The Future of the Arctic is Russian. Or is It?

One look at the map of the Arctic allows us to understand why the region is strategically important to Russia. In control of nearly half of the latitudinal circle, vast natural resources and militarily critical parts of the region, Moscow has both high stakes and a unique position to influence the regional developments.

Russia has maintained a sustained focus on the Arctic, not least since 2007. Its determination to take advantage of new opportunities arising with the fifth ocean opening up in its “backyard”, while preparing for a spectrum of new threats emerging alongside, has been further fuelled by a growing international interest in the Arctic. As President Vladimir Putin remarked in 2014, “Ever more frequently, we see the collision of interests of Arctic nations, and not only them […]. We need to take additional measures so as not to fall behind our partners, to maintain Russia’s influence in the region and maybe, in some areas, to be ahead of our partners”. Secretary of the Russian Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev was even more to the point when in 2008 he argued that Russia either had to act or risk being “driven away” from the region by other stakeholders.[1]

Russia’s efforts over the past decade have led to an expansion of its economic and military presence, thus moving it closer toward achieving the ultimate objective: to assure Russia’s role as “the leading Arctic power” [2] – a symbolic expression of a self-confident Russia restoring its pivotal place. Yet the results to date have been significantly more modest than what the ambitious development programmes have envisaged. Russia continues to struggle with contradicting policy agendas and interests, including between national security priorities and commercial objectives, as well as structural domestic problems and spill-over from international political and economic dynamics – the factors that can undermine Russia’s future position in the Arctic.

Security interests, strategies and gains

The Arctic, and in particular its European part, play an invaluable role in Russia’s strategic deterrence. It provides bases and operational area for the Northern Fleet and its ballistic missile submarines (SSBN); it hosts an array of important components of the defence industry and infrastructure, and supports the air-based nuclear deterrence with several forward bases along the Arctic – to name but a few key features. A sweeping military modernisation since 2008 has lifted both the nuclear and non-nuclear capabilities, with a top priority given to modernizing the SSBN fleet – the older Delta IV class and the fourth generation SSBN of the Borei class, in addition to attack submarines and support infrastructure. The armed forces have further been strengthened by a large, diverse and modern set of delivery systems for long range, dual-use precision weapons, as well as kinetic and non-kinetic asymmetric capabilities, including those belonging Russia’s Aerospace Forces, designed to destruct or damage the backbone of the adversary’s information technology-enabled warfare and complex technological networks that developed countries depend on. To improve a more efficient and swift use of capabilities scattered from Murmansk to Chukotka over several thousands of kilometres, Russia established in 2014 Joint Strategic Command North on the basis of the Northern Fleet.

The latter’s key task remains to assure the survival and freedom of action of the strategic submarines. The bastion defence concept aims to provide several layers of defences and close areas in the immediate proximity to the Russian bases to penetration by enemy forces, and in the areas further south, where Russia would be unlikely to establish control, deny control for potential adversaries. It would also allow Russia to threaten the transatlantic maritime artery, critical to a successful US reinforcement of the European NATO allies. Preserving the strategic gateway to the Atlantic is important to Russia also because its naval potential remains separated between four main bases and the availability of large surface warships is limited as the shipbuilding is marked by delays, further aggravated by the Western sanctions that have cut off Russia from vital military supplies.

Although the military-strategic point of gravity remains centred around the Northern Fleet, Russia’s military build-up and activity have gradually expanded also to the central and eastern parts of the Arctic. In 2014, Minister of Defence Sergei Shoigu promised that the armed forces would be stationed along the entire Russian Arctic coast [3]. As a result, Russia has re-established and is constructing new military bases in the region, fielding sophisticated weapon systems to improve early-warning capability, surveillance, air and missile defences, electronic warfare and other defensive and offensive capabilities. In addition to strengthening Russia’s sovereignty and control in the region, they may allow to seal off the air and maritime approaches in the north and deny the adversary conventional military superiority along Russia’s periphery.

The Russian training and exercises in the Arctic, sharply increased over the past ten years, have focused on improving complex joint operations, strategic mobility and rapid reaction in a broad spectrum of scenarios. They range from crises spurred by environmental disasters, potential terror attacks by non-state asymmetrical actors to conflicts with a militarily superior, nuclear-armed adversary. Currently, there are few potential sources of intrastate conflict in the Arctic. However, Russia sees the Arctic as closely interconnected with other security spaces and set to play a critical role in supporting escalation control in conflicts unfolding also in other regions. Hence, despite the relatively low level of tension in the region, the situation may change rapidly in case of a major confrontation involving Russia and other great power(s) elsewhere.

