Russian Foreign Policy Concept is vague on the Arctic

Kuznetsov before departing to the Mediterranean.

Kuznetsov before departing to the Mediterranean.

Russia has found itself in a very different international situation than that envisaged by its basic documents in 2013, so there was clearly a need in revising its Foreign Policy Concept – and President Vladimir Putin duly approved a new one on 30 November 2016. The Concept is more assertive and harshly worded than the previous one, and in the opinion of Andrei Kortunov, one of the voices of reason among the mainstream experts in Moscow, doesn’t reflect the most recent changes in the Russian course, so it appears like “the light of a distant star, which reaches us on a delay”.

The Concept comes to the Arctic matters only in Article 76, so it is definitely not a set of issues of high priority, which doesn’t preclude Russian commentators to claim that the “course is set toward the Arctic“. Nothing is said about Russia’s claim for expanding its continental shelf, which is presently under consideration in the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (UN CLCS), but the point is made that the international law provides a “sufficient base” for resolving all disputes. The Concept acknowledges the particular role of the Arctic Council, and also mentions particular responsibilities of the five littoral states.

The main emphasis is placed on preserving “peace, stability and constructive international cooperation in the Arctic”, and it is further reinforced by the pledge to counter any efforts aimed at bringing to the Arctic “elements of policy of confrontation and military counter-balancing”. Rather more difficult to understand is the follow-up to this pledge rejecting “politicization of international interaction in the region.” Politicization is far preferable to militarization, and Russia is firm set on this latter track. For that matter, the Norther Fleet has proudly reported a 60% increase in missile launches in 2016 comparing ¬†with 2015, which is difficult to check, but quite certainly the test launch of the anti-ship Granit missile on a target on-shore was a first. The Northern Fleet is going to get back a major surface combatant, as the modernization of Marshal Ustinov missile cruiser is finally coming to completion. The flagship of the Northern Fleet, Russia’s only aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, hasn’t exactly covered itself with glory in the first combat deployment to Eastern Mediterranean, as two fighters were lost due to technical failures.

The Concept also has a few things to say about the Northern Europe (nothing about Southern Europe, or Eastern Europe, or the Balkans, for that matter), where a “zone of peace and stability based on the principle of equal and indivisible security” is to be preserved (Article 71). Sounds very nice, but makes a poor fit to the prevalent discourse on “Anglo-Saxon strategy of hybrid threats”, as exemplified by this recent lengthy article in Nezavisimaya gazeta.

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