Russia's Arctic Strategy Ambitions and Constraints

Article excerpt

In recent years, the Arctic region has emerged as an issue in world affairs, and its strategic importance is growing swiftly. Both challenges and opportunities from rapidly changing climatic conditions in the region have contributed to give the Arctic a place high on the domestic and foreign policy agendas of many key countries and organizations.

Russia stands out as one of the most determined Arctic players. A focus on the region features increasingly in Russian domestic and foreign policy discourse, particularly since Vladimir Putin's second presidential term. The importance of the Arctic to Russia on the one hand, and growing international interest on the other, has fueled Russia's determination to make its role as a central Arctic nation eminently clear by political, economic, and military means. In September 2008, Moscow endorsed the "fundamentals of state policy of the Russian Federation in the Arctic for the period up to 2020 and beyond," which was aimed at preserving Russia's role as a "leading Arctic power." (1) The adoption of the document has further highlighted the country's increased interest in the region. The policy paper, to date available only in Russian, has not received much analytical attention, unlike other key Russian documents.

This article addresses elements of Russia's plans for the Arctic in terms of economic policy and legal and military issues and devotes particular attention to the differences between the current Russian approach to security in the region and the attitudes presented in the previous Arctic strategy adopted in 2001. (2) Subsequently, it examines the geopolitical context of the Russian Arctic policy and sheds light on the country's foreign policy rhetoric and its impact on the regional security environment. Finally, it assesses prospects for implementation of the Russian policy objectives and draws implications of the findings for regional security.

Background

The Arctic policy document was published in March 2009, 6 months after it was signed. In contrast with the widespread media coverage that Russian activity in the Arctic was getting only a few months before, the document was posted by the authorities without further notice and publicity, and it was immediately filed in the archives section of the Russian Security Council Web site. Unlike the previous Arctic policy document of 2001, it refers sparingly to Russia's hard security interests and plans in the region. It also abstains from the assertive, belligerent rhetoric frequently used by Moscow in recent years.

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The Russian authorities have ambitions to address one of the biggest challenges in the country's approach toward the vast northern regions--the lack of a coherent strategy. Despite attempts to revive the state policy, its objectives, formulated in 2001, were not carried out with sufficient assiduity, something Russian politicians admit themselves. (3) Can the newly designed document make a difference?

The fundamentals of the Arctic policy were designed under the auspices of the influential Russian Security Council, whose permanent members include the most important centers of power, such as the president, prime minister, ministers of interior, foreign affairs, and defense, and the directors of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (Federal'naya sluzhba bezopasnosti Rossiyskoy Federatsii, or FSB) and the Foreign Intelligence Service. In drafting the document, most of the ministries and other parts of the executive and legislative branch responsible for various aspects of the Arctic policy have been involved, supported by leading experts and academics. The version of the document presented to the public sheds light on how the Russian authorities think about the Arctic and reflects areas of particular interest and aspirations rather than presenting a consistent strategy to pursue objectives consciously and systematically over time. …