Russian Interests and Policies in the Arctic


Russian leaders have in recent months focused on the importance of the Arctic region to their country’s security and economic goals in the 21st century. Russian actions in the Arctic are governed by a combination of factors. The highest priority is economic development of Russia’s Arctic region. However, Russian leaders also see the Arctic as a location where they can assert their country’s status as a major international power. This is done by claiming sovereignty over Arctic territory, and through steps to assure Russian security in the region.

Russian policy is pursued on two divergent tracks. The first track uses bellicose rhetoric to highlight Russia’s sovereignty over the largest portion of the Arctic, as well as declarations of a coming military buildup in the region. This track is primarily aimed at shoring up support among a domestic audience. The second track seeks international cooperation in order to assure the development of the region’s resources. This includes efforts to settle maritime border disputes and other conflicts of interest in the region. Managing the lack of alignment between these two tracks, and the potential for counter-productive setbacks caused by inconsistencies between them, is an important challenge for Russia’s leadership.

The rhetoric of sovereignty claims

Russian officials have frequently made statements and taken symbolic actions to assert Russian sovereignty over parts of the Arctic. Many of these actions have had to do with enforcing Russian territorial claims in the region.

The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) allows countries to claim an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of 200 nautical miles (nm) beyond their shoreline. Large parts of the Arctic Ocean could thus be claimed by more than one country. Furthermore, UNCLOS grants states exclusive rights to extract mineral resources on their continental shelves up to a distance of 350 nm from shoreline provided that they can demonstrate that they have a “broad” continental shelf. This has led to disputes over whether various underwater mountain ranges should be considered extensions of the continental shelf.

Moscow has long claimed that the Lomonosov and Mendeleyev Ridges are not ridges per se, but actually extensions of the Russian continental shelf. Denmark (via its sovereignty over Greenland) and Canada also claim the Lomonosov Ridge as extensions of their respective continental shelves. The adjudication of these claims is particularly significant as the ridges pass very close to the geographic North Pole and would dramatically expand the mineral extraction zone for whichever state had control of extraction rights on them. In December 2001, Russia submitted a claim to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS), arguing that a large sector of seabed under the Arctic Ocean, extending to the North Pole, was an extension of the Eurasian continent. According to the claim, Russia should have the exclusive right to explore for natural resources in this area, called the Lomonosov Ridge. The Commission advised the following year that additional research was necessary to substantiate the claim, and thus the claim remains unresolved. An updated submission is expected in the spring of 2015.

In order to justify its claims to the Lomonosov Ridge, Russia provocatively launched a scientific expedition in 2007 that included a State Duma deputy who planted a titanium Russian flag on the bottom of the sea near the North Pole. Other exploratory missions conducted since then have provided additional bathymetric data and collected soil samples from the sea floor. Russian officials have argued that CLCS acceptance of its claim that the so-called peanut hole in the Sea of Okhotsk is part of Russia’s continental shelf strengthens the validity of its claims in the Arctic Ocean.

In addition to planting a flag at the bottom of the ocean, other Russian claims to the Arctic have been designed to appeal to the Russian domestic population. The highly publicized occasional air patrols along the Norwegian, Canadian, and Alaskan coastlines and the recent action against Greenpeace protesters who sought to scale the Prirazlomnoye offshore oil rig were both primarily symbolic in nature. In the latter incident, Russia impounded the Dutch-flagged Greenpeace ship, with officials making highly charged statements accusing the protesters of piracy . Russia also refused to participate in hearings at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea and initially declared that it would ignore that body’s ruling ordering the ship and its crew released (compare this to an almost identical Greenpeace protest in 2012, which resulted merely in the protesters being removed from the platform and their ship escorted out of Russian territory).

The case of Russian political scientist Sergei Medvedev further highlights the importance the Russian government attaches to symbolic actions against anyone contesting Russian sovereignty in the Arctic. In 2013, he commented on Facebook that Russia “had inflicted so much damage to the environment that all economic activity in the High North should be banned and a UN monitoring should be established.” This prompted President Putin to publicly call Medvedev a moron. Other Russian politicians called for Medvedev’s expulsion from Russia for betraying the motherland.

