Russian Interests and Policies in the Arctic

I have a new analytical piece up on  War on the Rocks. Here’s a preview:

Russian leaders have in recent months focused on the importance of the Arctic region to their country’s security and economic goals in the 21st century. Russian actions in the Arctic are governed by a combination of factors. The highest priority is economic development of Russia’s Arctic region. However, Russian leaders also see the Arctic as a location where they can assert their country’s status as a major international power. This is done by claiming sovereignty over Arctic territory, and through steps to assure Russian security in the region.

Russian policy is pursued on two divergent tracks. The first track uses bellicose rhetoric to highlight Russia’s sovereignty over the largest portion of the Arctic, as well as declarations of a coming military buildup in the region. This track is primarily aimed at shoring up support among a domestic audience. The second track seeks international cooperation in order to assure the development of the region’s resources. This includes efforts to settle maritime border disputes and other conflicts of interest in the region. Managing the lack of alignment between these two tracks, and the potential for counter-productive setbacks caused by inconsistencies between them, is an important challenge for Russia’s leadership.

The rhetoric of sovereignty claims

Russian officials have frequently made statements and taken symbolic actions to assert Russian sovereignty over parts of the Arctic. Many of these actions have had to do with enforcing Russian territorial claims in the region.

You can read the rest of the article at War on the Rocks.

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How to understand Russia’s Arctic strategy

I have a post on Russia’s Arctic strategy up on the Monkey Cage. Washington Post rules don’t allow the entire text to be published here, but here’s a teaser: 

During most of the late 20th century, the Arctic region was primarily a zone of military interests, used by both NATO and Soviet strategic forces as bases for their nuclear submarines and as testing grounds for intercontinental ballistic missiles. With the end of the Cold War, the Arctic initially lost its strategic significance. In the last decade, however, thanks to a combination of accelerating climate change and a rapid increase in energy prices, it has become a key zone of strategic competition among a range of regional actors and outside powers. Russia has become heavily involved in these fledgling efforts to develop the Arctic. Russian leaders now primarily see the Arctic as a potential source of economic growth for the country, both as a strategic resource base for the future and a potential maritime trade route.

Russian actions in the Arctic are governed by a combination of factors. The highest priority is undoubtedly economic development of Russia’s Arctic region…. [To read the rest, click here]

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.

Continue reading

Russian Politics and Law, March 2012 Table of Contents

Volume 50 Number 2 / March-April 2012 of Russian Politics and Law is now available on the mesharpe.metapress.com web site.

This issue contains:

Russia in the Arctic: Editor’s Introduction  p. 3
Dmitry Gorenburg
Russia and the Competition for the Redivision of Polar Spaces  p. 7
Aleksei Fenenko
The Arctic at the Crossroads of Geopolitical Interests  p. 34
Valery Konyshev, Aleksandr Sergunin
The Arctic Horizons of Russia’s Strategy: Current Trends  p. 55
Konstantin Voronov
Opening Up the Arctic: Economic and Geopolitical Aspects  p. 78
S. Kovalev, L. Gainutdinova
Making Provision for Russia’s National Security in the Arctic’s Maritime Border Zone  p. 88
N. N. Kudinov

Russia’s Arctic Security Strategy

The following article has just appeared in the Russian Analytical Digest.[1]


During most of the late 20th century, the Arctic region was primarily a zone of military interests, used by both NATO and Soviet strategic forces as bases for their nuclear submarines and as testing grounds for intercontinental ballistic missiles. With the end of the Cold War, the Arctic initially lost its strategic significance. This has changed in the last decade thanks to a combination of accelerating climate change and a rapid increase in energy prices. As a result, Russian leaders now primarily see the Arctic as a potential source of economic growth for the country, both as a strategic resource base for the future and a potential maritime trade route.

