Russia’s Arctic Posture: Defensive or Offensive?

Russian behavior in the Arctic is often interpreted as offensive. The reality may be more nuanced.

Russian Arctic tanker
A United States Coast Guard icebreaker escorts a Russian tanker through the Bering Strait, January 6, 2012 (Coast Guard)

Westerners tend to interpret Russia’s behavior in the Arctic as offensive, going back to 2007, when the country resumed air and naval patrols in the area and planted its flag under the North Pole.

Alexander Sergunin, a professor of international relations at Saint Petersburg State University, argues in The Wilson Quarterly that the reality is more nuanced. On balance, he writes, Moscow’s policy is pragmatic.

Arguments for a defensive posture

  • The Russian government itself maintains that its intentions are defensive and that it will resolve territorial disputes peacefully.
  • Russia continues to await the judgement of the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf on its overlapping territorial claims with Canada and Denmark.
  • Russia’s military presence in the Arctic degenerated after the Soviet Union collapsed. Today’s modernization program is one of necessity and comparable with American and Canadian efforts.

Arguments for an offensive posture

  • Russia is preparing to deploy two additional military divisions in the Arctic. One will likely be headquartered on the Kola Peninsula, the other in the east.
  • Russia plans to build twenty new border guard stations along its Arctic Ocean coastline.
  • The modernization of Russia’s Arctic forces has been sped up in the wake of the conflict in Ukraine, which Russia initiated by annexing the Crimean Peninsula.

What’s at stake

The Arctic region accounts for a fifth of Russia’s economic output and nearly a quarter of its export revenues. 95 percent of Russia’s gas and approximately 70 percent of its oil is found there alongside such minerals as diamonds and platinum.

Reduced ice coverage due to global warming should improve access to these natural resources and open up the Northern Sea Route, the shortest shipping route between East Asia and Western Europe.