In narratives about potential Arctic conflict, Russia is often presented as the “bad guy,” the state most likely to tip the region into a geopolitical competition for resources and sovereignty. This may have much to do with residual Cold War geopolitical storylines, but it also relates to the mixed signals the Russians send about their country’s intentions in the region. Take two recent examples: the planting of the Russian flag on the seabed under the North Pole, and the bilateral resolution of a contested maritime delimitation line in the Barents Sea. The contrast between the two events is striking. While the flag planting brings to mind the patriotic pursuit of national interest drawing on a narrative of Arctic heroics, the process around the delimitation agreement suggests Russia’s assiduous attention to international law and has overtones of good neighbourliness with a much smaller country, Norway.

What, then, do the geopolitics of the Arctic look like from the perspective of the largest Arctic state? Our research suggests that Russian policy actors actively work to reduce the prospect of conflict over resources and boundaries in the Arctic and to disprove the narratives from the media and pundits about geopolitical competition in the circumpolar North. But this conciliatory approach is tempered by Russia’s broader values that limit transparency and openness, as well as its political leadership’s selective engagement on Arctic issues.

The focus on the Arctic is by no means peripheral to Russian politics. The High North and areas equivalent to it in Russia make up more than 60 percent of Russian territory, extending from the land border with Norway to the sea border with Alaska. Were this region an independent state, it would be the world’s largest country. Although sparsely populated — it had only 8 million residents in 2006  the North accounts for about one-fifth of Russia’s GDP and also of its exports.

Northern resources played an important part in the Soviet planned economy. This emphasis on the North resulted in Russia inheriting from the Soviet Union an overdeveloped North that was ill-suited to the demands and logic of a market economy. Russian northern policy during the transitional 1990s was haphazard and focused primarily on emergency measures to respond to economic and social crisis in the region. A more clearly discernible Russian policy on the North emerged only under President Vladimir Putin’s first two terms (2000-08). It was based on principles of market economics with an eye toward ensuring that the North become a profitable part of the Russian state. An important concomitant trend was Putin’s recentralization of power from the regions to the federal level. Whereas in the 1990s there had been widespread decentralization, today this vast territory is governed from Moscow rather than Magadan or Murmansk.

Russia’s engagement in the North, both domestically and internationally, plays out against a regional background of change. In contrast to the northern militarization that characterized the Cold War, the immediate post-Soviet years saw high levels of cooperation in the North on environmental, social and military issues. This proliferation of activities aimed at promoting stable and ongoing cooperation had to do with the Arctic potentially developing into a relatively secure future source of nonrenewable resources, awareness of the heightened impact of global environmental problems on the Arctic environment and the increased politicization of Arctic indigenous peoples.

The new global focus on the North led to the creation of several new inter- national endeavours in the 1990s, such as the Barents Euro-Arctic Region (1993) and the Arctic Council (1996). Russia’s involvement in these collaborative inter- national efforts has varied. For instance, during the economic downturn and political transition of the 1990s, its participation in the Arctic Council was sporadic. Today, with a stronger economy and a more seasoned post-Soviet civil service, it is more consistent, and Russia is increasingly taking on leadership roles.

In order to take a closer look at how the Arctic region and Arctic policy problems are framed in a Russian context, we analyzed the official Russian Arctic discourse by examining articles on Arctic themes between 2008 and 2011 in Rossiiskaya Gazeta, the official newspaper of the Russian government. We found that during this period, media coverage that presented the Arctic as a zone for cooperation, rather than conflict, increased steadily.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov has, for example, consistently argued that all problems in the Arctic can be solved peacefully: “Truly [the war over Arctic resources] is the battle that never started… We do not share these worrisome prognoses relating to violent conflict of interests in the Arctic” (2010). Calls for avoiding a new militarization of the Arctic were triggered by various kinds of NATO activity in the North. President Dmitrii Medvedev put it this way in 2010: “We can do without NATO in the Arctic because this part of our common wealth does not, strictly speaking, have any connection to military tasks… This is a zone of peaceful cooperation, economic cooperation. The presence of a military factor will always, at minimum, create further questions.”

The more competition-focused approaches come primarily from academics and experts. Maksim Makarychev, a commentator in Rossiiskaya Gazeta, presented Canada and the United States as Arctic states that could threaten Russia’s position and pull the Arctic states into armed conflict: “The West is truly intending to start an icy tactical battle with Russia because of the enormous natural resource wealth of the region” (2008). Nikolai Patrushev, head of the Russian Security Council, spoke frequently about the Arctic, portraying Russia as being legally minded and peaceful in the Arctic; the US as acting competitively by carrying out a northern military build- up; and Norwegian research vessels in the North as carrying out espionage.

