Russia is beginning to activate its presence in the Arctic and develop new infrastructure for trade, shipping and resource extraction. In addition, Russia is boosting its ability to project military force in the Arctic region.

The atomic icebreaker Yamal during researches carried out in the Kara Sea as part of the world's largest Arctic expedition in the recent 20 years, Kara-Winter 2015. Photo: RIA Novosti

On August 31, the United States hosts the conference on Global Leadership in the Arctic: Cooperation, Innovation, Engagement and Resilience (GLACIER) in Anchorage, Alaska. This U.S. State Department-sponsored event aims to draw both domestic and international attention to the issues of the Arctic region. President Barack Obama intends to attend the conference as well as visit the Arctic Circle as part of his move to attract more attention to the issue of climate change during a multi-day visit to Alaska.

Although the GLACIER conference is not an Arctic Council-sponsored event or even a part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, it brings together foreign ministers of Arctic nations and key scientists, policymakers, and stakeholders from Alaska and the Arctic.

Russia will be represented at the conference by Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak. Despite its attendance at the U.S.-sponsored event, Russia perceives the Arctic as its sphere of influence and prefers to deal with the related issues via the United Nations or the Arctic Council.

The Arctic’s significance

Five countries possess land and territorial waters in the Arctic: Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the U.S. These five countries claim “exclusive economic zones” (EEZs), which extend to up to 200 miles from their coasts.

Control of the Arctic has strategic economic implications not only for the five Arctic powers but also for the world. Within the next decade, the melting polar ice will facilitate the creation of new shipping lanes. A proposed Russian Northern Sea Route from Europe to East Asia would be 13 days or 40 percent shorter than the existing route through the Suez Canal. This would make it the number one trade route in the world and would also add strategic importance to Russia, as it controls this route.

Furthermore, the U.S. estimates that 15 percent of the world’s oil and up to 30 percent of its natural gas lie in the Arctic seabed, making the pursuit of the Arctic all the more intense. 

Russia extends its Arctic territorial claims

Russia has expanding Arctic territorial ambitions. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) allowed Russia to make claims to an extended continental shelf, giving it exclusive rights to the territory and resources of that shelf area. In March 2014, Russia successfully petitioned the UN to accept its territorial claim over the Peanut Hole, an area beyond the Russia EEZ and rich in resources.

In August 2015 Russia filed another application with the UN to expand the boundaries of the Russian continental shelf in the Arctic. Moscow submitted a similar claim in 2002, but the UN rejected it for lack of scientific support. The Russian application covers an underwater space covering an area of about 1.2 million square kilometers at a distance of over 350 nautical miles from the coast. To justify this bid for expansion, Russian experts used extensive scientific data collected during many years of Arctic research.

Not less importantly, Russia’s claims on these vast swaths of territory in Arctic are reinforced by its ability to project force in the region. Its fleet of several dozens of icebreakers, including nuclear, as compared to America’s six icebreakers, gives Russia an economic and military advantage in the Arctic.

The Deputy Prime Minister of Russia in charge of the defense industry, Dmitry Rogozin, stated that Russia has already launched the construction of a new nuclear icebreaker fleet and that three units will start their operations by 2017, 2019 and 2020, respectively.

How the Arctic fits into the new Russian naval doctrine

On the Navy Day festivities on July 26, 2015 Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the approval of a new Maritime Doctrine-2015 for the Russian Federation. The doctrine, which codifies the country’s naval priorities, strategy, and procurement, was initially adopted in 2001.

However, since 2001, according to Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, “The international political situation has changed.” In addition, there has been “the objective strengthening of Russia as a great naval power.” These factors served as the two main drivers for an update in Russia’s maritime doctrine.

By the “changed international situation,” Rogozin is referring to NATO’s military infrastructure expansion towards Russian borders, which is seen as a major threat to Russian national security. The document gives special attention to the Atlantic and the Arctic. The Deputy Prime Minister explains: “Attention to the Atlantic stems from NATO’s active development and the alliance approaching our borders."

At the same time, the focus on the Arctic is explained by the growth of the Northern Sea Route, the need for free entry into the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and the resource wealth of the continental shelf, which is rich with oil and gas.

This is why the doctrine develops the shipbuilding strategy that aims to resurrect the Russian shipbuilding sector, which has been in decline over the past 10 to 15 years. It will allow enforcement of the Russian naval presence in the high seas. Russia also plans to update the structure and performance of the Northern fleets.

Source: United States Coast Guard