Preventing Russian Dominance in the Arctic

By: Will Chim, Columnist

Photo Credit: CIMSEC

The lands and seas of the Arctic Circle remain one of the last great frontiers on Earth and hold up to 13% of total undiscovered oil and 30% of undiscovered natural gas in the world.[1] Out of all the countries with an interest in the Arctic, the Russian Federation has devoted the most time and effort to securing a dominant position there and is the most likely to make an aggressive push to claim Arctic territory in the near future. Russia has thus far acted unimpeded in the region. The United States and its Arctic-interested allies must strengthen its engagement lest Russia dominate the region and its vast resources.

Russia faces an energy crisis—the time of free-flowing crude and gas with massive profits due to high oil prices is ending. Worldwide oil discoveries are slowing as oil prices drop and nations turn to alternatives. Global exploratory drilling fell by 20% in 2015 and even further in 2016.[2] Russian Dutch disease shows no sign of stopping—a 10% increase in oil prices boosts Russian net exports by around 8%, an effect that continues to persist despite recent decrease in the effect of energy on Russian GDP growth (as of 2017, energy still accounts for 25-30% of Russian GDP and 37% of government revenue).[3] [4] Thus a push to secure new fuel reserves is likely—and it may come via force as Russia loses patience with diplomatic channels.

Russia made clear its Arctic ambitions as early as 1997 when it ratified the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea and in 2001 when it submitted a claim to the United Nations for an extended continental shelf well beyond the 200-mile Russian Exclusive Economic Zone.[5] This claim has been an ongoing source of controversy ever since—the original was rejected in 2002 and resubmitted several times. Each time the UN required additional evidence backing up the aggressive claim.

It is not implausible that Russia may decide to take its claim by force, annexing territory for the second time in recent memory. This appears increasingly likely as the UN repeatedly rebuffs Russia’s expansive claims. Russia has made no small matter of the importance of the Arctic to its policy goals. The Kremlin explicitly articulated its Arctic strategy in a 2008 strategy paper entitled, “The fundamentals of state policy of the Russian Federation in the Arctic in the period up to 2020 and beyond,” which emphasized that the Arctic “must become Russia’s top strategic resource base by 2020.”[6]

A scenario in which Russia annexes a large portion of Arctic territory unchallenged is a possibility for which the United States must prepare. Russia is already better prepared for conflict than any other Arctic nation. It maintains 40 icebreakers (including 4 nuclear-powered) while all other Arctic nations have fewer than 30 combined.[7] Russia also possesses more military bases in the Arctic than any other nation, including 16 deep-water ports, 13 airfields equipped with S-400 missile systems, and nuclear-ready fighter jets.[8] Finally, Russia has long been training troops for Arctic service, with exercises involving 80,000 soldiers, sailors, and airmen as well as over 200 aircraft and reindeer-mounted special operations teams.[9]

This near-future race for Arctic resources and control poses a challenge the United States has largely avoided. The most recent American Arctic policy came under the Obama Administration in 2013, with stated goals of “advancing US security interests, pursuing responsible Arctic region stewardship, and strengthening international cooperation.”[10] However, aside from this enthusiastic rhetoric, the United States has done little to pursue concrete goals or articulate specific policy for the governance of natural resources, shipping routes, and competing political claims in the region. The United States has a number of policy options for countering Russia in the Arctic.

The United States should foremost encourage a larger role for the Arctic Council and work with its members to strengthen its potential as a cooperative organization. Admittedly, the Arctic Council has to date been a largely administrative and symbolic body and possesses no legally binding abilities, thus far only handling soft security issues.[11] However, the Council is the most direct method by which to directly work with the Arctic nations and develop a cooperative framework—it is endowed with a mandate for dealing with security issues and it must be broadened and empowered to address hard security impasses and disputes.[12] The United States should also aim to work with the United Nations on Arctic security and boundary issues, such as ratifying the Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Alternatively, NATO remains another option to push back harder against Russian activities in the Arctic. NATO is attractive as an Arctic strategy because it allows for a multilateral military approach that brings together the other existing Arctic powers to counter Russia. With the exception of Finland, Sweden, and Russia, all Arctic nations are current NATO members. Harnessing the existing force structure of NATO is likely the only plausible method of directly countering Russian military expansion in the Arctic, though such a direct military strategy risks exacerbating tensions in the Arctic and even catalyzing a showdown between Russia and NATO.

Finally, aligning with China may give the United States a rare chance to achieve multiple geopolitical and economic goals. A dark horse in the Arctic race, China has sought to legitimize its position as a “near-Arctic” power, despite having no Arctic territory of its own. China has serious ambitions in Polar science, technology, and research relating to climate change broadly and China’s own climate concerns.[13] Especially relevant, China views the Arctic as a “global commons” which no small group of nations should have uncontested control of—a position that the United States and Arctic Council should consider supporting as part of a broader effort to defuse conflict or even establish broad environmental consensus for the Arctic as a protected territory.[14]

The age of the Arctic is only beginning, and the United States has entered the race well behind. However, the United States is in a unique position to take steps to cull Russia’s desire to dominate the Arctic, to prevent the occurrence of a militarized Arctic, and to guide the development of this global frontier for energy and scientific exploration. To sit idly by during the Arctic boom would be a catastrophic error and could result in an international landscape presenting far more challenges to American leadership in the 21st century.

[1] “Circum-Arctic Resource Appraisal: Estimates of Undiscovered Oil and Gas North of the Arctic Circle,” last modified 2008,

[2] Viktor Katona, “When Will Russia Run Out of Oil?,” ETF Daily News, April 6, 2017,

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ivana Kottasova, “Russia is seriously running out of cash,” CNNMoney, September 6, 2016,

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

[6] Quirin Schiermeier, “Russia to boost Arctic research,”, September 23, 2010,

[7] Bob Reiss, “Why Putin’s Russia is Beating the US in the Race to Control the Arctic,” Newsweek, March 9, 2017,

[8] Kyle Mizokami, “How Russia is fortifying the Arctic,” The Week, March 29, 2016, 2.

[9] David Axe, “Russia and America prep forces for Arctic war,” Reuters, October 5, 2015, 5.

[10] National Strategy for the Arctic Region, The White House, May 10, 2013,

[11] Linda Fernandez, Brooks Kaiser, Sue Moore, and Niels Vestergaard, “Arctic marine resource governance,” Marine Policy 72 (2016): 238.

[12] Marzia Scopelliti and Elena Conde Perez, “Defining security in a changing Arctic: helping to prevent an Arctic security dilemma,” Polar Record 52 (2016): 676.

[13] Rasmus Gjedsso Bertelsen and Vincent Gallucci, “The return of China, post-Cold War Russia, and the Arctic: Changes on land and at sea,” Marine Policy 72 (2016): 241.

[14] Ibid, 241.

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