exclusive economic zone in the area, following UN laws.

According to the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, a nation may claim an exclusive economic zone up to 200 nautical miles from their recognized borders. However, Russia is trying to invoke a different portion of the law, which allows countries to extend their exclusive economic zone up to 350 miles from the edge of the continental shelf, the relatively shallower area that extends outward from a content, if the shelf extends beyond the recognized borders of the nation.

Why is Russia so interested in owning large tracts of icy water? “Melting ice has opened up new transit routes and revealed previously inaccessible oil and mineral deposits,” reported the Stratfor Global Intelligence organization in January. If the ice continues to melt, the fossil fuels will become increasingly accessible, and valuable. Stratfor also suspects “[m]ilitarizing the Arctic will be a key imperative for the Russian military throughout 2015 and beyond.” In March, Russia conducted military drills in the Arctic Circle, a provocative move according to The Christian Science Monitor.

However, this is not the first time that Russia has attempted to claim this territory; in 2002 they submitted a similar claim to the United Nations, but the proposal was rejected due to a lack of substantial scientific evidence.

Now Russia claims they have the evidence. In their submission to the UN, the Russians claim to have sent a miniature submarine under the Arctic Circle, where they planted a titanium Russian flag at the North Pole according to CNBC.

The Russian ministry has said it expects a decision by autumn, according to The New York Times. But if Mr. Putin actually expects a rapid response on his possible territorial expansion, he’s likely to be disappointed. The committee that oversees these claims most likely will not convene again until 2016, and Denmark has also submitted claims of its own to the Arctic region, claiming the pole sits on a continental shelf jutting north from Greenland, not Russia, according to the Times. Competing claims are also expected from other countries that border the Arctic Circle including the United States and Canada.

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