The New Ice Curtain: Russia’s Strategic Reach to the Arctic

The Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS) held a discussion on Aug. 27 in advance of the hard copy release of a new CSIS Europe Program report, The New Ice Curtain: Russia’s Strategic Reach to the Arctic.


Report author Heather A. Conley moderated the discussion, which featured two panelists:

  • Marlène Laruelle, Research Professor of International Affairs at George Washington University
  • Steven Lee Myers, Correspondent for The New York Times


Conley said the report’s original purpose was to address the nation’s limited understanding of the Arctic at large and even smaller understanding of Russia’s major involvement in the Arctic.


The report traces the evolution of Arctic policy from 2007 to today. Through detailed examination of the Arctic policies that animate the Kremlin, the report proposes creating a military code of conduct in a new multinational forum to discuss security concerns in the Arctic among Russia and other Arctic nations.


Due to geopolitical changes in Russia, the report shifted from initially looking at a U.S.-Russia cooperative format to looking at how Arctic cooperation as a whole can be preserved and protected.


Highlights from the report include the following:

  • The Arctic accounts for 20 percent of Russia’s gross domestic product, and 22 percent of its exports, primarily energy and minerals.
  • Russia’s Arctic policy has evolved to serve two separate goals. Because of this duality, Russia’s true motives are difficult to understand.
  • Russian policy has evolved in three phases since 2004, resulting in the increased centralization of Arctic policies and decision making since Vladimir Putin resumed the Russian presidency in 2012.
  • On Feb. 3, 2015, Putin signed an order that established a new Arctic governmental commission responsible for national security as well as Arctic social and economic development. Further details can be found in thePDF version of the report.
  • During Phase 1 in 2004–2009, Russia’s Arctic position was still in a formative stage, just beginning to map out important strategies.
  • During Phase 2 in 2011–2013, Moscow developed more detailed Arctic policies, centralized administrative mechanisms, and enhanced its security posture. It continued its dual Arctic policy of increased cooperation with other Arctic states on international search and rescue and oil spill response agreements while tightening control over domestic activists and civil society.
  • During Phase 3 in 2014 to the present, Russia has held unannounced and increased Arctic military exercises because it perceives encirclement by foreign enemies and humiliation by the west. Russian nationalistic voices have stated that “the Arctic is a Russian Mecca.”


In her final comments, Conley said she wouldn’t call the evolution of Russia’s Arctic policy a “partnership,” but rather a challenge. The report’s recommendations are aimed at finding ways to address security issues that the Arctic Council cannot. She believes the Arctic Council’s structure is insufficient for the security challenges in the Arctic today.


Other recommendations are related to indigenous people and a dramatic re-evaluation on how to view Arctic cooperation. An agreement is needed with Russia on military conduct, and human rights need to be addressed.


Dr. Laruelle said historically, the Russian state is normally proactive on major projects, which causes confusion on issues that involve  either domestic Russian or international policy elements.


Because Russia is reinvesting its attention in the region, she said, military groups would normally be involved to address the area’s remoteness and logistical challenges.


Laruelle added that the most disturbing trend is the increased air patrol in the territories of other states. To address this issue, a new code of conduct that explains the need to “test” in other countries needs to be recommended. The trend could be a reflection of deteriorating relations with the U.S. and the west over the annexation of Crimea and the Russian support for the separatists fighting the Kiev government over control of eastern Ukraine.


Myers said Russia believes the U.S. made the first move with its energy sanctions that led to the deterioration of the U.S.-Russia relationship.


He added the leadership in the Kremlin is “not crazy” to worry about an invasion from the north. Germany operated submarines in the far north during World War II and the memory of this could add to Russian perceptions about its Arctic vulnerability.


Myers also commented on Russia’s plans to benefit economically from opened Arctic shipping routes. By requesting the United Nations to extend Moscow’s seabed claim, Russia could obtain control of new waterway routes outside of its exclusive economic zone. If the UN agrees, ships transiting those waters would have to pay Russia.


Conley said the current northern transit routes are so small, that they are “nothing to get excited about.”


Conley added the Russian Arctic has a strong sense of history, stemming from famous rescues such as a Russian airdrop onto an ice floe. The Arctic serves a national narrative, and is important to Russia’s national pride.


She also noted that Russia did not plan to send a foreign minister to President Barack Obama’s GLACIER conference in Alaska on August 31. Instead, Russia dispatched its Ambassador to the United States, an indication of the state of the relationship between the two countries.


On this, Myers added the goal of the GLACIER conference was not to raise awareness of the Arctic to other Arctic nation ministers, but to raise awareness of the importance of the Arctic to the American public.


On the environment, Conley said the Russian Federation will make no substantive changes to its environmental policy. For example, Russia is unlikely to slow down its rate of gas flaring.


Conley said Russia is “trying to figure out how to build resilience” as permafrost melts and causes pipelines to bend, and buildings to crack and crumble.


Furthermore, major urban centers will be impacted dramatically, and how the government will respond is unknown. Methane sinkholes are appearing more frequently, for example, because of thawing permafrost.


Laruelle also commented on China’s increasing presence in the Arctic. Russia welcomed China’s investments in Arctic infrastructure for energy, but not its interest in exploring northern waters for development.


During the question period, one audience member commented that aside from submarines, Russia had not constructed any wartime ships, meaning that Russia’s Arctic military activities appear to be only local defense activities.


He added that U.S. policy makers should use the Arctic Coast Guard Forum as a means to assess domestic interests versus the soft security side.