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.
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.
Picture: Vincent van Zeijst (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons