Cold War- The Kremlin’s Arctic Policy

russia_flag_1470366cRussian’s have always had a certain affinity with the Arctic and a fascination for their mystical frozen north.Under Peter I Russia launched the Great Northern Expedition, one of the largest exploration enterprises in history which successfully led to the mapping of Russia’s Arctic coastline from the European white sea to the mouth of the Kolyma river in Asia .The first successful voyage through the treacherous North East passage was achieved by Adolf Erik Nordenskjold, a Russian Finn born in Russia’s Grand Duchy of Finland in 1832. Indeed even today Russia still carries out pioneering geological and hydrological research in the Arctic recently finishing new bases on Samoilovsky Island and one of the Svalbard islands. Of late however Russia is using its historic role in the North to justify its increasing presence and implicit control over a greater expanse than it is due- in 2007 a Russian expedition led by Artur Chilingarov planted a titanium Russian tricolour on the seabed below the North pole and claimed that the Arctic “has always been Russian”.
One of Moscow’s most imaginative points on its nationalist agenda is the bolstering of its northern frontier -a 7000km long chunk of Arctic tundra that Russia uses for testing its military hardware as well as for a base for its ambitious space programme and increasingly incursive submarine activity. Russia has been carrying out major combat exercises in the Arctic for the first time since the end of the cold war, it has restored former Soviet bases in the area including a massive one on the New Siberian Islands and in July 2014 it tested its new-generation Angara rockets from a cosmodrome hidden deep within its northern territory. Two thirds of Russia’s naval power is concentrated in its Northern fleet and it is believed to have approximately 35 submarines operating in the Arctic. Last summer in fact the Swedish navy were busy tracking an almost certainly Russian submarine snooping around its Baltic waters whilst Russian sorties over the rest of Scandinavia have become an almost routine occurrence.
Russia has direct territorial ambitions in the Arctic too. It recently filed a case under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) against Denmark’s claim to a larger slice of Arctic territory which overlaps with Russia’s own. Russia argues that the underwater Lomonosov mountain range is an extension of the Eurasian continent and thus part of the Russian continental shelf, a claim that would legitimately give it control over the North Pole under UNCLOS. In addition in April this year Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rozogin defied warnings and inflamed the disputes by visiting a Russian mining community on the Norwegian Svalbard archipelago before flying to a new Russian military base on a nearby ice floe. Calling the Arctic “Russia’s Mecca” Mr Rozogin spectated as a Russian Orthodox priest blessed the new station in a clear expression of Russia’s growing and uncompromising confidence in the North. In 2010 when asked about Russia’s position in the Arctic, Russia’s Navy Commander Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky said “Russia will not give a single inch in the Arctic”.
Russia understands that control of the Arctic seabed will generate big returns in the future when global warming allows for cheaper and more efficient drilling for oil and gas reserves there. Perhaps a quarter of the worlds untapped gas is in the Arctic as well as about an eighth of its oil and Russia’s government plans to spend 222bn roubles on mineral exploitation in the region between 2015-2020 a move that could revitalise Russia’s sagging economy.
In addition ,and possibly more importantly for Russia, the melting of sea ice is making Arctic sea lanes evermore traversable which has the potential to speed up and facilitate trade between Europe and Asia. Russia’s s long term strategic position in the Arctic may enhance therefore as evermore commercial vessels venture through the north-east passage and the Russian Kara Sea. 71 cargo ships travelled across the top of Russia last summer up from 46 in 2012 and the increasingly easy and pirate free passage can almost half fuel costs for commercial vessels and cut journey times by up to 37%. In 2012 Russian state media reported that 85% of vessels travelling through the North East passage were carrying gas or oil, again increasing Russia’s strategic gain from global warming.
For now though Russia’s increasing presence in the North has failed to reap generous economic and strategic rewards and has largely been a symbolic exercise with populist objectives. No matter how much the planet warms Russia is never likely to have even a partial monopoly over Europe-Asia shipping lanes as the conventional route through the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal will remain a relatively cheap and viable alternative. In addition Russian icebreakers, navigational support, ports and naval vessels would be required for the North East passage to become a popular shipping route and these ae things that Russia’s barren and undeveloped north will struggle to provide at least in the near future. Poor infrastructure is likely to hinder investment in the region and scupper Russia’s ambitious programme for exploitation of the Arctic’s mineral wealth whilst western sanctions imposed in 2014 have dramatically reduced the attractiveness of the North east passage for foreign investors whilst already cutting back the number of voyages through the passage. Russian Railways plans to connect Indiga which is being considered for the construction of a new deep water port and Mr Putin recently announced plans for the development of a new all year-round port on the Yamal peninsula. However without foreign investment and with a worsening economy Russia is unlikely to be able to carry such grand capital investment schemes especially since they are themselves planned to rely on the world’s first and also astronomically expensive floating nuclear power pants. It is easy therefore to take an exaggerated view on just how empowered Russia will become as it consolidates control over the far North and such action is certainly not the type of short term economic strategy required for Mr Putin to shore up his support in an increasingly poor economic environment.

