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Russia’s Reimagined Arctic: Restoring Status

Vladimir Putin wants Russia to be viewed once again as a great power, and an active Arctic presence may help achieve that, says George Soroka, a political scientist at Harvard University.

Written by Heather Exner-Pirot, George Soroka Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
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Construction of Yamal’s liquefied natural gas plant is underway.AFP/Eugene Odinokov/Sputnik

In this exchange, Arctic Yearbook managing editor Heather Exner-Pirot interviews George Soroka, lecturer at Harvard University and author of “The Political Economy of Russia’s Reimagined Arctic,” to better understand Russia’s motivations in its Arctic. These include not only economic ambitions focused on resource development, but also a resumption of its great-power status in the international system, buoyed by its demonstration of pre-eminence in the Arctic region.

Heather Exner-Pirot: There’s been a lot of speculation in the media and elsewhere about Russia’s motivations in the Arctic. They’re often described as nefarious. How would you describe them?

George Soroka: In general, I think Russia’s motivations in the Arctic are what Russia tells us they are, even if we are not always ready to believe them. Moscow has three main priorities in the region and they are all interrelated: (1) fostering Russia’s socioeconomic development by exploiting the Arctic’s natural resources and the Northern Sea Route; (2) stemming demographic decline in its peripheral territories and better integrating them with the federal center; and (3) projecting power in the High North, where Russia continues to regard itself as the pre-eminent state actor.

On the latter point, Vladimir Putin has repeatedly indicated that he wants Russia to be acknowledged as a great power by the global community, and he believes an active Arctic presence will help to achieve this recognition. After having fallen off precipitously following the USSR’s dissolution in 1991, re-engagement with the region not only plays well with a public eager for the restoration of their country’s international stature and prestige, but it also allows the Kremlin to demonstrate that even in the face of Western sanctions, Russia remains capable of executing major projects, like the Bovanenkovo–Ukhta 2 gas pipeline, which started operating in January in a very challenging part of the world, logistically speaking.

And while Russia has been rapidly rebuilding its military capacity in the Arctic, the confrontational narrative some in the West ascribe to the Kremlin does not accurately reflect the full reality of the situation. After the USSR broke apart, Russia could no longer afford the upkeep on all of its Soviet-era military installations in the Arctic, so many of them were abandoned. Today, however, if Moscow is to realize its increasingly ambitious Arctic goals, it needs to rejuvenate this infrastructure not only for strategic reasons (the entire military is undergoing a badly needed overhaul, by the way) but also because the armed forces are tasked with multiple functions in this region, including search-and-rescue operations.

Russia is playing a long game in the Arctic. Moscow sees that climate change is happening, which will open up some opportunities in the High North, though they may not be as substantial as Russian officials have claimed. However, I want to emphasize that Russia does not view the Arctic in isolation; rather, this region is one component of its larger economic and political strategy – the Kremlin’s own “string of pearls,” if you will – involving both Europe and Asia.

Exner-Pirot: Speaking about cooperation with Asian states, your article describes Russia’s Asia policy or ‘pivot’ from the perspective of its Arctic ambitions. What do these two policies have in common?

Soroka: Russian leaders didn’t begin talking about an Asian pivot until the Obama administration started putting together a new Asia policy for the United States. The important thing to understand is that for Putin, these two issues – turning toward Asia and developing the Arctic – were not tightly linked until after the 2013/2014 Ukrainian crisis, when Russia suddenly found itself deprived of the Western financing and technology it had been relying on to develop its larger Arctic projects. As a result, the Arctic and Asia became fused more by necessity than design.

However, looking toward Asia to aid Russia’s Arctic development has proven relatively unsuccessful so far – China has been noticeably reticent to invest in its neighbor, concerned about Moscow’s willingness to uphold property rights and enforce contracts. The only significant Chinese investment to date has been in Yamal LNG, a liquefied natural gas plant being built on Russia’s Yamal Peninsula. But the circumstances surrounding it were quite distinctive. Putin, for instance, clearly indicated that the project was a national priority and that the Russian government would subsidize the cost of constructing the plant and its associated facilities. This led Beijing to regard Yamal LNG as a relatively low-risk investment that would curry favor with Moscow and thus fit into its “win-win” foreign policy.

China is not Russia’s favored partner, either. Chinese money comes with many strings attached, including high interest rates, and provides Beijing with unwanted leverage in negotiating future commodity prices. Moreover, Chinese oil and gas companies lag behind the Western supermajors technologically, limiting the scope of the joint ventures they can engage in. Russia has also traditionally thought of itself as inferior to Europe but superior to Asia, ensuring the presence of other problematic dynamics.

Exner-Pirot: In your article, you argue that Moscow’s northern development strategy is mediated by a significant status-seeking imperative. What role does status play in Russia’s Arctic ambitions?

Soroka: Status-seeking is a key optic through which to understand what is going on in the High North. Outsiders don’t always understand why Russia is pushing Arctic development given current oil prices. But what must be borne in mind is that many Russians still rue the fall of the Soviet Union and that Putin has been very effective in reinforcing the belief that the West will not respect Russia unless the country is restored to great-power status. Given that the Arctic is one of the few regions where Russia can still credibly claim to be dominant, it is not surprising that it features prominently in this rhetoric.

Incidentally, the Kremlin interacts with its domestic and international audiences very differently when discussing the Arctic. Domestic discourse regarding the region tends to be offensive, emphasizing the need to project power and develop the High North before Russian interests are encroached upon by other states. International discourse, in contrast, is much more defensive; for example, it downplays the Arctic’s ongoing remilitarization by stressing the armed forces’ role in safeguarding economic activities and securing borders. In both cases, however, the subtext is clear: Operating in the Arctic is technically demanding, and being able to successfully function there signals status.

Exner-Pirot: Do you think Russia behaves differently in the Arctic than it does in other regions?

Soroka: Russia today enjoys wide latitude to do what it wants in the Arctic, in large measure because the other regional states have not yet seen a need to balance against Moscow. This is especially important at a time when its ability to maneuver geopolitically has become increasingly constrained elsewhere. It would therefore be a mistake to view Russia’s northern strategy as divorced from what is happening in other parts of the world.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

This article originally appeared at World Policy’s Arctic in Context blog.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Arctic Deeply.

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