Russia’s quest for polar power

  • Themes: Russia

The Arctic is the country’s number one regional resource; the West’s strategic planners must be ready for the challenge.

Russian monument at the Arctic circle, Chukotka Siberia. Credit: ARCTIC IMAGES / Alamy Stock Photo.
Russian monument at the Arctic circle, Chukotka Siberia. Credit: ARCTIC IMAGES / Alamy Stock Photo.

Russia’s chairmanship of the Arctic Council ends in May, when it will pass to Norway. Moscow had initially sought to preside over an ambitious agenda for the development of ‘multilateral cooperation’ during its chairmanship. This was brought to a halt, however, on March 3 2022, when all seven other member states announced the suspension of their participation in the Council’s activities in condemnation of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, and its ‘flagrant violation’ of the core principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity based on international law.

This diplomatic setback was just one of many that Moscow faced in 2022 as a result of the war, from economic problems caused the Euro-Atlantic community’s imposition of an extensive sanctions regime, or reverses on the battlefield requiring the imposition of a partial mobilisation in September, and the move to a war footing in October. Nevertheless, the development of the Arctic remains one of the Russian leadership’s highest priorities. Indeed, if Dmitry Medvedev stated in 2019 that the Arctic was of great strategic significance to Russia — it is Russia’s number one resource region, and ‘where we decide our two most important tasks’ (national security and economic development) — this has only become more obvious through 2022.

Indeed, in April 2022, President Putin chaired a meeting on the development of the Arctic zone, at which he stated ‘virtually all aspects’ of Russian national security — environmental, natural resources, military-political and technological dimensions — are ‘concentrated’ there. He thus emphasised the need for the ‘maximum work effort’ on ‘current and long-term tasks’ in the development of the region in the face of disruption caused by sanctions. And, in August, Prime Minister Mishustin approved the Plans for the Development of the Northern Sea Route to 2035 document, which envisages a wide range of measures, from the construction of ice-class vessels, search and rescue centres, a satellite constellation for navigational support, the renovation of ports and, of course, facilities for the exploitation and transhipment of hydrocarbon resources. In November, Mishustin again emphasised that the Northern Sea Route (NSR) was one of Moscow’s key priorities — and emphasised the target of 80 million tons of cargo to be transported by 2024 (the document suggests targets of 150 million tons by 2030, and 220 million tons by 2035). A week later, the flag was raised on the nuclear ice-breaker Ural, which will be primarily charged with escorting exports from energy firm Rosneft’s Vostok oil project.

That Russia is an ‘Arctic Power’ will come as a surprise surely to very few. Since Russia planted its flag beneath the North Pole in August 2007, seeking to define the outer limit of Russian territory and lay claim to a large area of Arctic territory, much has been written on the role of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the impact of climate change and environmental issues in the region freedom of navigation, and the growth of Russia’s military and dual-use capabilities in the region. Much attention has focused on the shift through the 2010s from a broadly cooperative atmosphere in the region to a more competitive one as Moscow has begun to treat the NSR as an internal waterway for the use of Russian companies to export natural resources to international markets.

If the region is undoubtedly significant in itself, it is all the more so as a bellwether for Russian grand strategy more broadly, shining a light on Moscow’s assumptions, planning, and ability to implement them. Moscow has long been explicit, for instance, about the intensification of geo-economic competition, the changing world order and the growing likelihood of conflict, even war, in the 2020s over access to resources, transit routes and markets. This is why the Arctic is such a priority for Moscow: it is intended not only to be a driver of socio-economic development but to be a strategic reserve and future power base. The symbolism here of Rosneft naming two major oil discoveries after Soviet Marshals Georgi Zhukov and Konstantin Rokossovsky, who made their names in the Great Patriotic War, is illuminating.

These assumptions provide the foundation for strategic planning, which, it should be noted, focuses on a 2035 horizon — the specific Arctic plans therefore also fit into the wider state strategic forecast and scenario planning to 2035. An agenda is set, therefore, in which the ‘strategic goal’ is to create a ‘new global transit corridor on the Northern Sea Route.’ It is, in fact, Moscow’s ‘window’ onto a twenty-first century, ‘post-West’ world dominated by the growth of the Asia-Pacific region. The NSR is not only an East-West corridor, delivering to China. It is also intended to facilitate North-South trade, and to give Moscow a connection with the Indian Ocean.

This strategic lens also illuminates both the vast scale of resources required to achieve these ambitious goals, and also the structures of power tasked with implementing them, including the Ministries of the Development of the Far East and Defence, but also of state companies such as Rosatom, Rosneft and Novatek.

It also shines a light on the numerous and varied problems that Moscow will have trying to implement the plans. Not only is the chain of command flawed, as demonstrated by the response to the Norilsk diesel oil spill in 2020, but there is much to do in practical terms: the cargo fleet is elderly, ports are in need of ‘reconstruction’ rather than renovation, and the eastern part of the NSR is an ‘infrastructural desert’. There may be plans, therefore, but much remains to be done.

Geography makes it obvious that Russia is an ‘Arctic Power’. Strategy, on the other hand, suggests that Russia is attempting to position itself more as a Polar Power: a state that not only seeks to use the Arctic as a power base for future competition in the global commons, but one with ambitious global horizons, from the Arctic to Antarctica. Moscow faces problems aplenty. But these broader horizons, both geographical and chronological, should be the starting point for Euro-Atlantic strategic planning for dealing with a Russian challenge; one which Moscow considers to be geo-economic, global, and long-term.


Andrew Monaghan