Sovereignty is the Key to Russia's Arctic Policy

Pavel K. Baev is Research Professor at the International Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO), Norway
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  • July 2013
    Arctic: The New Front

    It was the privately-sponsored Russian expedition to the North Pole in August 2007 that opened a new competitive era in Arctic geopolitics, and the technologically elegant PR-trick with planting the flag into the crisscross point of meridians on the depth of 4,261 m produced a resonance that distorted strategic thinking about, and political interactions in the Arctic region. Six years later, the dust of over-excited forecasts of unregulated confrontation across the Northern frontier has mostly settled down and the atmosphere of cooperation has become prevalent, but Russian Arctic policy is in new disarray. With its large population centres (like Murmansk or Norilsk) beyond the Polar circle and huge resource-extraction industry, Russia is objectively the Arctic superpower, and the high concentration of strategic forces on the Kola Peninsula adds a heavy military dimension to this status, but Moscow is nervous about protecting its interests against encroachments of ambiguous neighbours and ambitious newcomers. 1 The discourse of ‘conquering’ and ‘owning’ the High North is organic to the Russian state identity, incoherent as it is, and is often exploited as political expediency dictates, which increases the sensitivity of public opinion to setbacks and accidents that tend to bedevil many Arctic projects. There is a rich tradition of exploring and developing the vast inhospitable territories and seas, but the attention to environmental issues and to the rights of indigenous peoples is strikingly low. This article focuses on the crucial importance of issues pertaining to sovereignty in Russian policy-making, while starting with examining the revised evaluations of Arctic resources and continuing with assessing the usefulness of military build-up.