A Normal Great Power? Russia and the Arctic

By Rowe, Elana Wilson; Blakkisrud, Helge | Policy Options, May 2013 | Go to article overview

A Normal Great Power? Russia and the Arctic


Rowe, Elana Wilson, Blakkisrud, Helge, Policy Options


The Arctic's "bad guy" may be intent upon improving its image.

« Enfant terrible » de l'Arctique, la Russie envisage peut-être d'améliorer son image.

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 international endeavours in the 1990s, such as the Barents Euro-Arctic Region (1993) and the Arctic Council (1996). Russia's involvement in these collaborative international efforts has varied. …

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