Russia and the Arctic Council in 2021: a New Security Dilemma

Russia and the Arctic Council in 2021: a New Security Dilemma

Coming May, Russia will assume chairmanship of the Arctic Council until 2023. In a region so strategically significant, the challenge for Russia lies with rhyming its military build-up in the arctic with the cooperative nature of the council, whilst not letting the council jeopardize its freedom of movement in any way.

As the polar ice caps are melting steadily, the arctic increasingly becomes a hotbed for geopolitical competition. Shorter sea routes and large quantities of (undiscovered) resources have long drawn the interest of the arctic states. Tasked with promoting peaceful cooperation amongst arctic nations and sustainable development in this region, the inter-governmental organization known as the Arctic Council was founded in 1996. Russia is currently preparing for its second chairmanship of the council since its formation. However, while matters of security are explicitly excluded from the council’s mandate, Russia is actively engaged in a policy of arctic militarization. Understanding how the arctic may develop in the short and medium term requires an accurate appreciation of Russia’s position — and how this might influence its chairmanship. Will Russia keep its own military agenda for the arctic strictly separated from its responsibilities as the council’s chair? Or, will it introduce matters of arctic security to the council as a means of synergizing its domestic and international arctic efforts.

Russia as an Arctic Nation

Amongst the eight member states, Russia is the largest arctic nation. Russia’s coastline accounts for 53% of the total arctic ocean coastline and approximately half of the total arctic population live in Russia. Accordingly, Russia claims a certain prerogative to exert influence in this region that it sees as its own backyard. Historically, the region always bore nationalistic value to Russia, illustrated by the great but often unsuccessful efforts of Stalin to explore the ‘Red Arctic’. However, as it becomes increasingly accessible, the arctic’s relevance to Russia grows once more.

Firstly, it offers an enormous economic potential for Russia’s economy, which is structurally dependent on natural resources. It is estimated that there is a recoverable reserve of about 90 billion barrels of oil, 1670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids, north of the arctic circle. Moreover, the melting of the ice makes the Northern Sea Route (NSR), a shipping route located entirely in Russia’s Exclusive Economic Zone, an attractive alternative to the Suez Canal Route. Secondly, by projecting power in an area of potential competition involving the U.S. — and to a lesser extent China — Russia is able to re-establish its position as a great power.

Militarization in the North

Russia seeks to secure access to the natural resources, claim control over the NSR and reaffirm its influential position via several ambitious arctic industrialization and militarization projects. For instance, former Soviet bases near the arctic are being refurbished and new air and naval bases are being built, some of which house hypersonic cruise missiles. The Kremlin is rapidly enhancing its arctic military capabilities as it seeks to establish a multi-layered coastal defence system and bolster its power to deny access to external powers. Last November, for example, the Admiral Gorshkov frigate successfully tested the Tsirkov missile in the Barents Sea. To underline this effort, the status of the Northern Fleet has been upgraded to that of Military District as of January 1st 2021.

Russia and the Arctic Council

Russia’s militarization of the arctic stands in stark contrast with the scope and modus operandi of the council. As a reiteration of the 1991 Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy, the main focus of the council remains protection of the environment. Per the Ottawa Declaration, matters of military security are explicitly excluded from the council. Moreover, decision making within the council is based on consensus amongst members, resulting in an organizational culture of dialogue and mutual agreement. Nevertheless, the chair, aside from procedural powers, has the ability to influence the agenda during its term. This allows for the chair to merge its own interests and domestic agenda with the agenda of the council. For example, during its first chairmanship, Russia has advanced the council’s activities regarding oil and gas exploration.

The Arctic Security Dilemma

Herein lies an apparent antithesis. Russia is adamant about its sovereignty in the arctic, seeking to secure its position through military means. The council, however, does not seem to be well-equipped to handle such hard-power issues. It may seem a moot point for Russia to introduce matters of military security to a consensus-driven organization, of which its main geopolitical rival is a member-state. Moreover, Russia holds a rather instrumentalist view of international organizations, that they should be used to further Russia’s interests and under no circumstances limit Russia’s sovereignty. Nonetheless, including military issues to the mandate of the council has the potential to backfire, since the council would then be mandated to interfere in Russia’s domestic military policy for the arctic.

However, there may be something to gain for Russia to bring military matters into the council. Russian deputy minister of foreign affairs Sergei Ryabkov has advocated for the inclusion of such matters, stating that the council was once a place where top brass of arctic nations met. Furthermore, former prime minister Dmitry Medvedev has made clear that national security will be made one of the top priorities of the Russian chairmanship. There may be several reasons for this. Promoting the topic of military cooperation under the arctic council may be a way for Russia to limit the increasing activity of the U.S. and NATO in the arctic. However, Russia is already building up credible deterrence capabilities in the region and does not need the council for that. Introducing military issues may also be a way for Russia to legitimize its own rapid militarization in the region. Additionally, it is also an effective way for Russia to underscore its regional leadership, by spearheading the discussion of arctic military issues.

Although the security issues will most likely cause disagreement amongst member-states, which could counterproductively spill over into non-military issues, the council cannot shield itself off from the increasing geopolitical tensions. Russia is likely to use its role as chairman to advocate for the inclusion of military security and cooperation, with the unconditional caveat that it won’t stay quiet if someone tests their readiness to defend their national interests. Most likely, it will propose plans for an additional forum of sorts, in which matters of security can be discussed. This way, the council’s mandate does not have to be formally amended.

Categories: International, Politics

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