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Russia: 2035

Russian President Vladimir Putin formally approved the Russian Federation’s long awaited fifteen year plan for the Arctic last week. The plan, titled “Basic Principles of Russian Federation State Policy to 2035” addresses Russia’s Arctic environmental policy, infrastructure development, and security position. Russia’s 2035 strategy details a more assertive approach to the High North, in keeping with recent increases in development and military activity.

Economic Development

The Northern Sea Route (NSR), also known as the Blue Silk Road, was emphasized as being critical to Russia’s liquified natural gas (LNG) extraction and transportation strategy. LNG and freight are critical for Arctic job creation, with Basic Principles 2035 laying out a target of 200,000 new jobs in the next 15 years.

Environmental Concerns

‘Basic Principles 2035’ takes a pragmatic approach to climate change. The document singles out the possibility of foreign powers contaminating Russia’s Arctic waters and makes general paeans to global warming. However, Russia departs from the usual platitudes to emphasize the potential economic gains from Arctic warming–longer periods ice-free allow for cheaper, faster trade and transit. These periods also enable energy extraction in previously inaccessible areas. Russia is rightly focused on oil and gas over renewables and poised to maintain its energy dominance with redoubled Arctic extraction.

Security Policy

Most of Russia’s highlighted security concerns are domestic troubles, such as a dearth of Arctic public-private partnerships, a lack of technological development, aging and nonexistent infrastructure, and demographic decline. However, Basic Principles 2035 also highlights the need for military modernization in the face of increased Arctic NATO activity. The cornerstone of Russia’s Arctic leap forward is the Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) system, which hastens information transmission and models battles in real time to determine strategies and project outcomes. Russia also rightfully warns against ‘discrediting its economic claims’ in its territory, the largest of any Arctic state.

“Basic Principles of Russian Federation State Policy to 2035” is a continuation of previous Russian policy, and contains essentially no surprises. The sheer expanse of Russia’s Arctic territory makes the Federation a de facto regional leader. Basic Principles 2035 outlines the economic development and national security measures necessary to improve quality of life and maintain strategic dominance in the High North.


Sweden and the New High North

Sweden recently unveiled its revamped Arctic policy, having gone unchanged since 2011. The strategy’s details are familiar, focusing on climate change, multilateral cooperation, and sustainable development. The overhaul comes at a time of change in the High North. Facing new geopolitical pressures, Sweden is pressing forward with clear-eyed and agile Arctic policy.

Sweden and the EU’s Arctic Outpost

The Kingdom of Sweden’s Arctic position is unique in several respects. Their European Union membership provides them with substantial funding and avenues for collaborative effort in developing and defending their northernmost territory. Though formally a non-NATO state, in practice Sweden conducts joint operations with NATO frequently.

The economic and security benefits of a unified Scandinavian approach to Russia, China, and the United States generally outweighs any desire or ability for Sweden to act unilaterally. However, a formally unified strategy is far off. Near-Arctic and Arctic states alike are still in the midst of overhauling their blueprints for the region.

Sweden’s Arctic Interests

Sweden’s primary interests revolve around its resource rich Ferroscandian territory, specifically its iron, lumber, and hydropower. The new infrastructure and regulations needed for sustainable development of these resources is a key priority for the country moving forward. Historically, Swedish Arctic development conflicted with the indigenous Samí’s traditional practices modes of sustenance, such as reindeer herding. The Samí Parliament remains largely symbolic, but cooperation and mutual development with the Finno-Ugric group was earmarked in the updated whitepaper.

Though Sweden recognizes the possibility of further Chinese encroachment, the value of their trade networks and capital (especially with regards to mineral resource development) means that no significant action against the CCP is to be expected. However, Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist recently announced the reestablishment of five northern regiments to defend the country’s Arctic sovereignty. Expecting to increase military spending 85% by 2025, the five-year defense bill outlines a policy of increased cooperation with Norway and Scandinavia. Increasing tensions with Russia prompted the decision.


Sweden’s revamped Arctic policy is fairly standard fare, focusing on mineral resource development, climate change, Samí relations and sovereignty. The Kingdom will work via Arctic and European collaborative institutions to advance its interests, and will likely take on a greater role in Arctic institutional governance moving forward.


