Russia’s Arctic Policy: Problems and Prospects

As for Russia’s main interests in the Arctic, they concern developing shelf resources, training personnel, building roads, and so on. Energy security is also a vital element of life in Arctic settlements. The Arctic communities have huge potential for cooperation. interview with PhD Prof. Alexander Pilyasov, Director, Center of the North and Arctic Economy, state research institution Council for the Study of the Productive Forces, Ministry of Economic Development of the Russian Federation and Russian Academy of Sciences

What are Russia’s main interests in the Arctic?

I believe that our key task is to have a clear view of priorities. We need a concept, to be drafted by Arctic experts following broad debates at conferences and roundtables, which could be submitted to the top international authorities, such as the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC) and other Arctic organizations.

As for Russia’s main interests in the Arctic, they concern developing shelf resources, training personnel, building roads, and so on. These goals are often mentioned when we talk about the North. But I think that energy security is also a vital element of life in Arctic settlements. They are located only a few dozen kilometers from the Yamal-Europe main pipeline, but people there continue to use coal, which is delivered across hundreds of kilometers.

This is a glaring paradox of Russia, where the basic necessities are not ensured for people in the North. I have lived there for a long time and can assure you that you cannot feel secure there if your survival depends on the delivery of goods by the Northern Sea Route or by river. Our mentality will start to change with the demolition of temporary buildings. We must fight the mentality that says that living in the North cannot be permanent. People must know that they are protected and will be ensured proper utilities, including fuel for boilers. The sources of such fuel must be found nearby, not hundreds of kilometers away. It could be brown coal, shale or low pressure gas, which is not suitable for transportation over long distances but can be used locally.

These are vital spheres of activity, which we must consider and discuss. The ability to lead a comfortable life depends on these often invisible and unostentatious efforts. Depending on how we do, people will either settle down there or will pack up and leave for some other region.

What are the possibilities of cooperation with other Arctic countries? What are the main areas of difference with them?

The Arctic communities have huge potential for cooperation. If we consider only local possibilities rather than cooperation at the level of nations, in particular Alaska, the Northwest Territories, Nunavut and the Murmansk Region, they benefit from mutual understanding, harmonious economic behavior, striving for cooperation and rapid decision-making. When government institutions step in, the process is burdened by red tape and so proceeds slower and with greater difficulty, especially in the provinces, which have to wait until decisions are made in Ottawa, Washington or Moscow. It is simpler in small countries, where the distance between the polar territories and the decision-making centers is short, which is why these countries are more effective on the international stage.

I’d like to say a few words about the Chinese factor. China’s presence in the Arctic will grow inevitably. Young Chinese, in particular professors between the ages of 30 and 40, believe that they can make a career in this sphere. They are absorbing information like a sponge. Hence we must ensure that China’s growing presence benefits Russia’s Arctic regions through construction, investment and other projects.

The potential for cooperation is huge. This is why I often talk about the “Arctic Mediterranean.” I am fascinated by that beautiful idea, which is true to life and which suggests devotion to a common cause, cooperation and openness, which are common to all Arctic communities.

As for differences, the biggest of them is the Baker-Shevardnadze agreement, which the Soviet Union and the United States signed 20 years ago and which the State Duma has not yet ratified. But Americans consider it an effective document.

Another problem is that the US has not yet ratified the UN Law of the Sea Convention signed in 1982. All Arctic countries excluding Canada have assumed obligations in the Arctic within the framework of that convention, whereas the United States is not acting as a member of the team. The US accuses Russia of not ratifying the Baker-Shevardnadze agreement, while we insist that it ratify the aforementioned UN Convention. I have talked about this with Senator John Kerry, who said the issue would be settled by the end of 2012. As you see, they have not delivered.

On the other hand, we have settled a major problem with Norway that had been hanging in the air since the Soviet period: we have signed the treaty on maritime delimitation and cooperation in the Barents Sea and the Arctic Ocean. But a similar issue with the Americans remains unresolved.

Canada has taken a unique stance: it insists that the Arctic be divided into sectors and does not recognize the obligations of the 1982 Convention. Russia, which has signed the convention, has claimed the right to the underwater Lomonosov and Mendeleyev ridges. But it needs to provide proof that they are part of the continental shelf.

There is a great deal of interesting and important work ahead connected with the exploration and development of the Arctic, including its shelf deposits. We hope for constructive dialogue with our foreign partners in this sphere.

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