International cooperation

In contrast to the hostile rhetoric that has frequently emanated from Moscow, the Russian government has continually pursued practical cooperative steps with other Arctic states. These efforts have included attempts to increase economic cooperation and solve territorial disputes in the region.

Russia’s main goal in the Arctic is to develop the region’s energy resources. The natural resources ministry has stated that the parts of the Arctic Ocean claimed by Russia may hold more petroleum deposits than those currently held by Saudi Arabia. A 2008 US Geological Survey estimated total Russian offshore oil reserves at 30 billion barrels, while natural gas reserves were estimated at 34 trillion cubic meters (tcm), with an additional 27 billion barrels of natural gas liquids.

Russian companies face serious challenges in developing these oil and gas resources. Because of limitations on Russia’s ability to conduct offshore drilling in extreme climate conditions, Russian firms have sought foreign partners for their operations in the Arctic. The most important deals have involved Norway’s Statoil and France’s Total. Other actors, including BP, Exxon-Mobil, CNPC, and the Indian ONGC are all in various stages of establishing partnerships for developing Russian oil and gas fields.

The ongoing UNCLOS process is multilateral and consensus-based. Meanwhile, Arctic nations including Russia have tried to resolve disputes through bilateral negotiations. Russia’s goal is to ensure control of the maximum amount of seabed natural resources, while creating conditions that will allow for international assistance in the development of these resources. In order to achieve this goal, the government believes it must resolve all remaining maritime territorial disputes with the four other states that claim sectors in the Arctic: Norway, Denmark, Canada, and the United States.

The location of the maritime border between Russia and the United States also continues to generate some tension. Although the two states agreed on a border treaty in 1990, this treaty has never been ratified by the Russian State Duma. Most Russian politicians would like to see the treaty’s terms renegotiated because they believe the treaty was unfair to Russian claims and was signed at a time when the collapsing Soviet Union was at its weakest.  Russia and the United States also disagree about the status of the Northern Sea Route. The United States claims the right of free navigation, while Russia argues that the route goes through Russian internal waters. This would mean all passing ships must request permission and pay for any icebreakers and pilots. While this dispute is unlikely to lead to conflict, it will continue to generate occasional heated rhetoric whenever the Russian side believes its control over Arctic sea lanes to be threatened.

On the other hand, Russia has been particularly keen to resolve a long-standing bilateral dispute with Norway over a resource-rich 175,000 square kilometer area in the Barents Sea. This desire has been driven by Russia’s need for Norwegian assistance in natural resource exploration throughout its Arctic sector, since Norway has the greatest expertise in offshore natural gas drilling in similar climatic conditions. In a September 2010 accord, the two countries decided to divide the disputed territory roughly equally. In addition, they agreed to cooperate in developing the region’s natural resources and to share any mineral deposits that cross the delimitation line. Even though they have delineated their adjacent territorial sea boundary, the two sides still disagree about the extent of each other’s EEZs in waters around the Spitsbergen/Svalbard archipelago. Over the last decade, conflicts over fishing rights there have led to the arrest of Russian fishing vessels by the Norwegian Coast Guard and, in response, the initiation of frequent Russian naval patrols in the area.

The settlement of the border dispute with Norway, long considered the most serious in the Arctic, has given impetus to other bilateral negotiations. In the days after the signing ceremony, Canada and Russia jointly announced that they would abide by the decisions of the UN in solving their dispute over the Lomonosov Ridge. This has engendered optimism that various territorial claims that have been (or will soon be) filed with the UN by all five Arctic coastal states can be resolved in an orderly and peaceful manner. Because UNCLOS rules only allow applicants to claim extended EEZ sectors if they are not disputed by other parties, all the Arctic coastal states recognize that they have to settle any extant maritime border disputes amongst themselves before their claims to extended zones may be approved by the CLCS. The fact that the United States is not party to UNCLOS complicates this process.