The Russian Arctic’s economic potential

A 2008 US Geological Survey estimates that 13 percent of the world’s remaining oil and 30 percent of its natural gas reserves are located in the Arctic. A relative increase in energy prices compared to the historical average has made the exploitation of these remote and technically difficult resources more cost-effective. Russia’s natural resources ministry has stated that the parts of the Arctic Ocean claimed by Russia may hold more petroleum deposits than those currently held by Saudi Arabia. The same US Geological Survey estimated total Russian offshore oil reserves at 30 billion barrels, while natural gas reserves were estimated at 34 trillion cubic meters (tcm), with an additional 27 billion barrels of natural gas liquids.[2] Because most of these deposits are located offshore in the Arctic Ocean, where extraction platforms will be subject to severe storms and the danger of sea-ice, the exploitation of these resources will require significant investment and in some cases the development of new technology. This means that extraction will only be economically feasible if prices for hydrocarbons remain high.

However, Russian natural resources in the Arctic are not limited to hydrocarbons. According to the secretary of Russia’s Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, the Arctic currently supplies more than 90 percent of Russia’s nickel, cobalt, and platinum, as well as 60 percent of Russia’s copper. Ninety percent of Russian diamonds and 24 percent of its gold is mined in the Arctic region of Yakutia. One of the world’s largest phosphate mines is located on the Kola Peninsula. In addition, Arctic Russia has significant deposits of silver, tungsten, manganese, tin, chromium, and titanium. The extraction of these natural resources provides Russia with 11 percent of its GDP and 22 percent of its export earnings.[3] In the relatively near future, Russia is likely to develop the significant deposits of rare earths, which are found on the Kola Peninsula and in Yakutia. Continue reading

Diplomacy comes to the fore in Russia’s Arctic strategy

I’ll be traveling this week and next, so it’s time to dig up some more Oxford Analytica articles to keep things lively while I’m gone. This one is about the Arctic and was originally published in late October, 2010.

SUBJECT: Shifts in Russia’s diplomatic and international legal strategies in the Arctic region.

SIGNIFICANCE: During most of the late 20th century, the Arctic region was primarily a zone of military interests, used by both NATO and Soviet strategic forces as bases for their nuclear submarines and as testing grounds for intercontinental ballistic missiles. With the end of the Cold War, the Arctic initially lost its strategic significance. This has changed in the last decade thanks to a combination of accelerating climate change and a rapid increase in energy prices.

ANALYSIS: The US Geological Survey estimates that up to 20 percent of the world’s remaining oil and natural gas reserves are located in the Arctic, and a relative increase in energy prices compared to the historical average has made the exploitation of these remote and technically difficult resources more cost-effective. Russia’s natural resources ministry has stated that the parts of the Arctic Ocean claimed by Russia may hold more petroleum deposits than those currently held by Saudi Arabia.

Furthermore, climate change has led to rapid melting of the polar ice cap, which has improved access to the area. While talk of new northern shipping routes coming to dominate transnational economic flows remains just talk for now, previously ice-covered areas are now accessible for natural resource exploration.

Legal status. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which came into effect in 1994, allows countries to claim a 200 nautical mile (nm) exclusive economic zone that extends beyond their twelve-mile territorial boundaries. Large parts of the Arctic Ocean could thus be claimed by more than one country. Several multi-national corporations are aiming to explore for natural resources in these legally contested areas, though this is complicated by the lack of a legal regime for energy exploration in this region.

Furthermore, UNCLOS grants states exclusive rights to extract mineral resources on their continental shelves up to a distance of 350 nm from shore. This has led to disputes over whether various underwater mountain ranges should be considered extensions of the continental shelf:

  • Moscow has claimed that the Lomonosov and Mendeleyev Ridges are extensions of the Russian continental shelf. In December 2001, Russia submitted a claim to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, arguing that a large sector of seabed under the Arctic Ocean, extending to the North Pole, was an extension of the Eurasian continent. According to the claim, Russia should have the exclusive right to explore for natural resources in this area.
  • The Commission ruled the following year that additional research was necessary to substantiate the claim, which remains unresloved.

