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Russia's Arctic: Soft and Hard Power Go Hand in Hand

This interview is part of a series on Russian interests in the Arctic. Russia's Arctic policies and postures are often misunderstood, overblown, or underrated because they take place in a complex regional context and result from complex internal politics. Every second month, Morgane Fert-Malka contributes with an analysis, interview, or book review shedding light on this central Arctic player.

By Morgane Fert-Malka

Among Arctic powers, Russia is a bit of a special case. It has the longest Arctic coastline and vast Arctic territories. It probably has the most capable military for deployment in a challenging Arctic environment, and is the only Arctic coastal state that is not a NATO member. It also stands alone with its resource-based economy, its status of emerging market, and its lower performance on many social standards including the health and human security of local Arctic populations.

As a consequence, the Arctic is important to Russia and Russia is important to the Arctic. For Russia, the Arctic, in its domestic and international dimensions, represents both a prodigious set of opportunities and a major vulnerability. For other Arctic actors, Russia is a player to be reckoned with—an inevitable partner, a competitor, and in some cases a perceived threat. Within the Arctic community, it often plays a key role in fostering or supporting scientific, business, and regional diplomacy, but at the strategic level of interstate relations it remains in an uncomfortable position, both engaging in cooperation and facing historical mistrust.

I spoke to Alexander Sergunin, professor of international relations at St. Petersburg State University and co-author of the book Russia in the Arctic: Hard or Soft Power? about Russia's Arctic identity and the drivers of its Arctic policies. In this nuanced and uncompromising interview, Sergunin highlights common misconceptions to make sense of Russia's military ambitions, territorial claims, and socio-economic development projects in the Arctic.

Morgane Fert-Malka: Most Arctic states have some form of “Arctic identity” that influences their domestic and foreign policies. How does the Arctic feature in Russia's identity debate?

Alexander Sergunin: Most Russians—common people and elites—view the Arctic in a pragmatic way; as a source of natural resources and an important junction of maritime and air routes. This vision is reflected in Russia’s official Arctic doctrines of 2008 and 2013.

However, some schools of thought in Russia adopt a more emotional approach. While Moscow, in its relations with the West and post-Soviet countries, often demonstrates its weakness and inability to set an agenda for dialogue in world politics, these thinkers see the Arctic as a “dreamland” where Russia showcases creativity and strength. Moreover, the Arctic allows the Russian intelligentsia to escape the perennial identity dilemma: Does Russia belong to the West or the East? The Arctic suggests an unexpected answer: Russians are neither Westerners nor Easterners; they are Northerners.

MFM: Do Russian policymakers construe the Arctic primarily as a domestic or an international issue? How important is the Arctic continental shelf in their strategic consideration?

AS: Russian strategists see the domestic problems, such as those pertaining to the socio-economic development of the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation (AZRF), as the most significant. They now realize that most threats and challenges to the AZRF originate from inside the country: the degradation of Soviet-time infrastructure, the resource-based economy, the lack of funds and managerial skills to develop the AZRF, etc. For this reason, Russia's current strategy aims at solving existing domestic problems rather than focusing on external expansion.

In the past 10 to 15 years, the Russian decision-making and academic communities managed to develop an innovative and integrated approach to sustainable development in the AZRF. Serious efforts were made to balance industrial development plans with the needs of indigenous peoples and environmental requirements. However, Russia still needs to move to the implementation phase and devise specific and realistic projects.

In regard to the continental shelf, Moscow has a dual approach. On the one hand, the Kremlin believes that Russia should make full use of UNCLOS [U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea] and extend its continental shelf wherever possible to ensure the strategic control of these natural resources and maritime and air routes. On the other hand, the Russian leadership understands that extraction of oil and gas at those depths will not become profitable for many decades. Most hydrocarbon resources are likely to be found in relatively shallow waters, within the 200-mile limit of Exclusive Economic Zones, and the contested areas are still uncharted. To obtain international recognition of rights to areas beyond 200 nautical miles, countries must demonstrate through scientific evidence that the seabed of a given area is a natural continuation of their landmass. In any case, as Moscow has repeatedly underlined, the Kremlin plans to solve the problem within the UNCLOS framework—peacefully and on the basis of solid research data.

MFM: Do Russia and the other Arctic countries understand each other properly? Is there sufficient communication at the diplomatic and sub-diplomatic levels?

AS: Diplomatic, business, and academic communities in Russia and the other Arctic countries communicate and understand each other pretty well. However, there are a lot of misunderstandings and misperceptions among mass media, and to some extent, among the militaries.

Mass media outside Russia often claim that the Arctic is undergoing a “militarization” and that Russia is fueling the risk of military conflict by conducting “massive” modernization programs that destabilize the regional power balance. As for the militaries, they have a love-hate type of relationship. They understand each other as professionals and on the practical level, but they must be prepared to fight each other if necessary.

On the Russian side, the main misperception is that the West/NATO wants to encroach on the Russian Arctic sector, which is rich in natural resources, and sideline Moscow in Arctic affairs. Such perceptions are characteristic of some radical political elites (Liberal Democrats, Communists), ideologues (Alexander Dugin, Alexander Prokhanov), and mass media.

MFM: In your book, you write that "Russia still has considerable military and strategic interests in the region [and that] they have not lost relevance with the end of the Cold War." At the same time, you write that "Moscow has no intention to use coercive instruments in the Arctic." How do you conciliate these two positions?

AS: The Russian military modernization programs have two components: strategic (nuclear) and conventional.

The strategic forces’ modernization programs aim at replacing decommissioned capabilities rather than increasing their offensive potential. They should be seen in the wider context of global nuclear deterrence rather than as a sign of conflict in the Arctic.

The conventional forces' modernization programs in the High North are rather modest—also because of Russia's current financial constraints—and they are comparable with the modernization programs of other Arctic states. The number of surface vessels, tactical submarines, aircraft, and helicopters are decreasing. The establishment of the unified command fleet “North” in 2014 should be seen as an effort to better coordinate the Russian land and air forces deployed in the AZRF for internal purposes rather than as an attempt to expand Russia's “sphere of influence.” The re-opened and modernized Soviet-era airfields and naval bases should provide the Russian forces with better infrastructure and enable them to operate in Arctic conditions, but they should also make it possible to implement the international agreements on search and rescue operations (2011) and preparedness against oil spills (2013). This infrastructure will be necessary for the further development of the Northern Sea Route and cross-polar flights, and for the implementation of the Polar Code. They should also help respond to a potential increase in illegal activities, such as smuggling, poaching, illegal migration, and even piracy—albeit these are concerns for the distant future.

*****

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Morgane Fert-Malka is a French Moscow-based political analyst. She focuses on Russian decision-making processes and on Russia's Arctic policies. She writes for various outlets such as Russia Direct (Moscow) and IFRI (Paris). She also co-founded WeBuildEurope.eu, a pan-European strategy think tank based in Vienna, where she heads a research project about the role of the European Union in the Arctic.

[Photo courtesy of Christopher Michel]

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