Q&A: The impact of Russia’s war on Arctic cooperation
Russia’s war on Ukraine sends shockwaves across Europe and the wider world. This Clingendael Spectator Q&A series explores the wider geopolitical consequences with key analysts from across the globe. In the first episode Pavel Baev (Peace Research Institute Oslo) discusses Russia’s military strategy in the Arctic region.
The Arctic Council is the leading intergovernmental forum promoting cooperation, coordination and interaction among the Arctic States.1 Established in 1996, the eight Arctic states discuss in particular issues of sustainable development and environmental protection in the region. However, in March 2022, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and the United States — also known as the ‘Arctic 7’ – suspended their work in the council after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Arctic 7 announced a “limited resumption” of the forum’s work in June, but without Russia.2
Question 1: To what extent has Russia’s invasion of Ukraine upended international Arctic cooperation and how will this affect the Arctic region?
The Arctic Council is a relatively young and dynamic institution, and struggles to find a way to resume its work without Russia, which holds the rotating chairmanship until mid-2023. As military-security matters are excluded from the Council’s agenda, it had been possible to continue cooperative engagements after the start of the Russia-Ukraine war in 2014. Nevertheless, the full-blown invasion in February 2022 has made it impossible for the seven Western member states to keep working with Russia.
As the war has evolved into a drawn-out confrontation, among many Arctic NGOs and other stakeholders hopes are fading for a relatively short suspension of cooperative activities. New formats for necessary work need to be established. The fact of the matter is, unfortunately, that many environmental projects – for instance on the effects of permafrost melting – make little sense without Russian participation. Therefore, the negative impact is certain to be strong and lasting.
Question 2: Finland and Sweden are set to join NATO. How will this affect Russia’s military strategy in the Arctic region?
Russian strategic planners were certainly not ready for the swift turn in the Finnish and Swedish security policies towards joining NATO. At present, whatever the formalities of the accession process, they have to assume that both states are effectively in the hostile alliance. This NATO enlargement will therefore lead to a serious reconfiguration of Russia’s strategic posture in Northern Europe.
Russia’s strategic posture in Northern Europe has traditionally been divided into two separate theatres: the Baltic, where isolated Kaliningrad was a vulnerability, and the Arctic, where Russia had significant military superiority. In recent years this division was consolidated. In 2014 the status of the Northern Fleet3 was upgraded to that of a joint strategic command. In 2020, the division was consolidated further by making the Northern Fleet a separate military district, making it one of the five military districts of the Russian Armed Forces.4 Both steps were supposed to ensure Russia’s military preponderance in the Arctic underpinned by sustained build-up of forces and infrastructure.
Presently, from the Russian perspective, negative shifts in the balance of forces are more profound in the Baltic theatre, but in the High North – where Norway is no longer isolated from its NATO allies due to Finland and Sweden’s accession intentions – Russia’s position of power is also disappearing.
Question 3: Do you expect Russia to bolster its military presence in the Arctic?
Russian strategy has envisaged a massive build-up of military capabilities and infrastructure in the Arctic. The country’s new Naval Doctrine, approved by President Vladimir Putin on 31 July 2022, still prescribes the strengthening of all components of the Arctic Northern Fleet structure, despite the fact that the Black Sea area has become Russia’s military focal point due to the war in Ukraine.
If we look at the facts on the ground however, Russia has been compelled to reduce its military presence in the Arctic theatre significantly. Several amphibious ships5 were moved to the Black Sea and other surface combatants are periodically deployed to the Eastern Mediterranean. Most importantly, brigades based on the Arctic Kola peninsula have sent battalion tactical groups to the battlefields in Ukraine, and have suffered heavy casualties.
The nuclear submarine-building programme in Severodvinsk aimed primarily on adding new assets to the Northern Fleet, is still on track, but sanctions seriously affected the industry, so delays in construction and repairs are set to increase. In short, the war is so resource-consuming that Russia cannot sustain the desired military presence in the Arctic.
Question 4: China, which has the status of a ‘near-Arctic state’, has strengthened its strategic ties with Russia. Will this embolden China’s stance towards the Arctic?
China’s Arctic policy has never been Russia-centric. Beijing is primarily interested in partaking in multilateral economic and research projects in the High North, and quietly disapproves of Russia’s course on building-up military infrastructure. Using Russia’s desperate situation for its own gain, China may press for new privileges in the Russian Arctic, including in the access to the Northern Sea Route (which Moscow seeks to control as firmly as possible).
Chinese corporations know very well that without Western partners and technologies, most Russian projects in the High North – including the Yamal LNG6 – cannot proceed with planned expansion and might become unsustainable. As long as the war lasts, they will therefore be reluctant to invest in bilateral joint ventures with Russia.
Beijing – seeking to explore new opportunities for its agenda in the High North – will definitely try to connect with new Western formats of Arctic cooperation, set up without Russia. China is fundamentally not interested in militarization and nuclearization of this region, so opposition from Beijing (which is always registered in Moscow) might be the best chance to stop Russian experiments with nuclear weapons (such as the Burevestnik nuclear-propelled cruise missile) in the Arctic.
Question 5: Under what conditions can Arctic cooperation, including Russia, resume?
The confrontation between Russia and the West driven by the war in Ukraine has gained strong momentum; a hypothetical cease-fire cannot reduce its scope, and open the way for resuming Arctic cooperation. Moscow will have to accept the failure of its aggression and internalise the consequences of its defeat. However, this can only proceed after the collapse of Putin’s regime. Unlike the breakdown of the Soviet Union, this collapse might be a protracted process with many compromises in mitigating confrontations with the West. Interactions in the Arctic may be one of the more productive and less controversial means for Russian re-engagement.
Stay tuned for the next Q&A with Victoria Kerr (Asser Institute) on Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine and international law
- 1Arctic Council, ‘About the Arctic Council’.
- 2Arctic Today, ‘Arctic Council nations to resume limited cooperation — without Russia’, June 8 2022.
- 3The Northern Fleet is a unit of the Russian Navy that operates in the Arctic. It is primarily responsible for the defense of northwestern Russia.
- 4With its jurisdiction primarily within the northern region of European Russia and the Arctic Ocean.
- 5A type of warfare ship employed to land and support ground forces, such as marines, on enemy territory.
- 6Yamal LNG is an ambitious gas extraction and transportation project (in development) based around a liquefied natural gas plant located at the north-east of the Russian Yamal Peninsula. For the construction of the plant Russia is dependent upon the financial and technical aid of various European and Chinese companies.