It was entirely possible for the Russian Foreign Ministry to downplay the minor scandal around Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin surprise visit to Spitsbergen, but instead the choice was for making a full-blown crisis. It was quite embarrassing for the Norwegian authorities that they learned about Rogozin’s arrival to Longyearbyen and excursion to Barentsburg from the media, that picked Rogozin’s own Twitter posts (Barents Observer, April 18). Since Rogozin is – deservedly – on the list of persons sanctioned by the EU, USA and Norway, the Norwegian Foreign Ministry was obliged to call Russian Ambassador for explanations (Aftenposten, April 19). Some explanations (logistics and weather conditions) were indeed provided, but the emphasis in the statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry is on “puzzlement” about the Norwegian reaction, which is characterized as “inexplicable and absurd” (MID, April 20). Rogozin loves to play an “enfant terrible” role and his urge to add insult to injury in Twitter posts is very much in character, but this sort of official response – instantly picked up by the official media – makes it a very different matter (Rossiiskaya gazeta, April 20). Norwegian sovereignty over Spitsbergen is questioned directly and crudely. In Russian understanding, sovereignty exists if a state can exercise it, and if it cannot – it doesn’t. Certainly, something more than a diplomatic note is necessary if Norway wants to prove that Svalbard is not “terra nullis”.
Not a word about the Arctic could be found in the transcript of President Vladimir Putin annual Q&A session, perhaps except the rather abstract assertion that “everybody is afraid of our vastness” (Kremlin.ru, April 16). It is certainly not the vastness as such, but rather the vast increase of Russian military activities that prompted the five Nordic defense ministers to issue a joint statement committing to a closer cooperation “because the Russian military are acting in a challenging way along our borders” (Aftenposten, April 9). The response from the Russian Foreign Ministry was lame and awkwardly phrased, particularly the point that “rigid confrontational views are enforced on the Nordic public opinion” (MID.ru, April 12). The Defence Ministry opted for a more material response sending a squadron of the Northern Fleet to exercise in the Norwegian Sea (RBC.ru, April 17). The official media, which usually plays up the theme of geopolitical competition in the Arctic, has paid scant attention to the Nordic stance (Kommersant, April 10) and ignored the firm statement from Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb about rejecting Russian “veto” on Finland’s foreign policy-making (Lenta.ru, April 12). Putin has to face the consequences of his attempts to exploit the “position of power” in the High North, but admitting a failure would be so much out of the character that more and much more of the same is probably in the making.
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.
It has become clear that the plan for establishing a super-ministry for the Arctic has been reduced to setting a government commission, which according to some lobbyists in the Duma, would put security first (Arctic-Info, February 11). Kommersant (February 6) reported that Dmitry Rogozin is approved as the head of this commission, and RIA-Novosti (6 February) confirmed that rumor. It is a disappointing news for many in the Arctic community, who seek to keep cooperation on track (Barents Observer, February 6), because Rogozin is in both the EU and the US sanctions list (BBC, 19 December), and is very vocal in condemning the sanctions (Nezavisimaya gazeta, February 5). His emphasis on “hard security” matters does not bode well for the prospects of SevMorPut, which suffered 77 reduction in commercial transit in 2014 (Kommersant-Vlast, February 12). I do remember the old Soviet film “Nachalnik Chukotki” (The Master of Chukotka) about a young idealistic komsomolets who found himself in charge of a vast Arctic region and did a remarkably good job in improving the life of locals. Rogozin, who thrives on confrontation and scandal, is certain to be a very different kind of nachalnik.
