Written by: John R. /Edited by: Jake Dickson
Russia’s ambitions towards the Arctic have caused concern in Western eyes in the past decade. With increasing tensions between both NATO and the European Union regarding Russia, heightened by events such as the 2014 Crimean annexation and the following crisis, Russia’s stance in the Arctic has come under increasing international scrutiny. To add to the tensions, domestic Russian discourse on the Arctic has had nationalist characteristics to it (Laruelle 2004). Characters such as the nationalist and geopolitician Aleksandr Dugin and the polar researcher Artur Chilingarov have repeatedly given provocative statements such as ‘Historically, [the Arctic] is Russian territorial waters and islands…’, and ‘we are reclaiming [the Arctic]’, which have not alleviated fears of conflict emerging in the Arctic fuelled by nationalist thought (Staun 2017, Laruelle 2004). In Western media, the Arctic has even been presented as a battleground for the next world war, due to its resource importance in oil and other hydrocarbons.
Such a conflict – fuelled by Russian nationalists seeking to claim Russian hegemony over the Arctic – is, however, unlikely in the present situation. The official objectives for the Arctic region are outlined in the ‘Basic Principles of Russian Federation State Policy in the Arctic to 2035’, which took effect in 2020, replacing the older, similarly named Russian Arctic strategy from 2008. These make up the central policy framework for Russian efforts in the region, setting the baseline upon which decisions are made and implemented. Overtly nationalist or aggressive overtones are not part of this Arctic policy, and as such the strategy of the Basic Principles of State Policy is not setting the stage for expansion via nationalism, but a continuation of cooperation in the Arctic (Klimenko 2020).
Table from Ekaterina Klimenko (2020), ‘Russia’s new Arctic policy document signals continuity rather than change’
The new Arctic strategy of the Basic Principles of State Policy centres around the utilisation of Russia’s existing territory to its full extent, from defence and security concerns to resource extraction to the further development of the Northern Sea Route (NSR), known in the West as the Northeast Passage. Most importantly of these, the Russian Arctic territory is to be defended and secured from internal and external threats, should any arise, such as illegal fishing or smuggling or security threats to the Russian nuclear deterrent aboard submarines based in the Kola peninsula. With the Arctic climate warming up and ice sheets melting as a result of global climate change, the Arctic is becoming more accessible, and security issues can become more pronounced with increasing interest in the Arctic from non-Arctic states. As the table above shows, since 2008 the policy has shifted to a more international point of view with regard to the NSR and with the focus on territorial sovereignty, yet the principles of maintaining cross-national cooperation and protecting the environment and development of the region have persevered. It is still a high-priority goal for Russia to secure a peaceful Arctic devoid of conflict insinuated by nationalist or ethnic tensions within or between Arctic and non-Arctic states alike (Klimenko 2016 & 2020).
It is important to understand that official Russian policies toward the Arctic are decided upon and affected by a diverse collection of government agencies (especially the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs), the Presidential Administration, as well as actors with significant interests in the region such as energy companies like Gazprom, Rosneft, and Novatek. Energy corporations, however, are mainly concerned with the extraction of Arctic resources, the vast majority of which are in uncontested Russian territorial waters or within the EEZ (Klimenko 2016). While criticism has been voiced over Russian Arctic policy resting mainly on the opinions of individuals within Putin’s trusted inner circle, the voices of individual nationalist actors outside it (such as Dugin for example) – regardless of how vocal or provocative they seem – are not directly able to influence the overarching policies and agendas that govern Russia’s Arctic strategy. The Russian policymaking apparatus is still well-established regarding Arctic policy and would require significant and direct influence from nationalist thought – currently on the margins of political debate – to change towards a more aggressive stance (Klimenko 2016).
Regardless of the lack of direct nationalist influence on the Arctic agenda, nationalism does play its part in Russian foreign policy. President Putin has incorporated especially patriotic rhetoric to both bring the nation together after the hardships of the 1990’s, and to secure legitimacy for his administration. This patriotism does reflect itself partially on the Arctic over the importance it is placed under in national strategies and symbolic rhetoric (Staun 2017).
