By K. Joseph Spears

Predicting Russian intentions in the Arctic is like understanding sea ice changes: it is far from an exact science. Many commentators have indicated that Russia is becoming more aggressive in the Arctic and that we are at the start of a new Cold War with increased militarization. Is that really the case? During the Cold War, the Arctic Ocean Basin was, and continues to be, an area of great strategic and geopolitical importance. During the past few years, Russia has increased Arctic military activities, and developed bases and other military infrastructure there. It’s important to remember that the Russian northern coastline along which the Northern Sea Route skirts, is its longest border which is becoming more accessible because of diminishing sea ice. In the past, the sea ice was an effective barrier not unlike the situation in Canada, and was largely undefended. Is this leading to an increase militarized Arctic. Maybe yes, maybe no. Context is needed.

Sea ice has been decreasing in the Arctic Ocean Basin for many years, with 2012 being the record low year since satellite-generated oceanographic records became available in 1979. The “ice-free” Arctic Ocean has resulted in renewed international, media and public interest in the Arctic for a wide variety of reasons, some based on fact, others on fiction over the last eight years. Russia historically had the most capability in the region and stands to benefit enormously from the commercial development of various natural resources.

The Arctic Ocean has been portrayed as the last frontier and a geopolitical “wild West”, with large untapped natural resources, including rare minerals, hydrocarbons and ores. New Arctic shipping routes could alter global trade patterns and shave thousands of kilometers off ocean passages in an ice free Arctic Ocean. The Arctic has become more globalized because of this retreating and thinning sea ice and has become more geopolitically important as access to it improves. The Arctic has always been Russia’s sphere of influence, and until recently, Russia didn’t have to worry about other states operating in the region on the edge of its northern border.

Has anything really changed with Russia’s activity in the Arctic? Canada, like Russia, no longer has the luxury of waiting or ignoring these Arctic issues as the world will be showing up on its doorstep. Captain Matthew Walker, Commanding Officer of the recently reactivated United States Coast Guard’s 39-year-old icebreaker USCG Polar Star, stated that “the Arctic Ocean is an integral part of the global ecosystem, geopolitical and the global economy”. As a major Arctic power, Russia understands this very well. The Arctic has always been there throughout history. It was true at the time of Sir John Franklin’s expedition to find the Northwest Passage to China in 1846, and it remains true today. Russia has understood this for centuries.

While it is the stated position by the Russia to cooperate in the Arctic, whether it will continue to do so remains to be seen in the so-called “Cool War”. In the case of Canada, there has clearly been a cooling-off period between the two countries on Arctic relations, after a period of renewed cooperation prior to Russia’s incursion into Crimea. Russia’s official Arctic position was set out by A.V. Vasiliev, Ambassador at large to the Arctic Council, in a 2012 magazine article describing Russia’s 2008 Arctic policy. He wrote the policy “adopted a long term strategy for the Arctic region in the context of both new and historical conditions”. That policy consisted of four pillars:

• Protect Russian sovereignty over its territories of the Arctic and exploit oil, gas and mineral resources for socioeconomic development;

• Preserve the Arctic as a place of peace, stability and cooperation;

• Care for the vulnerable Arctic ecosystems, and protect the interests of indigenous peoples of the North; and

• Take advantage of the Northern Passage as an important national route.

Russia’s Arctic policy sounds a lot like Canada’s, perhaps because there is commonality between Canada and Russia on emerging Arctic issues.

There is clearly a need for centralization of Arctic issues. Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the establishment of a separate public body responsible for the implementation of Russian policies in the Arctic, and appointed former Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin to head the Arctic commission. Mr. Rogozin is a controversial figure who has suggested that Russia should have never sold Alaska.

According to some commentators, the sanctions in retaliation for incursion into Crimea have impacted international interest in the Northern Sea Route across the top of Russia. The number of ships declined from a total of 71 to 53 ships in 2014 with only 4 making a trans-Asian route. This is a far cry from President Putin’s predictions announced with great fanfare some years earlier that the Northern Sea Route would rival the Suez Canal in commercial importance. Nonetheless, Russia continues to build the necessary shipping infrastructure to make this a reality, and has the necessary icebreaker capability to support development. Icebreaking LNG carriers are proposed for this route.

Russia is clearly subject to the rule of international law, as set down by the Law of the Sea Convention. “The race for the Arctic cannot exist in principle, as the international laws on the Arctic clearly define the rights of Arctic Circle countries as well as other states,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated in December, 2014. Russia understands that there is an international structure to resolve boundary disputes in the Arctic and the mapping of the continental shelf under Article 76, and Russia is not trying to operate outside the existing international regime.

