Russia in the Arctic: Editor’s Introduction

The current issue of Russian Politics and Law examines the Arctic, a region very much at the forefront of Russian security and economic interests for the coming decades. Russian strategic thinkers have long considered the frozen Arctic to be a secure bastion where they could base strategic nuclear submarines without significant additional protection. The combination of permanent and intermittent ice cover made the maritime territory largely impassable and economically uninteresting for other states. But in recent years the retreat of the polar ice has made the region increasingly accessible, while new technologies have led to the discovery of significant natural resources in the seabed. This combination has fueled competition for maritime territory and reinvigorated long-standing boundary disputes among the Arctic states. Russia’s control of the largest chunk of Arctic territory puts it in the forefront of discussions of the Arctic security environment. The five articles in this issue provide a sample of the dominant Russian discourses on Arctic security and governance.

The issue opens with Aleksei Fenenko’s article on “Russia and the Competition for the Redivision of Polar Spaces.” Fenenko reviews the history and current developments surrounding the legal status of both polar regions. He notes that the stable situation regarding the status of both regions that prevailed through most of the twentieth century is now coming to an end and the changes are unlikely to be to Russia’s advantage. For now, both regions remain common spaces, either de jure (Antarctica) or de facto (the Arctic region). But a number of countries are now looking to divide both regions into territorial sectors, in large part because of improved possibilities for energy exploration. Fenenko believes that the division of territories long held in common is likely to reduce Russia’s influence in both regions.

Fenenko argues that Russia’s Arctic policy is based on three pillars: “(1) preserving the nation-state’s sovereignty over Arctic regions; (2) strengthening the international status of the North Pole; and (3) working out a strategy amid intensified competition over the extraction of oil and gas resources in the Arctic region.” The strategy involves engaging in both bilateral and multilateral negotiations designed to strengthen the existing governance regime in the Arctic and to prevent encroachment on these territories by outside powers. This approach has recently led to the successful resolution of a long-standing maritime boundary dispute with Norway. Russia hopes to use the Norway negotiations as a model for negotiations with Canada and other Arctic states. Fenenko concludes by noting that the most likely outcome is that governance regimes for the polar regions will be revised by mutual agreement. However, the possibility of a radical redivision of polar territories has led Russia to prepare to deal with a more conflictual polar environment, especially in the Arctic.

“The Arctic at the Crossroads of Geopolitical Interests,” by Valerii Konyshev and Aleksandr Sergunin, continues the discussion of Russia’s security interests in the Arctic. The authors analyze the Arctic strategies of the United States, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the European Union (EU), and Russia. They also discuss Russian–Norwegian relations and the militarization of the Arctic. They emphasize the importance of Arctic energy resources that have been inaccessible until recently but could be extracted in the near future because of a combination of improvements in drilling technology and climate change. The fear is that other prominent international actors, and especially the United States and NATO, might act to squeeze Russia out of the region.

In discussing Russia’s Arctic strategy, Konyshev and Sergunin note that economic interests play the most important role. Resource extraction and maritime transit both provide opportunities for significant economic gains for Russia. Security concerns are also important, especially in the context of the Arctic’s increasing militarization. They bemoan the tendency among most regional powers toward competition, rather than cooperation, in the region and fear an increased risk of future confrontation if current trends continue.

Konstantin Voronov’s article, “The Arctic Horizons of Russia’s Strategy: Current Trends,” presents a contrary point of view, arguing that the Arctic remains a zone of relative stability. Voronov argues that in recent years Russia’s Arctic policy has achieved a sort of compromise between a liberal approach that focuses on the difficulties of developing Russia’s High North and a nationalistic approach that seeks to focus government resources on developing and controlling the Arctic at all costs. The compromise consists of a long-term strategy that is focused on the exploitation of energy resources in Russia’s sector of the Arctic continental shelf through cooperation with other Arctic states. This cooperation can be carried out through existing mechanisms and international bodies, especially given that Russia is better positioned to take advantage of the Arctic than other states.

Voronov believes that the international community is heading gradually toward a rejection of the existing sectoral principle for division of the Arctic region and that holding on to this principle against united opposition from most other states will be against Russia’s interests. In this environment, Russia can still benefit as long as it involves itself in cooperative relationships with other Arctic states in both the economic and security spheres.

S. Kovalev and L. Gainutdinova, in “Opening Up the Arctic: Economic and Geopolitical Aspects,” describe in detail the economic importance for Russia of the Arctic’s natural resources and maritime transit corridors. Their article shows that one-quarter of Russia’s energy reserves lie in this region and highlights the importance of the Northern Route as the shortest maritime route between Asia and Europe. The authors argue that while other countries, both those that border on the Arctic Circle and those that do not, have rushed to establish footholds in the polar regions, Russia has taken a lackadaisical attitude toward restoring and strengthening its influence along the Northern Sea Route. Russia must reexamine its policy, and quickly, if the country is not to lose out in an intensified global contest over natural resources.

The last article in this issue, “Making Provision for Russia’s National Security in the Arctic’s Maritime Border Zone” by Vice-Admiral N.N. Kudinov, provides a military perspective on Arctic security. The defense of Russia’s interests in the Arctic has recently acquired a special urgency. Kudinov spells out the steps necessary to protect Russia’s Arctic coastline and maritime territory. He argues that a significant investment of money and resources is necessary if Russia is to avoid falling behind its neighbors in ensuring national security in the region.

These five articles emphasize different aspects of Russia’s interests in the Arctic and take differing positions on how the Arctic will develop in the future. However, they all agree that the priority of the Arctic will increase in the coming years, both for Russia and for its neighbors. The balance between cooperation and competition among Arctic states has varied significantly over the last decade, with 2007 being perhaps the high point for concerns about the potential for conflict and the militarization of the Arctic. Since then, cooperation has increased gradually, culminating in the resolution of the maritime territorial dispute between Russia and Norway in the fall of 2010. Nevertheless, discussion of international cooperation in offshore resource extraction and maritime transit continues to be balanced by plans in Russia and elsewhere to establish Arctic military units. The future of the governing regime is still uncertain, with Arctic states concerned about encroachment on their traditional rights by states from outside the region. Hopefully, these challenges will be met through discussions and negotiations.

One thought on “Russia in the Arctic: Editor’s Introduction

  1. Pingback: Russian Politics and Law, March 2012 Table of Contents « Russian Military Reform

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