Over the past few years, the Arctic has become an arena growing in prominence both for its potential as a geographic area of geopolitical competition as well as global concerns over the impact of climate change. In no country has the Arctic played as significant a role as it does in Russia. Russia sees the Arctic as essential for its homeland defense, economic future, and as a staging ground to project power in the North Atlantic.
The Geopolitically-Fraught Northern Sea Route
In March, the Kremlin published an Arctic decree, paving policy plans for the next fifteen years that focus on the industrialization of the region and its’ military defense. Perhaps the most topical geopolitical approach in the decree is the importance of the Northern Sea Route (NSR). The NSR decreases the sailing time from China to Europe by 40% compared to traveling through the Suez Canal—making it a popular route for trade. With melting polar ice caps and increasing climate change, the NSR is also becoming more passable than ever.
While Russia views the NSR as an internal waterway, most of the international community does not. This makes the decree’s allotment of responsibility to Rosatom to limit traffic in the NSR from foreign warships without a 45-day notification a clear indication of Russia’s claim in the region. Other states, such as the United States, do not agree with Russia’s claim of sovereignty. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in 2019, “In the Northern Sea Route, Moscow already illegally demands that other nations request permission to pass, requires Russian maritime pilots to be aboard foreign ships, and threatens to use military force to sink any that fail to comply.”
Beyond the usage of the NSR waterway, Russia’s military posture in the Arctic demonstrates a clear and present focus on the region for the foreseeable future. With the reopening of 50 previously closed Soviet-era military posts, Russia currently emphasizes early warning and defense as its military doctrine. To fulfill this doctrine, Russia has recently tested new capabilities, including hypersonic cruise missiles and nuclear-powered undersea drones. These new capabilities are supported by Russia’s nuclear and non-nuclear icebreaker 40 ship fleet, which is the largest in the world.
Russia’s interests are more than geopolitical—they’re also economic.
Rosneft, Russia’s state-owned oil company, is currently developing the Zapadno-Irkinsky field and building 2000 km of new long-distance pipelines and 7000 km in local-branch pipelines. They are also building 50 new ice-class tankers, three new airports, and 10 helipads. Their goal is to produce 115 million tons of oil per year by 2030.
Rosneft is also building the Sever terminal and engaging in drilling in the Kara Sea, both of which will be instrumental in NSR shipments. Tourism is also on the rise in the Arctic, with the Russian government incentivizing tourism initiatives in the region.
The Arctic’s importance for Russia cannot be underestimated
With the intersection of economic and geopolitical interests in the region, it is important to not discount the Arctic’s importance within Russia’s grand strategy. In the same way that Russia sees former Soviet states such as Ukraine and Georgia as part of its sphere of influence, the Arctic is to Russia part of its historic geography. For policymakers, this means being cognizant of Arctic policies.
However, the melting Arctic ice leaves Russia stuck between eventual necessary cooperation and growing regional militarization. It is true that the Arctic is critical to Russian policy, but the impacts of climate change will become an issue that Russia cannot solve alone. In other words, climate change will eventually necessitate cooperation amongst states in the region. In all likelihood, however, this cooperation will not take place for some time. For now, the growing militarization of the region will continue for the foreseeable future. Russia’s interest in the region is not going away anytime soon and will actually probably increase over time, leading to increasing claims of economic interest and military defense.
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Gabriella Gricius is an Assistant Analyst for the Hague Centre for Strategic Studies and Senior Research Associate at the Public International Law and Policy Group in Amsterdam, Netherlands. She is pursuing her Masters in International Security at the University of Groningen and co-founded Sub-Stances, a platform aiming to increase international diplomatic dialogue. Gabriella is also a freelance journalist and editor on Medium, yoganect, and other publications.