The Russian Approach to the High North: Shaping a Way Ahead


2014-06-05 By Robbin Laird

In a comprehensive look at Russian strategies in the High North, Marlene Laruelle has published a recent book entitled Russia’s Arctic Strategies and the Future of the Far North.

The book provides a number of key elements whereby one can puzzle over the approaches which the Russians are pursuing in the High North as well as to shape an understanding of what one might call the “policy culture” which will shape Russian approaches.

The author looks at the dynamics of cooperation which are crucial to success in the region and which encourages the Russians towards a cooperative policy agenda.  But at the same time, the Russians are pursuing a Russian-centric policy of inclusion of the Arctic in a nationalist agenda.

The author suggests that the Russians are pursuing two differing Arctic strategies.

The first one “focuses on a “security first” reading of the region while the second is a “cooperation first” policy shaped by Russian economic interests.

“The Arctic could see the emergence of a new Russia, or a resurgence of the old” (page 202).

This hydra-headed approach to shaping its Arctic policy is at the heart of what one might call the “policy cultural” approach which the Russians bring to the Arctic mission.

Each of the five key players in the Arctic which have control over 80% of the known Arctic resources brings a different “policy cultural” approach to the Arctic opening.

And conflicts are inevitable given these different perspectives. 

Co-operation is also inevitable given the nature of the Arctic environment and the nature of the Arctic opening as discussed in an earlier piece.

Prime Minister Putin Addressing the Forum (Credit: SLD)
Prime Minister Putin Addressing the Arctic Forum in Moscow, 2010 (Credit: SLD)

But the words “co-operation” and “sovereignty” or “national interest” do not all have the same meaning for Americans, Canadians, Danes, Norwegians or Russians.

And the question of forging a consensus in the midst of diverse understandings of the proper mix of approaches is a key aspect of the challenge in managing Arctic safety, security and defense.

The Russian “policy culture” with regard to the Arctic clearly is rooted in the collapse of the Soviet Union and the return of Russia. It is part of Putin’s reassertion of the role of Russia in the world, the most recent manifestation of which has been the incorporation of Crimea and the expansion of Russian energy resources.

The Russian state’s renewed interest in the Arctic is also part of a larger context – the reassertion of patriotism as a tool fostering political legitimacy….From the Kremlin’s viewpoint, the return to a great power status materializes via Russia’s reassertion of its role in the international arena, and via the revival of sectors that classically define a great power, such as the military-industry complex, in particular aviation and the navy. This Soviet style “great power” model goes hand-in-hand with the domestic legitimacy strategies put in place by Putin since the start of the 2000s. (p. 9)

The author also highlights the Russian effort to shape a brand with the Arctic context. “The creation of this Arctic brand is part of a more general reflection on the question of nation-building. In Russia the general feeling is that formerly the Soviet Union, and now the Russian Federation, has systematically lost the information war….The Russian official narrative (with regard to the Arctic) has evolved toward a celebration of the Arctic region as a space of international cooperation. (p. 13).

A good manifestation of this was seen in 2010 with the Russian sponsorship of the international arctic forum. Caroline Mükusch attended the forum and highlighted the nature of the Russian branding effort.

The International Arctic Forum was Russia’s first high-level international platform for scientific discussion, expert exchange of opinion and issuing recommendations on the Arctic region. Russia held this international Arctic event of such high level to set up the stage for further engagement.

Although the Arctic ecosystems have undergone enormous change in recent years due to the effects of climate change and anthropogenic activity, which are the main threats to the region’s sustainable development, Sergei Shoigu, Emergency Situations Minister and President of the Russian Geographical Society, emphasized that the Arctic is and will remain a “zone of peace and cooperation.”

According to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin peace and cooperation are proven crucial in the race for Arctic resources. He underlined: “We think it is imperative to keep the Arctic as a zone of peace and cooperation”.

Also clear from the Forum, that Russian territorial claims in the Arctic underscore their legitimate role in shaping the Arctic future. Russia builds its territory claim over the Arctic on the following key arguments:

  • Russia is a northern country. Seventy percent of its territory is located in northern latitudes.
  • History and geography posed the challenge of developing these territories before our people.
  • Russia has played a leading role in charting the Northern Sea Route also founded the Arctic icebreaker fleet, polar aviation and created an entire network of stationary and drifting stations in the Arctic.
  • And, finally, Russia has gained the unique experience of building major cities and industrial facilities above the Arctic Circle.

Russian speakers made clear some Russian priorities in the Arctic, notably the development of the Yamal Peninsula, the Shtokman deposit in the Barents Sea, the northern sector of the Krasnoyarsk Territory, the Yakutia and at hundreds of other production and infrastructure facilities in the region.