This competitive tone is often triggered by individual events. For example, Canadian military exercises in the North and the Conservative Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s “use it or lose it” approach to Arctic sovereignty generated conflict-oriented commentary. Likewise, when the Russian State Duma discussed ratifying the delimitation agreement with Norway, nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovskii asked rhetorically in 2011, “Have we lost a battle in the war against Norway?” Other parliamentary representatives linked what they perceived as territorial concessions to other problems in Russian-Norwegian bilateral relations, such as the fisheries protection zone around Svalbard and the management of shared fisheries.

“We will defend our interests firmly and consistently.”
— Vladimir Putin

It is important to note, however, that many official statements are somewhere in between these two extremes of cooperation or competition. Public officials tend to take a conciliatory approach and place great emphasis on cooperation, while still underlining Russia’s commitment and ability to defend its Arctic interests. When Russia’s new Arctic Strategy was discussed in the Security Council in 2008, the summary noted that participants, including Medvedev and Patrushev, stated that Russia must be prepared to “support the defense of Russian interests in the Arctic,” although they did not specify whether this is a reference to military or diplomatic means.

In a similar vein, while Prime Minister Putin was visiting the Arctic the day after the landmark agreement to split the contested area in the Barents Sea with Norway was announced, his statements took a much harder tone, as he emphasized how the Arctic relates to Russia’s geopolitical and economic interests. And at a United Russia party meeting in Yekaterinburg in June 2011, Putin landed somewhere in the middle between competition and cooperation, declaring: ”I would like to emphasize that Russia certainly will expand its presence in the Arctic. We are open to dialogue with our foreign partners, with all neighbors in the Arctic region, but, of course, we will defend our own geopolitical interests firmly and consistently.”

While the conflict/cooperation dichotomy in the Arctic is worthy of attention (particularly given the prevalence of this concern in the national press of many countries), the coverage of Arctic issues in Rossiiskaya Gazeta‘s pages indicates that many other policy problems draw Russian attention northwards, from shipping and research activity to climate change and energy. There is a dominant focus on domestic concerns about the Russian territorial North, rather than potential gains or losses in international relations. When Putin listed Arctic policy goals at a major Arctic conference in 2010, he pointed to ensuring a high quality of life for Arctic residents, encouraging new sources of economic growth through national and international investments, and protection of the environment.

Such an emphasis on domestic northern issues indicates that Russia is concerned not only with possession and sovereignty over contested Arctic spaces, but also with the management of the indisputably Russian North. This preoccupation has served to broaden the range of Russian actors involved in speaking about Arctic politics. While the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the presidential administration were the dominant voices in 2008 and 2009, by 2010 the debate around the Arctic had clearly spread to other sectors in Moscow and a wide range of ministries and state agencies.

Coverage in Rossiiskaya Gazeta suggests that Russian authorities now have an appreciation of the myriad of ways of demonstrating Arctic sovereignty. For example, one representative of the border service noted in 2011 “the interest in the Arctic region is growing from year to year and the task of the Border Service is to ensure security in the Arctic, which entails strengthening the border guard service in the North and also rebuilding the network of coast guard bases in the Arctic.” The head of the border service, General Vladimir Pronichev, links this increased Arctic presence to high levels of cooperation in the region, necessitating a stronger presence: “It is essential that border guards are present even at distant borders… Only last year [in 2009] over 650 persons were detained in the Arctic for breaking the border regime or the regime of check points” (2010).

However, the pursuit of sovereignty is far from being interpreted solely through a military or security optic. Speaking about plans to revitalize the system for meteorological observation in the Arctic, Medvedev stated that, like other circumpolar countries, Russia is “taking active steps to increase research, economic and even military presence in the Arctic zone.” In 2010, the expedition of Akademik Fedorov, the flagship of the Russian polar research fleet, drew a lot of attention as the crew was carrying out research needed to substantiate Russia’s continental shelf claims. As the special envoy of the Russian president for international cooperation in the Arctic and Antarctic, Artur Chilingarov, put it in 2010, “We are going to prove that the shelf belongs to Russia… The expedition is not just a scientific, but also a political act. I am certain that all polar countries will pay attention to it.”

