Almost everyone has once heard, perhaps during a history class, that Russia yearns for a 'maritime outlet' to year-round navigable waters, the lack of which has always been the country's main geopolitical 'curse'. Without access to continuously navigable waters, Russia suffers the consequences of an overly difficult and costly connection to global trade; a structural weakness that is the key to analyzing many of the Kremlin's moves. Among them is Russia's Arctic policy, which has been identified as a possible solution to the curse. However, climate change and the consequent melting of ice with opening Arctic waters, is no blessing for Moscow either.
In the Great North, Russia is the protagonist. It is the country with the longest Arctic coastline (more than 24 thousand km), it has the largest number of inhabitants in the region (2 million out of about 4 million total), and, with 80% of Russia’s natural gas, the Arctic is home to most of Russia’s crucial fossil resources. Additionally, Russia’s submarine nuclear deterrence forces are stationed in the Kola Peninsula. The Arctic has been talked about for years as a new frontier with enormous economic potential. It could revolutionize global trade, substantially reducing the distance between Atlantic and Pacific ports. The Northern Sea Route (NSR) along the Russian coast is sometimes heralded as a new maritime highway, and rich offshore hydrocarbon reserves could become exploitable as the ice melts. It is not surprising then that the Arctic, a carrier of vital interests for the nation, is a priority for the Kremlin and fuel for its hopes of regaining great power status. Moscow has by far the best equipped Arctic fleet and is reopening military bases abandoned after the fall of the USSR in hopes of developing the Arctic Ocean into its long coveted navigable maritime outlet.
In reality, there are many doubts about the actual economic potential of the High North. Despite the melting of the ice, the costs of exploiting sea routes and unexplored fossil resources are prohibitive. Said fossil resources are mainly located offshore, extraction of which would require state-of-the-art technology and could cause serious environmental damage. Moreover, the maritime boundaries in the area are mostly well-defined and non-conflicting, and the vast majority of estimated resources are already within these boundaries. Arctic routes are also unlikely to become maritime highways. Transit is still extremely risky and costly due to uncertainties over navigability, lack of infrastructure along the coasts, particularly stringent requirements for navigation, high insurance costs, and the frequent need for an icebreaker escort. Transit traffic through the Arctic Circle remains negligible. Overall, the region is characterized by uncertainty.
Therefore, the increasing militarisation of the Arctic should not be interpreted as a race for resources and commercial advantages. Before February 24th, relations between Arctic states had remained cooperative, precisely because the icy waters of the Arctic offer little cause for conflict. Cooperation between Russia and the other Arctic states was mostly maintained, even after the annexation of Crimea. Russian military build-up in the High North is nothing new, however, in light of the invasion of Ukraine, this militarisation may become a source of concern for the stability of the region. It should be borne in mind that among the other so-called ‘Arctic states’ (Canada, the United States, Norway, Iceland, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark), Russia is now the only one that does not belong to NATO. NATO itself, in June 2022, mentioned the High North for the first time in its new Strategic Concept; the document, referring to Russia, states that "In the High North, its capability to disrupt Allied reinforcements and freedom of navigation across the North Atlantic is a strategic challenge to the Alliance." The Alliance's renewed interest in the region, all but ignored since the end of the Cold War, and the heightening tension certainly do not play in Moscow's favor.
Putin's offensive against Kiev has triggered an intense reaction; even in the Arctic, which used to be considered an oasis of cooperation, Russia is isolated. The region's main forum for cooperation, the Arctic Council, has ceased its activities. Even cooperation aimed at scientific research has been abruptly halted. The severing of relations with Western Arctic states and imposition of sanctions are severely damaging Russian ambitions in the Arctic, interrupting a flow of investment that Russia cannot do without. Moscow needs foreign capital to exploit the potential of its northern shores. This same structural economic weakness is what Russia hopes to overcome by developing a navigable Arctic. But, without Western funding and technology, it will be difficult for the country to exploit its hydrocarbon reserves and develop the NSR. Moscow’s only other option will be Chinese investors, who are already heavily involved in developing the Polar Silk Road, but this could push the country towards a relationship of dependence on the People's Republic, a scenario that is traditionally feared by the Kremlin. From this perspective, the growing Chinese presence could push Washington and NATO to further reinforce their own presence. However, it is likely that Chinese resources will also be meager: Beijing prefers a stable international order which allows for profitable investment, a situation which has been heavily perturbed by the Kremlin’s war. China has not condemned the invasion, but its support to Moscow has been tepid and far from Russia’s desired military support. The latest meeting between Putin and Xi Jinping has once again confirmed the PRC’s will to keep a safe distance. Xi might well decide to diminish, or at least pause, its involvement in the Russian Arctic for the time being.
All the evidence indicates that Russia's geopolitical curse is not close to being solved. Climate change favours a continuous increase in human activities in the High North, but the extreme conditions still entail great logistical difficulties with high costs and considerable risks. Due to its own characteristics, the Arctic is therefore unlikely to become Moscow's desired 'new ocean'. This is even less likely in the aftermath of the war in Ukraine, considering the context of great power competition. Not only does Moscow lack the necessary capital for its ambitions, but it has also alienated investors vital to the development of the Russian Arctic and caused its rivals' interest and presence in the region to grow. NATO's cherished motto, ‘High North, Low Tensions’, perhaps needs to be updated. On Moscow's side, the curse persists.
Andrea Restaldi studies International Governance and Diplomacy at Sciences Po Paris. He holds a Bachelor's degree in International studies from the University of Turin. He is a member of the newly created Spykman International Center for Geopolitical Analysis
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