Last Thursday (as it happens, right before the terror alert), a brainstorming session on Arctic matters was organized by the EU Institute for Security Studies, and I am glad to be a part of this undertaking. Juha Jokela from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs is in charge of this project, and the output is not planned on a grand scale, but could be useful for informing the policy debates in the EU bureaucracy. I was impressed with the interest from the EU staffers and experts to the “hard security” issues, and not only to the traditional package of energy, environment and climate change. Indeed, while Russian officials insist that exploration for oil and gas must continue no matter what, such an influential voice as Evgeny Primakov speaks for taking a pause in drilling in the Arctic. Every cost-efficiency assessment would confirm that a pause is indeed due, but this reduction of energy activities only makes it more apparent that military activities are increasing without any pause. While the newly-revised Military Doctrine has only an extra-small entry on the Arctic, there is a stream of statements from the top brass about the priorities to the High North in military build-up and resource allocation in 2015. Even for the traditionally “soft security” oriented institutions like the EU, it is plain impossible to ignore this militarization, so there the new project is right on target.
The new military doctrine approved by President Putin on December 26, 2014 is actually not that new; Defense Minister Shoigu opted for limiting his mark to a few minor and symbolic revisions, against many far-reaching statements on the background of the Ukraine conflict. One of the changes that has attracted attention is the inclusion of the Arctic in the text of this tedious document, but in fact, it is mentioned in only a few words (“securing Russia’s nationals interests in the Arctic”) as the last in the long list of tasks of the Armed Forces. This brevity is probably related to the re-evaluation of the “treasure chest” in the High North, as presently even the official media reluctantly confirms that most of energy-related projects in the Arctic are curtailed and postponed. Nevertheless, the intensity of military activities up North remains high, and the main achievement is certainly the three successful tests of the Bulava missile in the autumn 2014, so that three Borei-class submarines are now considered operational, and the keel of the sixth sub (Generalissimus Suvorov) was laid at the Sevmash plant in Severodvinsk in late December, alongside two subs in construction. Besides this massive project, many other developments – like the deployment on Novaya Zemlya of a regiment of S-400 surface-to-air missiles or modernization of the MiG-31BM interceptors for deployment in the Arctic – are constantly reported by the media. The top brass are far more eager to speak about the deployments in the Arctic than about Ukraine, but nobody wants to estimate the scale of cuts in the defense expenditures that are coming already in 2015 due to the sharp decline of budget revenues.
Denmark (together with Greenland) delivered on Monday the claim for expanding its continental shelf in the Arctic by 895,541 square km to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (the impeccably prepared submission is filed on the UN CLCS website). The statement from the Danish Foreign Ministry is concise and precise – and does not mention the fact that the claim extends all the way to the limits of Russia’s continental shelf – and clashes directly with the long-declared Russian ambition for expanding its shelf. Russia delivered its claim back in 2001, but it was so poorly prepared that the UN CLCS returned it for substantiation. The issue had been quietly gathering dust up until the famous flag-planting expedition in August 2007, and since then, every year Moscow declared the intention to re-submit the claim, but has not delivered on the great many high-level promises. There was a point in this procrastination – it made perfect sense to coordinate this submission with Denmark and Canada so that there would be no conflict between claims; but as of now this point is gone. Moscow cannot hope that UN CLCS would approve its yet-to-be-submitted claim, if only because the Commission never takes any decision on conflicting submissions. Instead of engaging in legal battles, Russia prefers to rely on the one argument that really maters – military might. A new Strategic Command Sever (the North) was declared operational on 1 December; it is the Northern Fleet that constitutes its main element, but two infantry brigades are in the process of formation for adding some land power. Nuclear cruiser Petr Veliky is conducting anti-submarine exercises far in the Northern Atlantic (in order to show the flag near the coast of Greenland), and Russian fighters (including modern MiG-31) are getting more and more brazen in the Scandinavian airspace. Russian officials are trying to downplay the significance of the Danish move, but the attempts to cover the fiasco in making a solid and convincing claim for the long-coveted Arctic shelf by increasing military activities are seriously damaging for the regional security.