This broadened approach to maintaining Arctic sovereignty and pursuing regional prosperity is evident in the high priority the Russian Arctic policy community now places on the Northern Sea Route, which is widely seen as an important lifeline in the thriving northern communities. Russian inter- viewees, who were among the 22 policy actors from Arctic states with whom we spoke as part of our project, noted that in contrast to the Soviet period, this waterway will become viable only on the basis of market principles — all endeavours will have to be profitable in the longer term. As one of them put it:

Thank goodness the story is changing and traffic is increasing on the Northern Sea Route. We cannot develop the North for no reason; there has to be an economic reason. The Northern Sea Route is this opportunity to provide jobs and restore towns.

In addressing Arctic problems inte nationally, Russian official statements and comments in interviews highlight two important aims for the Arctic: to support the primacy of Arctic states in resolving Arctic issues and to pursue a positive image for the country in regional affairs.

Russian officials are unanimous in their assertion that the international politics of the Arctic are best handled by the Arctic states themselves. As Medvedev said during a state visit to

Norway in 2010, “We always discuss the Arctic, we are Arctic countries and for us the Arctic is not something located at the top of the globe.” Russia has therefore been cautious about the increasing number of non-Arctic states, such as China, seeking to become observers in the Arctic Council.

This concern is shared across a broad spectrum of those involved in or observing Arctic politics in Russia. The director of the Institute for Strategic Studies and Analysis, Vagif Guseinov, explicitly worried in 2009 about “internationalizing” Arctic problems, as this could give undue influence to China, NATO and the United States. As Russia’s Arctic special envoy, Chil- ingarov, stated in 2008: “It is no secret that polar countries are trying to make the Arctic an international resource. We, however, must make it plain to the global community that we will not give up our interests in the Arctic.”

A similar position was echoed in our interviews. As one Russian representative put it:

It is very important to protect the regional character and identity of the Arctic Council…New observers need to respect the sovereignty of Arctic states and the fact that it is the Arctic states who will decide the rules of the game…No one can see what the Arctic needs like Arctic states. Sometimes non-Arctic states claim they can take better care of the environment than we can. Non-Arctic states just do not want to miss out on the race. Clear as day, this is what they worry about.

Another Russian interviewee noted that the Arctic Five can solve any problems relating to the Arctic Ocean; overall there is “no need for middlemen and we do not want more observers than members in the Arctic Council… Everything can be decided directly with Arctic states, even as we all protect our own interests.”

Russia’s strong commitment to the primacy of Arctic states and a general foreign policy preference for smaller multilateral clubs render the outcome of the upcoming Arctic Council ministerial meeting in Kiruna, Sweden, in May particularly interesting. Here applications for observer status in the Arctic Council from China and the EU, among others, are to be considered.

The other broad feature of Russia’s engagement in the international politics of the Arctic is the pursuit of a positive image. As a high-ranking Russian civil servant noted, image is important both for Russia and for the Arctic space more generally, as it is essential to work against Cold War narratives. “We have to be proactive in telling others about Russia and what we do. We leave it too much to others, and this does not always work out. We are a normal people in a normal country.”

The Russian pursuit of a positive image in the North seems to be paying dividends: all non-Russian interviewees noted that Russia was re-engaged in the Arctic and making positive contributions, sometimes in a leadership role. Several interviewees noted Russia’s clear support for the application of international law to the Arctic. As one said:

Russia is well served by international law… Russia has geographical advantages that put it in a beneficial relationship to the Law of the Sea, and it was also historically and contemporarily involved in the development of this framework. Russia wants to be seen as modern and at the forefront of international law, taking the lead where it can.

In sum, the Russian approach to the Arctic seems to be aimed at countering the notion of Arctic exceptionalism. Compared with other Russian border regions, the Arctic is a relative oasis of peace, stability and economic opportunity. Russian actors emphasize that while their country is an important actor with a clear set of national interests, it shares values and interests with the other Arctic states. Thus, it seems that the Arctic is seen in Russian political discourse and foreign policy practice as a region of possibilities — an international “zone” where cooperation, a positive image and stable relations with the West are seen as valuable and achievable outcomes.

Elana Wilson Rowe
Elana Wilson Rowe is a senior research fellow at the Norwegian Institute for International Affairs (NUPI) and an adjunct professor at the University of Nordland.
Helge Blakkisrud
Helge Blakkisrud is a researcher at NUPI and the editor of  Nordisk Østforum a Scandinavian journal for Russian and East European studies.

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