Russian Arctic development hampered by Moscow’s strategic engagements

Written by: Elena Pavlova, Victor Chauvet

On April 22, a meeting of the Russian Security Council for the Arctic state policy took place in Moscow. In the next few years, Russia accordingly decided to push for the development of its Arctic areas, referring to the creation of new transport infrastructures, the implementation of large-scale mining programs and the strengthening of its military presence.

In a separate announcement, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that a new state agency should be created to implement Russia’s policy in the Arctic and thereby improve the quality of governance and decision-making in the area. The Russian president made the point that the Arctic remained in in Russia’s “special sphere of influence”, a region where all aspects of Russian national security – from political-military, economic, and technological aspects – are concerned.

Indeed, oil & gas reserves in the Russian Arctic would exceed 1.6 trillion tons of oil equivalent and the continental shelf would contain about a quarter of all shelf stocks of hydro carbonic raw materials in the world. Parallel to the production of minerals and the reconstruction of infrastructures, the development of Arctic transit corridors – including the Northern Sea Route – is planned. Thanks to changes in the Arctic climate more favorable to commercial navigation, cargo transit on the Northern Sea Route increased twofold since 2010. As a result, this route has become increasingly attractive, especially since the transit from the Japanese port of Yokohama to Rotterdam is almost twice as short as the traditional international route through the Suez Canal.

In order to protect the country’s interests and regional borders, Russia will build a unified network of naval facilities on its Arctic territories in order to host advanced warships and submarines. The Army is also planning to form a new strategic military command in the Arctic. Plans to reopen airfields and ports on the New Siberian Islands and the Franz Josef Land archipelago have also been announced. It needs to be reminded that Russia has been seeking to reinforce its military presence in the Arctic for some time now and it was already mentioned back in 2009 in the Basic Concept of State Policy in the Arctic.

In the context of existing and potentially new sanctions against Russia over the Ukrainian crisis, the tilt of Russia towards the Asian markets seems inevitable. Furthermore, while taking in consideration the interest of certain Asian countries in the Arctic (and especially concerning the Northern Sea Route), this has become a new vector of Russia’s Asian foreign policy. This vector is supposed to integrate Russian and Asian economies through a regional integration process in the Russian Oriental bloc. China, once again, is the cornerstone of Moscow’s strategy: indeed, Beijing is particularly interested in standing in the Arctic race in terms of economic outlets and potential growth drivers.


if Moscow does not respect states inviolability on the continent, why would it respect Arctic governance?


In this context, the Ukrainian crisis is affecting Russia’s arctic strategy within the Arctic Council. Canada, holder of the rotating presidency of the Arctic Council until May 2015, already refused to take part in the meeting of the working group of the Council in Moscow in mid-April. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper had announced on April 17 the sending of six new CF-18 aircrafts in Lask in Poland under the NATO redeployment to the east.
Inuk-ethnic Canadian Environment Minister and current Canadian representative in the Arctic Council Leona Aglukkaq justified the country’s boycott due to the “illegal occupation of Ukraine by Russia in Crimea and elsewhere”.

As this is the first time that an Arctic Council meeting is boycotted by one of the state member, this event remains historical in the Arctic cooperation. The international community, considering the latest in Ukraine over Crimea and the country’s east, feels threatened by Moscow’s potential appeal to use force and coercion to get what it wants in the Arctic. The question is there: if Moscow does not respect states inviolability on the continent, why would it respect Arctic governance? In this Moscow’s strategic commitments on both sides of its tremendous territory are interconnected and affect each other. As Prime Minister Harper is seeking to introduce a security dimension in the Arctic Council, Moscow will probably take actions to match its North and West strategies. If these actions respect international law is a completely different story…


Elena PAVLOVA, Junior Partner, Eurasian Desk, AESMA Group (Paris)
Victor CHAUVET, Partner at POLARISK Analytics, Research Fellow at IPSE, Author of “The Diplomatic Triangle: EU-Denmark-Greenland” (ed. L’Harmattan, Paris)