Russia’s Big Week

The last week saw five major developments in the Russian Arctic. The Federation sent a new icebreaker directly to the North Pole, recorded an unprecedented amount of Arctic shipping through the Northeast Passage, and oversaw a formerly dominant shipping corporation’s bankruptcy filing. Additionally, the Federation closed in on a Korean infrastructure deal, and uncovered new petroleum reserves with the aid of China.

Icebreakers and Ice

Built in 2016, the Arktika successfully completed its voyage to the North Pole, breaking through ice up to three meters thick along the journey. Despite a troubled construction, the nuclear-powered Arktika exceeded expectations by completing the voyage unscathed. On its route, the vessel recorded unprecedentedly northern Arctic sea-ice. This means that polar ice had receded closer to the poles than expected.

Russia’s nuclear-powered icebreaker Arktika leaves the port of Saint Petersburg on September 22, 2020 for its maiden voyage to its future home port of Murmansk in northwestern Russia where it is expected in two weeks after undergoing tests of its performance en route. – Designed to transport liquefied natural gas from the Arctic, the 173 metres (570 feet) long and 15 metres high giant vessel is touted as the most powerful of its kind and a symbol of Moscow’s Arctic ambitions. (Photo by OLGA MALTSEVA / AFP) (Photo by OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP via Getty Images)

Russia’s development of the Northeast Passage is paying off. From January to September, a record 22.98 million tons in goods were shipped along the route. Less than half of this amount passed through the passage in just 2017. Shrinking sea-ice and steadily improving infrastructure are working in tandem to make the Arctic Sea a maritime shipping superhighway.\

Boom and Bust

Amid the rapid expansion of Russia’s Arctic economy, the previously dominant Murmansk Shipping Company filed for bankruptcy. The company lost several crucial contracts, and was gradually overtaken by competitors.

Korean and Chinese Infrastructure Assistance

The Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering company is set to construct maritime storage facilities for Russian liquified natural gas (LNG). All of the LNG will be exported, and maritime storage will cut export costs substantially. The deal further cements growing ties between Russia and Korea.

Utilizing Chinese semi-submersible drilling infrastructure, state energy corporation Gazprom discovered new sources of gas in Leningradskoye field, significantly increasing the field’s value.

The success is emblematic of China and Russia’s partnership generally, whereby Chinese capital or technology is exchanged for access to Russian resources and sea-space.

Chinese paramilitary police border guards train in the snow at Mohe County in China’s northeast Heilongjiang province, on the border with Russia, on December 12, 2016. – Mohe is the northernmost point in China, with a sub arctic climate where border guards operate in temperatures as low as -36 Celcius. (Photo by STR / AFP) / China OUT (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)
The Arctic’s Russian Future

Holding vast swathes of Arctic territory, it’s only natural that Russia enjoys significant influence  in the region. Despite sanctions and isolation, the Federation’s mixed model of economic development, combining private, public, and military investment, continues to be successful. Arctic states should look to Russia for inspiration in charting their own courses to sovereignty and prosperity in the High North.


Recent Developments in the American Arctic

The last two weeks in the American Arctic have been eventful. The Trump Administration moved to expand Arctic fossil fuel production, the navy conducted successful naval drills in the region, and a fire aboard the Icebreaker USCGC Healy ended present Coast Guard Arctic activity.

Drilling in the ANWR

Plans to open drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) have been stalled by twin lawsuits. The Gwich’in Steering Committee and National Audubon Society are accusing the Department of the Interior of violating federal environmental and administrative law. The plaintiffs believe insufficient care was given to environmental impact reviews, and that drilling may threaten native wildlife.

President Trump, Interior Department Secretary David Bernhardt, and Alaska Governor Michael Dunleavy believe the project would be an economic boon, creating jobs, introducing more capital to an underdeveloped region, and increasing energy self-sufficiency. Secretary Bernhardt expressed confidence about the Interior Department’s legal due diligence, saying he was “very comfortable with the lines that we drew in this case”.

American Military Activity in the Arctic Region

The United States military deployed the USS Seawolf fast-attack submarine to Norway this week, in a rare display of the submersible. Bombers were also flown to the United Kingdom. The display of American undersea power is particularly noteworthy, given its rarity and Russian remilitarization of the High North. Though the Navy’s recent Arctic activity was successful, the Coast Guard endured a crippling blow.

