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In yet another sign of deteriorating relations between Moscow and Washington, senior Russian officials and parliamentarians have agreed that Russia should end its “provisional enforcement” of the 1990 accord signed by then–Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze and then–US Secretary of State James Baker on the delimitation of the sea border between the two countries in the Bering Strait. That agreement was ratified by the United States in 1992 but was not ratified by the Soviet Union before it collapsed and has not been ratified by its legal successor, the Russian Federation. Instead, Moscow has heretofore agreed to provisionally recognize and enforce its stipulations. But now, that looks likely to change.
On Monday (January 27), Konstantin Kosachev, the chairperson of the Federation Council’s (upper chamber of the Russian parliament) foreign relations committee, said he and other lawmakers had met with foreign ministry, Federal Security Service (FSB), and Russian fisheries officials to discuss whether Moscow should continue to fulfill the provisions of the agreement in the absence of its ratification. He insisted that the participants were unanimous in calling for the Russian government to announce it would no longer recognize or enforce the terms of that agreement. The following day, a spokesperson for the Russian foreign ministry indicated it was receptive to the idea (Finanz.ru, January 27, 2020).
The agreement has been unpopular in Russia since it was signed because many there believe Shevardnadze gave up too much in an effort to curry favor with the West; indeed, this is one reason the Russian parliament never ratified the deal. Still, until this week, there was no indication that Moscow would change its de facto recognition of the accord even though there was little chance of a de jure ratification. Now, Russia appears set to declare that it will no longer adhere to it, though some Russian analysts are skeptical whether Moscow has sufficient naval power to enforce any prospective new sea border between the two countries (Topcor.ru, January 29).
According to the document’s terms, Moscow and Washington agreed to delineated the sea border between them in the Bering Strait from “the point, 65° 30′ North, 168° 58′ 37″ West, along the 168° 58′ 37″ West meridian through the Bering Strait and Chukchi Sea into the Arctic Ocean as far as permitted under international law” (Un.org, June 1, 1990, accessed March 18, 2002).
The State Department noted (State.gov, September 8, 2009), as have other observers since that time, that when the US purchased Alaska from the Russian Empire, there was no need to define the border beyond the three-mile exclusion rule then in effect. But with the introduction of a 200-mile economic exclusion zone as a result of the Law of the Sea agreements, both Russia and the US recognized that there was suddenly a necessity to come up with one. The negotiating record from the 1860s was flimsy, however; and the two could not agree. The Baker-Shevardnadze exchange eventually opened the way for a compromise, but it left most of what had been disputed inside the US zone. Many Russians objected at the time, and those objections have continued.
Shevardnadze and Baker consented to split the difference, but that led to US sovereignty over areas that Russians had long considered theirs. As a result, Moscow has not ratified the 1990 accord, and Russian officials, including Vladimir Putin, periodically talk about the need to modify it. Since the document’s signing, the two countries have occasionally conducted talks on further adjusting the agreement; but to date, nothing has come of those talks. Two reasons explain this deadlock, one pertaining to Russia and the other to the United States. The Russian issue relates to the fact that Moscow wants to expand shipping across the Northern Sea Route and does not want to have to request approval from the US for transiting through what are now American waters (see EDM, March 29, 2017); additionally, Russia does not want the US to interfere with Russian fishing in the area. As for the United States, it widely believes there are significant oil and other mineral deposits in that region, which it hopes to one day exploit.
It remains to be seen how far Moscow will push this issue. Russia has brought up the sea boundaries before—at a 2003 Federation Council hearing and in Putin’s comments to Western leaders after Russia’s annexation of Crimea—and each time it led to a sharp uptick in tensions; but ultimately Russia took no action. This time, however, statements by senior Russian officials and parliamentarians appear to make it less likely that Moscow will back down from its tough line, especially given that Russian outlets are suggesting openly that “Russia is ready to begin a territorial dispute with the US over the sea border” (Gr-sily.ru, January 29, 2020).
Anatoly Kuznetsov, the editor of Russia’s Sea News, suggested that, at the very least, “the Russian parliament might pass the law about a refusal to recognize the 28-year-old Soviet legal act” (Fairplanet.org, January 29, 2020). “According to the law ‘About Russia’s international agreements,’ any deal regarding borders, be it land or maritime, is considered legally [null and void] unless ratified.” The expert added, “If Russia decides to ignore the American interests in the Bering Sea, it risks engaging with the similar ‘war of nerves.’ Russian fishermen will have to rely on the [Russian navy’s] protection in a hope that the U.S. warships are reluctant to start sea battles over such minor incidents.” A Russian parliamentary move in that direction could end the current brewing dispute, but the principle the legislature in Moscow would be enunciating—a non-enforcement of accords not yet ratified—would open the way to more problems elsewhere in the future.