Russia’s Arctic Policy: Which Roads to Take?

The Kremlin, Moscow, Russia [Photo by Pixabay]
The Russian Arctic has begun to take on greater international visibility of late, for a variety of reasons. These include recent moves by the government of Vladimir Putin to re-establish a stronger military presence along its Arctic coast, as well as the growing economic interest in the region, most notably in regards to potential fossil fuels as well as the shipping potential of the Northern Sea Route (NSR), which has the potential to better connect Asian and European markets in the coming decades. However, the security and development of the Russian Arctic has always been a challenge due to the region’s size and geography. Russia’s Arctic coastline is the largest in the world, (at about 24,000 km), and was a challenge to monitor even during the height of the Soviet era.

Although the actual borders of the Russian Arctic, in relation to the rest of the country, have been often been open to political interpretation, the region is assumed to have a population of two million, including Arctic cities such as Murmansk (300,000) and Arkhangelsk (350,000). However, the Russian Arctic has also traditionally been looped into parts of the greater Siberian Federal District (Сиби́рский федера́льный о́круг) with 19.2 million persons, and the Russian Far East (RFE), with a population of 6 million people and including the Sakha Republic (also known as Yakutia) with a population of about 950,000. The Sakha Republic is also the largest sub-national government in the world by area.

Other parts of the Russian Arctic closer to Western Europe include the Republic of Karelia (Респу́блика Каре́лия) on the Finnish border. In addition to Russians, the Russian Arctic includes indigenous populations including Yakuts, Komis, and Karelians and Nenets. Just as Russia is a member of the Arctic Council, the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (Raipon) represents Russian indigenous Arctic peoples on the Council.

While the Arctic was a major arena for cold war rivalries, the first decade after the collapse of the USSR in 1991 saw Arctic policy in Russia downgraded in importance under the government of Boris Yeltsin, as well as a certain degree of overall decentralisation of the Russian peripheral region which only began to reverse itself when the presidency was transferred to Vladimir Putin in 2000.

During his first two terms as president (2000-8), the Arctic was one of the main components of Putin’s ‘re-centralisation’ of political authority within the entire Russian Federation. The desire by the new government to bring the Arctic region back to greater central authority was reflected in the 2001 Arctic White Paper [In Russian] issued by the Russian government, as well as growing concerns about the security situation in the overall Arctic Ocean.

The 2001 paper included calls for strengthening Russian naval power in the Arctic, and to counter military activities by other major Arctic players including Norway, Canada, Denmark/Greenland and the United States. As the Russian Federation emerged from the USSR, the Arctic continued to be seen as an essential part of not only Russian interests, but also its overall identity. The 2009 revised Russian White Paper on the Arctic [In Russian], signed by then-President Dmitri Medvedev, was more conservative in tone, noting that Moscow’s primary interests in the Arctic were: a) the use of the Arctic as a strategic resource base; b) maintaining the Arctic as a zone of peace and cooperation; c) preserving the Arctic environment; and d) development of the Northern Sea Route/NSR as a communications and transportation conduit. A follow-up government document [In Russian] released in 2013 expanded on these ideas, calling for an integrated security system to protect people and assets in the Russian Arctic.

Moscow’s major concerns in its ‘re-engagement’ of its Arctic territories over the past decade were based on wishing to once again be seen as a key Arctic Ocean power, to ensure access to Arctic resources, and to reverse a depopulation trend in the Russian Arctic. In the years immediately after the collapse of the USSR the central government was unable to economically support peripheral regions, and much Arctic research ground to a near-halt.

Growing Russian concerns about the security and stability of its Arctic realms have taken place in the midst of two larger international trends. The first is the melting of the Arctic ice cap, which has opened up large parts of the region to economic activity, including mining, drilling for fossil fuels and shipping in the Arctic Ocean. The second trend is a worsening relationship between Russia and several Western governments, including the United States and major states within the European Union. Russian concerns about Western military aims, and concerns about NATO encroachment into Moscow’s perceived sphere of influence, coupled with the diplomatic aftershocks of the Crimea/Ukraine crises after 2014, prompted the Putin government to seek out other partners for Arctic development, most evidently China. Although the Arctic remains a zone of relative peace, security concerns have started to seep into the region, with much of it directly tied to growing Russia/Western rivalries.

As Russia specialists have argued, the country’s Arctic policies have often been torn between the desire for security and the desire for cooperation, especially in the area of economic development of Russian Arctic lands. Although there are many cases of these two policies conflicting with each other, there is also much overlap.

