Discussing the Arctic matters in Ottawa

The new Alakurtti brigade is receiving a due blessing.

The new Alakurtti brigade is receiving a due blessing.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu provided a useful point of departure for my presentation and discussions in Ottawa on current Arctic matters, asserting that Russia is facing “a wide range of potential security challenges and threats” in the Arctic and is ready to use military means for countering those. It is certainly not the first time that Shoigu addressed the Arctic matters in this way, but this statement came after the severe financial shock of mid-December, and signifies the intention not to shift the priority to the military build-up in the High North no matter what are the economic constrains. This added emphasis on building military capabilities in the theater where Russia has a superior position and is not encountering any challenges in real terms is hard to rationalize – and attracts attention in many ¬†quarters, including China. What typically is in the focus of this attention are the long flights of Tu-95M strategic bombers, which look nice on pictures and videos but are in fact the weakest link in the Russian strategic triad – and are not going to be replaced with a new generation of bombers anytime soon. New Arctic brigades is a different matter, though I cannot produce a half-convincing explanation of why the first of those is formed in such a forsaken hole as Alakurtti (yes, it is 40 km from the Finnish border, but Rovaniemi is another 100 km from that border, and why would one possibly want to go there?). One impression from my discussions in Ottawa is that Russia shows very little interest in developing political dialogue on the relevant issues, and the departure of Anton Vasilyev (who has been appointed the ambassador to Iceland), who had shown real commitment to cooperation in the Arctic Council, is one sign of this neglect (his successor Vladimir Barbin has some experience in Scandinavia, but for the last five years was ambassador to Ghana, of all places). The Arctic “lobby” in Moscow is chaired by Nikolai Patrushev (former Director of the FSB and for many years the Secretary of the Security Council), and his interests are not really in advancing cooperation. If Dmitri Rogozin is indeed confirmed as the head of the new government commission for the Arctic (the plan for a ministry was abandoned as too costly), this body will definitely have a bigmouth and no money (who would possibly entrust him with a budget?). A few Russian experts, like Andrei Zagorski, are trying to argue that the Arctic matters could be bracketed out of the confrontation that has become the general pattern of Russia’s relations with the West, but it takes an effort to secure such exemption, and Rogozin, Patrushev and Shoigu are not going to undert

ake this effort.

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