Endless Russian borders. How Russia's blackmailing of its Baltic neighbors has uncovered an old problem

Monday, 10 June 2024 — Bohdan Ustymenko, for European Pravda
Photo: Imago Stock and People/East News
Russia believes it has the right to establish maritime borders as it sees fit. Not only in the Baltic Sea

Last week, the Baltic states bordering Russia were shocked by a document posted on a Russian government portal: the Russian Ministry of Defense published a draft decision of the Russian government that would unilaterally change Russia's maritime boundaries with Lithuania and Finland.

This draft was nonsense, and one does not need to be an expert in the law of the sea to understand this. The boundaries between states cannot be changed by a unilateral decision of the government of one of those states. Moreover, the public discussion for which the drafts were published was a dubious necessity, since it was a highly technical document with a list of coordinates that only experts could understand.

The further progression of events was all the more bizarre. Almost immediately after the information about this initiative hit the media and the neighboring states of the Russian Federation learned about it (and got outraged), the document was removed from the government website without any explanation. Even though it makes no sense to analyze this initiative now (since it was abandoned by Russia itself) and is hardly possible (without the published project, there are no exact coordinates or charts), this Russian provocation has exacerbated a broader problem.

In fact, Russia has problems with sea boundaries with almost all its neighbors.


There is no delimitation even with NATO member states, which makes it tempting for Moscow to declare maritime spaces "its own." At one point, 20 years ago, Ukraine faced a similar situation, when Russia forced it to accept Russia's vision of the sea issues.

Bohdan Ustymenko, an international lawyer with specialization in the law of the sea, explains to the readers of European Pravda why Russia has total problems with its maritime boundaries.

The legacy of the USSR

First, an important detail should be noted: The Russian Federation is not a political successor to the Soviet Union.

In simple terms, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was a separate state, and the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR), which seceded from it in 1991 and became modern Russia, was a separate state. Similarly, the other 14 former republics of the Soviet Union are not its political successors.

There is no duly executed treaty between the Russian Federation and the Soviet Union or with all the member states of the USSR on the transfer of all the rights and obligations of the Soviet Union to modern Russia (read more in the article – Russia Has Illegally Gained UN Security Council Seat. It Should Be Fixed).

However, Russia's boundaries with many other countries are often based on Soviet-era delimitation.

The Russian Federation ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea after its independence, in 1997, while the USSR was not a party to this document. The treaty, which is sometimes called a Constitution for the Oceans, also defines the rules for formalizing the maritime boundaries of modern Russia with other coastal states in the Black and Baltic Seas, the Arctic and Pacific Oceans.

Russia does not have maritime boundary delimitation agreements with all its neighbors. In addition, a number of these agreements were concluded not with Russia, but with the Soviet Union, a state that seized to exist in 1991. According to the UN Office of Legal Affairs, it is the Union, not Russia that is a party to the maritime delimitation treaties with the DPRK, Finland, Poland, Sweden, Turkey, and the United States.

This draws a natural conclusion that the boundaries between today's Russia and those states, five of which are NATO members, are not established in accordance with international law.

In fact, Russia has concluded maritime treaties only with Lithuania in 1997 and Norway in 2007, as well as a treaty with Lithuania and Sweden in 2005 on the common point of boundaries of the exclusive economic zones and continental shelf in the Baltic Sea.

The maritime boundary between Estonia and the Russian Federation has not yet been formalized by a treaty.

In addition, not only Russia, but even the Soviet Union has no established boundaries with Japan.

A logical question arises: what to do with all this?

Is it all in the Kremlin's "good will"?

Unfortunately, there is no international legal instrument that could be used to force Russia to enter maritime boundary treaties with other coastal states to delimit maritime zones.

Disputes between states over the delimitation fall within the competence of the International Court of Justice (other judicial authority or tribunal), though there is a condition: both states must seek a solution and agree to hear their case. Ukraine is aware of that, as it also had a maritime dispute with its neighbor, Romania, and had to apply to the Court to delimit the boundary.

However, Russia ruled out this option and denied the potential for international instruments to influence its sea boundaries. Russia has ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea with a statement that international judicial bodies and tribunals should not consider disputes related to the maritime delimitation.

At the same time, the absence of boundaries is one of the key challenges to the national security of any civilized coastal state. Therefore, the world's leading powers need to make permanent and consistent political and diplomatic efforts to ensure that the Russian Federation enters into maritime delimitation agreements.

The recent Russia's initiative to change the sea boundaries in the Baltics has shown the importance of the above.

It is essential to emphasize that, taking into account the provisions of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the Russian Federation and Lithuania have signed an agreement on the delimitation of the exclusive economic zone and shelf on October 24, 1997. Article 2 of the agreement sets out clearly the coordinates. Russia has no right to change them unilaterally.

As for the delimitation between Russia and Finland, the picture is more complicated. There are only four Soviet-Finnish maritime treaties of 1966-1985 in the official UN database. On the other hand, as noted above, the Soviet Union has not existed for more than 30 years.

There is no maritime delimitation treaty between Russia and Estonia. This is a huge security problem for the entire Baltic region and NATO.

What is happening with the Russia-Ukraine sea frontier?

This is a separate topic, but it is worth mentioning.

Since 1992, Ukraine has been willing to delimit with Russia the water areas of the Black and Azov Seas and the Kerchenska Strait. This is confirmed, in particular, by the coordinates of the baselines from the Ukrainian seashore in the Azov and Black Seas submitted by Ukraine to the UN, which are still available to the public on the official UN website. However, numerous negotiations with the RF have led to nothing.

Eventually, Russia forced Ukraine to sign the disgraceful Azov Agreement on terms favorable to Moscow. That happened in 2003, when Russia "squeezed" this agreement out of Ukraine using the Tuzla incident.

It was only in 2023 that Ukraine terminated the Azov Agreement (Note: The author of this article prepared a draft explanatory note to the draft law on the termination of the Azov Agreement).

The delimitation issue remains, however.

That is why Ukraine should try to use a quasi-judicial procedure against Russia, provided for by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and was used in 2016-2018 by the small state of East Timor against the huge Australia. Timor initiated compulsory conciliation procedure under the auspices of the United Nations and defeated Australia, which was forced to obey international law and sign a delimitation treaty. This is the only precedent in the world so far.

Of course, Russia is not Australia, and the current Russian political regime will not sign a maritime delimitation treaty with Ukraine following the recommendations of the UN Special Commission.

However, the application of such a procedure in 2024 or 2025 could bring tremendous political dividends to Ukraine right now and prepare a solid ground for the delimitation of sea areas with Russia in the future in accordance with the law of the sea provisions.

Author: Bohdan Ustymenko

Director of the National Security Institute (Ukraine), PhD,

for European Pravda

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