Academic journal article Pepperdine Policy Review

Projecting Power in the Arctic: The Russian Scramble for Energy, Power, and Prestige in the High North

Academic journal article Pepperdine Policy Review

Projecting Power in the Arctic: The Russian Scramble for Energy, Power, and Prestige in the High North

Article excerpt


Once largely cut off from human activity and consciousness, the Arctic is beginning to open. In recent years, climate change has transformed the region presenting an array of opportunities and challenges. Ice in the Arctic Circle has receded to its farthest extent since satellite surveys began in 1979 and now covers half the area it did in 1999 (Arnsdorf, 2014, para. 1). Ice volume has decreased even faster, now just 70% of what it was when measurements began (Humpert and Raspotnik, 2012, 283). The thaw makes way for new sea routes, expansive, untouched fishing grounds, and provides unprecedented access to deposits of oil, gas, and minerals-most of which are concentrated within US and Russian territory (Circum, 2008). But perhaps the most substantial change is of a geopolitical nature.

The Arctic is currently the setting for a high stakes power play between the liberal, Western order and a revisionist Russian state, that desperately seeks great power, claiming nearly half the Arctic in a ploy for energy, power, and ultimately prestige. Mounting belligerence is rooted in a volatile set of structural factors, political dynamics, and insufficient U.S. policy. Russia has rationally sought strategic depth to mitigate its vulnerable geographic position. Its poor and dwindling population has demanded a restoration of the greatness of the Soviet era (though not the failed aspects of its communist system). Nationalist sentiment has been compounded as recent economic challenges have triggered fears of a repetition of the depravation of the 1990s. Russian leaders have responded by demonstrating the state's emergence from its period of weakness following the collapse of the Soviet Union and have undertaken an unprecedented program of energy extraction to swell social spending. Meanwhile, geography has outpaced US policy in the Arctic, undercutting deterrence, with serious security consequences from the Arctic Ocean to the Black Sea.

The tempo of aggressive action on the part of Russia seems to be accelerating. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) conducted over 100 intercepts of Russian aircraft in 2014-three times more than were conducted in 2013 (NATO, 2014). A report by the European Leadership Network described nearly 40 incidences of Russian action that required a NATO security response between March and November 2014 (Frear, Kulesa, and Kearns, 2014, 1-18). Three of these events were judged to have posed a "high probability of causing casualties or a direct military confrontation" and included "a narrowly avoided collision between a civilian airliner and Russian surveillance plane, abduction of an Estonian intelligence officer, and a large-scale Swedish submarine hunt." Additionally, instances were dubbed "unusually provocative", "bringing a higher level risk of escalation" (Frear et al., 2014, 1). In March 2014, Russia annexed Crimea-something it was unwilling or unable to do in Odessa or South Ossetia during the Georgian conflict of 2008. In June 2014, NATO warned that Russia was providing Ukrainian separatists surface-to-air missile training (Martinez, 2014). The next month, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down, with 298 people aboard, by an anti-aircraft system of Soviet manufacture-the Buk SA-11. Evidence appears to suggest that the system was provided to militants by Russia (Wendle, 2014). In August 2014, Russia announced that its most sophisticated fighter-bomber, the Su-34, had conducted a training mission to the North Pole and back (Cenciotti, 2014). Similar Arctic exercises with MiG-31 aircraft followed shortly after. In October 2014, Lt. Gen. Mikhail Mizintsev, head of the National Defense Management Center, announced a major expansion in Russian military capability in the Arctic region, "We are planning to build 13 airfields, an air-ground firing range, as well as ten radar and vectoring posts" (Nilsen, 2014).

The flurry of provocative actions left many asking why. A report from the European Leadership Network concluded:

At the military level, it [Russia] may be initiating and using such incidents to observe patterns of response and test the preparedness of specific elements of national and allied defense systems, as well as levels of cooperation between NATO Allies and partners. …

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