Why Russia will play by the rules in the Arctic
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Russia’s 2013 Foreign Policy Concept expresses Russia’s desire to become a “bridge between Europe and the Asia Pacific” (Giusti 2013, p. 1). Since the end of the Cold War, Russia has struggled to retain its great power status in the eyes of other nations; so much of Russian identity has been wrapped up in external perceptions of Russian power (Malcolm et al. 1996, pp. 33 – 37). In support of this goal, Russia has gone to great lengths to promote institutions in which it enjoys a dominant position, owing to its status as a major power. It therefore makes little sense that Russia would undertake actions to deliberately undermine the organizations in which it possesses this leverage. As the legal successor to the Soviet State, Russia possesses a powerful veto on the UNSC which affords it tremendous power, beyond that which it would probably otherwise enjoy. Unsurprisingly, a stated goal of Russian foreign policy has long been to empower the UN and thereby its own role within it. Russia has been able to use this leverage to support its own interests (most recently in defending the much-maligned Syrian regime in the face of inter- national pressure to end its civil war and remove its dictator, Bashar al-Assad) and also as a poten- tial means of soft balancing against other powers. Some argue that Russia has chosen to use its position in the UNSC to thwart American initiatives, for example on Iran and North Korea, as a way of soft balancing against the presumption of American hegemony. Regardless, its support for the UN and its processes is a means for underscoring Russian power in the present system.
In support of this, the Foreign Policy Concept prioritizes, “international law, including, first of all, the UN Charter” (Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation 2013) and notes that the UN should retain its role as the “principal organization regulating international relations”. With respect to the Arctic, the Concept notes that Russia will establish, in accordance with inter- national law, the outer limits of its continental shelf to provide additional opportunities for the exploration and development of its mineral resources. The Concept notes that the “existing inter- national legal framework is sufficient to successfully settle all regional issues through negotiations, including the issue of defining the external boundaries of the continental shelf in the Arctic Ocean”. The document places emphasis on the Arctic Council as an appropriate forum for hand- ling regional issues and it stresses the importance of multilateral decision making, as long as the independence, sovereignty and jurisdiction of Arctic nations are respected. Special mention is made of the importance of the Northern Sea Route – a Russian national transportation line in the Arctic that is open to international shipping – to the development of the region. Moreover, Russia was a signatory of the 2008 Ilulissat Declaration in which Russia, Canada, Denmark, Norway and the United States renewed their commitment to working cooperatively under inter- national law (Byers 2009, p. 89).
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It should be noted that while it is true that Putin’s assumption of power did usher in a more assertive tone in Russian foreign policy, it is also the case that his tough talk of Russian power and sovereignty may be largely for domestic political benefit. The new “sovereigntization” of Putin’s language or foreign policy rhetoric has been useful for him as a way to coalesce popular opinion around the current power structure (Giusti 2013, p. 2). Pavel Baev confirms that sentiments about Russia “conquering the north” resonate with the Russian public (Baev 2010, p. 7). But, despite the tough rhetoric about Arctic military patrols and the protection of Arctic sovereignty, Baev (2010, p. 7) argues that Russia’s maritime military capabilities in the North have actually diminished in recent years and so the cost of militarization in the Arctic would be prohibitively high. For this reason, Baev suggests that Russia – somewhat involuntarily – may be more likely to opt for strategies that favor the demilitarization of the region. Even though Russian naval power is stronger than that of most of its neighbors in the region, it is costly to maintain.
Baev (2010) further argues that part of Russia’s interest in “going North” may be explained by a desire to consolidate a national identity that has been somewhat rudderless since the end of the Cold War. The connection between national identity and the decisions leaders take is often difficult to measure, but when it comes to disputed national territory – sovereignty – the link becomes more visible, perhaps because sovereignty disputes may be perceived to have more at stake, given the connection between the idea of the nation and the land on which it sits (Manicom 2013, pp. 62–63) Deciphering the connection between national identity and high- level foreign policy decisions is even more challenging in Russia, as many of the country’s key security debates do not take place in the public domain (Atland 2011, pp. 273–277). Those debates that do become public are often of a symbolic nature (Atland 2011). Flexing Russian sovereignty in the Arctic feeds an appetite for the reaffirmation of post-Soviet Russian power. Putin, as president, embodies this power (Roberts 2013, pp. 137–138), and he has managed to transform the Arctic into a “flagship for nationhood” (Laruelle 2011). Putin’s symbolic projec- tions of Russian power have elevated his status as a strong and decisive leader, which he has been able to benefit from politically.