What are Russia’s aims in the Arctic?

Nazrin Mehdiyeva

Memorial for the Defenders of the Soviet Arctic, near Murmansk. Image credit: Vincent van Zeijst via Wikimedia Commons.

Last month the Russian Defence Ministry unveiled Trefoil, a new military base in the Arctic, via a virtual tour accessible to visitors on its official website. Hours later, in response to the media coverage that the event received, the Russian Embassy in London posted the following message on Facebook:

The Russian Embassy in London’s response to western coverage of the Trefoil base

Despite its crude sarcasm, the post highlighted the broader point: that the narrative describing this event, like many others before it, was mired in Cold War vocabulary. The discourse of an aggressive and expansionist Russia, militarizing and engaging in a land grab, has become increasingly prevalent in the mainstream western commentary. Such discourse is attractive in its clarity, simplicity and familiarity, its purported ability to explain current events and its propensity to ignore as insignificant blips those developments that cannot be readily accommodated. Yet such a narrative distorts the understanding of policy nuances and aims, while uncreatively labelling every new low in Moscow’s relations with the Euro-Atlantic community as the ‘new Cold War’. Invoking the familiar themes is tempting, but it does not advance — and, most of the time, inhibits — the West’s ability to interpret correctly Russia’s behaviour, motivations and intentions in today’s much more complex world. The resultant danger is that the West shapes policies that do not address the realities on the ground, and which therefore risk either significantly overestimating or underestimating malicious intent. The former could lead to unnecessary diplomatic and military escalation with Russia; the latter to instigating its unwanted adventurism.

Assessing Russian intentions means considering strategic goals and risk calculus as they are viewed from Moscow. Russia has identified the Arctic as both a strategic priority and resource base for the twenty-first century. An open confrontation with the West in the High North is hardly in Moscow’s interests given that Russia’s Arctic infrastructure and military had suffered from severe under-investment for over two decades. Rather, Moscow believes that strengthening its defence capabilities to make deterrence credible and strictly adhering to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is the dual approach that best advances its goals in the Arctic. It is remarkable that between the end of the Cold War and 2014, the Arctic witnessed uncharacteristically high levels of cooperation with Russia, even when Moscow was at loggerheads with the Euro-Atlantic community elsewhere. This demonstrated Moscow’s ability to conduct regionally differentiated foreign policy where tensions in one theatre did not ‘spill over’ into others. Such a spill-over occurred following Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, but the decisions to suspend cooperation in several key areas, such as joint military exercises, have been at the behest of the West — not Russia. Moscow would have preferred to continue the pursuit of several sets of regionally segregated — but strategically linked — policies.

So what does Russia really want in the Arctic?

Stronger defence capabilities

The National Security Strategy of the Russian Federation to 2020, adopted in 2015, emphasises Russia’s sense of vulnerability and insecurity in its relations with the Euro-Atlantic community. Bases such as Trefoil and Northern Clover on Kotelny Island cannot cover the distance of 4,000 kilometres between Pechenga and Wrangel Island. Even the ‘100 military objects’ that the Defence Ministry expects to build across the five Russian Arctic archipelagos would not ensure adequate protection of such territorial expanses. Large-scale Arctic exercises, such as those conducted in March 2015 involving 40,000 personnel, 110 military aircraft and more than 50 warships and submarines, evoke powerful geopolitical imagery in the West but they also achieve the more pragmatic aim of enabling Russia to establish command and control over its northern border. The creation of the Arctic Joint Strategic Command, with the Northern Fleet at its mainstay, the naval procurement strategy and the air patrols by Russian long-range strategic bombers capable of carrying nuclear-armed cruise missiles are all part of the same wider theme of enhancing defence and giving credibility to deterrence. The way the Euro-Atlantic community responds to Russia’s actions in the Arctic — whether it chooses to interpret them as a concern and a challenge arising from Moscow’s legitimate ‘sovereignty-enhancing exercise’, or as a series of political and military provocations that require an uncompromising response — will shape the geopolitical realities of the region.

Ongoing commitment to international law

Russia remains firmly committed to adhering to international law in the Arctic and has insisted on the relevance of the UNCLOS regime for the region. Doing so is in line with its ambition to become legally entitled to exploit the seabed resources, including hydrocarbons, of the extended continental shelf to which it is laying claim. In February 2016, Russia submitted evidence to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) that the southern part of the Gakkel Ridge and Podvodnikov Basin as well as the Lomonosov Ridge, the Mendeleyev Ridge and Chukotka Plateau are a continuation of the Russian continental shelf. The total area claimed is 1.2 million square kilometres but of this area around 550,000 square kilometres are disputed by Denmark, which has also submitted a claim to the CLCS, and Canada, which is expected to file its claim in 2018.

Counterbalancing Russia’s legal claims, however, is the fact that Moscow has a shared interest with other Arctic littoral states to adhere to the UNCLOS regime to protect its sovereign rights in the existing ‘national sector’. Under UNCLOS, national jurisdiction applies to the living and non-living resources of the state’s Exclusive Economic Zone as well as to the mineral resources on the continental shelf which the littoral state can exploit. The Arctic littoral states are unanimously opposed to any international legal regime for the region, such as the one that governs the Antarctic.

This unity of interests is an important factor in the light of the inroads that extra-regional states of Asia have been making in the Arctic. Indeed, China has gone so far as to call itself a ‘near-Arctic state’ and an ‘Arctic stakeholder’, much to the frustration of the government in Moscow. By upholding the relevance of the UNCLOS regime for the Arctic, Moscow seeks to minimise the unwanted political interference of the outsiders — and it does so without escalating diplomatic tensions and alienating Asian investors on which it has become reliant following the imposition of Western sanctions in 2014. China, in particular, is a source of valuable funding and technical expertise for complex Russian Arctic projects, such as Yamal LNG. Upholding UNCLOS and setting the terms on which non-Arctic states can get involved in ‘polar affairs’ remains a strong stimulus for Russia to work together with other Arctic states.

Russia’s adherence to the UNCLOS regime in the Arctic does not suggest that relations with the West are non-conflictual. They are and will remain so for a variety of complex reasons. Equally, it is also not to suggest that the Arctic states should not strengthen their defence capabilities. They should. But reinforcing the new Cold War discourse exacerbates relations and fails to account for critical new dimensions that differentiate the current situation from the Cold War. The rising regional economic might of Asia, coupled with its growing ambitions in the Arctic, are giving Russia a strong incentive to cooperate with its Arctic neighbours within the framework of international law. This approach minimises political influence of the Asian states and creates regional stability to attract investment from those very states. Thus, while the militarization of the Arctic should be expected to continue, Russia would prefer to contain the spill-over of its negative relations with the West in other theatres and conduct a differentiated regional policy that enables peaceful co-existence and limited cooperation in the Arctic. That’s on the condition that its deterrence is taken seriously.


Dr Nazrin Mehdiyeva specializes in Russian energy, security and foreign policy.

Her recent review article for International Affairs was titled ‘Rivalry and cooperation in the Arctic: contending perspectives and appeared in our March issue.

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