Russia’s top priorities in the Arctic as articulated at the Forum include:

  • The creation of top-quality, comfortable living conditions for local people and the pursuit of a frugal attitude towards the indigenous and small Arctic nations’ socio-economic infrastructure and traditions;
  • The support for new economic-growth points and incentives for large-scale domestic and foreign investment – currently about 20 percent of Russia’s GDP and 22 percent of Russian exports are produced in the Arctic;
  • Substantial investment in the scientific and nature-conservation infrastructure.

Russian speakers underscored that Russia, as one of the claimants, is responsible for the sustainable development of the Arctic. The Arctic will become a major source of energy resources and a key global transport hub in the next 50 years…..

Putin declared in his speech to the Forum that he was in no doubt whatsoever that the existing problems of the Arctic, including those of the continental shelf, can be resolved in a spirit of partnership, through negotiations, on the basis of existing international legal norms. Russia will prove its claims with the required scientific data.

Clearly, this “branding” effort of Russia the collaborative and cooperative reflects some fundamental underlying realities, namely the need for significant cooperation for the development and security of the Arctic. And Russian efforts to do so are real and part of the fabric of the Arctic opening.

At the same time, the “policy culture” is not defined by the collaborative dynamic: it is part of the more nationalistic dynamic. A key element of this nationalistic dynamic is that rooted in the demographic pressures in Russia, the declining numbers and the significance of the Arctic region to what many Russians believe is a key element of a nationalistic revival.

In an interesting section of the book entitled “The Nationalist Reading of the Arctic: Russia’s New Lebensraum,” the author underscores a core aspect of current Russian thinking, with deep roots in the Russian past. Russian authors have also highlighted the “lost” Alaskan and Californian territories and the “idea of a former Russian Empire stretching from Finland to California fuels nationalist resentment, focused as it is on the importance of geography in the assertion of Russian great power” (page 42).

There is a strong “white” racial element of the narrative as well, as the Russians with the largest Arctic population (3/4 of the total) and this population are Russians, not indigenous people. There is also a strong statement of concern about the “yellow peril” from China to Siberia as well.

Whereas Russia was withdrawing into itself territorially for the first time in a millennium, the Arctic seems to revive an expansive, and no longer retractive, vision of the country: a potential new space is opening up to it.

This reading of the Arctic is particularly operative in military circles, which see this region as being Russia’s most important “reserve of space. (page 49).

Clearly, safety and security are dominant elements in an Arctic development strategy, and capabilities such as search and rescue (and cooperation with other Arctic powers is crucial. Yet the military dimension is central as well and is clearly being blended in by the Russians.

Russia has 2/3 of populations which currently live in the Arctic. Credit: Russia's Artctic Strategies and the Future of the Far North,.
Russia has 2/3 of populations which currently live in the Arctic. Credit: Russia’s Artctic Strategies and the Future of the Far North,.

Notably, the region is important in and of itself to the Russian forces. “The Arctic Oceans guarantees access to the Atlantic Ocean and is therefore vital to the Russian Navy” (page 113). It is also a crucial region for the nuclear deterrent, notably the installations and forces positioned on the Kola Peninsula.

The author makes an interesting case that for the Russian military it is important to adapt its forces to the nature of the diverse challenges in the Arctic and not simply straight line from past capabilities. In so doing, she makes a forceful argument for Russian military modernization as part of the Russian Arctic future.

Most oil facilities are not mobile, and this will force the Ministry of Defense to put in place the infrastructure to ensure their protection in the event of interstate conflict.

Even if the Russian military considers these risks minimal, the potential for localized conflict must be taken into account.

The securing of the platforms, pipelines, and ships against possible terrorist attacks accentuates the role fo the special services deployed against non-traditional threats.

It entails that defense be reoriented around mobile units able to react rapidly and equpeed with high-technology hardware”(page 124).

She adds that:

“The Arctic theater will be more subject to non-traditional threats than to classic military-centered conflicts. Security will have to be assured at least in part in a collegial manner through international cooperation” (page 129).

A source of conflict as well cooperation is managing shipping the context of the Arctic opening as well. There are sovereignty disputes in the area among the Arctic powers, and clearly the Russians will be keen to project their sovereign claims on a regular basis.

Russia, Canada, and the Arctic. Credit Graphic: Second Line of Defense
Russia, Canada, and the Arctic. Credit Graphic: Second Line of Defense

Yet there is a fundamental tension between the powers transiting the region, and the Russians using the region as an integral part of their national development.

“The actors that will specialize in Arctic traffic will chiefly be Asian companies as China, Japan and South Korea seek to become less depend upon the southern straits and diversity their supplies, even at a higher cost. Their concerns are thus more geopolitical than purely commercial…..

