The Russian Bear Goes Polar: Putin’s Territorial Claims in the Arctic

Photo Credit: Getty Images

By Ian Churchill, Columnist

On February 9, 2016, the Russian government presented its Arctic territorial claim to a United Nations scientific panel that, if approved, could expand Russia’s domain by over 465,000 square miles.[i] Already by far the largest Arctic power by landmass, Russia’s proposed expansion of its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) represents one track in a twofold strategic effort to strengthen its security and power its economy.

Vladimir Putin’s Russia pursues a dual track approach to achieving its strategic objectives in the Arctic. Moscow is cooperating with other powers on economic development, while simultaneously engaging in a regional military buildup to defend its interests. Russia’s recent presentation to the UN’s Article 76 Commission on the Limits to the Outer Continental Shelf, which proposed expanding its EEZ beyond the standard 200 nautical miles afforded by the Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), is characteristic of the cooperative track. Though the Commission only evaluates scientific evidence in determining the validity of member countries’ claims within the UNCLOS framework, an affirmative ruling would strengthen Russia’s territorial negotiating position vis-à-vis other Arctic states. By working patiently to substantiate its legal claims through the exceedingly slow United Nations’ process, Russia presents a friendly face to the world, with the intent of attracting foreign investment from international energy companies. Such investment is crucial if Russia is to develop the massive hydrocarbon deposits that are increasingly accessible as sea ice melts due to global warming.[ii]

However, geopolitical and economic events outside of the Arctic have derailed Russia’s development plans, at least in the short-term. Western sanctions instituted against Russia in response to Putin’s 2014 intervention in Ukraine, coupled with a dramatic and sustained collapse in oil prices, which the Russian economy is heavily reliant upon, have put plans for new Arctic oil and natural gas drilling on ice.[iii] Accordingly, Russia is increasingly looking to China to finance new development, without much success to date.[iv]

Russia’s Arctic infrastructure development is not limited to the commercial sector. Since 2013, Putin has announced plans to reopen 50 shuttered Soviet military bases in the region, in addition to 10 new airfields.[v] The scale and frequency of Russia’s Arctic military exercises are also increasing. In 2014, Russia conducted a huge war game in Siberia, marshaling over 100,000 servicemen, some of whom practiced repelling an invasion along the Chukotka coastline.[vi] More recently, the Russian military released an ostentatious video of soldiers brandishing machine guns on sleds pulled by reindeer through the Arctic snow.[vii] Though such pageantry surely elicits chuckles from military analysts, it would be a mistake to treat Russia’s intentions in the region as a joke. Russia is moving to develop a credible anti-access capability in the Arctic.

Russia’s military buildup makes sense, especially should global warming continue. One fifth of Russia’s GDP is generated from its Arctic territories, and the Arctic is estimated to hold upwards of 90 billion barrels of oil, or 13% of the world’s undiscovered conventional reserves.[viii] Less sea ice is also expected to open the North Sea Route, which hugs the Russian coast, to large volumes of freight shipping, and Russia will seek to exact transit fees on vessels to help fund its Arctic facilities.[ix] At present, neither the United States nor China recognize the North Sea Route as falling within Russia’s territorial waters, but if Moscow’s territorial claim is successful, it may prove instrumental in achieving Russia’s long-term vision for the Arctic.

Russia’s territorial claim presented to the UN demonstrates a calculated belief that cooperation in the Arctic is beneficial for Russia’s present and future economic development. However, Putin has also invested considerable resources in a muscular Arctic military presence. This two track approach suggests that Russia is keeping its options open, should the cost/benefit analysis in Moscow tilt away from multilateral diplomacy and toward unilateral strength.

[i] Heather A. Conley and Caroline Rohloff, The New Ice Curtain, Center for Strategic and International Studies (Rowman & Littlefield: New York), XII.

[ii] “Drilling under Arctic climatic conditions requires the latest drilling technologies, ice-strengthened drilling platforms, safety and spill response equipment, and long-term financing that Russian firms must acquire from foreign partners.” Ibid., 2.

[iii] Energy giant ExxonMobile was forced to cancel its involvement in nine of ten energy projects previously planned with Russia’s Rosneft. Conley and Rohloff, The New Ice Curtain, 4.

[iv] Conley and Rohloff, The New Ice Curtain, 4.

[v] Ibid., XIII. Ankit Panda, “Russia to Build 10 Arctic Airfields by 2016,” The Diplomat, January 15, 2015,

[vi] Conley and Rohloff, The New Ice Curtain, XIII.

[vii] “Russian Troops Train With Reindeer,” The New York Times, February 9, 2016,

[viii] Conley and Rohloff, The New Ice Curtain, VII. US Energy Information Agency, based on a US Geological Survey report from 2008,

[ix] Conley and Rohloff, The New Ice Curtain, XI.

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