Putin could spark ‘territorial free-for-all’ in Antarctica by threatening to rip up treaty

Antarctica: Scientists set up station on the Whillans Ice Stream

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Activities on the southernmost continent are subject to the Antarctic Treaty System, which has been in force since June 23, 1961. This international agreement — initially signed by 12 nations including the UK, but now including a total of 54 parties — covers the entire area south of 60°S latitude. The treaty’s goals are to maintain Antarctica as a demilitarised space, ensure it remains free of nuclear testing and waste, to promote scientific cooperation, and to set aside all disputes over territorial sovereignty.

Each year, the parties to the treaty meet at the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting, which is being held this year in Berlin from May 23 to June 2.

At present, 28 nations — including the UK — have consultative status.

Since the treaty was first signed, the consultative states have adopted more than 300 recommendations for the management of Antarctica, alongside a number of separated international agreements, of which three are still in use.

These three concern the conservation of Antarctic seals, the conservation of Antarctic marine living resources, and a protocol on environmental protection in the region.

While the treaty system has achieved much over the last six decades — not in the least maintaining peace and holding off the numerous territorial claims to the continent — all is not necessarily smooth sailing.

Geopolitical expert Professor Klaus Dodds of Royal Holloway, University of London told Express.co.uk, “Russia and China have become increasingly cast as difficult to manage within this system.”

Perhaps the most prominent example of this, Prof Dodds said, concerns the establishment of marine protected areas around the southern ocean — something that both countries have viewed with deep suspicion.

He explained: “They think that the advocates of marine protected areas are trying not only to exclude them, but [are] in some cases using it as a proxy to try and advance their own sovereignty based claims.”

In reality, of course, the purpose of the protected areas is ocean conservation.

Spillover from the invasion of Ukraine — specifically the resultant worsening of trust between Russia and the other Antarctic Treaty parties — will inherently make these issues more thorny, Prof. Dodds explained.

He said: “What the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting in Berlin at the moment has had to contend with is how do you ensure the continuation of consensus when you find one party’s behaviour on the face of it deeply problematic, if not objectionable?

“This is really the conundrum that the Antarctic Treaty partners find themselves in.

“Because if the system depends on consensus, then the last thing you want is a major party — and Russia is a major party — walking away from that system.”

He added that should Russia choose to abandon the treaty, it could conceivably set up a rival system with China and perhaps India as partners — or even trigger a “territorial and resource free-for-all”.

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Spillover from the invasion of Ukraine — specifically the resultant worsening of trust between Russia and the other Antarctic Treaty parties — will inherently make these issues more thorny, Prof. Dodds explained.

He said: “What the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting in Berlin at the moment has had to contend with is how do you ensure the continuation of consensus when you find one party’s behaviour on the face of it deeply problematic, if not objectionable?

“This is really the conundrum that the Antarctic Treaty partners find themselves in.

“Because if the system depends on consensus, then the last thing you want is a major party — and Russia is a major party — walking away from that system.”

He added that should Russia choose to abandon the treaty, it could conceivably set up a rival system with China and perhaps India as partners — or even trigger a “territorial and resource free-for-all”.

The need to maintain consensus, Prof Dodds added, puts limits on how far the other parties can go in expressing disagreement with Russia — if, indeed, they want to.

He said: “Although many European and North American states are registering their disapproval when it comes to Russia’s behaviour since February of this year, in other parts of the world actually its a lot more mixed in terms of disapproval.

“You might think that Russia is isolated, and suffering from a healthy dose of opprobrium, but that’s not necessarily shared around the world.”

Given this, Prof. Dodds continued, the Antarctic treaty partners will likely find themselves needing to focus on doubling down on areas where consensus already exists — such as scientific diplomacy and continuing collaboration — while avoiding topics like marine protected areas and mining around which Russia’s behaviour might be more challenging.

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