Russia’s Pathway to the Arctic: Ambitions and Tribulations

In its effort to further the ambition in the areas of Oceans and Seas, Russian President Vladimir Putin signs a new document, categorized as the new ‘Naval Doctrine’. Russia also has an ‘Arctic Policy 2020-2035’ in its stock. Russia has gone further in saying that the USA is its major competitor in the arctic, and therefore having a policy over the entire ocean and creating a new naval doctrine only explains the befitting. Russia’s approach towards the Arctic in this decade comes with ‘rebalancing, reorienting, and reenergizing’ the Northern Sea Route through ‘Balanced Promotion’ of Sustainable Development. The Discovery of oil and gas in the Siberian region has prompted Russia to harness wealth and currency through exploitation in the arctic, which may not be sustainable. 

As the Arctic is melting, it becomes conducive for the countries to have ambitions in the area that is not much explored. With the approval from the UN Commission on Limits of the Continental Shelf, Russia’s aim for developing Yamal and Shtokman gas terminals is around the lines to tap the potential of energy reserves in the arctic. Countries are ‘turning east’, and these countries are significant players in the area of geopolitics. Increasing emphasis on ‘Indo-Pacific’ solidifies the possibility for countries to also look for the Guardian North, the Arctic. India, the USA, Japan, France, Australia, Germany, and even China have strategic interests in the Arctic. 

For Russia, the Arctic is a fulfilment of its socio-economic needs. Utilization of resources in a judicial manner is what any country vouches for. But some areas are understood to have some prestigious linkage to conservation and sustainability. India, for instance, has its Antarctic policy that advocates for ‘continuous usage of the Antarctic for peaceful purposes only, which may include research in the area’. Countries are strict when it comes to having nuclear intents in the Antarctic. It is only natural to assume that the Arctic is the geopolitical hotspot for Russia as it accounts for 10 percent of Russia’s GDP and 20 percent of its exports. Thus, The Arctic comes under the priority of the Kremlin. Russia is aiming for LNG production of about 120 million tons by 2035 in the region. Another Project called ‘Yamal LNG’ has got tax exemption to the tune of $19 billion — the largest ever project financing in Russia. In the phase where countries are having a global movement for Climate Change, Russia’s strategy to invest in Hydrocarbons becomes a strong geostrategic calculus. Moreover, Russia’s aspiration toward the Arctic is also considered when Russia is trying to limit its dependence on European Markets. Kremlin’s strong influence in the region surrounding the Arctic also tells the geopolitical chance of containing the USA in the region. The refurbishment of the Northern Sea Route by Russia is also a strategy to take into account the greater seas surrounding the Far East. 

Russia as a Chair of the Arctic Council in 2021 showcased its ability to manoeuvre its intensity in using the Arctic for territorial ambitions. As per SIPRI, Russia’s Arctic policy in 2008 (to be targeted till 2020) was to use the ‘Russian Arctic Zone’ as a strategic resource base for providing socio-economic developments in the country. When compared to Russia’s Arctic Policy 2020 (to be targeted till 2035), Russia focuses on its sovereignty and territorial integrity. This not only writes on the paper that the Arctic region is an extension of Russia, but this also indicates the securitization of the Arctic, for which the fallout can also be militarization for resources. 

Russia has further pushed the idea of ‘regulating’ the Arctic due to certain overt attempts by some countries in exploiting the region. For instance, Russia has come out against Norway for establishing a fisheries protection zone. 

Through its New Arctic Policy, Russia intends to leverage its proximity in establishing a wider regional role, apart from the leadership of the Far East Forum. By Introducing ‘Biosecurity’ in the Arctic Project, Russia intends to include indigenous people of the Arctic in the ‘Greater Arctic Dialogue’. 

When it comes to ‘Sustainable Tourism’ in the Arctic, Russia has emphasized development opportunities that are ‘environment friendly’. With the backdrop of the recent Russia-Ukraine crisis, Russia is aiming to tap Asia into its arch in the areas of LNG, an untapped area and one of the most demanded. Russia’s endeavours in the Arctic region have also created ‘Northern Command’ and ‘Northern Fleet’ to ‘deal’ with the current crisis impacting the Arctic. It is one of those similar moments where the USA created the outer space force for having ambitions in outer space. With the current Arctic Policy, Russia’s priorities are aimed at developing its internal resources. 

The Arctic states have demonstrated a willingness to not engage in direct conflict in the region because of the Arctic’s importance in Climate Change. Experts have opined that Russia’s pursuit of the Arctic and the initiative towards ‘sustainable development’ is a signal by Russia to go global once again, as it already went global by launching Sputnik before any other country did. 

On the other side, Russia has been wary of China which has claimed that it is a ‘Near Arctic State’, a calling that has been looked at with suspicion by the United States and other countries. Meanwhile, NATO is trying to discourage Russia from indulging in any commercial activities that may impede the full conservation of the Arctic. 

Russia has its ventures when it comes to the Arctic. Since the Crimean annexation issue and subsequent withdrawal from the G-8, Russia has taken an aggressive stance in the Arctic. As we all know, the region possesses an abundance of natural resources, especially oil and gas. With the new Arctic Policy, Russia aims at taking a shot at securing the North Pole through tactical strategies and militarization. Russia is also expanding its northern routes to make the Arctic navigable where smooth exploration activities can be conducted, signalling how the Arctic is an expanded territory of Russia, similar to what China claims for the South China Sea by tweaking some laws from the rule book in international norms. 

It is important to understand the intention behind Russia’s arctic endeavour that comes through a different positioning. Russia’s investments in Arctic energy projects are part of its broader strategy toward Europe and the wider world. Moscow has focused on military superiority in the Arctic instead of emphasizing only ‘scientific research’ as we see in the Antarctic. In terms of economics, Russia wants to leverage its northern sea route in capacity building and trading. When materialized, Russia may accelerate the strategy to build a comprehensive ‘Russian Arctic Economic corridor’. 

The idea behind Russia’s ambitions in the Arctic is based on its ratification of the United Nations Conventions to the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS). Russia claims the Arctic as its Exclusive Economic Zone, as it is claimed that from the shore; The Arctic is within 200 nautical miles of Russia. But the claims conflict with those of the United Nations and other countries, as they align together on the thinking of making the Arctic a pristine environmental habitat. It is only a corollary to ponder upon the fact that the Arctic economic interests of Russia and its territorial ambitions are intertwined.

[Photo by Kremlin.ruCC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

*Sankalp Singh is associated with Global Counter Terrorism Council as a Research Coordinator. Previously, he worked with Niti Aayog, as a Research & Development intern. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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