Shifts in dominant narratives over time

Over the last decade, Russian policy toward the Arctic has oscillated between the sometimes contradictory imperatives of economic gain and security considerations. While the former has encouraged cooperation with other Arctic states, the latter has frequently been interpreted by Russian leaders in a manner that seemed to suggest a confrontational posture in the region. At various points, one or the other narrative has been dominant, though the dominance of the confrontational narrative has largely coincided with Vladimir Putin’s terms as president.

During Putin’s second term as president (2005-08), the confrontational narrative was in ascendance. Russian officials openly began to discuss increasing their military presence in the Arctic. These actions prompted concern in other countries that Russia was prepared to defend its claims by force. Actions such as the planting of the Russian flag on the seabed near the North Pole and the resumption of patrols by Russian strategic bombers lent weight to these concerns.

The period of heightened tension was relatively short, however, as Putin’s successor Dmitry Medvedev (2008-12) emphasized cooperative activities and solving territorial disputes. During Medvedev’s presidency, Russia solved the maritime territorial dispute with Norway and took pains to be seen as a constructive actor in the region. To this end, it emphasized its desire to work through multinational organizations such as the Arctic Council and the Barents Euro-Arctic Council and agreed to abide by the opinions of the CLCS regarding its maritime continental shelf extension claims. While Arctic sovereignty remained a concern for the Russian government, there was a greater emphasis on securing this sovereignty through international agreements and cooperative activities, rather than through military strength. Russia continued its efforts to build up military strength in the region, but bellicose statements were kept to a minimum and collective security was considered as a possible path to securing the region.

With the return of Vladimir Putin to the presidency in 2012, the confrontational narrative again came to the forefront. However, this narrative has not completely displaced the cooperative narrative, even as overall relations with the West have declined precipitously. Over the last two years, both narratives were used at different times in official statements and actions on the Arctic. Russia has sought to assert its sovereignty over its Arctic territory through strong rhetoric by politicians, showy efforts to build up military capabilities, and defiant unilateral actions such as those against the Greenpeace protesters. But it has simultaneously cooperated with other Arctic states to accomplish practical goals, and it still seeks foreign partners for its economic ventures in the region. For example, Russia’s Northern Sea Route Administration has begun to publicly release in English information about ships applying for and receiving permission to transit through the route in recent years, including their reported cargoes, destinations, and durations of their transit. They also walked back requirements that ships pay a transit fee. Now ships only pay for the vessel services which they order, like ice pilots and ice breaker services. This type of transparency and accommodation to international standards and norms is necessary if Russia wants to assure commercial operators, insurers, and others about safety and governance in those waters.

In recent discussions with the author, Sergei Ryabkov, the Deputy Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation, made it clear that Russia hopes to maintain contacts with the United States on Arctic issues and to continue multilateral and bilateral cooperation on practical issues such as fisheries limitation agreements, environmental cleanup and oil spill remediation, and the protection of polar bears and other vulnerable Arctic animals. Russian officials want to make sure that cooperation through the Arctic Council will continue despite the downturn in relations. They are trying to be careful to define areas of cooperation that are mutually beneficial, while keeping discussions relatively low-key to avoid excessive politicization.

It appears that the confrontational rhetoric and activities are intended primarily for a domestic audience, in order to shore up Vladimir Putin’s support among the conservative and nationalistically-minded voters who make up his main base. At the same time, Russia’s leadership recognizes that its policy priorities in the region can best be accomplished through international cooperation. This divergence between rhetoric and policy is made clear by the effort undertaken by the Russian government in recent years to pursue international cooperation even as it has continued to make anti-Western statements and undertake symbolic acts asserting its sovereignty in the Arctic. As a result, the bifurcated nature of Russia’s Arctic policy is likely to continue for the foreseeable future once the immediate crisis in East-West relations is overcome.


Dmitry Gorenburg is a senior research scientist in the Strategic Studies division of CNA, a not-for-profit research and analysis organization. Dr. Gorenburg is also the editor of the journals Problems of Post-Communism and Russian Politics and Law and an associate at Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. He has previously taught in the Department of Government at Harvard University and served as Executive Director of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies (AAASS). He holds a Ph.D in political science from Harvard University and a B.A. in international relations from Princeton University. He blogs on issues related to the Russian military at


Photo credit: NOAA Photo Library