The Law of the Sea Convention gives Russia the largest economic exclusion zone (EEZ) in the world. When that is combined with an extended continental shelf, it has a large suite of potential natural resources for the long-term. Later this year, Russia will be making a renewed claim for an extended Continental shelf out to the North Pole by making claims to both the Lomonosov and Mendeleev undersea Ridges, which would add 1.2 million km² to its continental shelf.

Russia wants to ensure that it has a robust capability in the region to protect its interests, especially as sea ice recedes. It is clear that Russia is concerned about NATO, and other states on its borders. In the case of the northern coastline, however, there are no other countries. However, receding sea ice will eventually allow foreign surface naval vessels to frequent waters near Russia.

Russia has increased military activities around its borders. It has sought to enhance its Northern Fleet and has reinvigorated its age-old Arctic war fighting capability. Russia has developed a series of new military bases, as well as ten search and rescue (SAR) bases, 16 deepwater ports, 13 airfields and ten air defense radar stations across its Arctic coast. It re-opened old Cold War bases, and developed new military brigades in the region, and is making increased use of aerial drones. In addition, it has been staging military training exercises. Arguably, this military buildup is for protection of the homeland. Russia has also developed new nuclear submarines known as the Borei class nuclear missile submarines, while still operating the older Delta class nuclear submarines. Just recently, Russia undertook a nuclear submarine exercise at the North Pole. All this military hardware and capability comes at very high cost. But it is clear that Russia wants to be the dominant military power in the region.

Russia has been expanding its existing nuclear icebreaker fleet. It added four new nuclear icebreakers to its existing seven nuclear powered vessels. In total, it has eleven nuclear and 26 conventional icebreakers with eight more planned. Canada has six icebreakers with one planned, the CCG John D Diefenbaker, and not expected to enter service until 2021-22. The United States has three icebreakers with one presently out of service. Compared to other Arctic nations, Russia has lots of ice breaking capability, for use in any marine response in the Arctic. It recently added two ice strengthened salvage and rescue vessels to its fleet that were constructed in record time of 18 months.

While it’s easy to characterize Russia’s Arctic activities as representing defense of the realm, outside the Arctic region we are witnessing increased submarine incursions into the coastlines of NATO countries including Scotland and Sweden. Tupolev Tu-142 (“Bear”) long-range bombers and other types of offensive aircraft have penetrated and skirted Western airspace in the Canadian Arctic over Alaska and the East Coast. While these activities might be dismissed as normal training exercises to test NATO and NORAD’s response capability, they might be signs of the Bear flexing its muscles.

With the decline in oil prices, many of Russia’s Arctic offshore development projects seem to be put on hold, and one former Russian foreign minister called for a stop of all Arctic offshore development activities for the moment. Russia has many other sources of land-based hydrocarbons that are less costly to commercialize.

Given these rapid economic and geopolitical changes, there still remains the urgency to proceed with Arctic issues, and to work with Russia. Resolving issues around climate change and commercial shipping in an opening Arctic Ocean, search and rescue and marine pollution, as well as increased tourism and fishing activity will require cooperation and governance between nations. This will require both multilateral and bilateral cooperation with Russia and other Arctic states. The Arctic Council is arguably the best forum for this dialogue.

While the Arctic Council has no mandate for Defence and/or security issues, reaching cooperation at a practical level is something that needs to be encouraged in the coming years. Maybe the time has come to discuss Defence issues in the Arctic Council forum and look at these issues in a much broader global context.

Russia understands that shipping infrastructure is required in the Arctic before any meaningful economic activity can take place. The International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) recently signed Polar Code represents a good first step. However, the Polar Code excludes both pleasure vessels and commercial fishing vessels. As noted in an earlier article, this requires the coastal states put in place the necessary infrastructure for safe navigation. Russia can move forward unilaterally on this front, given its large EEZ, and develop its Northern Sea Route solely under its coastal state jurisdiction.

Is there really a “cool war” developing in the Arctic with Russia? To prevent that from happening, we need to ensure cooperation with Russia in the Arctic and build on cooperative opportunities. Russia is a major Arctic force, both economically, politically and militarily. We cannot allow friction elsewhere along Russia’s borders to negatively impact the cooperation that all Arctic nations need to resolve Arctic-centric problems from being resolved in a peaceful manner. Canada needs to work with its NATO allies in cooperation with Russia. The key is the development of relationships based on interaction on an international and bilateral basis. This is especially true with Russia in the global Arctic.

K. Joseph Spears is a maritime barrister and Ocean policy consultant at the Horseshoe Bay Marine Group has a long-standing interest in Arctic issues since the late 1970s. He conducted oceanographic research in Eastern Arctic working closely with the Inuit and the Government of Canada. Joe can be reached at