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Defense ministry looking at extending Estonia's maritime control zone

The border patrol ship 'General Kurvits' (photo is illustrative).
The border patrol ship 'General Kurvits' (photo is illustrative). Source: Sergei Stepanov/ERR

The Ministry of Defense is preparing a bill which, were it to pass, would allow for the stop and search of suspicious vessels outside of Estonian maritime territory and in-line with such zones established in many other European countries.

The news follows the recent damage to the Balticconnector gas pipeline which runs between Estonia and Finland, a telecommunications cable owned by Elisa and also running under the Gulf of Finland, and a Swedish-owned telecoms cable off the coast of Hiiumaa.

Most European countries with coastlines have established their own contiguous zone, which extends several nautical miles beyond their own territorial waters.

In establishing this contiguous zone extending up to a maximum of 12 nautical miles (a little under 14 statute miles, or a little over 22 kilometers) beyond the current maritime border, the Estonian state would be able to strengthen its control over the surrounding maritime area, though even this precaution cannot guarantee the full protection of undersea cables, pipelines and other infrastructure.

Lauri Kriisa, who heads up the Ministry of Defense legal department, stressed that the change does not mean an expansion of Estonia's territorial waters, adding that activities which the state can carry out within the additional contiguous zone is quite clearly limited in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea,, which came into effect in 1994, more specifically to customs and excise, immigration and sanitation issues.

"Additionally, the zone may be established to protect objects of historical value," he went on.

This in turn means that there is not necessarily immediate scope to intervene with regard to a possible violation committed inside the contiguous zone," he added

The state can only react to activities inside the contiguous zone if they directly relate to concurrent activities taking place with Estonia's territorial waters or indeed its territory more broadly.

On the other hand, the establishment of an contiguous zone would permit the state to continue to pursue vessels which have been engaged in apparently suspicious activities within Estonia's maritime zone, once the vessels in question have left that zone (but remain inside the contiguous zone).

Maritime law expert: Estonia, Latvia only EU Baltic nations not to have established a contiguous zone

Alexander Lott, a maritime law expert and lecturer at the University of Tartu, said that in fact Estonia and Latvia are the only two remaining Baltic sea nations which have not established such a zone, though not all of these extend 12 nautical miles.

For instance, Finland's zone extends just two nautical miles beyond the boundaries of its maritime territory, and the extended zone is intended solely to prevent customs violations.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Russia's zone extends to the fullest extent permissible, and was put in place as early as 1998.

Lott said he had proposed the introduction of a maritime contiguous zone in 2015 in Estonia, saying that the interior ministry and also the Waterways Agency responded favorably in principle, but noting that there was not quite the sense of urgency at that time as there is now, so the issue remained dormant.

Then-Minister of Foreign Affairs Urmas Reinsalu meanwhile says that he had approached Lott on the matter following the September 2022 Nord Stream pipeline sabotage.

Nonetheless, Lott noted, the zone is not designed to, and cannot offer, additional protection to submarine infrastructure and can only be utilized in relation to violations established by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

This convention itself is aimed at balancing freedom of the seas to all states while enhancing the rights of states in maritime areas close to their territorial waters.

1884 convention covers undersea cables

A convention dating back to 1884, the Convention for the Protection of Submarine Telegraph Cables, does as its title suggests cover protection of submarine cables located outside a state's maritime zone, Lott said, but neither Estonia nor Finland (both of which were occupied by Tsarist Russia at the time) are a party to it – though Sweden is.

In the case of the Newnew Polar Bear, a cargo vessel owned by a Chinese company and sailing under the Hong Kong flag, and whose dragging anchor is suspected to have caused the Balticonnector damage in October, however, Swedish authorities would have had the right to board.

This would have been the case if the incident had occurred not only in Sweden's maritime area but also in international waters – though in practice this has only happened since a precedent was set in the late 1950s, during the Cold War.

"In this incident… the US boarded a Soviet ship suspected of damaging US cables in the Atlantic Ocean," he said.

To this end, Estonia should at least weigh up joining the 1884 convention, he added.

"We can see that the Baltic Sea has become a hotbed for hybrid warfare. And hybrid warfare thrives thanks to largely gray zones, especially on the margins of the law. The more the Baltic Sea coast states can patch up such gray areas, the less room there will be for hybrid warfare to remain," Lott said.

At present, Estonia's maritime zone ends, in the Gulf of Finland at least, just fivena-dna-half kilometers from the dead center of the gulf, 12 nautical miles (X) from the land; the convention allows this to be double, in effect, to 24 nautical miles (or to dead center of the Gulf – naturally Estonia's zone could not extend into Finland's own territorial waters – ed.).

Lauri Kriisa at the defense ministry said that these details, and indeed whether a contiguous zone is to be introduced at all, are yet to be decided upon.

The Ministry of Defense has not yet set a deadline for the draft bill to be ready.

Decisions would also need to be thoroughly discussed among all stakeholders, including all relevant Estonian institutions, Estonia's allies, and partners, Kriisa said.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNLCOS) superseded the Convention on the Territorial Sea and Contiguous Zone of 1958 which allows for the establishment of such zones, but incorporates the principles.

UNCLOS relates to the UN's International Maritime Organization (IMO), headquartered in Central London, on the South Bank, just across the Thames from the Security Service (MI5) headquarters and as such effectively controlling maritime trade routes and communications (including satellite communications) and the law of the sea.

Russia recently lost its bid to be re-elected to the IMO council.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Mait Ots

Source: ERR Radio News, reporter Madis Hindre.

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