Arctic Thaw

Arctic Cooperation and Russian Rapprochement

The Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) is seen over a mountain camp north of the Arctic Circle, near the village of Mestervik late October 1, 2014. Yannis Behrakis / Reuters

When it comes to being the next biggest thing in energy, the Arctic has lost its allure. Twenty-two percent of the world’s undiscovered resources will, for now, remain untapped. The “great game” that once seemed to be the Arctic’s destiny has been thwarted by global oil market forces and complicated by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s interventions in Ukraine and Syria. With the price of oil falling below $28 a barrel and economic sanctions curtailing Russia’s ability to exploit its Arctic claims, the clamor to look north for energy is beginning to quiet down.

Yet for Russia, the Arctic is still a strategic priority—one that many fear Putin will protect by force. A cornerstone of Moscow’s vision to reinstate Russia to its rightful international standing—that of a great power—is energy dominance. Energy provides a financial backbone for state programs, and energy pipelines are a key tool through which the state coerces its neighbors. And if Russia is to continue finding oil to pump through European pipelines, it must look to the Arctic for further exploration. 


By way of geography, Russia holds the largest stake in the Arctic. The nation shares a border with the Arctic that is over 4,000 miles long. And like the other Arctic Five powers (Canada, Denmark, Norway, and the United States), it maintains a strategy for the vast expanse that hinges on securing its border and modernizing its military installations. By the end of 2015, Russia will have secured military control of its entire Arctic border, although even this military presence will pale in comparison with military levels in the region during the Cold War.

As it secures its borders, Russia will seek to upgrade Soviet-era military hardware. Its restoration of aging hardware and its plans to reopen existing military bases are necessary if it is to meet the needs of growing Arctic activity. In a sense, then, discussions about an impending militarization of the Arctic have always been misleading,

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