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Russia Tightens Control Over Northern Sea Route

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Submarines and vessels assigned to Russia's Northern Fleet (state media)

By The Maritime Executive 2019-03-08 19:51:34

The Kremlin has formulated new limitations for foreign warships transiting the Northern Sea Route (NSR), the Arctic route connecting the Kola Peninsula with the Bering Strait. 

In a policy change first reported by Izvestia, the Russian government now intends to require foreign governments to provide 45 days of advance notice for warship voyages along the route. In addition, it will need the name and rank of each vessel's master, along with all ship's particulars, and it specifies that each ship will take aboard a Russian pilot. The move follows several months after the French Navy conducted a transit of the NSR with the supply ship BSAH Rhône. 

For legal purposes, a warship on the high seas has complete immunity from the jurisdiction of any state other than its own. Within 12 nautical miles, however, warships are required to comply with all laws and rules of the coastal state when passing through the state's territorial sea.

The extent of the coastal state's control over military ships conducting "innocent passage" has been a matter of debate for decades. At various points, Iran, Vietnam, China, Taiwan and many others have instituted prior notification requirements for warships in specific areas. The United States believes these restrictions are inconsistent with international law, and the U.S. Navy regularly contests them as part of its broader Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) program.

Russia and the United States were once on the same side of this debate. During the negotiations leading up to UNCLOS in the early 1980s, Soviet diplomats joined their American counterparts to block a clause that would have allowed prior notification requirements for warship transits. 

The new notification requirement for warships follows recent developments for merchant shipping on the NSR. In December 2017, Russia's parliament enacted a law to restrict loadings of coal, oil and natural gas at ports along the Northern Sea Route to Russian-flagged vessels. It has given indications that it may restrict such loadings to Russian-built vessels in the future, part of a policy to encourage domestic