Putinization of the Arctic: Friend or Foe?


The Arctic Ocean is one of the few places left unexplored on Earth.  Its vast frozen landmass and seas encompass all that is north of 66° 33’N, otherwise known as the Arctic Circle. It is bordered by the United States (Alaska), Canada, Denmark (Greenland), Norway, Iceland, and of course, Russia.  Outside of the littoral nations, Sweden and Finland are pertinent to the area and are also members of the Arctic Council created in 1996.

The Arctic Council is the leading intergovernmental forum promoting cooperation, coordination and interaction among the Arctic States, Arctic indigenous communities and other Arctic inhabitants on common Arctic issues, in particular on issues of sustainable development and environmental protection in the Arctic.

A major focus is the melting icecap as it not only affects the coastal nations, but the rest of the world with global climate change studies, and funding the search for natural resources, and the claiming of borders.

There is no doubt the Arctic ice has been melting at an alarming rate.  According to the IceNational Snow and Ice Data Center, “Arctic sea ice extent for March 2018 averaged 14.30 million square kilometers (5.52 million square miles), the second lowest in the 1979 to 2018 satellite record.”  The once harsh climate and frozen waters have lessened and opened to the world.  These newfound waterways are fundamental for several reasons.  First, they can provide quicker and cheaper shipping lanes.  Next, it is presumed there will be a hydrocarbon extraction boom.  Finally, to protect these lucrative discoveries, nations may want to secure their Arctic borders.

Russia’s vast coastline almost makes it synonymous with the Arctic.  Far more Russians live in the Arctic Circle than do Canadians, its second largest border.  Its long history of claiming a warm water port assisted in Russia to explore its immediate north after World War II.  Imminent tensions with the United States created several Arctic bases on both sides.  The Cold War is supposedly over, yet Washington DC and Moscow maintain uneasy relations at its best and dangerous at its worst.  “In July 2007, a team of Russian scientists led by Arthur Chilingarov descended to the ocean bottom of the North Pole and planted a Russian flag on the seabed.”  This symbolism speaks volumes, but determining its meaning is the difficult part.  There are two schools of thought: Russia is either aggressive and following its historical norms of nationalism or cooperative and aiding in developing the natural resources in the region. One may spark a new Cold War, while the other will create a new world order.  The United States Department of Homeland Security must determine which it will be to maintain national security.

The Northern Sea Route

            Various Arctic travel routes have existed, but they are not extensive, and are truly only viable in the summer NSRmonths.  As the ice melts faster, more lanes have opened.  The Northern Sea Route (NSR) “runs along the Russian Arctic coastline from the Kara Sea to the Bering Strait.”[1]  More temperate waters allow the NSR to extend westward into Scandinavia and even the North Sea.  According to a Wall Street Journal map (2013), this route could even reduce the distance between Europe and China by upwards of 40% as compared the norm of traveling the Suez Canal.

Maritime boundaries differ from those on land.  Østhagen wrote, “each coastal state [has] rights in the adjacent maritime space: a maximum 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and continental shelf, which can be extended further given adequate proof of its geological contiguity.”  The US and Russia are at odds with two Arctic shipping routes: the NSR and the Northwest Passage (connecting the Canadian Atlantic to the Pacific).[2]   The former asserts both are within international waters and should not be claimed by a country.  The latter says that the NSR is within their EEZ, and therefore has authority.  Russia’s tremendous interest in and claim to the NSR is evident in their developmental policies and state papers.  For example, in 2008, the Transport Strategy of the Russian Federation up to 2030 was created.  “According to this document, Russia aims to develop the NSR by commissioning nuclear icebreakers, improving the ports along the shipping lane and creating a ship monitoring system.”  In addition, Russia seeks to create numerous search and rescue (SAR) stations along the NSR.  Clearly these are beneficial to the Russians.

International shipping has increased since the ice has melted.  It appears Russia is maintaining its control of the shipping lane via legal barriers.  For example, “vessels navigating the NSR are responsible for environmental pollution, tariffs, and providing proof of liability and insurance.” Alternatively, Devyatkin also asserts that Moscow will internationalize the NSR for the benefit of all.  Both the China Ocean Shipping Company and the Danish-operated Maersk are interested in traversing the lane.   The NSR is still too new to know what will happen in the future.  The US-Russian disagreement has yet to unfold into something larger but must continue to be a focus of the United States.


Hydrocarbons            Simply stated, hydrocarbons are compounds that are made up of hydrogen and carbon—they are essential components in fossil fuels like oil and natural gas.  In a globalized world, energy extraction is fundamental to the maintenance of developed nations and the modernizing of developing ones.  According to Bird et al., the Arctic may hold 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil and up to 30% of the world’s undiscovered natural gas supplies.  In other figures by the United States Geological Survey,

Using a geology based probabilistic methodology, the USGS estimated the occurrence of undiscovered oil and gas in 33 geologic provinces thought to be prospective for petroleum. The sum of the mean estimates for each province indicates that 90 billion barrels of oil, 1,669 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids may remain to be found in the Arctic, of which approximately 84 percent is expected to occur in offshore areas.