Stronger presence, but no economic bonanza

Russia has advanced the development of Arctic energy and other natural resources [4] and managed to increase the volume of shipping along the NSR, while strengthening its control over the maritime channel [5] the legal status of which remains partly disputed, including by the United States [6]. To facilitate the navigation and safety and thus increase the use of the NSR Russia is building a fleet of nuclear-powered and diesel electric icebreakers, as well as ice-class ships, such as LNG carriers. Several other infrastructural projects also aim to support the socio-economic development of the region, including floating nuclear powered plants to provide heat and electricity in the desolate Arctic region.

Yet the anticipated dramatic surge in economic activity has failed to materialize thus far. The Arctic is unlikely to turn into Russia’s “foremost strategic base for natural resources” by 2020 as planned given that the Prirazlomnoe oil field in the Pechora Sea remains to date Russia’s only Arctic offshore field in production. Nor is the NSR set to become a major link between Europe and Asia, as the Russian authorities have [7]. For instance, transit shipping numbers have fallen since 2013 when they reached 71 transits and 1.3 million tons of cargo in total to 27 passages and approximately 300,000 tons of cargo in total in 2018.

There are several external and domestic factors that can explain these relatively underwhelming results. The Arctic energy development remains expensive, hazardous and extremely demanding technologically. Moreover, Russia does not have sufficient financial, technological and industrial capability to explore the continental shelf by itself. Meanwhile, Russia’s war in Ukraine and Western sanctions that followed have cut off Russia’s access to international financial markets and know-how, halting cooperation with foreign companies such as ExxonMobil, ConocoPhilips, and Total [8]. Likewise, the economic, technological and political risks associated with the use of the NSR generate caution and restraint among major international companies.

Russia has achieved better results in increasing shipping along the NSR (to and from the Russian Arctic), which reached 18 million tons of cargo in 2018. The activity has been generated primarily by the successful development of the onshore Yamal LNG and the Novyi Port oil projects. The progress, however, appears unsatisfactory to President Putin, who in May 2018 issued an order to increase the volume of shipping to 80 million tons by 2024. Hence, the authorities scramble to reach this ambitious objective by drawing over one hundred projects for infrastructure development, including grand plans for new Arctic sea ports, railroads, petroleum and coal fields. Most of the funding is to be provided by private actors that the government plans to attract by slashing taxes, among other means.

Risk factors and future prospects

Whilst prescribing an increase in economic development in the north with a presidential decree may mobilize bureaucracy in the short term, it seems unlikely to effectively solve the complex, some systemic, external and domestic obstacles and limitations. There is therefore a risk that such initiatives may result in a phenomenon known in Russia as an “imitation of exuberant activities” (“imitatsiya burnoi deyatel’nosti”), i.e. reporting to the authorities achievements of the objectives, but not necessarily real results.

Given that Russia is unlikely to significantly reduce its dependence on energy exports in the next decade, the situation may generate further incentives to push for Arctic development. However, its trajectory will be challenged by factors such as production in lower-cost regions, a growing competition for the natural gas markets, fluctuations in global commodity prices, and alternative energy sources. Russia will also need to find ways to attract foreign investors, thus navigate around the sanctions, such as in the case of the Yamal projects, and convince investors to take significant risks associated with the Arctic development.

Furthermore, Russia faces the challenging endeavour to align economic, security and foreign policy objectives and improve coordination between at times competing agendas at the regional and federal policy levels. On the one hand, Arctic economic development requires security thus generating new missions and rationale for the Russian armed forces and security agencies in the north [9] [10]. On the other hand, Russia’s foreign and security policy objectives may again get in the way of the regional commercial interests, as the impact of the Russian annexation of Crimea, the war in Easter Ukraine and attempts to challenge the European security system have demonstrated in practice.

