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Russia and the Arctic: brief remarks on the relevance of the Far North for Moscow

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After the illegal annexation of Crimea in March 2014, the Russia dossier became one of the favorite topics of analysis for media, think tanks and academia. International attention has focused on Russia’s malign influence in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and the influence inserts that Moscow is developing and strengthening at the level of all Euro-Atlantic states, with the scope of advancing its foreign policy objectives, in particular by weakening the internal cohesion within targeted countries and by amplifying cleavages in the Euro-Atlantic community.

From 2014 onwards, Russia’s actions have been documented and assessed all over the world: in the immediate vicinity (e.g., interference in electoral processes), in the Western Balkans (e.g., attempts to destabilize Montenegro), Western Europe (e.g., the “Lisa case” in Germany, the Skripals/ UK), US (allegations of meddling in the 2016 elections) and as far as Africa – where the private military company Wagner operates (a hybrid tool with proven links to the Kremlin).

Basically, Russia and its destabilizing behavior have been given due attention, with numerous reports and analyzes being drafted to reveal where, how and by whom Russia is acting internationally.

An extremely important geographical area for Russia, but less exhaustively mapped by media / think tanks when it comes to Russian modus operandi, is the Arctic. The area is by no means ignored, but a superficial quantitative assessment shows that there are many more reports, analyzes and data in the public space about – let’s say – how Russia is acting in Central and Eastern Europe, than the quantity of information and assessments regarding what the Arctic means for Russia and what is Russia really after in the region.

Some conclusions drawn from the Euro-Atlantic research on Russian propaganda and Russian actions at the international level are very timidly transparent in the Romanian media, but when it comes to Russian objectives in the Arctic, then there is a total vacuum of knowledge. This is, by no means, a reprehensible situation: in the collective imagination of our region, the Arctic is “something remote”, “frozen” and “the place where penguins live” (although this is not true, there are no penguins in the Arctic, only in Antarctica). In addition, we are more concerned about Russian actions in our neighborhood than distant issues such as the impact of climate change on international relations, elements that form Russian identity, or Russia’s relationship with other NATO allies that face relatively similar problems similar to those of Romania’s.

Fortunately, one of the goals of the Interdisciplinary Research Project on Russia’s Geopolitics in the Black Sea and the Arctic Ocean is to bring more knowledge to the Romanian research arena, aiming to decipher what connects Romania to the trajectory of other allies and what are our common concerns and objectives. Above all it aims to shed light on topics that, even if they do not draw our immediate attention (because they exceed the limits of the knowledge and attention that we pay to the Black Sea region), will for sure reach a point of direct impact over us. With Russia in mind, we can easily see that, for example, there are a multitude of common challenges and goals between Romania and Norway, as well as individual lessons and experiences that can serve as examples of how to relate (or not) to a great revisionist power.

The purpose of this article is to list some of the elements that define Russia in relation to the Arctic. To better understand Russian goals in the Far North, how the myths and mysticism associated with the Arctic are exploited by Russian propaganda, but also Moscow’s vulnerabilities in the region, this article draws on the expertise of two of the best and most visible experts in the field of Russia and the Arctic region.

The first author that this research is based on is Geir Hønneland, researcher at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute (partner-institute, alongside the University of Bucharest, in the Interdisciplinary Research Project on Russia’s Geopolitics in the Black Sea and the Arctic Ocean).

Former director of the Fridtjof Nansen Institute (2015-2019) and Secretary-General of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee (since 2021), Geir Hønneland is the author of Russia and the Arctic. Environment, Identity and Foreign Policy (the first edition published in 2016 at IB Tauris; the second in 2020, at the same publishing house).

The second author, Marlene Laruelle, is the Director of the Elliott School of International Affairs (George Washington University) at the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies. He is also a researcher at the French Institute of International Relations. In 2014 she published the book Russia’s Arctic Strategies and the Future of the Far North (ME Sharpe, New York).