Cameron Chippindale 

Understanding Russia


Following Russia’s official confirmation as the successor state to the USSR in 1991 many in the new republic found it easy to specify whether they were or were not Russian but at the same time proved to be utterly incapable of defining what is to be Russian. This is the dilemma  that still bothers Russia to this day- beyond its purely formal status as the preceding country to the Soviet Union what is the Russian `idea’ that lends esteem and purpose to Russians in the post-soviet world order.
Whatever the mindset of Russian’s at the time there was one pivotal concept that was to prove crucial with regard to Russia’s relations with the new world- `spetsifika’ or `uniqueness’. Russians had and still have a profound sense of being separate and distinct in a way that makes them exempt from the moral and ideological rules and laws that have dominated the post-soviet world. To accept American international law would be to sacrifice Russia’s moral superiority and lead Russia astray from its unique political and economic destiny. Russia is at once European and Asian, it is the cradle of the Orthodox Christian civilisation and it is beholden to the idea of loyalty to the state as being of the highest virtue in society.
Russia’s state has developed an almost revered status over the country’s history. Beginning in the imperial Tsarist period the state grew fat owing to the administrative demands of maintaining Russia’s colossal hinterland. Under Stalin the USSR soon abandoned Lenin’s idealism and instead developed the presence of the state in quite literally all matters of civilian life. After the collapse of the Soviet Union many Russians felt bereft and missed the definite nature of Stalinist government. Faced with the concept of accepting the alien, liberal values of the West and plunging Russia into a period of flux and chaos, Russians looked inwards for the certainty they had grown so used to. Now the Russian state is a focus of its nationalism and has come to express everything that Russians believe is intrinsically and innately Russian. The belief that a good government is a good administration and that obedience, propriety and order are of profound importance in society are enough to make Russia an exception to the inexorable rise of democracy.
Russia has its own moral order and its unique history as an `empire-state’ makes it attached to the values of autocracy, orthodoxy and obedience. Crucially Russia shares an affinity with a number of Eastern European countries with which it shares an orthodox heritage and so if we are to explain why the Kremlin directs such an aggressive foreign policy it is to protect Russia’s unique ideology and its system of patronage from the American values of liberty and popular government . Wherever autocracy resides, Mr Putin seeks to ensure its longevity and reverse the seemingly blind global acceptance of American power. The Slavic and orthodox link to countries such as Ukraine and Belarus makes the need for political similarity with Russia all the more urgent in Mr Putin’s eyes as Eastern Europe is an area over which Russia has always had traditional hegemony in place of America-Russia entered world war one for example because of its belief in its historic role as defender of the Slavic peoples.
Importantly  because to be a nationalist in Russia is to revere the state Russians have become obsessed with the extent and limits of their former empires,the collapse of which left a number of autocratic satellite countries around the motherland’s borders run in conjunction with the Kremlin. To Russians the former soviet states are administered according to the values and traditions Russia conferred upon them – Russia’s ideological gift to the world is to Mr Putin something far greater than the American conceptions of democracy and something to which former soviet states have fundamentally and irreversibly subscribed to. It is this ideological factor that galvanises Russian ambitions and sets them apart from the usual allegations of a nostalgic people attempting to shore up their power in a region looking increasingly westwards. Dangerously Mr Putin can place his foreign policy in the context of a war for survival against an American system that is steadily eroding everything uniquely Russian and he can portray Russia’s liberal politicians as American sponsored spies and criminals bent on subverting the foundations of the Russian state. Russia and America therefore have fundamentally opposite conceptions of the relationship between the state and the individual. It is their endorsement of two opposing political theories and their respective global outlooks that sadly make Russia and America impossible friends and necessary enemies.

Cameron Chippindale