To create a conducive economic climate in the Arctic, Russia is likely to continue its engagement in practical international cooperation, supported by a generally conciliatory rhetoric. It is also likely to further pursue lobbying to end sanctions and “get back to business as usual” – an effort that has figured highly on the Russian diplomats’ agenda since 2014. To the same end, Moscow will continue promoting dialogue and Russia’s image as a reliable Arctic stakeholder, further highlighting the difference between the state of international relations in the Arctic and other regions, such as the Baltic and the Black Sea. This effort may prove, however, to be a hard balancing act given the central role of the Arctic in Russia’s military strategy, its high profile in military exercises, and Russia’s continued interest in further military build-up. Given the region’s symbolic role in Russian national identity, it is also well-suited to demonstrate Russia’s military might, both for domestic and foreign audiences, which may further fuel regional insecurities and fan the flames of uncertainty about Russia’s intentions and the region’s stability.

The trajectory of the Arctic development – and Russia’s regional position – will be further influenced by other regional players, not least China’s. Both states have to a large extent managed to align their regional interests. Russia is profiting from China as one of the key stakeholders in the Yamal LNG project and the largest foreign user of the NSR. However, Russia is also watching China’s activity in its “Arctic backyard”, and a generally growing might, with a concern.

There is, furthermore, a spectrum of domestic risk factors that will impact Russia’s position in the Arctic in the coming decade, including inefficiencies of the socio-economic system that can undermine political stability in Russia. One example is the detrimental effect the weakened national economy has had on the broader population: over one fifth of Russians live in poverty, and a further 36 percent is in the risk zone. A continued decline in living standards may be potentially explosive. Localized protests that have been bursting out across Russia in recent years do not necessarily herald a revolution. Yet a major unrest cannot be ruled out. Certainly, the Russian authorities take such a possibility seriously and prepare for it, including with military means. The need to prioritize in a constantly strained economic environment may push the expensive and risky Arctic projects down on the government’s agenda.

The ambitious Russian Arctic project is a work in progress. The non-linear regional developments notwithstanding, the new ocean is likely to continue opening to an increased human presence and activity, both civilian and military. As such, the Arctic is set to remain of a paramount military, economic, political, and diplomatic significance to Moscow in the coming decade. With a strategic geographical location, considerably strengthened military presence and advances in economic development, Russia has solidified its strong position in the region and is well ahead of other regional stakeholders Yet the country also faces formidable challenges in reaching its strategic objectives: competing domestic interests, fluctuations in global commodity prices, the impact of great powers’ competition, as well as chronic weaknesses of the socio-economic and political model could prove crippling over time. To have a chance of success, Russia must prove able, resilient and adaptable to address the adversities. Thus, whether the future of the Arctic will belong to Russia remains an open question.

[1] Vesti Nedeli, 2008. “Sovbez v serdce Arktiki”, Russian state TV channel, 14 September 2008,

[2] Security Council of the Russian Federation, 2008a. Osnovy gosudarstvennoi politiki Rossiiskoi Federatsii v Arktike na period do 2020 goda i dalneishuyu perspektivu, Moscow, 18 September 2008.

[3] Ria novosti, 2014. “In 2014 Russia will station troops all over the Arctic region,” 21 October 2014.

[4] According to official sources, the overall energy reserves in the Russian Arctic exceeds 1.6 trillion tons, while the continental shelf holds almost a quarter of all the hydrocarbon resources on the entire global continental shelf (President of Russia, 2014). The region also contains reserves of strategically important metals and minerals like nickel, copper, cobalt, gold, diamonds, and apatites (Security Council of the Russian Federation, 2008b).

[5] see for instance The President of Russia, 2012. O vniesenii izmenenii v otdel’nye zakonodatel’nye akty Rossiiskoi Federatsii v chasti gosudarstvennogo regulirovaniya torgovogo moreplavaniya v akvatorii Severnogo morskogo puti, law no. 132 of July 28, 2012,

[6] The White House, 2009. The National Security Presidential Directive and Homeland Security Presidential Directive, Arctic region policy, 9 January 2009,

[7] Security Council of the Russian Federation, 2008b. Press release of 12 September 2008.

[8] Vedomosti, 2015. “Rosneft’ prosit perenesti razrabotku shel’fa,”, 19 February 2015.

[9] Tass, 2015a. “Russian deputy PM explains necessity of military bases in Arctic”, 20 November 2015.

[10] Tass, 2015b. “Russian security chief: Atlantic and Arctic are Russia’s maritime policy priorities”, 1 September 2015.

Photo: CC BY 4.0 by



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