Could the Arctic Circle Become the Next Crimea?

Photo Credit: Politico

By: Andrew Watts, Columnist

Nearly a decade ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin sent a submarine on a mission to plant the Russian flag on the seabed underneath the North Pole. Though easy to dismiss this action as a mere publicity stunt, evidence strongly suggests that Moscow has every intention to dominate the Arctic Circle in the twenty-first century. In the decade since, Putin has quietly orchestrated the modernization of Russia’s Arctic-related capabilities, ranging from the reopening of Soviet-era military bases to the construction of heavy ice breakers, to ensure that Moscow can defend its interests in the region on short notice. This comes at a time when climate change is melting the ice in the Arctic, thereby making its intercontinental trade routes and vast natural energy reserves more accessible than ever before. Though Russia has respected international laws that govern the region in the past, a revisionist Putin emboldened by nationalistic sentiments may seek to unilaterally claim and defend the North Pole in the future.

Russia’s two primary interests in the Arctic Circle are energy resources, including oil and natural gas, and the Northern Sea Route (NSR), an intercontinental trade route between Europe and Asia. The Arctic Circle promises to be a natural resource mecca, and the economic development of this region, per Dr. Valeriy Kryukov from the Russian Academy of Sciences, is “the most important component of social and economic development of Russia as a whole.”[i] Though Moscow has recently made substantial investments in the region, constructing a $27 billion energy plant in the Ob River estuary, dredging 16 deep-water ports, and building 13 airfields to transport resources to global markets, its estimated development horizon is between 20 and 40 years.[ii] The second major economic motivator for development of the Arctic is the NSR, which is estimated to be 37% shorter than the southern route via the Suez Canal.[iii] Russia is expanding the world’s largest icebreaker fleet and aims to impose a transit tax on all vessels using the NSR under the guise of supporting its icebreaker escorts. As the ice continues to melt, the NSR becomes increasingly less hazardous, thereby lowering the insurance premiums on commercial vessels and making it a more attractive route.

Since the end of the Cold War, the Arctic Circle has largely remained impervious to geopolitical feuds. International laws and institutions, such as the Arctic Council and the 1982 United Nations Law of the Sea Treaty, have helped to maintain the peace. However, warming oceans coupled with improved offshore drilling technology is making the Arctic a more hostile environment as states realize its increasingly accessible economic potential. In August 2015, Moscow formally submitted its second claim to the United Nations arguing that its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) should extend an additional 150 nautical miles than currently recognized. Canada, Norway, and Denmark have all submitted overlapping claims to this territory. Not only would this contested area provide Russia with an additional 463,000 square miles and the accompanying energy resources, but it would also allow the Russians to tax virtually all commercial and scientific vessels traveling in the Arctic.[iv]

Recent Russian re-militarization of the Arctic suggests that Putin is hedging his bets against an unfavorable UN ruling. In 2014, Russia published a military doctrine that announced the protection of “national interests in the Arctic” for the first time.[v] In 2015, Russia created the Joint Strategic Command North (JSCN) to spearhead Arctic modernization plans. The reconstruction of Cold War-era naval bases and air strips on the New Siberian Islands, across the Chukchi and East Siberian seas from Alaska are well underway.[vi] In response to an announced NATO training exercise that consisted of 5,000 troops in 2015, Russia launched an unannounced exercise that involved more than 45,000 soldiers, 15 submarines, and 41 warships and practiced full combat readiness in the Arctic.[vii] Not only has Russia created the Arctic Brigade, but it has also directed numerous technology upgrades, such as the development of mobile nuclear power plants. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who chairs Russia’s new Arctic Commission, has stated, “it is our territory, it is our shelf, and we’ll provide its security…They [the West] will put us on a sanctions list – but tanks do not need visas.”[viii]

Though the Russians are positioning to claim and defend contested Arctic territory, several economic realities will moderate their near-term ambitions. First, because oil prices have nearly halved since 2013, there is little incentive for commercial vessels to take the shorter but higher risk voyage through the NSR. Cargo shipped through the NSR peaked at 1.4 million tons in 2013, but has since dwindled to less than 40,000 tons in 2015.[ix] Second, the oil slump has effectively rendered Arctic oil exploration prohibitively expensive. The International Energy Agency (IEA) calculates that the cost of exploiting oil in the Arctic is between $40 and $100 per barrel, compared to $10 and $40 a barrel for Middle Eastern oil.[x] Third, western sanctions in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea have prohibited western oil companies from sharing technology with their Russian counterparts, putting the Russians at a significant competitive disadvantage in the Arctic for the time being.

The Russians are actively preparing to dominate the Arctic Circle in the 21st century. The modernization of its military assets, the bellicose rhetoric from its leadership, and its revisionist and nationalistic policies of late suggest as much. There is justified concern for the future of international cooperation in the region, especially if the UN does not accept Russia’s latest claim. Though an invasion of the North Pole is unlikely, Moscow may seek creative, less antagonistic solutions to justify an incursion into the contested areas. Perhaps Moscow has taken notes from Beijing’s strategy of building islands to solidify territorial claims. Certain economic realities, including the oil slump and the adverse impact of western sanctions, make it unlikely that Putin will conduct a major unilateral action in the next several years. The importance of the Arctic and nature of the Russian threat, however, cannot be taken lightly.

[i] Heather A. Conley and Caroline Rohloff, “The New Ice Curtain: Russia’s Strategic Reach to the Arctic,” Center for Strategic International Studies, August 2015,

[ii] Andrew Poulin, “5 Ways Russia is Positioning to Dominate the Arctic,” International Policy Digest, January 24, 2016,

[iii] ”Russia’s Arctic Obsession,” Financial Times, October 21, 2016,

[iv] Conley and Rohloff, “The New Ice Curtain: Russia’s Strategic Reach to the Arctic.”

[v] Poulin, “5 Ways Russia is Positioning to Dominate the Arctic.”

[vi] Andrew Kramer, “Russia Presents Revised Claim of Arctic Territory to the United Nations,” New York Times, February 9, 2016,

[vii] Conley and Rohloff, “The New Ice Curtain: Russia’s Strategic Reach to the Arctic.”

[viii] Conley and Rohloff, “The New Ice Curtain: Russia’s Strategic Reach to the Arctic.”

[ix] “Russia’s Arctic Obsession.”

[x] Conley and Rohloff, “The New Ice Curtain: Russia’s Strategic Reach to the Arctic.”

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