Russia could rip up decades-old treaty and claim oil-rich Antarctic land, expert warns

Fears of a potential land-grab by Russia are growing after the discovery of vast Antarctic oil and gas reserves - but obstacles still stand in Moscow's way.

Antarctic coast
Russia recently discovered a giant reserve of oil and gas in Antarctica, but how alarmed should we be? (Alamy)

Recent surveys of Antarctic water carried out by Russia could be a prelude to Moscow attempting to stake a claim to a piece of the continent for itself and drilling it for oil and gas, a professor in geopolitics has warned.

Professor Klaus Dodds, from Royal Holloway College, issued the warning after a Russian ship discovered huge reserves in Antarctica roughly 10 times the North Sea’s entire 50-year output. Moscow insists that the Akademik Alexander Karpinsky vessel was only there to carry out scientific research, but Dodds tells Yahoo News UK he believes the ship was potentially "prospecting" for resources to mine.

For over 60 years, the continent has been kept a conflict-free, environmentally protected and politically neutral zone where scientific research can flourish thanks to the largely successful Antarctic Treaty. However, fearing that Russia could be using scientific research as a cover for a land grab, Dodds says that the "norms, values and rules" of the agreement "cannot be taken for granted".

"They are being actively stress tested and we need to prepare for the possibility that peace and collaboration will become harder," he says.

"If we conclude that Russia is 'prospecting' rather than carrying out 'scientific research' we need to call that out and risk the breakdown of consensus. Failure to act will create further precedents and will not help preserve the effective functioning of the Antarctic Treaty."

Seven countries, including Britain, maintain historical claims to parts of Antarctica from when expeditions first explored the continent. However, the treaty has effectively put these to the side, with researchers from several other countries able to operate there with no issues.

Dodds adds that "there is a risk that Russia might choose to walk away from the treaty and make a claim to territory in the future", which could mean a slice of the continent suddenly loses all of its long-established protections.

Dodds, an expert in Arctic and Antarctic governance, recently raised concerns with the Commons Environment Audit Committee (EAC), pointing to evidence gathered by South African newspaper the Daily Maverick, which investigated Russia's Antarctic activities after the Akademik Alexander Karpinsky docked in Cape Town.

A statement by the US State Department on Ukraine war sanctions identified the ship as being operated by PMGE, a subsidiary of Rosgeo, which, on its own website, says it "performs all types of geological prospecting and exploration activities from regional surveys for all types of mineral resources to estimation of the reserves commissioning of the fields into operation".

ANTARCTICA - APRIL 11: An aerial view of seals resting on an ice mass as Turkish scientists conduct a protection for the southern polar creatures, which are heavily affected by the consequences of global climate change, with the rules and observations they apply in their work in Antarctica on April 11, 2024. (Photo by Sebnem Coskun/Anadolu via Getty Images)
The 1959 Antarctic Treaty has helped keep the continent politically neutral and demilitarised. (Getty Images)

While Dodds says that "for now", mining does not look likely "economically speaking", he does say that the international community "not doing anything" about Russia's recent excursions "does not make any of this less likely".

At an EAC hearing last week, Foreign Office junior minister David Rutley said Russia had recently reaffirmed its commitments to key parts of the Atlantic Treaty and had "repeatedly given assurances that its surveying is purely for scientific purposes", but Dodds remains unconvinced.

He said: "I would not be too eager to trust Russia’s assurances. In recent years Russia has arguably been the most disruptive actor in Antarctica and along with China resisted strongly attempts to widen out a network of marine protected areas."

Dodds suggested a "fundamental flaw" in the treaty's Protocol on Environmental Protection, which does not formally define "mineral resource activities" and "scientific research" could be handing Russia a "definitional grey zone".

How soon could all of this come to a head?

Not any time soon, according to Nicolas Jouan, a defence and security analyst at the RAND Corporation, an American non-profit global policy think tank.

He agrees that the latest discovery of oil reserves is "reinforcing a trend transforming the region into a geopolitical and potentially economical hotspot" and says there is "no doubt that Russia wants to make the case for an Antarctica region more open to resource exploitation on the long-term".
Seven nations have historical claims to land in the Antarctic, but many countries don't recognise them, and the treaty has minimised their significance. (Discovering Antarctica)

However, he says that while Russia may have ambitions of fishing and oil extraction, it has "not yet fundamentally challenged the principles of the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty", suggesting it does "not have the willingness or the means to do more" – such as establish a military presence.

Jouan adds that even if there are vast reserves of oil in Antarctica, they are still "technically very difficult to exploit", which he says could explain why the UK's response is "not very alarmist". He adds that the British Antarctic Territory is contested, with some overlapping claims from Argentina and Chile, which might encourage the Foreign Office to "avoid escalation" and rather remind Russia of its commitments to the treaty.

While Jouan says China and Russia are "clearly the most vocal powers wanting a relaxing of the rules" around resource exploitation in Antarctica, he says they are not the only ones.

"Other countries are biding their time until a possible review of the Protocol on Environmental Protection in 2048," he says, adding: "The expectation could be that guarantees on the protection of the environment could be secured while avoiding a permanent ban on mining."

With Australia claiming almost half of Antarctica's landmass being the most committed to a region free of any mining or oil drilling, Jouan says divisions are likely to emerge over this issue when the time comes.

Some reports of the treaty, or the mining ban in the region, expiring in 2048 expiring are not accurate, says Dodds. That date simply gives members a chance to call for a conference to review the treaty.

Dodds describes this fear as a "red herring", adding: "What matters is how Russian activity is addressed by concerned parties". While he accepts that mining in the region, economically speaking, does not look likely any time soon, he says the international community "not doing anything does not make any of this less likely either".

A FCDO spokesperson said: “The UK is fully committed to the Antarctic Treaty and its prohibition of commercial mineral exploitation. Last year, all Parties to the Antarctic Treaty reaffirmed their ongoing commitment to work together under the agreed framework, which reserves Antarctica for scientific use only.”