Russia’s Security Intentions in a Melting Arctic
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Medvedev’s decision to link the Arctic with Russia’s feeling of being wronged in the former Soviet space is especially intriguing, as Kremlin policymakers likely view both regions in similar terms. Russia’s preoccupation with peripheral buffer zones goes back centuries, with the post-Soviet struggle for influence in its self-proclaimed “near abroad” being the most recent manifestation. In 2006, Russian military commentator O. Litkova went so far as to argue that “the Arctic could significantly compensate Russia for the losses she suffered as a result of the collapse of the USSR.”44 The Arctic, like the near abroad, is viewed in terms of sectorial divisions in which Russia believes that history and geography afford it exclusive right of influence. In the case of the Arctic, this belief stretches back at least to the Soviet’s 1926 decree in which all territories within the extreme meridians of Russia’s eastern and western borders running to the North Pole were claimed as Russian.
Russia fears that the ice melt will do to the Arctic what the fall of communism did in Eastern Europe, that is, usher in a period of NATO encroachment into their traditional space. In 2011, two leading academic voices in Russia opined:
Officials and experts agree that NATO continues on a course toward enhancing its activity in the Arctic. What consequence will this have on Russia? In all aspects – negative…. With regard to the fierce competition for Arctic resources, NATO will squeeze Russia out, just as it squeezes Russia in other regions of Europe in the sphere of security. It is obvious that the USA, which is not party to [UNCLOS] will use NATO to strengthen its position in the region….Therefore, Russia should prepare for a difficult and long battle for the settling of its interest and legal rights.45
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Moscow’s preoccupation with the Arctic is understandable as the region is much more significant for Russia’s present and future economic vitality than it is for any other Arctic nation. The Arctic accounts for approximately 20 percent of Russia’s GDP and 22 percent of total Russian exports. Over 90 percent of its nickel and cobalt, 60 percent of its copper, and 96 percent of its platinoids come from Arctic mines. The melting ice exposes the vast amount of hydrocarbon wealth of the Arctic basin. According to figures published by the Institute of Oil and Gas Problems, Russia will be pumping up to 30 million tons of oil and 130 billion m3 of natural gas out of its Arctic shelf by 2030.23 In addition to hydrocarbon wealth, the Arctic offers lucrative transportation routes. The Northern Sea Route (NSR) extends across the Arctic Ocean seas (Kara, Laptev, East Siberian, and Chukchi) off the Russian Arctic coast and is the shortest route from Europe to the Far East. Furthermore, receding ice exposes Russia’s largely unmanned and unmonitored 17,500 kilometer coastline to piracy, illegal fishing, and smuggling.
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Second, when Russia’s security moves in the Arctic are placed in the context of the nation’s larger trend to reform and modernize its armed forces, they appear less grandiose. In 2008, Russia embarked on one of the most ambitious military reforms, reorganization, and equipment modernization programs in its history, in which the Arctic is but one component. The plans call for more than 20 trillion rubles ($650 billion) by 2020 to completely overhaul its military hardware so that “by 2015, the proportion of the new generation of weapons should be 30 percent, and by 2020 reach 70-100 percent.”15 In contrast to other post-Soviet efforts, the current program has considerable political will behind it as evidenced by overall military spending in 2012 increasing by 24 percent – a jump of nearly $90 billion or 113 percent from 2003 military expenditures.16 Military spending is envisioned to jump 18 percent in 2014 and 60 percent from 2014-2016. The defense budget portion of the Russian GDP is envisioned to grow from 3.1 percent in 2012 to 3.9 percent in 2016.