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Russia’s new Arctic policy document signals continuity rather than change

Russian Arctic icebreaker. Photo: Christopher Michel /
Russian Arctic icebreaker. Photo: Christopher Michel /

On 6 March 2020, Russian President Vladimir Putin approved the ‘Basic Principles of Russian Federation State Policy in the Arctic to 2035’ (Basic Principles 2035). The new policy document defines Russia’s Arctic interests, goals and mechanisms of implementation for the next 15 years. The document is published at a time where tensions between Russia and its Arctic neighbours are increasing and just ahead of Russia chairing the Arctic Council in 2021.

One way to understand Basic Principles 2035—what new elements the policy document introduces and what it means for the future of Arctic cooperation—is by directly comparing it with Russia’s most recent strategic document that addresses the polar region: Basic Principles 2020, adopted in 2008. 


Economic development, protecting sovereignty and territorial integrity

There are many similarities between Basic Principles 2020 and Basic Principles 2035 when it comes to protecting Russia’s national interests (see table 1). In particular, both policies name the Arctic as the main resource base for Russia’s economic growth. This is not surprising given that 10 per cent of Russia’s gross domestic product (GDP) and 20 per cent of Russia’s exports are currently produced in the Arctic


Table 1. Comparison of Russian national interests in the Arctic as outlined in Basic Principles 2020 and Basic Principles 2035
Table 1. Comparison of Russian national interests in the Arctic as outlined in Basic Principles 2020 and Basic Principles 2035


The introduction of developing the Northern Sea Route (NSR) as ‘a globally competitive national transport corridor’ in Basic Principles 2035 does not come as a surprise, since this can be seen as an elaboration of what Basic Principles 2020 began. An indication that the development of the NSR was of continued importance to Russia could already be seen in 2008 and in 2018, President Putin announced the goal of increasing the traffic in the NSR to 80 million tons by 2024. The current overall traffic, however, is lower than 30 million tons. The increase of traffic can only be expected if the hydrocarbon and other resource projects in the Arctic fulfil their potential. What is important to note though is that these ambitious new plans come at a time of historically low prices for oil and liquefied natural gas (LNG). What’s more, Asian economies which are seen as the primary market for Russia’s Arctic resources—are slowing down. Thus, while the Russian Government has continuously pushed both private and state companies to develop the Arctic resource projects, the feasibility of their implementation is under question now more than ever. When it comes to international transit shipping, the NSR could not be considered a competitor to other international sea routes since the transit traffic does not exceed 500 thousand tons a year

Promoting the prosperity and well-being of people living in the Arctic is something that has been the focus of Russia’s Arctic development strategy and socio-economic development programme for some time. The previous Russian Arctic policy document also mentioned the improvement of the well-being of indigenous peoples in the Russian Arctic. The elevation, however, of these goals to the status of national interest in the new policy document draws attention. The question is really to what extent Russia will live up to its promise. With the exception of the autonomous Yamalo-Nenets province, all areas of the Russian Arctic have seen population decreases and have difficulties when it comes to well-being, healthcare and housing. Furthermore, the Russian Government has a history of cracking down on indigenous peoples’ organizations

Basic Principles 2035 introduces the concept of ‘ensuring sovereignty and territorial integrity’ as the top national interest in the context of the Arctic. Whilst this could indicate a continuous securitization of the region by the Russian Government, it does not in practice indicate a significant change in the policy since Russia will continue its long-term enforcement of its sovereignty over Arctic territories and waters. For instance, in 2019, Russia presented its intention to tighten the regulation of foreign military ships passing through the NSR. Furthermore, the increase in military capabilities in the Arctic and the demonstration of this force through air and navy patrols and military drills will continue to ensure Russia’s enforcement of its sovereignty in the region. The goals for the military and security dimensions listed in the Basic Principles 2035 indicates the continuity of the policy, particularly maintaining operational capability and readiness of the armed forces to deter aggression against Russia in the Arctic and further developing Border Guard and Coast Guard forces in the Arctic. Hence, one can expect to see further development of an ambitious programme of military and civilian forces modernization in the Arctic. 


Challenges to Russia’s national security in the Arctic region

Basic Principles 2035 provides an overview of the main challenges in ensuring Russia’s national security in the Arctic. Such an overview has not featured in previous policy documents, however, similar concerns have been expressed by Russian officials before

For example, Basic Principles 2035 outlines threats to security by referring to ‘some countries’ attempts to revise provisions of international treaties regulating economic and other activities in the Arctic and establish national regulation systems without taking into account regional and international formats of cooperation’. Furthermore, the policy document also refers to ‘some countries’ obstruction of economic or other activities by the Russian Federation in the Arctic’. 

Both statements are most likely alluding to Russia’s disagreement with Norway regarding the interpretation of the 1920 Svalbard Treaty. In particular, Russia is against Norway establishing a fisheries protection zone and ‘the artificial expansion of nature protection zones to limit economic activity in the archipelago’. In February 2020, on the 100th anniversary of the treaty, Russia has again raised these questions in a stern letter that was sent to the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs

While Russia’s neighbours in the region worry about the ongoing Russian military build-up, Basic Principles 2035 portrays Russia’s own concerns over the increasing military presence of foreign countries and the related growing conflict potential in the Arctic as challenges for its national security.
Russia has repeatedly claimed that North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) increasing activities in the region pose a significant threat. Activities of the United States in the Arctic and North Atlantic have also been pointed out as a challenge to both Russia’s military and maritime doctrines. 


Russia’s agenda for cooperation in the Arctic

According to the Basic Principles 2035, preserving the Arctic as the ‘region of peace’ remains one of the Russia’s main national interests in the region. The policy document indicates that Russia will continue to support cooperation on a number of issues, including the delimitation of the Arctic shelf, search and rescue, prevention and liquidation of consequences of technological catastrophes. Russia aims to strengthen relations on the bilateral level and in different formats of multilateral cooperation, but specifically distinguishes the Arctic Five, Barents Euro-Arctic Cooperation and the Arctic Council.

One of Russia’s objectives in the new policy document is ‘to secure the Arctic Council as the key regional institution coordinating the international cooperation in the Arctic’. This could imply that Russia still does not support taking away these functions from the Arctic Council and using alternative forums for cooperation, such as the Arctic Circle network. Given that Russia will take over the chair of the Arctic Council in mid-2021, it is not unusual that strengthening the institution is a priority.

Russia also sees the promotion of ‘mutually beneficial economic partnership with Arctic and non-Arctic states’ as an objective for Arctic cooperation. Hence, it can be implied that Russia will keep searching for external investments into the Arctic economy and develop its cooperation with countries outside the region, primarily, but not only, with China.


No surprises in the new policy document

Although it contains a few new elements, Basic Principles 2035 does not indicate any drastic shifts in Russia’s Arctic policy compared to previous strategies. Russia continues to be interested in cooperating in the Arctic region on matters of mutual interest to advance its regional leadership and economic agenda. At the same time, it seems that Russia plans to continue a campaign of harsh rhetoric regarding security challenges in the Arctic region, while also boosting its military capabilities as a way to address these perceived fears. 


Ekaterina Klimenko was a Researcher in and the Coordinator for Conflict, Peace and Security