After gaining independence by the Russian Federation, its Arctic policy was to a large extent the continuation of the policy of the Soviet Union and covered similar range of military-political issues, cooperation on the rational development of regional resources, environmental protection, the use of the Northern Sea Route for international shipping, etc. At the same time, unlike the Soviet period, activities in the Arctic region have gradually become one of the main vectors in the Russian domestic and foreign policy. Also, the significance that Moscow has given to each of the above areas of activity has also changed.
This state of affairs is quite natural. It is derived from the general trends in social development in Russia, the priorities of its leadership in the economy, foreign and domestic policies, etc.
First of all, it deals with the raw material nature of the Russian economy, as well as the dependence of the stability of the Putin regime on the hydrocarbon future of the country. These factors, reinforced by the high level of energy prices, formed, as it is known, the energy-centred approach of the Russian leadership to the perception of the world and the place of Russia in it. They stimulated “the Kremlin dreamers” to formulate ambitious programmes for the recovery of the country through the development of new hydrocarbon deposits, as well as gaining control over the routes of transit of energy resources, first and foremost, to European consumers. The significance of these tasks in the eyes of the Russian leadership was aggravated by forecasts as for a fairly rapid exhaustion of hydrocarbon deposits in Russia developed today (according to some Russian predictions, it will occur in the period of 2028-2032).
For almost two decades, the above-mentioned energy-centred approach has defined the essence of Russia's regional policy in many regions of the globe, in particular, Central Asia, the Caspian basin, the Far East, and at least partly in Syria and Ukraine. Moreover, and this is essential, an integral part of it are "hot scenarios", aimed at transforming the energy map of the regions according to their interests.
It fully manifested itself in the Arctic as well. Moreover, given the preliminary estimates of the presence of significant hydrocarbon reserves there (13% of the world oil reserves and 30% of gas), the issue of expanding the resource potential of the Russian Federation at the expense of this region has become particularly important for the Russian leadership.
However, even this problem is solved by Russia, first of all, not in the actual, but in the perspective sphere. Russia is trying to reserve natural resources for the future, without putting the task of getting them today. Moreover, now it has neither financial nor technological opportunities for this. The abrupt drop in oil prices has automatically made it unprofitable to invest in oil and gas production in the Arctic. The sanctions imposed by the West in connection with aggression against Ukraine have blocked Russia's access to Western technologies, without which it is basically unable to establish large-scale energy production in the Arctic region.
With the account of losses incurred by the Russian budget due to the fall in global energy prices, Russia's leadership is forced this year to resort to multiple reductions in funding for various projects aimed at developing the Arctic and building appropriate infrastructure there. The country simply does not have money for this. However, the domination of a political component over economic expediency in this kind of activity was quite obvious even before, in particular, against the background of the world practice, namely the fact that none of the other countries of the region carries out the infrastructure development of their own Arctic territories. Earlier, Russia simply could afford to ignore even the long-term economic foolishness of their Arctic projects for the sake of their "supreme" imperial goals. For today, however, the latter, as well as a programme of activities designed to achieve them, naturally fail.
From the economic point of view, the growth of Russia's activeness in the Arctic, in addition to the issue of the hydrocarbon future, has traditionally also been related to the intentions of the development of the Northern Sea Route, which, according to the Russian Federation, should reduce the time and, accordingly, the cost of transporting goods from Asia to Europe. However, this economic factor is not equally significant, taking into consideration that even in the long run Russia's transformation into an impoprtant player at the world freight market is quite problematic. In order for this route to be economically feasible, its transit capacity should increase, roughly, 10 times compared to 2016 figures, which is unlikely. Moreover, the achievements of the mentioned direction indicator depend on factors that are not directly controlled by the Russian Federation, namely the direction of climate change and the dynamics of energy prices.
It should be noted that besides "supreme goals", the range of the Arctic projects, as well as many others, was also related to "low" goals, so to speak, namely, the enrichment of Russian leadership in a corrupt way. The non-transparent method of distribution of budget funds inherent in Russia, in the absence of sufficient economic justification for Arctic projects, both civilian infrastructure ones and various military ones, allows to get significant "kickbacks" through government order programmes. The amounts of such "kickbacks" are proportional to the scale of the Arctic projects, which makes the latter exceptionally attractive to the Russian leadership.
