ZOiS Spotlight 20/2021

Russia’s Arctic Balancing Act

by Nadja Douglas 26/05/2021
Russia's northernmost military base, Nagurskoye, located in Franz Josef Land. IMAGO / ITAR TASS

Russia’s ambitions in the Arctic have once again been a source of irritation, especially in the run-up to the country’s assumption of its two-year rotating chairmanship of the Arctic Council, which began in May this year. Following previous claims, Russia has recently filed two new submissions to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. Countries with territory inside the Arctic Circle can only claim the 370-kilometre stretch adjacent to their continental shelves, known as an exclusive economic zone. Russia is seeking to extend its territory into the polar region, which it considers part of its continental shelf.

These claims, which cover almost the entire Arctic Ocean, now overlap with those of two other littoral states, Canada and Denmark. The North Pole, in accordance with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, is not owned by anyone, and so the Arctic seabed has not been delineated among the littoral states. During its two-year chairmanship of the Arctic Council, Russia will seek to promote its agenda, notably by aiming to organise a council meeting on the North Pole.

The Arctic Council, which held a foreign ministers’ meeting in Reykjavik on 19–20 May celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary this year, is a forum for cooperation and consultation consisting of eight Arctic member countries and several observer states. The council’s biannual meetings usually address environmental issues, questions of economic and social development, and other challenges faced by states and indigenous peoples of the Arctic. This is the second time that Russia has led the council for a two-year period—the first being in 2004–06. Although the official goals of Russia’s current chairmanship do not differ much from its previous one, times have changed. Since the mid-2000s, ties between Russia and the West have severely deteriorated.

One of Russia’s top priorities, according to Russian ambassador-at-large and senior Arctic official in the Russian delegation to the Arctic Council Nikolai Korchunov, will be the ‘sustainable development’ of the Arctic region. Moscow, however, leaves substantial leeway in the interpretation of this term.

Recent changes to Russia’s Arctic strategy

In October 2020, Russia adopted a new version of its National Arctic Strategy for the period until 2035. The major difference from previous strategic documents and their one-size-fits-all prescriptions is a region-specific approach that prioritises certain parts of the Russian High North. Challenges to be addressed concern infrastructure, the development of natural resources, and the diversification of local economies. According to Aleksandr Kozlov, minister for the development of the Russian Far East and Arctic, the strategy puts a special emphasis on socio-economic development, ostensibly to raise the quality of life in the High North. The idea is to attract human capital to address the risks associated with the ongoing problem of depopulation.

Russia’s infrastructure development plans revolve around the Northern Sea Route (NSR), which Moscow perceives as a long-term strategic investment and which is supposed to become an ‘environmentally safe corridor’. This entails further large investments, for example a new icebreaker fleet, marine infrastructure at strategic junctures of the NSR, and the improvement of navigation capabilities in the White Sea–Baltic Canal and the river basins of the High North.

Another project mentioned in the strategy is the digitisation of the Arctic, particularly in the realm of connectivity, which envisages the creation of a 14,000-kilometre fibre-optic cable covering the entire NSR, named ‘Arctic Connect’. To ensure economic sustainability, government officials acknowledge that the bulk of the investment will have to come from private businesses and have promised tax relief for companies that will invest in the North.

Despite the seemingly marginal role of militarisation in the document and a pledge by Russian officials to uphold a cooperative agenda, one of the unhidden objectives is the build-up of regional military capabilities, which will remain the principal recipients of expenditure from the federal centre. Although Russian military representatives repeatedly claim that these measures will exclusively serve legitimate defence purposes in the region, the military build-up nevertheless generates suspicion and mistrust among other Arctic states. The US administration under president Joe Biden accordingly seems to be changing its strategy to regain US and NATO influence in region. A recent decision to deploy a strategic bomber squadron at the Norwegian air base Ørlandet could be read as a testament to this.

Official and actual agendas diverge

Several of the far-reaching ambitions mentioned in the new Russian Arctic strategy can and should be scrutinised—just like the official agenda for Russia’s Arctic Council chairmanship, which, for the most part, follows the strategy. Russia has pledged to improve the living conditions of the 2.4 million inhabitants of the Arctic but has earmarked only about €190 million for this in its federal budget for 2021–23. In addition, Russia has said that it will make more efforts to adapt the polar region and make it more resilient to global climate change. With this in mind, Russia is planning the first international research station in the Arctic to study climate change. At the same time, however, Moscow remains committed to and dependent on the exploitation of the Arctic’s vast reserves of natural resources.

What is more, Russia envisages several projects to preserve the cultural, historical, and linguistic heritage of the indigenous peoples of the Far North. This is remarkable given the Russian authorities’ problematic relationship with the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON). There is a long record of disregard, censorship, and harassment by the Russian state, which has even labelled the organisation a ‘foreign agent’.

The Arctic Council remains essential for Russia

On paper, the Arctic Council and Russia as its new chair remain committed to confidence building and cooperation among the council’s members. Critics, however, point out that the council’s resolutions and decisions are not binding. On principle, the council does not address military or security-related questions. Various Russian officials have supported an idea to return to a platform for dialogue among military representatives of Arctic Council members, which was suspended in 2014. According to Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, annual meetings of the chiefs of the general staff would be an effective mechanism for maintaining regional security. In fact, from Russia’s perspective, the Arctic Council is an essential body for one important reason: it is one of the few remaining communication channels between Russia and NATO member states.

Nadja Douglas is a researcher at ZOiS.