Russia, having the largest coastline with the Arctic, will therefore have the most of these energy resources.[3]  This potential competition should be a concern for the US.

As with Russia’s involvement in the NSR, its energy interests are also multi-faceted.  In 2000 when Vladimir Putin first became president, he solidified his power by transitioning private oil and gas companies into governmental-controlled entities.  Some experts speculate this proves his desire for personal gain as the Arctic opens.  The Kremlin has put forth several government papers explaining the significance of hydrocarbons in the Arctic.  The annual Development Strategies of the Russian Arctic espouse this.  In exploring the resources of the Arctic, Moscow will rely less on the diminishing supplies in Siberia.  Putin’s nationalism spreads further.  “In 2012, the State Program for the Development of the Continental Shelf in the Period up to 2030 established the Arctic continental shelf as a territory for exploitation solely by state companies, namely Rosneft and Gazprom.”

In reality, Devyatkin wrote, with the amount of hydrocarbons potentially present in Russian EEZs, there is no need for Moscow to claim other nations’ supplies.  To support this, Russia sought technological and business cooperation with the US.  “In 2012, Rex Tillerson and Igor Sechin, the then chief executive officers of ExxonMobil and Rosneft respectively, signed a deal that was worth $500 billion.”  Complications ensued, and the deal ultimately failed in 2017.  Russia does have successful ventures with both British Petroleum and the Norwegian government and is looking towards working with China.  It will be interesting to see if the US could ever have an energy relationship with Russia in the Arctic.

Militarizing the Arctic

russia militarizing

If the previous explanations of shipping lanes and hydrocarbons seemed ambiguous, then analyzing Russia’s military in the Arctic will be consistent.  When the Cold War ended, the Warsaw Pact disbanded, but the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) remained.  Moscow may be regretting this decision as all their actions or inactions impact NATO members.  Neither Sweden nor Finland are part of NATO but would seek Western assistance if Russia were to pursue military endeavors too close.  Specifically concerning the newly discovered riches in the Arctic, it makes sense that Russia would focus on it militarily to protect its ventures.

For the years of the Dimitri Medvedev-Putin regime, several government policies passed regarding the Arctic.  Some were military focused, while others were more cooperative and economic focused.  In February 2013, the Development Strategy of the Russian Arctic and the Provision of National Security for the Period Until 2020 was passed.  It elaborated on a previous policy concerning the Arctic, as well it maintained Russia’s national security issues were also those of the Arctic’s.

For example, one priority is the establishment of an integrated security system for the protection of territory, population, and critical facilities. National security in the Arctic requires an advanced naval, air force and army presence in the Arctic. Further aims include developing the Russian icebreaker fleet, modernizing the air service and airport network, and establishing modern information and telecommunication infrastructure.

In addition, according to Devyatkin, another policy, the Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation, created in 2014, stated that soldiers must be stationed in the Arctic, even in times of peace.  These policies are mere words compared to actual figures.


There are 14 non-Russian bases within the Arctic Circle, much of them in Alaska, one in Norway and Greenland, and the rest in Canada.  Russia has 17, at least six of which are new.  These comprise of both air and naval bases.  Russia’s Arctic military buildup began in 2007, a month after the flag planting.  There it “resumed strategic bomber and Northern Fleet patrols in its Arctic waters for the first time since the end of the Cold War,” as well as highly invested in its navy.  Its Northern Fleet currently maintains approximately 40 submarines (many with nuclear capabilities), one aircraft carrier, 17 larger ships, 33 auxiliary ships, 100 planes, and 40 helicopters.  It is true that the Northern Fleet is significantly less than that of the Cold War.  However, Russia is also increasing its missile defense system.  Devyatkin further explained, “the Ministry of Defense has announced that they aim to put more than 100 military facilities into operation in 2017” and soldiers with Arctic combat training will be stationed there.  What exactly these have to do with maintaining its resources has yet to be seen.

Russia also participates with NATO countries in joint military exercises and SAR.  From 2010-2013, Russia and Norway held naval drills in the Barents Sea and since 2015 have held joint Northern Fleet and Norwegian Coast Guard drills.  Russia also conducted exercises with France, the United Kingdom, and the US (FRUKUS), but these ended in 2013.  When Putin annexed Crimea, NATO drills with Russia stopped.  In a Boston Globe article from 2017, Andrew Grant explained that the Coast Guards from the eight Arctic Council nations established the Arctic Coast Guard Forum (ACGF) in 2015 to coordinate emergency responses.  Joint military exercises and SAR cooperation adds to the uncertainty and confusion of Russia’s military presence in the Arctic.


The Arctic Domain Awareness Center (ADAC) is a Science and Technology Organization within the Department of Homeland Security.  They have a couple of projects working towards a better understanding of the region.  For example, in cooperation with the Woods Hole Institute, they are creating a Tethys Long Range Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (LRAUV).  “Once complete, the LRAUV will be a propeller-driven robot used in situations too dangerous for humans,” such as deep-sea data collection or oil spills.  Thus far, it will be used in the Alaskan Arctic.  Other projects include mapping sea lanes, modelling ice and currents in the region, and various tools for mapping oil spills.  These programs are helpful scientifically and must continue, but they do not add a defensive or even offensive component to national security.