The direct dependence of the stable existence of the Putin regime on the raw materials, "hydrocarbon-oriented" Russian economy, along with the intention to reserve for the future the potential raw material base in the Arctic, makes Russia's almost inevitable the course of expansion of its jurisdiction by changing the boundaries of its continental shelf in this region. As you know, Russia submitted an application to the UN Commission on Offshore External Borders in 2001 with an argument to establish new borders of the continental shelf of Russia. The UN Commission rejected the Russian proposal and recommended to carry out additional research. In August, 2016, Russia submitted a new application to the UN Commission for the establishment of new borders of the continental shelf in the Arctic. In case of granting the application, the continental shelf of Russia would increase by 1.2 million square kilometers and, as a result, it would receive jurisdiction over almost half the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, including the North Pole. Unfortunately, this kind of territorial claims contributes today to a certain international legal uncertainty about the status of the Arctic territory, which lies beyond the national boundaries of the states of the region.
Lacking sufficient scientific basis for confirming its claims, Russia traditionally resorts to various other measures, primarily political and symbolic, propagandistic, and military. All of them are aimed at positioning Russia as a powerful Arctic state whose rights to the development of the mineral resources are much wider than it is currently recognized.
Thus, in recent years, Russia has actively reconstructed military objects of the Soviet era and built new ones, formed and placed new military units in the region etc. The military activities of the country in the Arctic have increased in scope, scale, and also in terms of geographical coverage.
The financial problems that Russia is experiencing today have also affected the implementation of military projects, but to a much lesser extent than civilian ones. As a result, spendings for military purposes may be at least twice as high as investments in all other areas of the life of the region.
The military modernization of Russia, which has been taking place since 2008, and Russia's growing military activeness in northern waters and air, by itself, is not a threat to its northern neighbours. It has been made menacing by more and more non-transparent, and sometimes frankly provocative nature of activities. It includes, in particular, Russian aggressive anti-Western propaganda, undisguised demonstration of military force, violation of the borders of other Arctic countries by Russia, etc.
As a result, despite constant peaceful rhetoric of the political leaders of Russia, according to which the Arctic is a model of “the zone of peace” for the whole world and "the territory of dialogue", Russia has managed to provoke a general increase in tension here and a new arms race. And the Russian Federation continues to remain leader in this race. Moreover, contrary to the declarations of the Russian leadership, although due to their efforts, the Arctic for today has in fact become one of the most militarized and nuclearized regions of the planet.
This state of affairs poses a threat to further escalation of tension in the whole world. Under the current geopolitical situation characterized by high and growing distrust between NATO and the Russian Federation, the number of incidents and events in the northern waters and air cannot only increase, but also contribute to raising the tensions along the NATO-Russia line in other parts of the planet. This phenomenon, known since the Cold War, is often referred to as "horizontal escalation".
In addition to economic and domestic political reasons, Russian military activities in the Arctic are also derivatives of the previously mentioned general tendencies in social development of Russia, in this case - from its desire to regain the status of a sort of a superpower, with its own spheres of influence, within which there are no norms of international law, but exclusively Russian interests. In this context, the build-up of the military component in the Arctic is aimed at demonstrating the readiness of the Russian Federation, regardless of international law, for the seizure of natural resources of the region in full compliance with the above-mentioned "hot scenarios" as an integral part of Russian regional policy in general. Considering for the ease with which Russia has already violated its numerous international commitments during the aggression against Ukraine, the hope that it will steadfastly adhere to the norms of international law in the Arctic is at least naive.
Unfortunately, it has to be stated that Russia's expansionist policy in the Arctic, including its military component, is, to a certain extent, stimulated by a wide range of international legal problems in that part of the Arctic region, which lies outside the state boundaries established there.
The undisguised demonstrations of force and aggravation of the security situation are traditionally for Russia aimed, not only at foreign, but also at the domestic audience and is a method of controlling electoral moods within the state. Affecting the great-power, imperial feelings and ambitions of Russian citizens, these demonstrations serve the task of consolidating Russians around authorities and are a means of suppressing the acuteness of their perception of various socioeconomic problems that have been increasing lately.
The issues of environment protection did not fit in any way in the Arctic policy of the Russian leadership. Any of environmental statements of the Russian leadership are of a purely declarative nature and have nothing to do with the realities of the Russian Federation activities in the Arctic. Suffice it to say that already today, about a quarter of Russia's burned, so-called, associated gas falls into the Arctic region, which is an important factor for its warming.
