Russia in the Arctic: Is Western Analysis Too Biased?
How has the war in Ukraine impacted Russia’s strategic interests and security concerns in the Arctic? Has the Kremlin’s threat calculus changed?
It hasn’t changed the Kremlin’s strategic Arctic development goals. In fact, they’re continuing with those as if nothing is happening. People need to understand that the Northern Sea Route is a national priority for Russia. With the reinvasion of Ukraine in February, we saw attempts from Europe to be less dependent on Russian energy, coupled with big sanctions. This directly impacted Russia’s energy goals and objectives. Massive LNG projects were developing as fast as humanly possible in the Arctic from sheer demand and the investment was there. It was a perfect situation for Russia and Putin in the Arctic, but that has changed. The war in Ukraine has had an extremely negative impact on these projects. Not only did Arctic LNG 2 more or less stall—it’s going backwards. I’m confident this is really upsetting Putin, because Arctic oil and gas represents a big chunk of Russia’s future. Oil and gas are things you need to think about in terms of 5–15-year plans. The goal is to keep that stable and controlled. You’ve got to really work and think very far ahead. The fields in Western Siberia, they’re going to deplete soon. So, they have to start getting the Arctic reserves online.
The Arctic is a big part of the future for Russia in those terms. Those initial sanctions, way back in 2014, directly targeted Russia’s energy goals, and crippled Russia, but they didn’t bat an eye. In fact, they concluded that they were too dependent on the West. They resolved to figure it out, but now nobody wants to buy their gas. This is brutal punishment to Russia. It caused Putin to react in a way we normally wouldn’t see. It is going to hurt for a long time. Ultimately though, the Arctic remains an important strategic point for Russia, whose goal is to develop the region and have resource security for Russia. The Arctic will continue to form Russian strategic defence and security policy for the foreseeable future. Furthermore, Russia will have challenges for the foreseeable future because most actors have pulled out from cooperating with Russia because of the Ukraine War.
What has been the impact of the Ukraine War on the Arctic council, cooperation with Russia, and on Arctic governance mechanisms? What are the prospects of the Arctic Council resuming with the inclusion of Russia post-war?
The impacts to the Arctic Council were well known right away. On March 3rd, the Arctic 7 released a joint statement that it would not engage in any business with Russia. A total pause was implemented. The Arctic 7 came up with a plan to try to continue some of the work where appropriate. There is interest in continuing the work, because there’s a lot that has already been resourced and organized. The question that perplexes us is, what does it mean to not do this work with Russia? How does this affect the validity and efficacy of the Arctic Council projects? It is quite unprecedented. Ultimately, there are things we know will continue to be valid. We know that the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea will have no changes with regard to the Arctic. There’s going to be no expected change to the Arctic Council Search and Rescue Agreement, which is fully ratified and implemented by the Arctic 8. Nonetheless, the Arctic Council is obviously fragmented.
It’s way too early to think about the potential for getting Russia back into anything. That’s the problem, right? Although the Arctic Council will fragment, the Coast Guard and agencies like it, which include Russia will not change how they do business. They cannot out of sheer necessity for the importance of their work, which is largely filtered from the geopolitics of the world. The U.S. Coast Guard, Canadian Coast Guard, the Russian Border Guard—they are working together because they absolutely must. In some cases, in the Arctic especially, sometimes we think about the plausibility of scientific cooperation being insulated from geopolitics. We are all concerned about our ability to cooperate to understand and address the impact of climate change writ large, especially in the Arctic, because this is where we’re seeing the first effects. The inability to cooperate with Russia in the realm of climate science and climate cooperation is a huge concern, which has global implications. Russia’s invasion has left Arctic relations fragmented in certain areas. Nonetheless, the Arctic Council will continue to cooperate in areas where joint operations are needed involving areas of soft security. It is important that security organizations such as the coast guards of respective Arctic nations remain depoliticized for the importance of international safety.
In an interview conducted with CDAI, Mathieu Boulegue of Chatham House said we fail to perceive aspects of Russia’s thinking in the Arctic, which creates space for miscalculation. What do you think of this assessment? Does the West need to think more about Russia’s perspective, and is our analysis potentially biased?
Russia’s position on the Arctic is that it is the largest and most important actor, therefore, anything that has to do with the Arctic region, must include Russia. That is their foundational position on all things Arctic, and this is only going to increase in importance. We need to understand their perspective. If we don’t, we’re going to miss out on a lot. We tend to understand Russia from a Western bubble, where much of the analysis comes from Western sources. You need to cover all the Russian primary sources on a topic before you dive into others, then try to expand on it based on work from experts. Part of the problem is, we have a generation in the West that doesn’t understand Russia. We used to understand our adversary, the Soviet Union, very well. Now, effectively, we’ve had more than an entire generation who are leaders who don’t know anything about that. They’ve never had to know their adversary. Our biases get us, and it’s largely because the professional workforce involving analysis and decision making don’t understand Russia, because they’ve never had the need to. You need to have a very deliberate effort towards understanding adversaries properly. We’ve seen what happens when we don’t. The number of people that didn’t predict Crimea was astonishing. That was just pure bias. In sum, Russia is a growing geopolitical concern – particularly as foreign policy strategists have little real experience in consideration of Russia as an adversary since the Cold War ended. We have biases in the way we understand Russia – we should be looking at Russian strategy from a primary source perspective before we consider Western sources. To form strong Arctic policy, we must consider a Russian perspective in any conversation about the Arctic.
With the weakening and fragmentation of the Arctic, we can fully expect that China is rethinking its strategy in the region and will be looking to take advantage of the situation. Putin has no geopolitically meaningful friends left. We saw a signal from Xi Jinping that he’s ready to claim the dominant position and start taking advantage of Russia. Europe’s retreat from buying Russian Arctic energy is a situation we can fully expect other actors, especially China, to take advantage of. China will offer to buy Russian energy, but at a severely reduced rate under China’s conditions—they’re going to be in the dominant negotiating position. Even as Xi and Putin were forming this partnership, to demonstrate unity against the Western world, there are still limits to what they’re willing to do together. This looks like it could result in a lot of dependence on China. China is in such a strong position to take such advantage of Russia, that things could get dangerous. China has a very strong objective of gaining access to and influencing governance in the Arctic. They’ve been trying to achieve that for years. This might be an opportunity for them to pursue that now with more effectiveness.