This article is part of ECFR's Wider Europe Forum
Russia’s increasing military actions in the Arctic are aimed at securing its broader strategic interests, as well as tightening its hold on an area that it has identified as a “strategic resource base”.
Earlier this week, President Vladimir Putin ordered Russia’s entire Northern Fleet to engage in a snap combat readiness exercise in the north-western area of Russia’s Arctic Zone, which shares a border with Norway. Official figures from Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu indicated that the exercise involved at least 38,000 soldiers, 3,360 vehicles, 41 naval vessels, 15 submarines, and 110 aircraft.
It may be tempting to view these exercises as a further sign that Russia is gearing up for a war over the Arctic. The region’s extensive reserves of natural resources, along with the conflicting territorial claims and increasing maritime activity of countries with a stake there, have been the source of considerable geopolitical intrigue over the past decade.
These exercises have less to do with the Arctic itself, and much more to do with the strategic importance that Russia has for almost a century ascribed to the Kola Peninsula.
However, it is more likely that these exercises have less to do with the Arctic itself, and much more to do with the strategic importance that Russia has for almost a century ascribed to the Kola Peninsula, in the country’s far northwest. The peninsula gives Russia maritime access to the Atlantic and, during the Cold War, it was one of the main bases for the Soviet Union’s nuclear-armed forces. Both of these strategic advantages remain relevant to the Kremlin today.
Nevertheless, Russian military activity in the Arctic has increased significantly since the turn of the century, especially relative to the very low level of activity seen in the 1990s (caused by a chronic lack of investment after the collapse of the Soviet Union).
Russia’s emergence as an energy superpower in the 2000s has allowed the Kremlin to fund an extensive programme of military modernisation.
Russia’s emergence as an energy superpower in the 2000s has allowed the Kremlin to fund an extensive programme of military modernisation. As part of this programme, Russia has begun to reopen a number of naval facilities, airbases, and radar sites along the outer edges of Russia’s Arctic zone, as well as building search and rescue centres in the region.
This security cordon is aimed at securing Russia’s Arctic borders and building up the country’s capacities to police activity in the Russian Arctic Zone, an area that the Kremlin has identified as a “strategic resource base” for the socio-economic development of Russia in the twenty-first century. As such, these activities should be viewed as somewhat separate to activities like the snap exercises seen earlier this week, which relate to Russia’s broader strategic interests, such as maintaining maritime access to the Atlantic Ocean (although it is difficult for Western defence planners to determine exactly which activities are directed at securing Russia’s Arctic economic interests and which are part of Russia’s broader strategic posture).
Europe still needs to take seriously Russia’s interest in developing a security cordon around its maritime Arctic.
Traditionally, NATO has taken responsibility for responding to shifts in Russia’s strategic posture, including in the Arctic, and this is likely to remain the case as long as the European Union’s Common Security and Defence Policy is oriented towards “out of area” operations. The implications of Russia’s military activities in the Arctic are less immediate for the EU, but Europe still needs to take seriously Russia’s interest in developing a security cordon around its maritime Arctic, not least because of the EU’s increasing attention to global maritime security.
Over the past decade, the EU has become far more aware of the importance of global maritime security to the interests of its member states. This has been demonstrated by the naval missions it has undertaken in the Indian Ocean to protect trade routes from piracy, as well as by the publication of the EU’s first Maritime Security Strategy in 2014 (and the related Action Plan).
Member states’ interests are primarily linked to concerns about energy and resource security, but also concern the rights of member states who are seeking access to economic opportunities for blue growth (for example, in shipping, fisheries, and tourism).
New EU maritime interests in the Arctic relate mostly to opportunities for blue growth.
New EU maritime interests in the Arctic relate mostly to opportunities for blue growth. The emergence of these interests means that the stability of the region could become more relevant to the EU’s ability to secure its trade and resource interests effectively in the region.
Any dispute with Russia over the maritime access rights of member states in Russia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) could present a source of instability in the region. In 2012, the Kremlin signed into law its authority to exercise jurisdiction over the entirety of its EEZ on the basis of Article 234 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which makes provisions for waters which are ice-covered most of the year.
The EU, the United States, and others have argued that Russia’s position is inconsistent with international maritime rights of innocent and transit passage.
Subsequently, the Kremlin made a strong response to Greenpeace’s “Arctic 30”: 30 protestors were arrested and held for three months in 2013 after attempting to board a Gazprom rig, and their ship was detained for nine months. The Kremlin’s action was intended to show that it will not allow any precedent to be set that might undermine its authority over what it regards as its sovereign waters in the Arctic. The EU, the United States, and others have argued that Russia’s position is inconsistent with international maritime rights of innocent and transit passage.
Any assertion of the EU’s maritime rights and associated security interests in the Arctic will likely prove provocative to Russia and will have to be managed carefully. Such an act could also damage relations with Canada, which holds a similar position to Russia over international access rights to the Northwest Passage through the Canadian Arctic. Nevertheless, the EU may yet come to face more and more demands from member states for the deployment of EU naval patrols to protect maritime supply chains and access rights in Arctic waters.
Duncan Depledge is an independent research analyst currently writing about the implications of the changing geopolitics of the Arctic for the UK and the EU. He is also an Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.