Starting from the books of these two renowned professors and researchers, one can sketch a general framework of analysis that would answer the question How does Russia relate to the Arctic?. Two dimensions are the subject of this analysis: 1. Russia’s “Arctic Identity” and 2. Russia’s Vulnerabilities in the Far North. 

Russia’s “Arctic Identity”: A Reinvented Past?

After the aggression against Georgia (2008), but especially after the illegal annexation of Crimea (2014), international attention has been focused on identifying an answer to the question What does Russia want? Did Russia provoked the episodes of Georgia and Ukraine in order to rebuild its “empire”? Does Moscow want a new divide of sphere of influences with the US/ West? Were these two episodes just isolated reactions to an acute sense of insecurity felt by the Kremlin?

Perhaps the closest answer to the truth is: a little of everything. It is becoming increasingly clear – with the current developments in the Ukrainian crisis and the approaching 2024 moment – that the Kremlin leader is aiming to shape a legacy, and the most appropriate one can only be an identity one.

What is striking is the fact that Russia is building a global identity: the aggressiveness in the Black Sea and the CIS regions is accompanied by a strengthening of the presence in the Arctic. Both are part of Putin’s strategy to forge the image of a powerful Russia as a legacy, a Russia that was brought to its knees by the West but managed to rise.

Why does the Arctic matter in this whole equation? First of all because it has an almost mythical symbolism for Russia: from a historical perspective it is at the same time a place of refuge, an area of ​​penance and exile, but also a fortress that allows the rebirth of the Russian nation (Hønneland, 30-32).

In addition, the Arctic is part of Russia’s global identity, as evidenced by contemporary metanarratives designed to emphasize Moscow’s uniqueness: i) Eurasianism – exploits the territorial element (Russia is itself a continent, a separate territory), ii) cosmism – Russia aims to conquer the outer space (an extension of expansionist ambitions), iii) Arctic mythology – Russia is the state that can tame the Far North (Laruelle, 39). 

Russian mythology about the Arctic – “an identity altar for Russia” – is instrumented, depending on the context and objectives, in a geopolitical logic or in one designed for domestic politics use (Hønneland, 63). In fact, the Arctic has always been useful to Russia for very practical reasons. These reasons were later translated into (political) philosophy. The continuity of Russia’s greatness in relation to the Arctic is also revealed by Marlene Laruelle, who places the beginning of Russian interest in the North during the times of the Republic of Novgorod (12th-15th centuries) – an economic interest from the part of merchants who wanted to sell furs to Hanseatic traders. Other milestones were: Ivan the Terrible’s conquest of Kazan and Astrakhan (1552 and 1556), Russia control of Alaska (1741) and the Great Northern Expedition of 1733-1743, led by the Danish captain Vitus Bering (Laruelle, 25).

The whole discussion about the relevance of the Arctic for Russia’s identity cannot but indicate, for Eastern Europeans, a similarity with the messages used by Russia in relatuion with the states of the Black Sea region. As early as 2014, Russia annexed Crimea, citing similar motives: the cradle of Russian civilization, the source of Christianity, ignored – but reclaimed territory (the Arctic was also abandoned and forgotten in the years after the fall of communism, but President Putin revived Moscow’s interest for the region). Beyond this philosophical rhetoric – with geopolitical implications, but also relevant for the internal political developments in Russia – the annexation of Crimea also had very precise reasons: to prevent the inclusion of Ukraine in the “Euro-Atlantic world” and to appease Moscow’s fears of a so-called NATO expansion.

The Arctic is also a link to the period of the USSR, at least in terms of emphasizing Russia’s brave attempts to control the North and exploit its resources in order to maintain and increase the greatness of the Russian state. Theses and propaganda in this regard were also taken up in the speech of Russian decision-makers, as evidenced by the study of Nikolai Vakhtin, Sovetskaya Arktika journal as a source for the history of the Northern Sea Route.

Vakhtin notes that for the Soviets, the development of the North and of the transport corridors had primarily a military motivation, being a reaction to the defeats suffered in the Crimean War (1853-1856) or the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). Economic and trade ambitions were later added to military motivation (Vakhtin, 56).

