New Russian Arctic Doctrine: From Idealism to Realism?

Russia’s “readiness for war” is an essential part of the political discourse. Vladimir Putin, while giving a speech on a summary meeting of the Defense Ministry Board, put the situation in the Arctic region on a par with some of the “classic” threats to Russia's national security.

The recent document entitled “The Strategy for the Development of the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation and National Security up to 2020” (Strategy-2013) and approved by President Vladimir Putin on February 20, 2013 is both a follow-up and update to the earlier Russian Arctic strategy of 2008.

It should be noted that this document cannot be considered as Russia’s full-fledged Arctic doctrine because it covers only the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation (AZRF) rather than the whole Arctic region. In this sense the paper is comparable with the Canadian and Norwegian strategies for the development of their Arctic territories. Strategy-2013 has some international dimensions, including for example, Moscow’s intention to legally define Russia’s continental shelf in the Arctic Ocean and file its new application to the UN Commission on Continental Shelf or the need for international cooperation in areas such as the exploration and exploitation of natural resources, environmental protection, the preservation of the traditional economy and culture of indigenous peoples, etc. However, the primary objective of the document is to provide a doctrinal/conceptual basis for the sustainable development of the AZRF, i.e. it is for domestic rather than international consumption.

Strategy-2013 has provoked both positive and critical comments in the Russian and international expert community, while the Russian media has been rather neutral. The energy policy is the only component of Strategy-2013 that has attracted media attention. Surprisingly, most publications overlooked and did not even mention the second part of the document’s title, which refers to Russia's “national security.” The only article to emphasize the military and geopolitical component of Strategy-2013 was entitled “On the alert. Our country wants peace, but is preparing for a war in the region” ( “Expert” ).

However, Russia’s “readiness for war” is an essential part of the political discourse. On February 27, 2013 (a week after the adoption of Strategy-2013) Vladimir Putin, while giving a speech on a summary meeting of the Defense Ministry Board, put the situation in the Arctic region on a par with some of the “classic” threats to Russia's national security. He said: “... methodical efforts to undermine the strategic balance are being made. The second phase of a global missile defense system by the United States has de facto been launched; the possibilities for the further expansion of NATO to the East are being explored; and there is a danger of the militarization of the Arctic” (A summary meeting of the Defense Ministry Board, ).

From time to time, such statements are made by the political and military elite of the Arctic countries, thus becoming arguments in favor of a military build-up in the Arctic. This trend has found its way into both the Arctic Strategy of 2008 and Strategy-2013. One of the declared objectives is an effort “to avoid military pressure and aggression against Russia and its allies, to ensure the sovereign rights of Russia's Arctic zone and its ability to implement without hindrance all of its activities in the exclusive economic zone and on the continental shelf "(Article 18-b of the Strategy-2013).

However, it should be noted that, in contrast with the Cold war era, the aim of the current military efforts being made by the Arctic countries is the protection of their economic interests and establishment of their national sovereignty over the maritime zones and trade routes rather than global confrontation between two superpowers or military blocs.

Thus, the question naturally arises “Why has this important document, as far as national security is concerned, attracted so little attention in the media”. The document’s analyses, as well as the prospects for the implementation of the ideas contained within it, will help to answer this question.

Looking on the bright side of the new document it should be noted that this doctrine is much more realistic (even pessimistic in some cases) in terms of its spirit compared to the Basic Principles of the State Policy of the Russian Federation in the Arctic up to 2020 (Principles-2008). In fact, Strategy-2013 acknowledges the fact that, first, the main objectives of the previous strategy for its first phase of 2008-2010 have not been achieved and should be reformulated for a later period. For instance, it sets up a task for all the parties involved to develop a federal program for the sustainable socioeconomic development of the AZRF and to complete all the preparatory work by 2015, not by 2010 as set out in the old doctrine. Second, the document also states that Russia does not have the resources and technology to exploit the natural resources of the AZRF on its own and needs foreign investment and know-how to develop its Far Northern region. Third, the new document is based on the assumption that Russia was unable to complete geophysical research on the external limits of Russia’s continental shelf by 2010 (as was required by the Principles-2008) and sets up the more realistic goal to complete this work by 2015.

