Russian polar politics

Russian polar politics

The Russo-Ukrainian War has altered the trajectory of international cooperation in the circumpolar Arctic. Russia’s policies for the polar regions overlap and are increasingly becoming militarized, as the perception of threats to Russian national interests grows. This has direct consequences for other polar nations and for NATO and its allies. Until recently, circumpolar politics has been guided by the idea of the region as ‘One Arctic’ characterised by peaceful cooperation based on similar social, economic and ecological foundations. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, all Arctic states have committed to the maintenance of a rules-based region, founded on multilateral cooperation, consensus decision-making and non-violent dispute resolution. This regional order has been built on three pillars: privileging the role and interests of the eight Arctic states; emphasising the Arctic Council as the premier forum for regional cooperation; and limiting the role and activities of NATO – founded, after all, as a defensive alliance against the Soviet Union – in the circumpolar region.

In the Arctic, a fear of encirclement by NATO and its allies informs this posture – heightened by worsening relations with the West over Russia’s renewed war against Ukraine and potential NATO expansion. Another key Russian goal is to secure control over the Northern Sea Route, amid increased human activity prompted by climate change. In Antarctica, Russia perceives a need to protect its national interests against other state parties to the Antarctic Treaty System. What are the reasons behind Russia’s militarized postures in the Arctic and Antarctic regions. Why the North and South Poles are becoming potential theatres for military activity and geopolitical confrontation, and what are the ways to mitigate risks of confrontation.

Announced by the Kremlin on february 2023, Russia revised its Arctic policy removing mentions of the Arctic Council, stressing the need to prioritize Russian Arctic interests, and striving for greater self-reliance for its Arctic industrial projects. The updated document places greater emphasis on Russian national interests in the region and removes specific mentions for cooperation within the Arctic Council. While the original policy, published in March 2020, called for the « strengthening of good neighborly relations with the Arctic states » in the fields of economic, scientific, cultural and cross-border cooperation the amended version »removes the above section and instead calls for the « development of relations with foreign states on a bilateral basis, […] taking into account the national interests of the Russian Federation in the Arctic. » The amended text also removes mentions of « the framework of multilateral regional cooperation formats, including the Arctic Council, the coastal Arctic five and the Council of the Barents Euro-Arctic Region. » In the original policy the section on international cooperation, placed significant emphasis on work within « multilateral regional cooperation formats » for the purpose of building up economic, scientific and technological, as well as cultural cooperation. It did not make any mention of prioritizing Russian national interests.

In contrast, the wording of the revised document now places the country’s national interests in the Arctic ahead of work towards economic, scientific and technological, and cultural cooperation. Since the publication of this amended text, U.S. military leaders emphasized that the Arctic was now one Russia’s top priority. The updated version also places a greater emphasis on Russian self-reliance in the region. It calls for ensuring « import independence of the shipbuilding complex, » clearly a response to western sanctions which have affected Russia’s ability to order and purchase ice-capable gas and oil tankers at foreign shipyards. The amended version of the policy calls for the « development and modernization of shipbuilding and ship repair facilities for the construction and maintenance of ships navigating in the waters of the Northern Sea Route. » In terms of energy supply for population centers and industrial facilities along the NSR the policy now calls for the use of domestically-built « low-power nuclear power plants. »

The first such facility, the floating nuclear power plant Akademik Lomonosov was towed through the Baltics and up the Norwegian coastline in 2018 to the Arctic town of Pevek to supply electrical power and residential heat. The changes to Russia’s state Arctic policy and the specific removal of cooperation in the Arctic Council come just a week after U.S. State Department official Derek Chollet, explained that the U.S. will resume some activity in the Arctic Council sans Russia. « Unfortunately, we do not anticipate that Russia will change its behavior anytime soon. Adjusting to this new reality forced upon us by Moscow, we resume the Arctic Council’s projects not involving Russia, » he stated at the Wilson Center’s Polar Institute. « Moscow’s decision to invade its neighbor, an independent and sovereign state, makes cooperation virtually impossible for [the] foreseeable future.”