Such an attitude to the environmental issues is related to the fact that the issues of the standard of living of the wide strata of the population of the country are minor for the Russian leadership in comparison with its own neo-imperial impracticable projects, as well as with the technological backwardness of the Russian Federation, which is not capable of securing the protection of extremely sensitive ecological systems of the Arctic while developing mineral resources.
Nuclear pollution is of particular threat to the ecosystem of the Arctic. Nuclear risks for it are directly proportional to the increase in the presence of the military contingent in general, and, first and foremost Russian, in view of the previously mentioned leadership of the Russian Federation in the regional arms race.
With regard to the Ukraine-Russia relations in the context of the Arctic, they are determined by a number of factors, namely: the unsettled issues of the succession of the former Soviet Union between Ukraine and Russia (the recognition by Norway of special economic interests in the Soviet Union at Svalbard / Spitsbergen, which in 1991 passed to Russia) ; permanent residence in Barentsburg (one of the two at the archipelago, where people live) of a relatively large number of Ukrainian citizens (about 70% of the villagers according to 2010 data); interest of this country to the potential resource wealth of the region; an opportunity for non-Arctic states to participate in the work of the Arctic Council as observers; activeness of the Russian Federation in the Arctic and the orientation of its foreign policy in general on scourging the present system of international security, which requires a careful attention from Ukraine.
1. Policy and activities of Russia in the Arctic are aimed at returning Russia the status of a superpower, a powerful centre of influence in the world politics. They are outright expansionist.
2. The Arctic policy of the Russian Federation, accordingly, constitutes a threat to international security, first of all, in military-and-political and environmental dimensions.
3. Neutralization of this threat cannot be based solely on ethical, diplomatic, and international legal arguments, given their insignificant status in the eyes of the Russian leadership.
4. Only the measures of economic, military-and-political pressure, various in terms of their influence and levels of coordination of actions (between the countries - the northern neighbours of Russia, the EU member states, NATO, etc.) can be the most efficient under these conditions.
4.1 In the economic sphere, these are, first of all, the prolongation and strengthening of the sanctions pressure on Russia, which deprive it of the possibility of modernizing its military potential, expanding its military presence in the region, deploying and implementing environmentally damaging economic projects, etc. Long economic pressure, the narrowing of economic capabilities of Russia, is, in fact, the main lever, capable of inducing Russia not only to revise its tactical tasks in the Arctic, but also to revise its strategic priorities, making impossible the domination of the expansionist and military-political agenda in the internal and external politics in the region.
4.2. In military-political terms, they comprise creating preconditions for achieving a strategic advantage in the event of a conflict with Russia by increasing readiness, mobility and coordination of the military units of the Russian Federation's neighbours, organizational changes, as well as demonstrative symmetrical and asymmetric actions in response to Russian provocations.
5. Particular attention should be paid to the development of the information policy of the West regarding the Russian Federation, which would restrict the opportunities for the Russian leadership by means of propaganda to ensure the domination in the public consciousness of the idea of the former greatness over the objective perception of reality.
6. The sphere of international law requires improvement of the international legal regime of the Arctic region, to introduce rigid mechanisms of international law. Possible steps in this direction could be: introduction of a moratorium (by means of signing a relevant international legal instrument) on economic activities, especially on the development of mineral resources and, first of all, oil; the elaboration and adoption of an umbrella convention on the Arctic, which would determine the general conditions for cooperation between the Arctic states in the region, would make it impossible to further unilaterally review the borders here, and envisage the possibility of joining other interested states to the convention. Additional protocols to the convention could formulate the main approaches to solving specific problems of the region - indigenous peoples, ecological safety, maritime navigation, step-by-step demilitarization and neutralization, etc.
7. At the same time, taking into account the readiness of Russia to ignore any legal norms, the new international legal regime of the Arctic region can become effective only if the West conducts a parallel economic and military containment policy of Russia as discussed above.
8. It is expedient for Ukraine as a successor to the USSR, which has a community of its citizens permanently residing on Svalbard / Spitsbergen: to join the Paris Agreement on Spitsbergen of 1920; to raise before the Norwegian side the issue of the recognition of its special economic interests at the archipelago; to work out on this basis the issue of obtaining the status of permanent observer in the Arctic Council.
Such actions of Ukraine would contribute to the implementation of its long-term interests in the Arctic region, first of all, in the context of the prospects for using its resource base, and in the medium-term would allow to get additional means of foreign policy pressure on the Russian Federation, which in the current conditions is far from unnecessary.