Furthermore, an aspect that plays a critical part in much of Russian policy-making is a dream of the restoration of ‘great power’ status, which was seen to have been lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Regaining the status of a great power would of both elevate Russia again to be an influential player on the international scene and satisfy popular notions of nostalgia and disappointment over the loss of prestige and glory that were associated with the USSR and its dissolution (Klimenko 2016, Laruelle 2004, Staun 2017). This great power dream plucks at the strings of nationalism particularly well, and feeds both the patriotic agenda of Putin and the nationalist discourses present outside the administration. The Arctic, as both a symbolically and historically important region to Russia, as well as a rich resource base for furthering Russian international influence from resource exports, could act as a region where Russia could accomplish progression towards regaining the status of a global power (Staun 2017).
It is nevertheless to be noted that the patriotic tones present in Putin’s speeches translate rarely into actions regarding the Arctic. Both Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who holds considerable influence over Russian Arctic statements, have on multiple occasions stated that Arctic cooperation is ‘stable’ and that ‘shared interests’ exist regarding Arctic states’ cooperation and actions in the region (Staun 2017). Coupled with a stable policy outlook, the Arctic is not a zone for expansion – at least for the Russian government.
To look at a particular instance of Arctic nationalism, the 2007 planting of the Russian flag at the North Pole by a submarine expedition was accompanied by surges of nationalist rhetoric and resulted in international commotion. What was widely seen as a move to solidify influence over the Arctic at the time amounted however to almost no significant action in the following years, and Russian statements from Lavrov at the fore have continued to emphasise cooperation and peaceful operations between Arctic states. Polar explorer Artur Chilingarov, who was part of the submarine expedition, expressed opinions after the incident that were prominently motivated by nationalist thought: ‘the North Pole belongs to Russia’, and ‘…we are reclaiming [the Arctic]’ are not statements implying cooperation and peaceful coexistence (Staun 2017). Yet to the disappointment of Chilingarov and Dugin alike, as well as other nationalists, they are not in positions to affect Russian international attitudes or actions in the Arctic in a drastic manner for now. It is however not completely out of the question for Dugin or his peers to reach more influential positions in the future, as nationalist and right-wing rhetoric has gained support within the younger population (Laruelle 2004 & 2009). Still, regardless of nationalists gaining more influence, Putin’s administration seems unlikely to include a distinctly nationalist character in future Russian Arctic policy.
The Arctic has great national, historical, and symbolic importance to Russia and its population, yet those advocating for aggressive assertion of Russian dominance in the region are presently but a fringe minority. To these nationalists, who vehemently believe in Russian exceptionalism, the Arctic represents a region where Russia belongs, and which belongs to Russia. To the Russian government, the Arctic is a zone of cooperation and development for the benefit of not only Russia, but all Arctic states through mutual benefits and shared interests. To the majority of the Russian population, the Arctic may be important culturally and symbolically, but it does not occupy the importance to be aggressively expansionist over. While it is possible for extreme nationalist discourse to advocate for heavy-handed Russian hegemony over the Arctic, possibly leading to conflict, it is unlikely that such a conflict would in reality develop unless the direct national interests of Arctic states were significantly threatened. For now, cooperation reigns in the Arctic and the region remains calm and cool.
The Guardian, Freezing cold war: militaries move in as Arctic ice retreats (16.10.2020), https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/oct/16/arctic-ice-retreats-climate-us-russian-canadian-chinese-military, accessed 08.04.2021.
Klimenko, Ekaterina, ‘Russia’s Arctic Security Policy: Still quiet in the High North?’, in SIPRI Policy Paper, No. 45 (2016). Available at https://www.sipri.org/publications/2016/sipri-policy-papers/russias-arctic-security-policy-still-quiet-high-north.
Klimenko, Ekaterina, ‘Russia’s new Arctic policy document signals continuity rather than change’, in SIPRI Essays (06.04.2020), https://www.sipri.org/commentary/essay/2020/russias-new-arctic-policy-document-signals-continuity-rather-change, accessed 02.04.2021.
Laruelle, Marlène, ‘The Two Faces of Contemporary Eurasianism: An Imperial Version of Russian Nationalism’, in Nationalities Papers, 32:1 (2004), pp. 115-136.
Laruelle, Marlène, (ed.), ‘Russian Nationalism and the National Reassertion of Russia’, (London, 2009).
The Nation, A World War Could Break Out in the Arctic (11.02.2020), https://www.thenation.com/article/world/nato-russia-norway/, accessed 08.04.2021.
Staun, Jørgen, ‘Russia’s strategy in the Arctic: cooperation, not confrontation’, in Polar Record, 53:270 (2017), pp. 314-332.