Rather uncharacteristically, President Vladimir Putin did not mention the Arctic at all at the meeting of the Russian Georgraphic Society (he made himself the chairman of its board five years ago) – or at the gathering of the Russian Popular Front (mobilization against Western sanctions was the main theme). On the background of this lack of attention, the news about the nearly-finialized plan for building a new ministry for the Arctic looks rather odd (Kommersant, November 20). Indeed, more bureaucracy makes sense if there is more money and resources to distribute – and it is definitely not the case here. Many Russian experts argue that this plan is linked with the initiative for cancelling direct elections of governors in three Northern regions (Nenetsk, Yamal-Nenetsk, and Khanty-Mansiysk), which proves the desire to strengethen central control, justified – as in Soviet times – by the tense international situation. Such centralization brings no positive impact for international cooperation; indeed, the key achievement of the Canadian chairmanship in the Arctic Council this year is that the work continued with a major breakdown – and without any results either. It is hard to expect any results when the main direction of Russian policy in the Arctic region is militarization, as exemplified, for instace, by the deployment of three surfact-to-air Panzir systems on the newly-build base on the Kotelny island. It remains to be seen, whether the Bulava missile test schedule for late November from the Alexander Nevsky submarine would be successful (the track record is not great), but the massive costs of nuclear modernization look increasingly unsustainable in the situation of fast-deepening economic recession. The news about a possible revival of the anti-satellite program (frozen since the last years of the Cold War) might be off-target, but they fit well with the news about missile tests and live-fire exercises by the Northern Fleet.
The most recent Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) summit attracted a sizeable crowd of world leaders to Milan last week (October 16–17), but the formal agenda was overtaken by the efforts to manage the violent conflict between Russia and Ukraine and facilitate dialogue between presidents Vladimir Putin and Petro Poroshenko. The European Union sought to deploy every instrument of “soft power” in its arsenal in order to turn the fragile ceasefire in Ukraine’s eastern region of Donbas into a stable compromise. But it failed to find any common ground with the recalcitrant Russia. Putin used the rare summit opportunity to demonstrate his defiance under the pressure of sanctions and ostracism, while hitting at every point of weakness and discord in the joint Western position (Kommersant, October 18). However, what transpired through the disappointment, which German Chancellor Angela Merkel likely felt more than most after devoting two and a half hours to a failed face-to-face with Putin, was the recognition that the EU is, in fact, quite a lot stronger than it is often perceived, while Putin is in a far weaker position than he fancies (Novaya Gazeta, October 18).
Read further in Eurasia Daily Monitor, October 21.
Guns are not quite silent in the devastated Donbass, and Putin’s order to withdraw troops from the border area is no different from his several prior zigzags in manipulating this conflict, so that no real redeployments are taking place. What is happening in this pause, is the new spike in Russian military activities in the Arctic. A new system of strategic monitoring is under development, naval and air exercises are conducted non-stop, and work on constructing new bases (mostly in the place of long-abandoned garrisons) is given top priority. Plans for deploying squadrons of tactical aviation in these bases might make some strategic sense, but the intention to build a new army brigade in the Yamal peninsular (where Gazprom has a no small corporate army) is mind-boggling. There is no possible tasks for such a grouping in the High North, which in the recent Russian discourse was defined as “territory of dialogue” or “zone of peace and cooperation”. A very different discourse is now prevalent, and Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of the Security Council and one of Putin’s reliable lieutenants, took it to a new level of anti-Western hostility in a recent interview. He did not mention the Arctic specifically (though this is one of his pet topics) but his point that Ukraine was just a pretext and an instrument for executing the US plan for reviving the strategy of containment centered on Russia is informative, as is his reference (yet again) to the alleged statement by Madeleine Albright on Russia’s inability to develop the territories and resources under its control (this fake was disproved many times). In this context, the commitment to address the environmental problems in Russian Arctic looks dubious, but the plans for greater use of nuclear power are worrisome indeed. This picture may look like a political cartoon, but it is in fact a part of the exhibition in Moscow marking Putin’s birthday, and the grasp on the Arctic by his right hand appears rigid, even if the plans for submitting the long-promised claim to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (UN CLCS) is apparently again postponed.