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Russia's Blindfolded Arctic Policy

This article 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

What does Russia want? This is, increasingly, the question on everyone's lips, and a host of Western commentators and policymakers have started looking at the Arctic as one of the theaters in which Russia should be kept under check.

Accordingly, Russian military and geopolitical activities in the Arctic are under scrutiny in the West. Honest observers have had to admit that in this regard, Russia has been playing by the rules—but the skeptics, reckoning that Russia's actions remain apparently innocent, claim that its intentions may not be so.

Intentions cannot be analyzed—at best they can be guessed at and played with as a concept. Russia's "Arctic intentions" are a big and quite indigestible chunk of so-called Kremlinology, and can only be accessed through assiduous and critical collection of the fragments that Russian experts and practitioners care to reveal. The main argument here is a very unattractive one: Despite rather coherent and powerful Russian rhetoric about the Arctic, there is no such thing as coherent Russian intentions and plans in the High North. In fact, all the signs seem to reinforce the impression that Russia is moving helpless and blindfolded into the Arctic.

Demystifying the Militaristic Rhetoric

The Russian internet, pseudo-expert spheres, and to some extent state media are flooded with militaristic and patriotic rhetoric, urging Russian policymakers to address the perceived threat of encroachment by foreign powers on the Russian Arctic. The typical argument is a logical one: The Russian Arctic, with its fossil fuels, fish stock, and transportation possibilities, will soon be the main base of Russia's economic and geostrategic power. Hence, Russia's adversaries (the U.S. and NATO) will want a share of Russia's resources and perhaps even deny Russia access by military means, both to enrich and strengthen themselves, and to impoverish and weaken Russia.

In reaction, the argument goes, Russia should organize its defense by investing massively (and simultaneously) in the economic exploitation and military fortification of its Northern flank.

This fanciful line of argument grants little importance to the existence of legal regimes that protect Russia's sovereign rights in its own Arctic waters and on its Arctic shelf, and that limit its margin of maneuver beyond them. In fact, it often ignores the principles of delimitation of sovereign and exclusive zones (waters and seabed), as establishing borders once and for all might risk Russia not getting its "fair share" or prevent future expansion in the region. The resulting impression that Russia's Northern border remains in question conveniently helps justify the fear of encroachment. The argument also overlooks the fact that Arctic resources, according to realistic assessments, are limited in quantity and profitability, as well as the reality that militarizing the Arctic against imaginary threats to protect marginal profits would be economic nonsense, akin to Don Quixote's charge against windmills. No need to mention that environmental concerns are completely absent from this discourse.

No serious Arctic expert in Russia supports this "besieged fortress" narrative, and most denounce it as misguided, misinformed, and in some cases dishonest framing. Nevertheless, the narrative is well-articulated and is the most readily available argument for both Russian citizens and uninformed foreign commentators, who hasten to claim that it reflects "Russian intentions." But does it?

Words do not Matter

A few high-profile Russian politicians have engaged, directly or indirectly, in the militaristic-patriotic propaganda about Russia's Arctic projects. Yet that reveals little beyond the fact that Arctic rhetoric is used as a powerful tool for fostering patriotic sentiments.

Official Russian statements and strategies are clear and balanced. They emphasize, on the one hand, cooperation on all issues of common interest between Arctic countries, and on the other hand, Russia's legitimate security and sovereignty concerns. However, as Russian experts all confirm, in Russia words do not matter. Strategies are written in order to please everyone and commit to nothing. "Do not waste your time reading them" is the general message.

In fact, neither the propaganda nor the official statements indicate anything about Russia's intentions in the Arctic. The propaganda is about fostering domestic support for the regime and has nothing to do with the Northern region. Official statements are uncontroversial, but they are not meant to be actually implemented. The truth is that Russian policymaking in the Arctic is expedient, fragmented, and generally inefficient, and that policymakers are divided on crucial issues.

Key Divisions

Perhaps the most conspicuously consensual issue is the delimitation of the continental shelf, yet even this apparent consensus starts to fall apart as soon as one scratches the surface. Since 1997, the Russian leadership has strongly committed to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and recognized it as the relevant framework for the settlement of extended claims to the Arctic seabed by littoral states. Yet to this day, there is a virulent debate among Russian legal experts, and to some extent among policymakers, about whether Russia should actually follow the UNCLOS rules—which some interpret as ambiguous or disadvantageous to Russia—or curtail it and seek ad hoc agreements with Denmark and Canada. Hitherto Russia has been exemplary in following and even pioneering the UNCLOS track, but unofficially, the sentiment is that it reserves the right to turn around if the process turns out to be unfavorable.

Note that the outcome will depend less on the intrinsic strength of the argument than on what interested parties—ministries, individual politicians, industrial and commercial stakeholders—have to gain or lose in the process, and on how successfully proponents of one view or the other manage to advocate their position to the top level of policymaking.

Similarly, questions such as the remilitarization of the Russian Arctic (together with both strategic concerns and military-industrial-complex concerns) or the socio-economic development of Russia's Arctic regions (together with fossil fuel extraction, infrastructure development, and environmental concerns) set the scene for unbridgeable divergences of opinion among the ministries, state agencies, and other stakeholders.

Pork Barrel and Lobbying

It is natural that complex issues instigate laborious decision-making processes, but ideally this is a result of the need to arrive at a consensus through a lively debate among state, private, and civil society stakeholders. Pork barrel and private lobbying do not fall into this category. In these situations, the general interest is never the primary factor of decision-making and stakeholders channel their interests upward and separately without talking to one another.

It looks like Russia's Arctic policymaking, until now, has been just that. Much of it happens behind closed doors and without name plates. Many civil servants, even at the higher levels, only know and care about their own narrow areas of responsibility, without a broader understanding of the general stakes and of what others are doing. Many geostrategic misconceptions linger in top decision-makers' minds. Vested interests are the name of the game, a share of the state budget is the prize, and personal connections are the tokens. Certainly, the myriad of state and private stakeholders who have an interest in and influence on Arctic policymaking processes know what they want and where they are heading; as for Russia, it is moving forward blindfolded.

No wonder that militaristic, patriotic rhetoric is attractive, to Russians and foreign observers alike. As incongruent as it may be, it still makes more sense than reality.

*****

*****

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 Dmitry Dzhus]

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