Russia’s security concerns in the Arctic have been demonstrated by ongoing plans by the Putin government to reopen military sites in Siberia, as well as build and move military assets into the region. Arctic strategy building has factored greatly into Moscow’s reforms to the Russian armed forces. One of the most visible examples of this policy has been a newly completed ‘trefoil’ base established on Franz Josef Land, but facilities are also being established in the New Siberian Islands, Wrangel Island in the Chukchi Sea, and on Cape Schmidt in the Russian Far East. However, much of this infrastructure build-up has been framed by Moscow as the need to monitor expected increases in traffic along the Northern Sea Route (Северный морской путь).

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Map illustrating the Northern Sea Route (NSR) in purple, and the greater Northeast Passage, in red. The Yamal Region is indicated in gold. [Map via the Arctic Portal]
Russia has also been seeking to clarify is Arctic Ocean maritime boundaries, especially in the case of the disputed Lomonosov Ridge which is also claimed by Canada and Denmark (via Greenland). The ‘Foreign Policy Concept’ published by the Putin government in November 2016 specifically stated ‘Russia intends to delimitate the outer limits of its continental shelf in accordance with international law so as to create more opportunities for the exploration and extraction of minerals.’ The planting of a titanium Russian flag in the waters underneath the North Pole by a Russian submarine in 2007 was seen as the first salvo in a potential ‘scramble’ for Arctic resources.

Russia has also been prioritising the building of new icebreakers for the Arctic. At present the country has more than forty icebreaking ships, including nuclear powered ships and three more advanced LK-60Ya-class icebreakers expected to go into operation starting in 2019. This has led to American concerns about an ‘icebreaker gap’, given that the US has only two functional icebreakers.

However, despite the growing concerns about the militarisation of the Arctic, there is still the tendency to view the region as ‘high north, low tension’, and Russia is in agreement with the other Arctic states that the region should be kept peaceful, with a focus on scientific endeavours, environmental concerns and economic cooperation. Russia has shown little sign of wanting to challenge governance norms in the Arctic. For example, Moscow has been supportive of the 2008 Ilulissat Declaration [pdf], and the 2017 Polar Code [pdf], which serves to regular civilian ship activity in the polar regions, as well as the more recent Central Arctic Ocean fishing moratorium, (Moscow was represented at signing of the agreement along with Chukotka Inuit representatives). Russia also signed a maritime border demarcation agreement covering the Barents Sea with Norway in 2010 in spite of predictions that the negotiations would be complicated and rancorous.

Russian Arctic interests have also supported cooperation for foreign energy firms. Despite the general trend towards disengagement of energy firms in the Arctic after fossil fuels prices began to drop in 2014, which led to major energy concerns like Shell withdrawing from the region, Russian firms have doubled down on Arctic oil and gas. The Shtokman Field is still seen as a future source of natural gas, but much of the attention has shifted eastward to Yamal, which features an LNG project which came online in December last year amid hopes for large scale gas exports both East Asia and Europe. China is a major financial backer of the project, and it was also announced this week that Saudi Aramco was also interested in potential investment. Russia seems to be a taking a long-term view in its Arctic energy policies, betting that prices and demand will rise in the near future.

Vessel traversing the Northern Sea Route, Siberia [Photo by Erika Fatland]
Russia is also very upbeat about the medium-term potential of the NSR as an emerging trade conduit between Europe and Asia, and all of the main Northeast Asian economies, including China, Japan and South Korea, have expressed interest in developing increased Arctic trade using the route. The recent NSR voyage of the Danish ship Venta Maersk is the latest feat which has advertised the opportunities of the NSR. Beyond shipping, there has also been discussion about developing railways, deep-water ports and even a fibre optic link. However, all of these projects will require foreign assistance, including for funding.

Cooperation with China has proven to be essential for many Russian projects involving the Russian Arctic, and greater Siberia and the RFE, as the sluggishness of the Russian economy, ongoing weaknesses of the rouble, and the post-2014 economic sanctions have resulted in a closer Sino-Russian partnership. Joint projects have included the Yamal LNG project, a potential deep-water port at Arkhangelsk, possible railway links between China and Northern Europe, and other potential infrastructure. Although the Putin government had begun to ‘pivot’ to Asia as early as 2012, the Ukraine crises accelerated that process, buoyed by a closer personal relationship between President Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Thus, there are several ways of looking at the future of Russia’s Arctic strategy. However, there are many variables to consider before making predictions, including future Russia-Western relations and changes in commodity prices which might make the Arctic more attractive as a resource base. To paraphrase a quote from Charles Dickens, Russia is trying to create a spring of hope, while avoiding the winter of despair, in its Arctic realms.