BFP Exclusive- A Hot Spot in the Cold Seas: The US-Russia Continuing Border Dispute

Bering Sea, the 1990 US-Russia Maritime Border Agreement & the Imperial Interests

History is no stranger to wars which began due to the disputed border territories. Even the start of the US Civil War was in part fueled by border conflicts between certain states. This is why it is of great importance to pay careful attention to any existing border disputes, especially if they take place between countries armed with nuclear weapons.

While the world is focusing on the Ukrainian conflict which is rapidly morphing into the Cold -War-type proxy war between Russia and the US-dominated NATO Alliance, not many are aware that Russia and the US also have a long-running maritime border dispute in the Bering Sea. This state of affairs may lead to a direct violent confrontation and hence be more dangerous to the overall survival of the planet than any proxy war, no matter how atrocious.

The seeds of the dispute were sown at the time of the US Alaska purchase from the Russian Empire in 1867. The purchase treaty left undetermined the precise coordinates of the sea border. For a whole century this apparently did not make much of a difference, but the implementation of the UN-sponsored Law of the Sea in the 1970s re-ignited the issue.

The Law of the Sea allowed each country to establish an exclusive economic zone for the exploration and exploitation of natural and mineral resources up to 200 miles from its coastline. There now appeared certain parts of the Bering Sea where the US and the Soviet jurisdictions overlapped. The overall disputed area encompassed about 80,000 square kilometers and contained significant oil and gas reserves as well as the huge potential for fish harvesting (especially with regards to Alaskan pollock).

What compounded the problem was that in determining the exact (straight) line of the maritime border, each side was using different methods in order to maximize the area under its control.[1] The Soviets used the rhomb lines and the Mercator map projection, while and the Americans chose the geodetic lines and the conical map projection. Obviously, no side wanted to back down.

This is where the context of larger political and social transformations becomes relevant - the so-called "wind of change" which turns out always to benefit the Wall Street.

Throughout the 1980s, the USSR was rapidly losing its political strength as it headed toward the collapse in the early 1990s. Its political leadership with Mikhail Gorbachev as the Soviet Communist Party General Secretary and Eduard Shevardnadze as the Foreign Minister, for a variety of reasons (not the least of which are the allegations of outright corruption, especially regarding the latter), beat the retreat on many geopolitical fronts including this one.

On June 1, 1990 Shevardnadze and the US Secretary of State James Baker signed an agreement in Washington which gave the US 12 times more territory in the disputed area. In this way, 77,400 square kilometers went to the US control and 6,600 square kilometers to the Soviet control.[2] No wonder that the US Congress quickly approved the agreement in September 1991. The article in Washington Post published at the time boasted that the US now controlled more than 70% of the Bering Sea.[3]

However, neither the Soviet Parliament nor its successor, the Russian State Duma, approved the agreement and this means that it is not legally binding for the Russian side.

And yet, the US government has chosen to disregard the provisional nature of the agreement and has enforced the border line if it were the unquestionable law of the land. This has led to several seizures of the Russian fishing vessels by the US Coast Guard.

The biggest scandal happened in September 2002 when the Russian trawler "Viytna" with more than 20 fishermen aboard was seized and hauled into the Alaskan port of Dutch Harbor.[4] The Russian fishermen claimed that they stayed within the Russian economic zone, while the US government thought otherwise. Though the fishermen were let go a few days later, this did not stop similar incidents from happening in the following years. In fact, one scholar cites the US sources in saying that they may consider using "naval gunfire, in the form of warning and disabling shots, against the noncompliant [Russian] ships".[5]

Given the global geopolitical dynamics in 2015, it is not difficult to imagine what dangerous repercussions for world peace the US Coast Guard shooting at the Russian civilian ships might have.

To add insult to injury, the US high-level officials have presented the Shevardnadze-Baker agreement as fair to both sides. Thus, the one-time US Ambassador to Russia, later rewarded with the position of the Deputy-Secretary of NATO, Alexander Vershbow is quoted as saying that the agreement is "quite balanced and reflects a number of compromises".[6] He is also convinced that "it is hard to imagine that new negotiations could generated some other results".

This arrogant, hard-line stand in defense of the unjust deal is echoed by the US State Department. In its 2009 statement, it affirmed that the US "has no intention of reopening discussion of the 1990 Maritime Border Agreement".[7] However, the agreement becomes "Agreement" only when it is accepted as such by both sides. And this is far from being the case.

Several Russian Federation Council members have over the years attempted to spearhead efforts for the renegotiation of the agreement. Not surprisingly, they were strongly criticized for doing so by the US-sponsored Russian NGOs.

Particularly revealing was the critique by Alexander Pikayev, the representative of the Moscow Carnegie Center, who warned his fellow Russians that "Americans are very sensitive to any pokes, especially if it has to do with Alaska. And Alaska is Senator Ted Stevens who is the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee".[8]

It appears that, for Pikayev, the billions of dollars that the Russian state budget has lost in terms of fishing, gas, and oil revenues due to the unjustly drawn boundary line are less important than the opinion of one US Senator. Can anyone then wonder why the majority of Russians see the Carnegie Center and similar organizations as the fifth column working to subvert Russian national interests?

Be that as it may, the fact is that this hot spot in the cold seas of the North Pacific is bound to get hotter with time. Taking into consideration the implacability of the US officials in their defense of the imperial interests, more serious incidents, perhaps involving military planes and nuclear submarines, may be expected.

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Filip Kovacevic, Boiling Frogs Post contributing author and analyst, is a geopolitical author, university professor and the chairman of the Movement for Neutrality of Montenegro. He received his BA and PhD in political science in the US and was a visiting professor at St. Petersburg State University in Russia for two years. He is the author of seven books, dozens of academic articles. He has been invited to lecture throughout the EU, Balkans, ex-USSR and the US. He currently resides in San Francisco, and can be contacted at




[3] Ibid.







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  1. The US has adopted the corporate ethic and the lesson of history is a bully’s tenure is not long. 5% of the world’s population dictating, through military force, cannot last long as a leader. Can the US submit to arbitration? That’s like asking a bully to listen – not gonna happen.

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