Strategy-2013 contains more details compared to Principles-2008 because it is designed to specify and further develop the latter document. For example, it contains a sort of a SWOT-analysis of the AZRF and a rather detailed list of policy priorities as well as a description of the mechanisms and instruments to be used in the course of the implementation of the strategy.

Strategy-2013 sets forth the long-awaited idea of making the AZRF a separate subject of state governance and giving it a separate monitoring system. By doing this Strategy-2013 acknowledges the specific features of the AZRF and the need to deal with this region on a separate basis.

In contrast with the previous document, Strategy-2013 envisages an important role for regional and local governments as well as for private businesses (public-private partnerships). The document describes in detail how both regional/local governments and private businesses can be engaged in ambitious Arctic projects.

Strategy-2013 pays much greater attention to the environmental problems in the Arctic as compared to Principles-2008. The document establishes a set of priorities for Russian environmental policies in the AZRF and pledges significant financial contribution to potential environmental projects in the region.

The obvious advantage of the new document is an effort to introduce an indicator system to monitor socioeconomic and security developments in the AZRF. The previous strategy was of a rather abstract and declaratory nature and contained hardly any specific parameters or indices.

It is worth pointing out that Russia's AZRF strategy is much more open to international cooperation to solve numerous problems in the Arctic and ensure the sustainable development of the region overall. Similar to the 2008 document, Strategy-2013 emphasizes Russia’s national sovereignty over the AZRF and Northern Sea Route and calls for the protection of the country’s national interests in the area. However, along with this rather traditional stance the new strategy has an impressive list of priority areas for cooperation with potential international partners. This gives Strategy-2013 a more positive international image than the previous document.

Along with positive assessments, some critical comments can be addressed to Strategy-2013.

To begin with, Strategy-2013 lacks a definition of the AZRF, which is unusual for this kind of document. For example, both Principles-2008 and the draft of the new Russian AZRF strategy which was originally designed by the expert organization “North-Western Strategic Partnership” (NWSP) in 2011-2012 contained such a definition. Whether the authors of Strategy-2013 decided to skip the definition because it had already been done in Principles-2008 or whether they did not define the domestic and international boundaries of the AZRF because they wanted to have a free rein in this delicate area is a question that is open to further discussion.

In contrast with Principles-2008, Strategy-2013 lacks any description of Russia’s national interests in the AZRF. Given a special Russian Security Council meeting “On the protection of the national interests of the Russian Federation in the Arctic" (September 17, 2008), it was expected that the new doctrine would improve and further develop the Principles’ section on national interests, which were only described quite vaguely and in fragments. However, Strategy-2013 only briefly refers to Russia’s national interests in the Arctic, without specifying or describing them systematically.

Some Strategy-2013 priorities and projects are inconsistent with the policies of other Arctic states. For example, Moscow’s intention to solve the AZRF's energy problems by building a number of floating nuclear power stations is at odds with EU plans to wind down the nuclear industry and frightens environmentalists who are concerned about the fragile Arctic environment.

It is unclear why the need to complete hydrographic work to define the AZRF’s external borders is attributed by Strategy-2013 to the field of military security (clause 18-e)? Normally, this type of work is designed to prove the limits of an exclusive economic zone, not for military purposes.

The very idea of introducing an indicator system to monitor various aspects of AZRF development is both good and helpful. But it turns out that it lacks consistency and some of the indicators look rather strange or irrelevant. For example, what use can be made of the indicators such as counting the number of maritime research expeditions in the AZRF or the proportion of modern weaponry in the overall military technology and equipment deployed in this area? Such a technocratic/instrumentalist approach is unlikely to be helpful in developing an efficient monitoring system in the AZRF.

To conclude, Strategy-2013 is an “umbrella” document, a good starting point for further discussions on Russia’s Arctic policies rather than a legally binding and comprehensive doctrine. To become an efficient national strategy in the region it needs to be further clarified and specified in federal laws, regulations and programs.

The authors are laureates of the Valdai Club Foundation Grant Program.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.