Russia's Arctic Energy Policy

By Øverland, Indra | International Journal, October 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

Russia's Arctic Energy Policy

Øverland, Indra, International Journal


The Arctic is widely presented as the object of a geopolitical race for natural resources, oü and gas in particular, with Russia as the main driver. Russia is often portrayed as taking an expansionist and müitarist stance in a mad dash to grab territory and thereby energy resources in the Arctic, whether in relation to Norway in the Barents Sea and Svalbard, or Canada and Denmark at the north pole.

A case in point is the planting of a flag on the seabed under the north pole by Russian scientists in 2007. In the west this was often described as an underwater land-grab demonstrating Russia's imperialist and expansionist approach to the Arctic.

In western coverage of the event there was little mention of the fact that it is common for explorers to plant their national flags when they reach difficult targets - Mount Everest, the south pole, the north pole, the moon, and so on. Much coverage also ignored the fact that Russia (unlike the US and several other countries) has ratified the law ofthe sea convention and appears to be trying to promote its Arctic interests within this legal framework, including the submission of continental-shelf documentation to the UN to substantiate its territorial claims.

Western commentators also tend to overlook similarities between the Russian approach and the approaches of their own countries to the Arctic. The foUowing case serves as an example. In January 2008, only half a year after the infamous flag-planting, Norway's Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg went on an expedition to Antarctica. He stopped on Dronning Maud Land and emphasized Norway's claim to it, although this claim is not recognized by many other countries. The territory is on the other side ofthe planet and there has never been a permanent Norwegian settlement there, except for Norwegian polar scientists carrying out research. A television crew also filmed Stoltenberg settling in for the night in a polar sleeping bag in a tent at -19C, demonstrating his youthfulness and physical capabüity. The trip was widely covered in the Norwegian media, without any critical questions concerning the prime minister and his politics, or Norwegian Antarctic policy. Upon his return, Stoltenberg was interviewed on the main Norwegian television channel, which is fully state-owned. The venue was Anne Gross void' s weU-established talk show, in which the presenter establishes a friendly and intimate tone with her interviewees and asks slightly personal but not overly critical questions. The show has become an excellent opportunity for celebrities to promote themselves. OveraU, the media coverage of the Antarctic trip was a one-sided celebration of Norwegian prowess in polar exploration and science, a unique opportunity for the personal political promotion of Jens Stoltenberg, and perhaps a celebration of Norway's macho-oriented polar exploration traditions. It was also a way of revitalizing Norwegian territorial claims in the remote Antarctic.

The point here is not to criticize Stoltenberg as a politician or his Antarctic visit and its media coverage, but rather to show that the Russian flag-planting incident at the north pole is not unique. In both in the Stoltenberg and Russian flag-planting cases, the opportunity to use government resources (including government-controUed media) to promote individual and sectoral interests for a domestic audience was at least as important a driver as any international political agenda.


Of course polar policy does not consist solely, or even mainly, of flag-planting and talk-show coverage of prime ministerial expeditions to Antarctica. Moving on from such gimmickry to more formal Arctic policy, what really is Russia's approach to the Arctic and its energy resources? To answer that question, we need to assess the main official Russian policy document on the Arctic, "Principals of state policy of the Russian Federation in the Arctic to 2020 and beyond. …

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