Last week, the Russian Security Council released details of how it will conduct its Arctic policy through 2020 and beyond in a document entitled, “The fundamentals of Russian state policy in the Arctic up to 2020 and beyond.” (original document here, in Russian). Developing the Arctic is one of the Kremlin’s priorities, which is constantly underscoring its view that such a strategy will encourage overall national socio-economic development.

At first, the document emphasizes the need to preserve the Arctic as a “zone of peace and cooperation,” bringing to mind the state of affairs in Antarctica, where the Antarctic Treaty System has guaranteed the continent’s non-militarization and dedication to science and research. The Russian document also touches upon sustainable development and environmental conservation.

Yet the fact that the Russian Security Council – a body charged with defining and engineering Russian national security policy – released the document is revealing, as it demonstrates that Russia’s main priority in the Arctic is military development rather than socio-economic development.

Economic Development

Certainly, Russia sees the Arctic as a major source of revenue, with the document stating that the Arctic must become Russia’s “top strategic resource base by 2020.” Holding up to 20% of the world’s hydrocarbon deposits, it could be a huge boon to the Russian economy. In 2007, oil and gas revenues accounted for 64% of Russian export revenues and 30% of all FDI (Energy Information Administration statistics).

In an interview on March 27 with Le Figaro, a French right-leaning newspaper, president of Shtokman Development AG Yuri Komarov was asked whether the future for Russia lies in offshore development. He replied, “Absolutely. And this will lead to economic windfalls for the entire High North in Russia. Look at Norway. Between what it was thirty years ago and what it is now, there is a huge difference. Today, the Norwegians sell their savoir-faire. It’s an area in which Russia could also become competitive.”

Transportation Development

Aside from developments in gas and oil, Russia also hopes to profit from commercial sea routes. The document states that Russia will attempt to make the Northern Sea Route a wholly integrated national transportation route in the Russian Arctic. Currently, the maritime passage is currently ice-free only two months out of year. But with temperatures warming, it could soon prove to be a more viable route for shipments between Europe and Asia, as distances would be cut by 4,000 miles.

However, if legislation currently underway passes, many restrictions will be placed on shipping through the canal. Russian ships would be able to restrict foreign military vessels from entering, expel ships that are not following regulations (such as environmental standards), and levy fees.

Northern Sea Route (red) versus Suez Canal route (blue)
Northern Sea Route (red) versus Suez Canal route (blue)

Military Development

The multilateral, cooperative tone of the first few paragraphs changes abruptly when the document turns towards the issue of military development with the statement, “There is no question of militarization of the Arctic.”

Western news outlets reported that Russia plans to create a military force that will be “capable of guaranteeing military security under various military and political situations.”

However, as reported by RIA Novosti, a Russian state news agency, Admiral Vyatcheslav Popov, head of the Russian Parliament’s Commission on Maritime Policy and former commander of the Northern Fleet, nuanced Russia’s military plans. In regards to the Arctic Group of Forces, which will be the name of the new military unit, Popov observed,

“This is not about the creation of a new strike force. The military component [of the Arctic Group of Forces] will be optimized to accomplish new tasks. The main focus will be on tasks performed by border guard units.”

In any case, Russia plans to strengthen its coast guard and upgrade its equipment and infrastructure. The document claims that the main purposes for such military development are to “combat terrorism at sea, combat smuggling and illegal migration, and protecting aquatic biological resources.” But it’s difficult to imagine pirates and drug traffickers wanting to brave the icy waters of the Arctic.

Remarks and Reactions

Artur Chilingarov, the Russian presidential envoy for international co-operation in the Arctic and Antarctic, declared that Russia “will not stand still” when it comes to claiming and obtaining resources in the Arctic. He added,

“Look at the map. Who is there near by? All our northern regions are in or come out into the Arctic. All that is in our northern, Arctic regions. It is our Russia.”

Relations between Canada and Russia are growing ever frostier with the announcement of Russia’s plans. Canadian Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon tried to make clear the distinction between Canadian and Russian goals in the Arctic. He noted that his country’s ambitions go beyond “simple militarization of the Arctic.” However, he qualified his statement by saying, “Sovereignty is uppermost for us. We will not be swayed from that.”

Putting it simply, Cannon asserted that Canada “will not be bullied.”

Lawrence Cannon
Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon.

To which the Russian Ambassador to Canada retorted, “We don’t want to bully anybody.” He further explained that Russia is not aiming for any kind of “outlandish power grab.”

Russian Ambassador Georgiy Mamedov. Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press
Russian Ambassador Georgiy Mamedov. Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press

While outlandish power grabs may not be in the cards, neither is cooperation with NATO. The Russian envoy to NATO, Dmitri Rogozin, observed,

“If someone believes that one will be able to breathe easier in the Arctic if countries that have nothing to do with the Arctic region become involved, in my opinion such a position is totally absurd…This topic will not be included in the agenda of co-operation between Russia and NATO … there is nothing for them to do there.”

Reader commentary on Canadian newspaper articles was varied. While some people zealously attacked Russian plans, others thought that their government’s reaction was overblown. Commenter Jim Jacobson, noting Canada and Russia’s large territorial claims in the Arctic compared to the U.S. and E.U., remarked,

Instead of bickering with Russians, Canadians have to realise that it is in their interest to side with Russians and to come up with a joint proposal that will leave the rest with a fait accompli, as Canada and Russia together will be unbeatable at the negotiations table by US and/or EU.

Next week, Cannon will meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, where more niceties and barbs will likely be exchanged at the state level.

News links:

“Russia won’t bully Canada in Arctic, Cannon vows” (The Globe & Mail) – Canada

“Russia not bullying Canada over Arctic, its ambassador says” (CBCnews.ca) – Canada

“Russia’s new Arctic force to focus on border protection” (RIA Novosti) – Russia

“Russia sends troops to frozen north to claim Arctic resources” (Times Online)UK

Russia’s security council turns to Arctic” (RIA Novosti) – Russia


Russia plans military and economic development in Arctic

  1. Another point to keep in mind is Russia’s influence in Iceland. For several years there has been an increasing “soft” presence in this strategically important country. Russia was the first to offer significant amounts of money to bolster the island’s economy last fall after the world economic implosion. Although a member of NATO, Iceland is as vulnerable as Georgia was should Russia decide on a more overt means of obtaining control. The precedent for this type of action in Iceland was set by the British in 1940.

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