For the Russians, the stakes are of an entirely different nature: the NSR (Northern Shipping Route) is above all a domestic route, and a driving part of its strategies devised for developing the Siberian regions…. Destinational traffic is indeed bound to play a growing role in the energy-based revival of the Arctic regions….

Although the NSR is highly unlikely to become a very busy trade route, the high potential for accidents, the fragile ecosystems, and the increasingly international character of shipping will force Moscow to emphasize soft security issues alongside growing international cooperation, the latter mainly focuses on search and rescue systems” (page 190-191).

In short, the Arctic is a key region for national assertion, national identity and national development for Russia. At the same time, international cooperation is crucial for development, safety and security in the Arctic.

As the largest stakeholder in the Arctic opening, how Russia forges these potentially conflict elements into a common approach will shape a key region in 21st century global completion.

For a look at the book, see the following:

Description: This book offers the first comprehensive examination of Russia’s Arctic strategy, ranging from climate change issues and territorial disputes to energy policy and domestic challenges.

As the receding polar ice increases the accessibility of the Arctic region, all the northern countries are maneuvering for geopolitical and resource security.

Geographically, Russia controls half of the Arctic coastline, 40 percent of the land area beyond the Circumpolar North, and three quarters of the Arctic population.

In total, the sea and land surface area of the Russian Arctic is about 6 million square kilometers. Economically, as much as 20 percent of Russia’s GDP and its total exports is generated north of the Arctic Circle. In terms of resources, about 95 percent of its gas, 75 percent of its oil, 96 percent of its platinum, 90 percent of its nickel and cobalt, and 60 percent of its copper reserves are found in Arctic and Sub-Arctic regions.

Add to this the riches of the continental shelf, seabed, and waters, ranging from rare earth minerals to fish stocks.

After a spike of aggressive rhetoric when Russia planted its flag in the Arctic seabed in 2007, Moscow has attempted to strengthen its position as a key factor in developing an international consensus concerning a region where its relative advantages are manifest, despite its diminishing military, technological, and human capacities.

Selected Contents:


1. Russia’s Arctic Policy and the Interplay of the Domestic and International
Discursive and Bureaucratic Production
Russia’s Decision Making Regarding Arctic Affairs
The Arctic as a Flagship for Putin-Style Statehood
An Internationally Recognized “Brand” for Russia
The Arctic: A Soft Power Tool for Bilateral Relations?

2. A Territory or an Identity? The Far North in Russia’s Statehood
The Imperial and Soviet Memory of the Arctic
What Administrative Status for Arctic Regions?
Indigenous Peoples as Marginalized Stakeholders?
The Nationalist Reading of the Arctic: Russia’s New Lebensraum

3. Russia’s Spatial and Demographic Challenges
“Archipelago Russia”: A Fragmented Territory
Russia’s Demographic Puzzle
Evolving Patterns of Arctic Demography and Mobility
Is Migration the Future of the Arctic Workforce?

4. Climate Change and Its Expected Impact on Russia
Framing Climate Change Debates
Climate Change in the Arctic
Climate Change in the Russian Federation
Calculating the Impact of Climate Change on the Russian Economy
Russia’s Domestic Actors on Climate Change
Russia’s Hesitant Climate Change Policy

5. The Russian Stance on Arctic Territorial Conflicts
The Soviet Historical Referent: The 1926 Decree
Russian Claims on the Arctic Continental Shelf
The Russian-U.S. Agreement on the Bering and Chukchi Seas
The Issue of the Barents Sea and Its Resolution
The Dispute over the Svalbard Archipelago and Spitsbergen

6. Projecting Military Power in the Arctic
The Russian Army Still Lost in Transition
Upgrading the Northern Fleet and the Nuclear Deterrence
Russia’s Renewed Security Activism in the Arctic

7. Resource Nationalism vs. Patterns of Cooperation
Beyond the Metrics of the “Arctic Bonanza”
Russia’s Oil and Gas Strategies in the Arctic
The Costs and Risks of Arctic-Based Energy
Foreign Actors and the Russian State: Competition or Cooperation?
The Arctic as a Mineral Eldorado?
Hopes for Reviving the Fishing Industry

8. Unlocking the Arctic? Shipping Along the Northern Sea Route
Sovereignty Issues in the Russian Straits
Hopes for an International Trade Lane via the Northern Sea Route
Ice Without Hype: The Harsh Realities of Arctic Shipping
A More Realistic Future: The Sevmorput’ as a Domestic Route
Modernizing the Fleet and the Shipyard Sector

This is the third of a four-part series: