Sunday, March 29, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Moscow’s New Arctic Policy Likely to Exacerbate Tensions in the Region

Paul Goble

Tallinn, March 29 – The Russian government’s policy paper on Arctic policy, which was prepared last year, confirmed by President Dmitry Medvedev in September, but published only at the end of last week, sets the stage for intense competition between the Russian Federation and other Arctic powers as well as between the center and Russia’s northern regions.
The 2900-word paper, now available on the website of the Russian security council (, outlines in broad-brush terms Moscow’s interests, concerns, and goals in the Arctic for the next decade, but both its thrust and certain specific provisions point to problems ahead both internationally and domestically.
The reason for the delay in the publication of this document is unknown, but the reasons for its being posted online now seem clear: The Russian government is concerned about a Norwegian-led “Cold Response” military exercise and about Denmark’s call for an international conference of Arctic powers (
To the extent that is the case, the document has both diplomatic and propagandistic purposes and thus contains many bows to ecological concern and the need for cooperation of all parties. But three aspects of the paper point to possible tensions ahead both among these powers and within the Russian Federation.
First, the paper specifies that Moscow views the Arctic as “a strategic resource base of the Russian Federation, which will guarantee the resolution of the tasks of the social-economic development of the country.” In short, the Russian government wants to exploit the oil and gas deposits on the seabed.
Given declining production in many Russian fields, a boost from production in this region would play a key role both in Russia’s economic development and in its geopolitical approach, and given global warming, Moscow has particular interest in staking its claim to control of newly opening shipping lanes.
Second, while it contains the usual call for international cooperation and negotiation on all issues, the new policy paper makes clear that Moscow intends to have a strong military and security presence in the region in order to be able to press its claims to a very large swath of the extreme North.
On the one hand, the document says that the Russian government will create “groups of forces of general assignment of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, as well as other forces, military units and organs (in the first case the border organs) in the Arctic zone of the RF capable of guaranteeing military security in various military-political situations.”
And on the other hand, the new policy paper says that Moscow plans to increase the role of the FSB in controlling the Arctic zone, even as it talks about using central Russian government funds to improve the standard of living in this enormous but thinly populated part of the country.
The first of these directions will exacerbate tensions with other Arctic powers. For a discussion of the different views of these powers on the Arctic and on the ways in which this could change the military balance in the Far North, see the discussion of these issues contained in an article posted last week at
But the second is likely to create some domestic problems, providing a government declaration that peoples in this region are certain to refer to as they press for more assistance and one that many in the region are likely to take as an indication that they will be subject to far more control by the security agencies than at any time since the Soviet period.
But just how far the Russian government will move to implement this policy paper is far from clear. Many times, Moscow has announced a policy and then not proceeded to take action. This time, however, the document in question suggests that Russia’s future is on the line depending on what it does in the Arctic.
And that stress in turn suggests that the Russian government will take some of the steps indicated, especially in the security area, thereby lending support to headlines in Russian media on Friday and Saturday suggesting that a new “Cold War” is really beginning in one of the earth’s already coldest places.

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