Energy Exploration. Russia’s main goal in the Arctic is developing energy resources. According to a policy document approved by President Dmitry Medvedev in September 2008, Russia views the Arctic as a strategic resource base. Russia has already put in place plans to exploit resources in this region — most significantly the Shtokman natural gas deposit, which contains 3.8 trillion cubic meters (tcm) of natural gas. Development of Shtokman is to be carried out by a consortium among:

  • Gazprom,
  • France’s Total,
  • and Norway’s Statoil.

However, because of the current oversupply of natural gas to Europe as a result of the global recession, development of the field has been postponed until 2016.

Territorial Claims. The authorities assess that there are significant natural gas and petroleum reserves on the Lomonosov Ridge and in the Barents Sea, near the maritime border with Norway. In order to ensure access to these resources, the government believes it must resolve maritime territorial disputes with the four other states with claims to Arctic waters:

  • Norway,
  • Denmark,
  • Canada, and
  • the United States.

Until recently, the only boundary agreement to which Russia was a party was with the United States.

‘Facts on the Seabed’. In order to press its claims to the Lomonsov Ridge, Russia launched a scientific expedition in 2007 that included a State Duma deputy who placed a titanium Russian flag on the sea bottom near the North Pole. Around the same time, Russian officials began openly to discuss increasing the military presence in the Arctic. These actions prompted concern in other countries that Russia was prepared to defend its claims by force. In the end, these concerns proved unwarranted as Russian rhetoric quieted down and its leaders began to focus on negotiated solutions to territorial disputes in the region.

Maritime boundary settlement. The Russian government has recently focused on reaching agreements with neighboring Arctic states to delimit maritime boundaries. Since the potential boundary between Russia and Denmark (via the latter’s sovereignty over Greenland) is small, the main focus has been on Canada and Norway.

Norway was particularly important because of a long-standing bilateral dispute over a 175,000 square kilometer area in the Barents Sea. The area was originally disputed because of conflicts over fishing rights, though it became more significant in recent years because of the probability that there are significant oil and gas deposits in the region. According to Russian estimates, the recoverable resources stand at 39 billion barrels of oil and 6.6 tcm of natural gas.

Russian-Norwegian cooperation. In an accord reached in September 2010, the two sides decided to divide the disputed territory more or less equally. In addition, both countries agreed to cooperate in developing the region’s natural resources and to share any mineral deposits that cross the delimitation line. Both sides plan to begin exploring for natural resources in the region once the treaty is ratified by their respective parliaments, something that was impossible while the dispute was unresolved.

The settlement of this dispute, long considered the most serious in the Arctic, has given impetus to other bilateral negotiations. In the days after the signing ceremony, Canada and Russia jointly announced that they will abide by the decisions of the UN in solving their dispute over the Lomonosov Ridge. This has engendered optimism that various territorial claims that have been (or will soon be) filed with the UN by all five Arctic states can be resolved in an orderly and peaceful manner.

Outlook. The coming years are likely to see an increase in the number of disputes over territorial claims in the Arctic. Russia is allied with Canada, Denmark and Norway in seeking to divide the region into territorial sectors, though many disagreements remain about where the lines should be drawn. They are opposed by the United States and a number of states outside the region (including the United Kingdom, China, and Sweden) that seek to establish an open-access regime modeled on Antarctica’s. Russia has been active in settling its disputes with the other regional powers in the hope of reaching a settlement without the involvement of outside actors.

CONCLUSION: Though Russia remains keenly interested in the Arctic, it will pursue its regional ambitions via negotiations and peaceful dispute resolution. Unilateral posturing and talk of building up a Russian military presence — which featured prominently in Russian Arctic policy just three or four years ago — have now fallen by the wayside, in part because the authorities regard a cooperative approach as more conducive to exploration of and investment in Arctic natural resources.