Moscow Faces More Problems in Achieving Its Ambitious Plans in the Arctic

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 189

(Source: the Moscow Times)

Over the past five years, Moscow has made progress in gaining international recognition for its expansive claims to large portions of the Arctic. As some Russian media outlets reported in early December, this has come in part because the United States has not ratified the Law of the Sea Treaty, under which those claims are adjudicated, and thus does not have a seat at the table (, December 4). Even so, Moscow continues to constrain its own activities in the Arctic, shifting funding away from projects in the north to support its war against Ukraine. The US-led Western sanctions regime and Russia’s increased isolation in Arctic forums have also hampered the Kremlin’s plans. The Russian government can no longer afford the land- or sea-based infrastructure it needs to strengthen its territorial claims and struggles to source critical components for Arctic shipping and the development of natural resources there. Additionally, Russia can no longer count on any support from the other Arctic littoral countries now that all of them are members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Moscow has also discovered that it cannot count on China for assistance, as Beijing is not willing, or perhaps unable, to fill the gap, given its own economic problems and concerns about alienating the West (, March 28, 2022;, December 4; The Barents Observer; see EDM, December 5). These realities make any gains Russia does achieve in international recognition increasingly hollow and invite other countries to challenge Moscow over such recognition.

Moscow has taken more concerted measures over the past year to corroborate its territorial claims in the Arctic. Barely two weeks before President Vladimir Putin launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) accepted the evidence Russia submitted in support of most, but not all, of Moscow’s claims to the Arctic seabed. This represented a major step forward but not the last word in what has been an ongoing dispute for over two decades. By its decision, the CLCS acknowledged that Arctic powers can use existing technology to provide reasonable claims to the seabed in the north. Many experts had challenged this possibility before the commission made its decision. The new reality will allow Canada, Denmark, and Greenland to make similar submissions and means that a final decision on Arctic territorial claims remains a distant dream (The Barents Observer, December 23, 2022;, February 6). Although it is an Arctic power, the United States is not directly involved in these discussions because it has signed, but not ratified, the Law of the Sea agreement. The US border with Russia along the Arctic Ocean and its seabed remain defined by a 1990 agreement.

In April 2021, Putin signaled the centrality of the Arctic in speeches to the influential Russian Geographical Society and the Russian parliament (, April 14, 21, 2021). At both venues, the Kremlin leader said that, while development in the Russian High North along the Arctic littoral has been discussed “for a long time … now is the time for its launch.” He called for the construction of new transportation networks across the region to support the Northern Sea Route, which Putin has made one of his chief policy goals, and to develop the region’s immense oil and gas reserves. Russia has long had difficulties achieving both goals due to mounting economic difficulties and inadequate financial support (see EDM, September 11, December 6, 2021). The repercussions of Putin’s war against Ukraine ultimately stunted these ambitious plans.

The escalating costs of Putin’s war and Western sanctions have forced Moscow to cut back or even cancel program after program in the Arctic, including military-related projects (see EDM, December 6, 2018; June 1, 6, 2022; February 22; November 14). These cutbacks led to an acceleration in the flight of Russians from the High North, a development that further compromised the achievement of Putin’s goals (see EDM, November 15, 2022). Meanwhile, Moscow’s increased international isolation eliminated the possibility of negotiations between Russia and the other Arctic powers. Moscow’s position was first compromised within the Arctic Council, where the other members suspended any cooperation with Russia, and then in other Arctic forums, such as the Barents Euro-Arctic Council, from which Russia withdrew in September. The Kremlin’s talk of potentially creating an “alternative” Arctic group only made matters worse (Window on Eurasia, June 26, 2022). Finally, Moscow’s inability to count on Beijing for assistance in the north, except at a price Russia is not yet prepared to pay, left it with no choice but retrenchment (, December 4). This has raised the specter that any help China does give will benefit Beijing at Moscow’s expense (see EDM, May 6, 2021; December 5).

These obstacles have pushed some in Moscow to argue that Russia must press its case in the Arctic by acting unilaterally and militarily rather than prioritizing economic development and adhering to international law. Those advocating this position are increasingly found among security officials closely aligned with Putin. The clearest articulation of this perspective came before Moscow expanded its invasion of Ukraine and has since attracted new supporters. In September 2020, lawyers at the Russian Fund for the Defense of Investors’ Rights in Foreign States stated that Moscow does not need UN approval for its claims but can simply declare that the seabed belongs to Russia, ignore the other Arctic powers, and then use its military power to reinforce its claims. Today, others are echoing that line (, November 9, 2020; Rosbalt, June 30, 2022;, November 14, 2022; Window on Eurasia, December 24, 2022).

The argument for increased unilateral actions in the Arctic does not come from some independent or marginal group. Since February 2018, lawyers from the Fund for the Defense of Investors’ Rights in Foreign States have been part of a Foreign Ministry working group established by Putin to cover Arctic issues. The lawyers say they are preparing an analysis with recommendations for the Russian president. Those now supporting this position are even closer to the Kremlin. If they press their case and Moscow chooses to act unilaterally in the Arctic, such a development could trigger a serious conflict in the High North. Given Putin’s proclivity to raise the stakes whenever he finds himself backed into a corner, that danger must not be ignored.