For the communist press, the theme of the Red Arctic played an important, mobilizing role, meant to convey the idea that the North can be civilized and tamed by the Soviets. The North was also a new, undefiled place where socialism could be built. Obviously, these ambitions presupposed patriotism, heroism, and ambition, but in the end all sacrifices were meant to demonstrate the superiority of socialism (Hønneland, 32-34; Laruelle, 28).

The military relevance of the Arctic is still evident today, as evidenced by military exercises organized in the region (e.g., Vostok 2018) or the security interests associated with the Northern Sea Route (Arild Moe, A new Russian policy for the Northern sea ​​route? State interests, key stakeholders and economic opportunities in changing times).

The Arctic thus presents itself as an identity construct that values ​​both continuity (a Russian state that has always ruled the North) and a view towards the future (the Russian renaissance; the Arctic as a resource reservoir meant to help reaffirm the nation). It is important to note that this (at least) bivalent identity construct deals with the state and not necessarily with the citizens. Russia as a state is reborn through control of the Arctic, and Russia as a state must control the Arctic in order to defend itself from external aggression. The citizens, as in the imperial, Soviet tradition, assume the share of sacrifice required by the effort to defend and glorify the state.

The North: fears of NATO expansion and the climate change dossier

Russia’s Arctic policies are the result of a centralized decision-making process involving the Presidential Administration and the Security Council – a situation that shows the strategic relevance that the region has for Moscow (Laruelle, 6).

The Arctic obviously matters economically for Russia. However, the economic input in the Russian strategies comes to a small extent on a classic, institutional chain, but rather from the part of the companies with projects in the region – companies run by individuals with direct access to President Vladimir Putin (Idem).

Marlene Laruelle identifies two Russian approaches to the Arctic: i) security-first: the Far North is of particular strategic importance to Moscow, being the site of Russia’s reassertion as a great power; ii) cooperation-first: Russia needs to cooperate with external partners, to benefit from their expertise, in order to be able to economically develop the region. 

It is quite obvious which of the two approaches has the greatest traction in the Kremlin, but what is worth noting is that the dichotomy security vs. cooperation is also employed by Geir Hønneland, who speaks about one of Russia’s main fears: NATO enlargement.

Based on an analysis of Russian media messages about the Arctic, Geir Hønneland notes that NATO is presented as an organization preparing to conquer the Arctic. By comparison, Russia is presented as a non-conflict-seeking power, making every effort to generate cooperation and compromise, but all its openness is met with belligerent rhetoric from NATO (Hønneland, 50-57).

This image of an honest Russia, which does not seek confrontation with other international actors, is also reflected in the climate change dossier. An article published by Nina Tynkkynen (2010) reveals that the issue of climate change is being used by Russia in order to blame the West. On the issue of climate change, Russia is projecting an image of a responsible power, which, although not part of the problem (the West is responsible for climate change), is still willing to be part of the solution (Tynkkynen, 187-189).

It is worth mentioning that such a rhetoric of conspiracies directed against the West is supported and developed mainly by the state and disseminated through well-known propaganda channels.

At the level of the average Russian citizen, however, there is a slightly nuanced approach to Russia’s responsibility in the sphere of environment and, by extension, of climate change.

Scandinavian states are appreciated by ordinary Russians for the way they act for environmental protection, climate change monitoring and nuclear safety. The ordinary Russians tend to recognize the inability of the Russian state to take a responsible, fair and transparent approach in such areas (Hønneland, 141).

The remarks about what the Arctic means to Russia serve to highlight the similarities between Moscow’s geopolitical and identity approaches in the Black Sea and the Arctic Ocean. We have seen, for example, that Russia uses the same identity rhetoric, adapting only its discursive repertoire according to zonal specificity. Russia’s exaggerated fears of NATO and the specter of confrontation were also noted.

These are just a few topics, discovered with the help of two international experts on the relevance of the Arctic for Russia. They are aimed at highlighting the commonalities of how Russia influences the destinies of two regions, which otherwise would seem extremely exotic to each other – the Arctic Ocean and the Black Sea.  

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