How to understand Russia’s Arctic strategy

February 12
Will Rose/The Associated Press
(Will Rose/Associated Press)

Joshua Tucker: As the Sochi Olympics continue, so does our companion Monkey Cage series of Russian politics-related posts. Today we bring you political scientist Dmitry Gorenburg of Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and East European Studies to discuss Russia’s Arctic strategy.  

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During most of the late 20th century, the Arctic region was primarily a zone of military interests, used by both NATO and Soviet strategic forces as bases for their nuclear submarines and as testing grounds for intercontinental ballistic missiles. With the end of the Cold War, the Arctic initially lost its strategic significance. In the last decade, however, thanks to a combination of accelerating climate change and a rapid increase in energy prices, it has become a key zone of strategic competition among a range of regional actors and outside powers. Russia has become heavily involved in these fledgling efforts to develop the Arctic. Russian leaders now primarily see the Arctic as a potential source of economic growth for the country, both as a strategic resource base for the future and a potential maritime trade route.

Russian actions in the Arctic are governed by a combination of factors. The highest priority is undoubtedly economic development of Russia’s Arctic region. Russia’s natural resources ministry has stated that the parts of the Arctic Ocean claimed by Russia may hold more petroleum deposits than those currently held by Saudi Arabia. Russia has already put in place plans to exploit resources in this region, beginning with deposits on the Yamal Peninsula and adjacent offshore areas. The first offshore development is the Prirazlomnoye oil field south of Novaia Zemlia, which started production in December 2013. Russian companies face several challenges in developing these oil and gas resources. Because most of these deposits are offshore in the Arctic Ocean, where extraction platforms will be subject to severe storms and the danger of sea ice, the exploitation of these resources will require significant investment and in some cases the development of new technology, and will only be economically feasible if prices for oil and natural gas remain high.

The future economic potential of the region is not limited to the extraction of natural resources. In recent decades, it has become clear that climate change is leading to the rapid melting of the polar ice cap, which has already improved access to the Russian Arctic. Russian planners are banking on the relatively rapid development of the Northern Sea Route (NSR), which they hope might compete with the Suez Canal route for commercial maritime traffic. This will require a serious investment in icebreakers, new and expanded port facilities, places of refuge  and other services.

While much of the recent increase in attention paid to the region and investment in it is the result of perceptions of the Arctic’s economic potential, Russian leaders also see the Arctic as a location where they can assert Russia’s status as a major international power. This is done by claiming sovereignty over Arctic territory and through steps to assure Russian security in the region. Many of the actions designed to promote Russian sovereignty claims to the Arctic have been highly symbolic in nature. The planting of a titanium flag on the sea floor at the North Pole in 2007 is typical of these types of actions, as are the highly publicized occasional air patrols along the Norwegian, Canadian and Alaskan coastlines. The recent action against Greenpeace protesters who sought to scale the Prirazlomnoye offshore oil rig is also highly symbolic in nature. While an almost identical protest in 2012 resulted in nothing more than the protesters being removed from the platform and their ship escorted out of Russian territory, the 2013 incident resulted in Russia impounding the Greenpeace ship and highly charged statements by Russian officials accusing the protesters of engaging in piracy. These actions are indicative of an effort by the country’s leadership to ensure that the Russian public perceives Russian sovereignty over the Arctic as uncontested.

Russian policy is thus pursued on two divergent tracks. The first track seeks international cooperation to ensure the development of the region’s resources. This includes efforts to settle maritime border disputes and other conflicts of interest in the region. The second track uses bellicose rhetoric to highlight Russia’s sovereignty over the largest portion of the Arctic. This is combined with declarations of a coming military buildup in the region. This second track is primarily aimed at shoring up support among a domestic audience. Managing the lack of alignment between these strategic and policy positions, and their potential for counter-productiveness, is an important challenge for Russia’s leadership.

On the whole, Russia seeks cooperative international relationships in the Arctic. Although Russian leaders’ rhetoric is at times confrontational, it is primarily targeted at maintaining their popularity with their domestic base. Bellicose statements by President Putin and his subordinates about ensuring Russian sovereignty in the Arctic should not be treated as indicators of an expansionist or militarist agenda in the region. Although Russia is planning to improve its military and border patrol capabilities in the Arctic, these improvements are primarily focused on areas such as protection of coastlines and offshore energy extraction installations, search-and-rescue operations and icebreaker capabilities, and should therefore not be viewed as inherently threatening to other Arctic states.

In observing Russian activities in the Arctic, the U.S. government needs to be careful to avoid assuming that provocative statements intended primarily for a domestic audience are signals of belligerent intent in the region. Instead, U.S. policymakers need to watch for more subtle signals of Russian intent. While statements of Russian intent to build up military capacity should not cause much worry, actions such as placing and deploying expeditionary forces would be far more provocative. Russian refusal to recognize the decisions or authority of international organizations in the Arctic, or its withdrawal from such organizations, should be considered a strong signal that Russia is truly shifting from a cooperative to a confrontational posture in the Arctic.

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Previous articles from our Sochi-companion Russian politics series:

What you need to know about Putin’s popularity

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