Russia plans to win the Arctic race

Russia plans to win the Arctic race

Russia’s behavior in the Arctic reveals a strong prioritization of national economy and energy security at the expense of environmental sustainability. This behavior has an important effect on the region, to the point of introducing military concerns.

The world is witnessing an exciting development: A previously remote region, the Arctic, is slowly becoming an arena for vital future trade and natural resource development. Meanwhile, the planet’s northernmost states are defining the boundaries for acceptable behavior in the Arctic – and their current actions will determine whether the Arctic of the future is characterized more by competition or cooperation. While there are many who think that phrases such as ‘scramble for the North’ are hyperbolic, there is little doubt that Russia, at least, sees the Arctic as a race that it is eagerly trying to win.

Historically the Arctic has occupied a special place for Russia. Having long described its 7,000 km-long coastline as a ‘fourth wall of containment’ during the Cold War, Russia is now looking keenly at the economic opportunities that global warming and a reduced ice cover is offering. In 2007, Russia attracted significant media attention by ceremoniously planting its flag at the bottom of the Arctic seabed underneath the North Pole. This was viewed – correctly or not – as a symbolic claim that Russia was entitled to control the Arctic Sea.

The move was an especially thorny issue for Russia’s regional neighbors. Because contemporary international maritime law has blurry regulations of continental shelves and Exclusive Economic Zones, it can be hard to determine which states have control over which exact areas. Considering the potentially vast natural resources in the Arctic, these territorial disputes can be touchy, and Russia’s flag stunt did little to ease tensions.

Realistically, Russia is unable to completely ignore other states in the region, and has also taken part in many cooperative ventures. For instance, agreements with Norway over territory disputes and subsequent joint economic projects in the Barents Sea have made promising progress in recent years. Russia is also an active member of the Arctic Council, the regional body that is concerned with all international Arctic affairs. Here Russia has united with other Council members in creating legal frameworks that even restrict its own Arctic behavior.

Nevertheless, Russia is stirring the waters more than the other countries of the High North. Whereas the values of sustainable development and environmentalism are trumpeted by other Arctic states, Russia is steaming ahead in controversial natural resource extraction projects. Gazprom, the government-owned Russian gas giant, is pushing forward with the Prirazlomnaya oil rig in the Pechora Sea. At the same time, Rosneft (Gazprom’s oil counterpart) is set to begin drilling for oil in the Kara Sea already next summer.

The recent drama with Greenpeace – where 30 activists protesting Gazprom’s activities were threatened with piracy charges of up to 20 years – reflects Russia’s distaste for international environmental norms. On the other hand, there are also those who emphasize the socio-economic development of Russia’s northern populations. More economic activity will boost local infrastructure and employment, and thus are more valuable than obstructive green policies.

What is more, Russia is also investing heavily in Arctic military upgrades. The idea of a dominant Arctic fleet has been a popular vision with Russian leaders since the 18th century, and now Putin has quickly reallocated resources and reinstated a permanent Russian Arctic military presence. Some are worried that this behavior exposes Putin’s intent to control the shipping lanes that pass by Russia’s coastline, which are set to become hotspots for international trade in years to come.

Even though such strategic military concerns may seem incredible in modern times, Russia’s systemic significance and brute size mean that other Arctic players (including ‘near-Arctic’ ones such as China) will have to come up with their own moves soon. The biggest concern is that increased military activities can escalate and enforce a Cold War-style attitude, negatively affecting both economic and environmental hopes. However, mutual benefits of cooperative trade are likely to prevent any major clashes, as can currently be observed in the South China Sea.

While Russia’s pioneering activities will have an effect on how the world perceives it and behaves in the Arctic, this is also contingent on wider developments outside of Russia’s control. If Arctic-related technology breakthroughs such as better extraction or shipping techniques prove economically viable, it is likely we will see strong and rapid economic development in the area, meaning many green voices will go unheard. As a result, military tensions and territory disputes may also flare. But in the case of an ecological disaster such as a major oil spill, Russia’s national interests may be overwhelmed by global anxieties over the planet’s welfare.

In any case, the evidence suggests that Putin sees a strong military presence, close involvement in shipping lanes, and future energy security as key elements of Russia’s Arctic policy. While the Arctic Council may be humbugging over moral and cooperative elements, Russia is making sure that it gets all it can before it becomes too entangled in obstructive legal frameworks. As such, a ‘scramble for the Arctic’, whether in terms of natural resources, shipping lane control, or normative values, is happening, and Russia is reaching with a strong hand to grab the prize at the top.

About Author

Karl Sorri

Karl has gained global experience working at the Transparency International Secretariat in Berlin, the Political/Economic Section of the U.S. Embassy in Helsinki, and as a freelance journalist. Karl holds an MA in Politics from the University of Glasgow and an MSc in International Relations from the London School of Economics.