Russian policy in the Arctic focuses on the extraction of fossil fuels and has become increasingly militarized. Climate change is giving rise to hopes and fears in Russia about greater exploitation of the Northern Sea Route, on the one hand, and on the other hand, because it makes the Russian Arctic Ocean coast theoretically less secure. But at the same time, melting polar ice expands the operational capabilities of the Russian military, which worries NATO countries. 

Russia overestimates the importance of the Arctic

These are the key findings of the study “Russia in the Arctic. Development Plans, Military Potential and Conflict Prevention” published by the Science and Policy Foundation (SWP), a leading German academic institution that advises the German government and parliament as well as the European Union on foreign policy issues.

The authors argue that the Arctic plays a mystical role in contemporary Russian consciousness. They view the importance of such a remote and inhospitable region for the international prestige of the country and the national identity of Russians as exaggerated in today’s Russia and link it to the great-power and anti-Western policy of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In the eyes of Russia’s current leadership, the Arctic has three key functions, the authors argue: geopolitical, economic and strategic. No other circumpolar country has such a large territory, coastline and population in this region, which is used by the Russian Federation to reinforce its status as a great power. The mineral-rich Arctic is also necessary to maintain Russia’s economic model, which is based mainly on the exploitation of natural resources. At the same time, the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions serve as “strategic bastions of deterrence and defense” for Moscow.   

These three functions partly contradict each other: “Thus, the civilian development of the Arctic, as the main resource base for Russia’s future, requires a peaceful and stable international environment, while Russia’s desire for military superiority in the Arctic region makes that goal very difficult to achieve. 

Russia’s aggressive actions increasingly worry Scandinavian countries

The authors of the study, Michael Paul and Goran Swistek, believe that the shift in Russian Arctic policy from cooperation with the West to military confrontation and the remilitarization of the region took place in 2007 after Vladimir Putin’s speech at the Munich Security Conference. The subsequent “invasion of Georgia in 2008, the annexation of Crimea in 2014 in violation of international law and the ongoing war in eastern Ukraine” radically changed the situation in the Arctic as well. 

The basis of Russian military policy is “the assertion that the US and NATO states threaten Russia” and seek to encircle it. This threat perception will not change after Putin, experts predict, and therefore “the peaceful 1990s are only an exception to the rule as far as the structural geopolitical competition of the great powers in Eurasia is concerned.

The study cites examples of Russian actions that, in turn, are perceived as a threat in Northern Europe and NATO in general. These include “simulated airborne radar attacks in Vardø,” the use of GPS jammers near the borders of the Baltic States and Finland, increased patrols by submarines along the Norwegian coast and the numerous violations of Swedish airspace and territorial waters cited by Sweden.   

“The increased confrontations between Russian and Scandinavian ships and aircraft suggest that the Russian Northern Fleet is now shifting to a strategy with options for effective attack. These may involve offensive operations, such as capturing parts of northern Scandinavia,” the study concludes.

In this situation, hitherto neutral Sweden and Finland are increasingly considering options for rapprochement with NATO or even membership in the alliance.    

The result is a vicious circle: “Russia’s relentless armament and aggressiveness is deeply disturbing to its neighbors and strains its relations, particularly with the far north. As a result, the Nordic states are increasing their cooperation with the United States, reinforcing Moscow’s assumption of a ‘ring of enemies’.