Legal Regime of Navigation in the Russian Arctic

(By A. L. Kolodkin, V. Yu. Markov, A. P. Ushakov ; INSROP Working Paper No. 94 – 1997, IV.3.1)


This Working paper highlights Russian views of jurisdictional issues governing Arctic water north of the Russian coast.

In the Arctic, as well as in other regions of the World Ocean, there are the same categories of sea areas which are provided for by the provisions of the 1958 Geneva Conventions and 1982 UN Law of the Sea Convention: internal waters, territorial sea, exclusive economic zone, high seas, continental shelf. It is from this subdivision of sea areas that the corresponding Russian (USSR) legislative acts originate.

Russian sovereignty covers the internal waters and territorial sea according to these Acts and in strict compliance with the universally acknowledged norms of international law, and with regard to the territorial sea this regime is exercised with exemptions established by international law ("the right of innocent passage"). Russia exercises sovereign rights within the limits of the economic zone with regard to matters related to exploration and extraction of natural resources. However, taking into account specific conditions in the Arctic region, Russia is competent (art.234 of the 1982 Convention) to take special measures here aimed at preventing, reducing and keeping under control pollution of the environment. Such measures may first of all affect and limit sea shipping.

In considering the legal regime of the Russian Arctic sea areas one should bear remember that the Northern Sea Route (NSR) "sea-ways" proper are not something constant from the standpoint of physics since they constantly change their position. Second, in spite of this a considerable part of the NSR is located within the limits law and Russian legislation.

From this important consequences for the regime of foreign navigation arise. Briefly they are as follows:

1. Within internal sea waters it is performed only with a coastal state permission, except if a merchant vessel is heading for a port open to foreign vessels or is leaving it; entry of warships into internal waters is possible only on conditions specified by Russian laws.

2. In principle, foreign warships and non-naval vessels enjoy the right of innocent passage in the territorial sea, however passage through the Russian 12-mile territorial sea in the Arctic is limited by certain conditions stated below;

3. Foreign vessels (naval and non-naval) have the right to exercise freedom of navigation in the USSR economic zone situated beyond the limits of the territorial sea to the extent within which it (freedom of navigation) must operate in that zone under the 1982 Convection.;

4. Freedom of navigation in the high seas beyond the economic zone is exercised without those limitations which may be established in the economic zone and which are connected with measures aimed at protecting marine environment;

5. Freedom of navigation is also exercised in the water layer above the continental shelf since those waters are the waters of the high seas.


    A. L. Kolodkin, V. Yu. Markov, A. P. Ushakov, 1997, Legal Regime of Navigation in the Russian Arctic, INSROP.©