In researching a specific US Arctic defense policy, there was very little information.  On the Department of Homeland Security website in searching for “Arctic Policy,” there are a multitude of articles, but the majority are between two and six years old and mostly scientific in nature.[4]  In 2013, Defense Secretary under President Obama Chuck Hagel, announced an update to the 2009 Department of Defense (DoD) Arctic Policy.  After more searching, two articles were found: one explaining the passing of National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and a DoD document both supported by Alaskan Senator Dan Sullivan.  Perhaps this is evidence to President Trump’s denial of climate change.  Regardless, the Pentagon claims reduced ice levels are a national security threat.

The NDAA was passed in 2016 by a huge margin: 85-13.  It provided significant funding for the Alaskan and Arctic region.  Senator Sullivan said,

From near-peer adversaries like a resurgent Russia and an emergent China, to unstable and unpredictable threats from ISIS and North Korea, I fought to include provisions in this bill that will ensure that our troops get the best equipment and training, and that our nation is assertively responding to growing threats in regions like the Asia-Pacific and the Arctic.

In addition, the NDAA would work with the Coast Guard to upgrade ports and increase the fight for icebreakers.  This last piece is very important as the US only has three icebreakers, compared to Russia’s 30.  According to Admiral Stavridis, seven of them are nuclear powered, including their newest addition, the Arktika, which has 80,000 horse power and is 567 feet long; it can break up to 10 feet of ice at a time.  This NDAA funding is necessary, especially since Russia is elevating its presence in the Arctic, and clearly the Senate understood that.  This is necessary funding, especially since Russia is elevating its presence in the Arctic, and clearly the Senate understood that.

Also, in 2016, the DoD submitted their Report to Congress on Strategy to Protect United States National Security Interests in the Arctic Region.  “It is also in DoD’s interest to shape military activity in the Arctic region to avoid conflict while improving its capability to operate safely and sustain forces in a harsh, remote environment in anticipation of increasing accessibility and activity in the Arctic in the coming years.” Additional components comprise of infrastructure, preserving freedom of the seas, and strengthening alliances.  As with the NDAA, this policy is heading in the right direction for Russia’s current and potential future aggression.

If the President and the Department of Homeland Security do not deem the Arctic a current concern, perhaps the US should let the other NATO littoral nations take charge.  The European Command of NATO (EUCOM) would be a beneficial fit.  They are already in the region of potential concern, already keeping watch over Russia’s actions, and Norway and Denmark are involved with Russia concerning joint ventures and exercises.  Admiral Stavridis explained that they have the technology and icebreakers necessary: Canada has six, Denmark has four, and Norway has one; outside of NATO, but part of the Arctic Council are Finland and Sweden with seven each.  Utilizing the power and influence of our allies with the Arctic is imperative, especially with the recent current events involving Russia.


Vladimir Putin is an interesting leader.  He is a former intelligence officer of the Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (KGB), the Soviet Union’s leading security force with more than a decade of experience.  He saw the Fatherland collapse under Boris Yeltsin in the late 1990s and has since run the country in one form or another. In a landslide election, he just won his fourth term as president. Under his control, Russia acquired Crimea, but there is a history of war with Chechnya and Georgia and there are several border disputes with former Soviet Satellites.  Putin’s history, as well as Russian territorial antagonism is significant to note.

In addition, Moscow is currently dealing with several international issues.  The 2016 voting scandal of the American elections is still present. It is assumed Russia poisoned double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia causing tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions in several nations.  Most recently, their involvement in Syria’s Assad regime and the potential gas attack has increased tensions with the West.  Russia’s hawkish actions only prove their international aggression and nationalist tendencies.

True, no fighting has occurred in the Arctic, there are no landgrabs, and military installations are significantly lower than those of the Cold War.  Nevertheless, it comes down to Putin. He has a shady history, one of having the constitution altered to maintain legitimacy, celebrating WWII victories, military parades, and nationalizing major energy corporations.  He eccentricity and determination even led to a Russian flag on the seabed of the North Pole.  This intensity could prove to demonstrate his eagerness and willingness to militarize the Arctic for Russian gain, not international cooperation.

In 2014, Putin said, “you can do a lot more with weapons and politeness than just politeness.”  He was referring to a Russian soldier in Crimea in March earlier that year.  Despite that it was spoken four years ago, it still applies to how he views the Arctic.  By appearing to be cooperative, Russia is gaining the advantage, and cleverly so.  One must look at Russia with realist skepticism; the United States should be leery of the nation’s involvement in the Arctic—they are not a friend but a foe.  Even according to Vladimir Putin, “Russia never lost the Cold War… because it never ended.”

[1] The aqua lanes on the map.

[2] The red lanes on the map.

[3] On the map, the darker the color, the more hydrocarbons believed to be present.

[4] See https://search.dhs.gov/search?query=Arctic+Policy&op=Search&affiliate=dhs.

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