The change to its Arctic policy comes during the same week as Russia announced the suspension of the START nuclear arms treaty with the U.S. And the war in Ukraine has also led to a major adjustment in Russia’s troop strengths in the region. At the same time, the war in Ukraine has boosted NATO’s presence in the region. Finland and Sweden have joined the block, seven out of eight Arctic states will be NATO members. By consequence, the alliance has ramped up its military clout in the region. In the Arctic, Russia’s main threat perception relates to the fear of encirclement by NATO and its allies. In the context of Russia’s renewed war against Ukraine since February 2022, the Finnish and Swedish applications to join NATO and the likely expansion of the alliance are a case in point, because NATO has increased its stake in the north. In Antarctica, Russia’s posture relates to protecting its national interests from territorial claims over the continent by other Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) member states.

From an economic point of view, the Arctic is also vital to Russia because its melting ice is rapidly opening up new shipping routes from Asia’s southeast to Europe, using a much shorter path along the Russian coast. And about 20% of Russia’s GDP comes from the Arctic area, and that may be more in the future. Although Russia does not have a defined common approach to the polar regions, its postures in the Arctic and in Antarctica overlap. They are securitized and increasingly militarized, with direct consequences for other polar nations.

Moscow views the Arctic as a strategic continuum stretching from the North Atlantic to the North Pacific. The Kremlin’s priorities are to: impose costs on other countries’ access to Russia’s European Arctic; protect the Northern Sea Route; defend North Pole approaches; remove tensions from the region; and extend Russia’s military capabilities beyond the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation (AZRF). Russia is rebuilding its military capabilities and modernizing its regional military infrastructure by using a « double dual » approach: Arctic infrastructure is being used for civilian and military purposes (dual-use), while Russia is also blurring the lines between offensive and defensive intent (dual-purpose).

This ambition to exercise control and denial capabilities beyond the AZRF and the Kremlin’s willingness to push military tensions towards the North Atlantic are increasing pressure on regional navigational chokepoints – namely the Greenland–Iceland–UK and Greenland–Iceland–Norway gaps – and the Svalbard archipelago. Russia also seeks to undermine US strategic dominance in northeast Asia – more specifically, the deployment of US theatre missile defence in Japan and South Korea. Moscow also has an increasingly securitized understanding of the future of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. This is reflected in policies aimed at safeguarding Russian national interests within the ATS, as well as those allowing Russia to contest the maritime and naval activities of other states in the Southern Ocean. So, Russia’s posture in polar affairs has two main consequences for Arctic coastal states and for the future of the ATS: the need to manage accidents and miscalculations in polar affairs; and increased Russia–China interaction at both poles.

The Russian approach to China’s increasing presence at both poles is pragmatic and compartmentalized. While Russia for now is developing cooperation with Beijing within the ATS, it is much more cautious when it comes to the Arctic, where China’s presence is only tolerated. At both poles, the Kremlin needs to manage Beijing’s attempts to shape the future of polar governance, and take steps to ensure that Russian interests are respected. Tension and miscalculation in polar affairs must be managed by shaping Western policy around Russia’s increasingly militarized approach to the Arctic and Antarctic regions. Preserving the spirit of « low tension » in the Arctic and stability within the ATS will require careful adjustments from Western policymakers. They also must consider Arctic and Antarctic policies as interdependent; understand the Arctic region as a strategic continuum; expand discussions on military security in the Arctic without Russia; and take action to address the lack of transparency around Russia’s actions in Antarctica. On the other hand, the main goals of Russia in its Arctic policy are to utilize its natural resources, protect its ecosystems, use the seas as a transportation system in Russia’s interests, and ensure that it remains a zone of peace and cooperation. For several years now, European and U.S. security and intelligence officials have been keeping a closer eye on the world above the Arctic Circle, knowing that melting polar ice will open new trade routes, propel a race for natural resources and reshape global security. Now, Western officials watched as Russia revived Soviet-era military sites and while China planned a « Polar Silk Road. » But the war in Ukraine and the dramatic deterioration of Western relations with Moscow have put the frostbitten borderlands between Norway and Russia on heightened alert, while increasing the geostrategic importance of the Arctic.

The result is an uptick in military, diplomatic and intelligence interest that could usher in an iteration of the « Great Game, » the 19th-century rivalry between the British and Russian empires for influence in Asia. For Russia, because the war in Ukraine has diminished Moscow’s conventional military forces and hobbled the Russian economy, its Arctic assets have become more critical