Russia through the Peanut Hole

"Little peanut sittin' on a railroad track, his heart was all a-flutter!
Along came a choo-choo train: Toot! Toot! Peanut butter!"

You may have heard about Russia's land grab in the Arctic, where the already enormous and unwieldy nation seeks dominion over natural gas and oil reserves to the exclusion of other countries. You may even know that Russia and Japan are still fighting World War II, having never made peace because of Russia's aggressive land grab in the Kuril Islands just to the north of Japan. But you likely have not heard about what is going on just north of there, in the Sea of Okhotsk, where Russia is yet again seeking to furtively seize another big chunk of the globe.

Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, every nation bordering the ocean has an "exclusive economic zone" (EEZ) that stretches into the ocean for 200 nautical miles from its coastline. Within the EEZ, the bordering nation has exclusive energy and fishing rights.

In the Sea of Okhotsk, which lies between the Kamchatka Peninsula and the Island of Sakhalin north of the Japanese island of Hokkaido, Russia's EEZ does not cover the entire nautical region. The 200-mile limit leaves an area in the middle of the Okhotsk which has come to be called the "Peanut Hole," over which Russia has no exclusive rights. About 35 miles wide and nearly 300 miles long, the Peanut Hole is explosively rich in oil, gas, and minerals.

In fact, the Russian Natural Resources and Environment Ministry has recently referred to the Peanut Hole as "a real Ali Baba's cave" because of the glittering maritime riches to be found there. According to 2011 estimates by Russian state oil producer Rosneft, the Sea of Okhotsk may contain over one billion tons of oil and over two trillion cubic meters of gas.

Last week, the Kremlin's English-language propaganda mouthpiece Russia Today breathlessly trumpeted Russia's preliminary success in convincing a seven-member subcommission of the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) to hand the Peanut Hole over to Russia, which is claiming that it is part of the nation's continental shelf and therefore it should have all the energy rights that pertain to it. Russia has one of the 21 seats on the CLCS; the USA does not, but Japan does.

According to Russia Today, early next year the CLCS will vote on whether to confirm the subcommission's recommendation. The operations of the CLCS and shadowy and often take place behind closed doors, so it's very difficult to obtain detailed information about the proceedings so far.

The manner in which Russia has sought dominion over the Peanut Hole has been typically devious. In a masterful act of misdirection equal to Putin's Syria gambit, Russia has sought to create panic over the issue of pollock fishing in the Peanut Hole, claiming that the fishery is being exhausted there as it previously was in the Bering Sea and that it cannot successfully promote conservation of the fishery if foreign vessels are permitted to exploit the Peanut Hole. It has even hinted that if the UN doesn't do its bidding it might need to use military force to close off access to the Peanut Hole in the defense of the beleaguered pollack, something that could have a domino effect as other nations sought expand their own EEZ's in response or even retaliation.

This is to say nothing, of course, of the possibility of corruption. With just seven members, the CLCS subcommission would be a ripe target for undue influence by the Russians, something for which Russia is already well known.

The fisheries issue is, excuse the pun, a shameless red herring. Russia already has agreements in place with the nations who might seek to exploit the Okhotsk pollack, and there is no basis whatsoever for conflating the fisheries issue with energy exploitation.

What's more, Russia is already one of the world's leading exporters of oil and gas, so Russia hardly needs more resources of this kind. Russia is motivated by naked imperialism, an insatiable desire to annex territory which was made most horribly plain when it invaded Georgia in 2008 and partitioned the regions of Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Most important, though, the notion that Russia can be trusted as an environmental fiduciary of the Okhotsk Pollack is nauseating nonsense. Russia is one of the very worst environmental offenders on this planet, and cares nothing for any interest other than the Kremlin's short-term pecuniary gain.

Just look, for example, at the horrific environmental nightmare Russia has created during the build-out for the 2014 Winter Olympics. Not only is Putin ravaging the natural world in Sochi, he is brutally persecuting any environmental groups who dare to question him about it.

And Russia is no more sensitive to environmental concerns at sea. Russia has taken the unprecedented step, for example, of arresting more than two dozen Greenpeace activists for peacefully protesting at one of its offshore oil rigs, out of concern that the rig was totally lacking in a spill contingency plan. Russia has threatened these activists, including the American captain, with seven years in prison even though no damage whatsoever was done to the rig and there was no interruption of its operations. Everyone from Madonna to Paul McCartney has decried this action as outrageous.

75 percent of Russia's surface water is now polluted and 50 percent of all water is not potable. Russia's air rates among the most polluted in the world: According to one estimate, only 15 percent of the urban population breathes air that is not harmful.

Not one but two Russian cities rank in the top ten most polluted and dangerous on earth, chemical weapons producer Dzerzhinsk and metals smelter Norilsk. A 2006 study found life expectancy in Dzerzhinsk was a mere 47 years for women and just 42 for men; the Guinness Book of Records named Dzerzhinsk the world's most polluted city in 2007.

Then there's the radioactivity. Russia recklessly dumped dangerous nuclear waste into the Sea of Japan until 1993, directly adjacent to the Peanut Hole, and it recklessly maintains numerous creaking, rusty nuclear power plants long past their useful life, creating horrific risks of contamination and meltdown similar to what occurred at the infamous Chernobyl plant. The Russian metropolis of Chelyabinsk is probably the most dangerously radioactive city in the world.

This is the nation to be given the trusteeship of the world's rights in the Sea of Okhotsk? Ridiculous and outrageous! The world should stand up to Russia and tell the CLCS that it must not submit to aggressive Russian imperialism and must say a resounnding "nyet" to Russia's bid to turn Peanut Hole into neo-Soviet peanut butter.

Follow Kim Zigfeld on Twitter @larussohobe.