What Are Russia’s Interests In The Arctic, And How Do They Affect Regional Security?

August 21, 2023
Russia has increased its activities in the Arctic in recent years, which poses a threat to global security.
Photo credit: Reuters

Russia has long been interested in the Arctic region, and it recently became one of Russia's military capacity-building hotspots. Over half of the Arctic coastlines belong to Russia, which is used to locate military bases and airstrips that rival NATO and its allies.

Source: Reuters

Furthermore, over the last three years, Russia has taken steps to bolster its legal framework in order to legitimize its actions. This has been achieved through the adoption of several key documents:

In these documents, Russia defines its main priorities, goals and instruments for implementing its Arctic policy, with an emphasis on increasing its military presence and nuclear potential building, as well as searching for new resources and providing economic developments.

In practice, this means saber-rattling with NATO's members and laying the groundwork for a possible confrontation with the West. 

Russia's reasons for its interest in the Arctic are clear:

Security for its nuclear assets

According to Carnegie, Russia wants to keep 6 of the 11 ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) on the Kola Peninsula, capable of attacking NATO states in response to their actions.

In such a way, Russia protects its ability to act in the North Atlantic and the European part of the Arctic in the event of a confrontation with NATO. Furthermore, Russia has an exit to the Barents Sea and the Norwegian Sea via its North Navy, allowing Russia to wield significant influence in potential NATO conflicts.

Searching for new resources and economic developments

According to the Strategy of developing the Arctic zone of the Russian Federation and ensuring national security by 2035, 80% of Russian natural gas and 17% of oil are extracted from the Arctic, but in the future, it is planned to reduce gas output while increasing oil production. 

Russia plans to expand the Northern Sea Route and increase shipments through Arctic waters by investing in infrastructure and transportation, as well as energy projects and technologies.  

Strength of geopolitical influence

In its recent Conception of the Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation, Russia emphasizes its commitment to territorial integrity and the cultivation of relationships with non-Arctic states that pursue constructive policies towards Russia.

Additionally, Russia intends to take measures to counteract and mitigate any initiatives that are detrimental to Russian interests involving the militarization of the region.

Guided by these principles, Russia interprets China's engagement in its Arctic policy, as well as the interactions with NATO and its allies, as actions contrary to its interests and hostile towards Russia.

Russia wants to increase China's role in the Arctic

The Murmansk Memorandum signed by Russia's FSB and China's Coast Guard on extending security cooperation reflects Russia's perception of China's involvement in the Arctic region.

The Head of the FSB Border Guard Service, Vladimir Kulishov, stated that both countries were determined to strengthen cooperation to combat terrorism, illegal migration, drug and weapon smuggling, and illegal fishing.

Furthermore, Russian officials stated that China and Russia intend to continue further cooperation in the area.

Such Russian-Chinese cooperation is advantageous to both parties as Russia attempts to expand its geopolitical role by engaging with China's support and returning the current security situation to a bipolar world order.

China is not an Arctic state, and its involvement in regional affairs demonstrates Russia's desire to rally allies to oppose NATO's member states and its partners.

Competition with the West

Russia is a member of the Arctic Council, an organization that also encompasses the United States, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. Notably, six out of the eight members of this council are also part of the NATO alliance.

Furthermore, there are indications that Sweden will soon become a NATO member. Consequently, Russia is facing a situation where it will be geographically surrounded by NATO countries, which it perceives as posing threats to its national security.

According to the Guardian, over the course of the past six years, Russia has constructed 475 military sites along its northern border.

This initiative included the refurbishment of former Soviet outposts, as well as an increase in the variety of missile systems deployed. These developments underscore Russia's efforts to maintain a military posture that is competitive with that of Western powers.

Furthermore, Russia's media outlets do not rule out an open confrontation between Russia and the US.

Viktor Murakhovsky, a member of the expert council of the Military Industrial Collegium, has pointed out that the primary flight routes for the United States' strategic aviation traverse the Arctic and the North Pole.

He emphasized that this region holds strategic significance for missile launches, making it particularly advantageous in this regard.

Russia's Arctic policy aims to strengthen its military and geopolitical role

Russia is actively bolstering its military capabilities in the Arctic as part of its strategy to both maintain and enhance its covert confrontation with Western powers. In addition, the Arctic region serves as a strategic repository for Russia's inventory of military equipment and missiles.

It also serves as a crucial training ground for honing military capabilities. Despite its geographical isolation, Russia strategically utilizes the Arctic as a passive instrument in its broader confrontational stance against Western nations.

This approach highlights the Arctic's significance as a potential battleground for power dynamics and influence.

To sum up, Russia's ambition to reclaim some aspects of its Soviet-era dominance is driving its desire to revive a Cold War scenario. In light of this, it becomes imperative for Western powers to prevent Russia from further expanding its presence and influence in the Arctic region.

This dynamic underscores the geopolitical significance of the Arctic as a theater for both subtle and overt power struggles.

Maryna Yakymchuk
Analyst at Internews Ukraine