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The Russian Federation’s Arctic Policy

(by Willy Østreng)



The 27th of March 2009, the Security Council of the Russian Federation released an Arctic policy document: Fundamentals of the Russian Federation’s Policy in the Arctic for the Period up to 2020 and beyond. In this document the concept of the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation is launched. In terms of ocean space, this zone comprises the internal waters, land and islands, territorial sea, the exclusive economic zone and the continental shelf of Russia, within which “Russia possesses sovereign rights and jurisdiction in accordance with international law1 .” The boundaries of this definition are in accordance with the USSR sector claim of 15th of April 1926 and the Law of the Sea Convention of 1982. The Russian government states her national interests, or fundamentals, in the Arctic to be:

  1. Use the Russian Arctic Zone as a strategic resource base for the socio-economic development of the country;
  1. Conserve the Arctic as a zone of peace and cooperation;
  1. Preserve the Arctic’s unique ecosystems; and
  1. Use of the NSR as a unified national transport link.

On the basis of these interests, the following objectives and priorities have been formulated.

National Security

In the sphere of military security, defence and protection of Russia’s boundaries of the Arctic Zone are regarded as vital to the interests of the Federation. This involves effective maintenance of the required combat potential of conventional troops of general purpose and “military formations and bodies in the region (primarily border-guard authorities).” Such measures are required to ensure “the military security in preview of various military and political situations2 .” There is also a need to create an active functional system of a Coast Guard fighting terrorism at sea and in precluding smuggling and illegal migration.

The overall objective is to create an integrated security system to protect the territory, population and sites critical for the national security of Russia within the Arctic Zone against both natural and “technogenic emergency risks2 .” Basic and applied science will be used to develop tools for solving problems of defence.

It is interesting to note that the policy document is tacit about the use of Arctic waters for strategic deterrence purposes. Neither is there a mention of the Northern Fleet based at the Kola Peninsula which is well within the Russian definition of what territories constitute the Arctic2 . Until recently, it was Soviet/Russian strategic submarines that had a need to use the water columns of the Central Arctic Ocean for strategic operations, not US submarines or for that matter French and/or British, all of which have easy access to the High Seas from home bases3 . Although, not explicitly mentioned in the Document, there is every reason to assume that strategic deterrence will continue to be a fundamental Russian interest in the Central Arctic Basin in the medium and long term4 .

Resource Extraction

In the sphere of socio-economic development, the object is to ensure a significant increase in the exploitable mineral reserves of Arctic offshore deposits, among others through the implementation of a State program to study and develop the Russian continental shelf and to initiate the development of oil and gas fields within their own Arctic Zone. The government will be active in supporting entities operating in the Zone, primarily in the development of hydrocarbon resources. A main goal is to expand the resource basis of the Arctic Zone “that can largely satisfy Russia’s needs for oil and gas and other types of strategic raw materials.”

The economic development of the Arctic Zone is a primary Russian goal through the creation of a favourable operational regime to be applied within its boundaries. In the period 2016-2020 the Russian Federation will transform her Arctic Zone into a leading strategic resource base in Russia. The future objective is to expand the Zone in a comprehensive manner to consolidate Russia’s position “as a leading Arctic power”.  Thus, the prime focus of Russian economic planning in the region is on her own Arctic Zone. The only area outside of the Zone mentioned in the Document is the Norwegian Archipelago of Svalbard where the government will ensure Russia a “mutually beneficial presence5 .” The Document is not so much focused on the Arctic as a whole as on the Russian Arctic Zone. It is more inward than outward looking in orientation.

International Governance

In line with the policy of the other big powers, Russia also opts for the region to be cooperative and peaceful. In particular, cooperation is required in defining the unresolved maritime boundaries, to come up with an all-Arctic system of search and rescue, strengthening cooperation within AC and BEAR, facilitating the efficient use of transit and cross-polar air routes and international navigation along of the NSR. The legal instruments to be applied to regulate developments are domestic Russian legislation and the norms of international treaties and convention to which Russia is a party, among them UNCLOS III.

Environmental Concern

The Document states that it is in the national interest to preserve the unique Arctic ecosystems. This is a political emphasis that the former Soviet system did not have. There is explicit mention of the term, environmental security, aiming at preserving and protecting the Arctic environment against the “ecological consequences of ... increasing economic development and global climate change6 .”

Sustainability is never used as a concept in its own right to describe how to implement environmental security, which to a large extent is restricted to be applied to the Arctic Zone. Here the objective is to establish special environmental regimes for harvesting natural resources and for monitoring pollutants, primarily “in areas of compact settlements.” The Document has less of a pan-Arctic orientation and does not reflect clearly the trans-boundary character of international pollution.

International Cooperation

It is stated as one of four national interests that the Arctic should be a zone of peace and cooperation. Thus, there is an interest in developing a cooperative regime of mutually beneficial utility between the Arctic states on the basis of agreements and treaties to which Russia is a party. The Document is concrete and specific in mentioning the need for Russia to interact with its neighbours in defining maritime borders, as well as in achieving international justification for the boundaries of the Arctic Zone.

Since Russia has unresolved boundaries with the United States in the east, and Denmark and Canada in the north, the Document goes on stating that the boundaries of the Arctic Zone will be more precise in the future in accordance with “Russian domestic legislation and international conventions to which Russia is a party.” The relative weight and significance to be paid to domestic legislation versus international conventions in defining these boundaries, the Document is tacit about. Russia sees it in her national interest to strengthen the cooperation within the Arctic Council and the Barents Euro Arctic Region.


As mentioned already, the NSR is singled out as one of four prime areas of national interests in the Arctic. The Document is very specific about this priority. No other means of transportation, for instance pipelines, are mentioned in the Document and the objectives are grand.

First: Facilitate the organization and efficient use of the NSR for international navigation under the jurisdiction of the Russian Federation and in accordance with international law.

Second: Restructure the volume of freight traffic along the route, among others through state support to the construction of icebreaking, rescue and support fleets, as well as coastal infrastructure.

Third: Establish a system of monitoring the safety of navigation and transport flow management in areas of intense traffic, among others by implementing measures of hydro methodological and navigational support in the Russian Arctic Zone.

Fourth:  Optimize the instrumental technological monitoring of areas adjacent to straits (58 along the NSR), river estuaries and coastal lakes along the route.


  •  1. Fundamentals of Russian Arctic Policy (2009), p. 1
  •  2. Ibid.
  •  3. Østreng, W. (1982), The Strategic Balance in the Arctic Ocean – Soviet Options” , William Gutteridge (ed): European Security, Nuclear Weapons and Public Confidence” , Macmillian Press, London, Basingstoke, 1982.
  •  4. Granberg, A. (1992), The Northern Sea Route and the Policy of the New Russia, in Internatinal Challenges, vol. 12, no. 1, 1992
  •  5. Fundamentals of Russian Arctic Policy (2009), p. 3
  •  6. Fundamentals of Russian Arctic Policy (2009), p. 2

Willy Østreng, 2010, The Russian Federation’s Arctic Policy, CHNL.©

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