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  • Writer's pictureAhana Thapar

Russia and the Arctic


Russia seeks control of the Arctic for reasons that extend beyond economic development. While the Arctic’s rich natural resources provide a strong incentive, it would also provide the country with a great military advantage in case of foreign aggression.

The NATO-affiliated Arctic Countries (USA, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden) wish to restrict Russia from gaining this access, for a multitude of reasons. The first and foremost is that none of these countries, or even all of these countries put together, can equal Russia’s military capability of infiltrating the Arctic.

The issue debates the sovereignty and security of the Russian state; its number of allies is dwindling and its influence in the region along with it. Russia wants to stake a claim in the Arctic to re-establish its position as a global superpower with a widespread sphere of influence, and the remaining countries wish to stop it from happening to protect their economic and national interests. Therefore, this issue relates to security, which includes discussions of sovereignty, military power, wars between and within states, arms proliferation and the activities of non-state actors. It discusses the ability of Russia to defend itself, and the security of a large chunk of the world if the conflict becomes violent.

Russia’s Perspective

As Eugene Rumer, an IR Scholar from Cornell University, mentioned in his study of Russia’s pursuit of Arctic dominance, “Russia’s Arctic ambitions have attracted increasing attention in the West over the past decade as climate change opens up new opportunities in the region for navigation and exploration of its riches. For its part, Moscow casts a wary eye on what it sees as a challenge from the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to its position and ambitions there. The Kremlin’s rhetoric about Western encroachment has become more strident, in sync with its enhanced military posture and ambitious economic and infrastructure projects.”

Russia wishes to increase its power in the region because the Kremlin has been losing allies and influence, with the West pulling former Eastern Bloc and Ex-Soviet countries into their alliances. The message has been very clear cut in recent years: that NATO will not stand for Russia asserting its dominance in Eastern Europe.

This has led to insecurity for the Russian state as its European borders are unprotected by anything other than depth, a barrier that is becoming less and less important in the age of modern technology. For centuries, the Russian capital of Moscow was protected by the Great Plains, as the climate was too harsh and the distances for supply lines too long. However, technology now makes it much easier to cover these distances and secure supplies in much shorter periods of time. The migration of these previously Russia-allied countries to a NATO-aligned side has also raised another concern for Russia ––– its secure sea routes. As long as Russia had allies in East European countries, it had some say in naval routes. Now, however, it lacks a secure sea route for any of its ships, for all waterways it can access are controlled by NATO powers like the UK and Denmark.

While Russia is surrounded by sea on two sides, most of this ocean freezes over during the long winter months, taking away most sea trade ability. If, however, Russia was able to break deeper into the Arctic with military technology, it could cut out a very clear route in the ice with its nuclear-powered icebreakers.

This is one oft-unspoken reason for Russia’s interest in the Arctic. Expanding control into the Arctic gives them a clear military and trade pathway which they can control –– ports like Murmansk will not be limited by the narrow pathways controlled by NATO powers committed to ensuring Russia’s economic and military naval operations can be blocked in war. The Russian state, therefore, is trying to reestablish its power and influence, so that it is able to control some decision making on an international scale.

By gaining claim over the region of the Arctic led in by the Lomonosov Ridge running the Siberian tectonic plate, Russia seeks to gain access to a large region of the Arctic up to the North Pole, which it can use to gain more resources as well as create new shipping routes with the help of its fleet of heavy icebreakers. The country wishes to ensure that it cannot be fully cut off in the instance of war, as it risks losing access to its two important ports, Sevastopol in Crimea and Novorossiysk in the Black Sea, to NATO powers.

Analysis of the Russian Perspective

They want to ensure that no country can advance into the region without their consent, which in turn would make them once again an indispensable part of the international discussion, protecting their sovereignty and securing their power in the region.

Like John Mearsheimer, a key thinker of the theory of Offensive Structural Realism has stated, “States are trapped in an iron cage where they have little option but to compete with each other for power to ensure their own survival.” This is what the Kremlin strives to do. They are anticipating a situation where they will need to assert their might to stay afloat, and have begun preparing for it by ensuring that the world knows that Russia is not a country to be taken lightly, as it has the military capability to outmuscle some of the widely acknowledged military superpowers in its own territory. While the Arctic and the Lomonosov Ridge are not internationally recognised as Russian territory, the government has clearly shown that it considers them to be such –– through shows of military might, or hard power, as categorised by Joseph Nye.

NATO’s Perspective

The organisation has very clearly established its stance on the Arctic –– cooperation and agreement is the way to go forward. They wish to keep the Arctic circle and the North Pole a neutral region, one that can be developed within reach of international standards recognised by the Arctic Council and other agreements to be created.

The Western powers believe that the Arctic circle should remain a neutral territory as a highly competitive region rich with natural resources. NATO and affiliated countries do not want Russia to have high power, as the ideologies disagree between the groups. They clearly believe in the idea that all countries should be cooperating to create a higher level of advancement. Their perspective lies in the fact that Russia should not be allowed to dominate a region as rich as the Arctic circle. This is because they understand that the entire alliance put together would not be able to match Russia’s military capability in the Arctic.

The NATO-allied Arctic countries are in part afraid of Russia’s potential should it gain full access to the Arctic, because their naval capacity put together does not match the potential of Russia’s 44 heavy icebreakers, and nor do their Arctic military bases and ports have as much infrastructure.

They wish to find common ground to create collective growth in the global economy through access to the Arctic’s resources. They have, however, also been consistently cutting off Russia’s economic support. They have subverted the influence that Russia had on Europe by changing their Natural Gas supply source from Russia to the USA. This has put considerable pressure on the Russian economy, actually instead serving to further drive the Russian government to push their interests in the Arctic to expand the country’s economic potential, which was sequestered by NATO and its allies.

Analysis of NATO’s Stance

Their greatest weakness lies, however, in the lack of a unified front when it comes to the Arctic. Denmark, one of the NATO member states, and a member of the Arctic Council has in the past laid claim on the Lomonosov Ridge, and the North Pole. In 2014, this caused a barrage of disagreements as it was in direct defiance of the Arctic Council’s guidelines on the neutrality of the Arctic circle other than the land that lay within the preexisting borders of the nation.

This lack of cooperation and agreement within their opposition to Russia has weakened their ability to stand steadfast against the Russian advancements in the region. Further, their pitch for cooperation and equal say in decisions for the Arctic region often minimises the needs of the Russian state, and the compromise made on their end is rarely equal.

This form of an abuse of liberal philosophy, and the clothing of malice against a specific country as international interest, has driven Russia to the extreme steps that it is taking to reestablish its power. NATO has threatened Russian sovereignty by reducing its ability to keep control over its vast land and people through its undermining of the Russian economy.


Through all of this, we can see that there seems to be no certain path forward. Both sides have flawed arguments, considering neither side has the full picture –– nor does either side want to have the full picture. This struggle for Arctic supremacy will continue into the near future and should be considered an important issue in international relations due to the wide-ranging impacts of success for either side or in case of open conflict

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