USCG Healy Damaged By Fire

A fire damaged propulsion motors in the Icebreaker USCGC Healy, resulting in the Coast Guard’s cancellation of all current Arctic activity. With Healy docked in Seattle for repairs, the United States has only one functional icebreaker remaining. This places America at a significant disadvantage when compared to Arctic competitors China and Russia, which operate two and 40 icebreakers respectively. The United States’ remaining icebreaker, the Polar Star, caught fire last year as well. 

Though funding to increase America’s icebreaker fleet size is incoming, construction will go on until the mid 2020s. In an increasingly contentious Arctic region and world, self-sufficiency and power projection are essential to safeguard America’s interests. The modernization of the United States’ Arctic capabilities must occur sooner rather than later. 


Espionage from the East

This week, Norway accused one of its own citizens and a Russian official of espionage. The resulting arrest and expulsion are a low point amid the Arctic states’ already sanctions-strained relationship.

On August 17th, Norwegian police apprehended a man suspected of passing state secrets to Russia. The suspect was caught selling energy information acquired via his position at risk management firm DNV GL.

His handler was also caught, and a briefcase seized. The contents have not been disclosed to the public. The Russian Embassy in Norway characterized the arrest and seizure as baseless fear-mongering. Russia took this stance previously when Norway conducted war games with NATO forces along the countries’ borders.

“PST arrested a Norwegian citizen in Oslo on Saturday, 15 August. The man is accused of having handed over information to a foreign state that could harm basic national interests,”
Diplomatic Troubles

Two days later, on August 19th, Norwegian officials expelled a member of the Russian Embassy’s trade division. The envoy was accused of involvement in the espionage scheme. The Russian Embassy in Oslo protested the decision, but no retaliatory action has been taken.

The row represents Russia’s larger diplomatic difficulties in the High North. NATO-aligned Scandinavia fears the Federation will infringe on its sovereignty and is an integral part of the Crimean sanctions regime. As a result, relations between the Arctic sub-region and Russia can only advance so far, leading Russia to look toward China for capital and cooperation. However, Russia also fears for its sovereignty, and seeks to diversify its Arctic partnerships.

Norway’s Relationship with Russia and China

The state of Norway’s relationships with China and Russia will be important for places like Kirkenes. The port town is courting Chinese infrastructure investment, but is also a borderland hotspot for commercial activity. Travel between Russia and Norway in the area is common, with Norwegians crossing to buy Russian fuel and Russians journeying over for goods and services. Though this espionage incident is relatively minor, Norway’s long-term relationship with Russia will play an important part in Kirkenes’ future and the region’s.

“This is the center of Norway … This is the closest Norway comes to something that is important regarding foreign policy. Nothing is happening in Oslo”

Rune Rafaelsen, Mayor of Sør-Varanger, Norway

Given the European Arctic’s steady remilitarization, espionage is bound to increase. Until there is a comprehensive end to Western sanctions, covert operations accompanied by occasional shows of force will remain the regional norm.


The Sino-Norwegian Relationship

Norway’s relationship with China is as tumultuous as it is brief. Although the countries conduct trade worth billions of dollars per year, diplomatic relations were suspended from 2010 to 2016. Chinese Foreign Minister asserted “Norway deeply reflected upon the reasons why bilateral mutual trust was harmed” since dissident Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Since, Chinese economic and political activity has steadily increased.

Recent Developments and the Narvik Shipment

In May, the Chinese government acquired a substantial share of Norwegian Air via state-owned companies. Around the time of this acquisition, Norwegian State Secretary Audun Halvorsen contradicted the Prime Minister’s tough tack on China. Economic integration is proceeding apace: an outbound shipment from China recently reached Norway’s Narvik Seaport in under two weeks.

The shipment functions as proof-of-concept for China’s Polar Silk Road, cutting travel time by over half when compared with nautical transport. Narvik’s small town economy stands to gain significantly should the route become reality. 

Small Town Silk Roads

Over the objections of local officials, Norway’s state highway department greenlit the Chinese state owned Sichuan Road and Bridge Group’s construction of Narvik’s Hålogaland Bridge. Federal officials feared that Chinese retaliation for a rejected bid would affect the two countries’ pending free-trade agreement

Chinese capital is simply irresistible to the small, often increasingly post-industrial towns of Scandinavia’s Arctic. The North Sea city of Kirkenes hosted a delegation last May from the state-owned China Communications Construction Company (CCCC), hoping to secure a port infrastructure development agreement.

Potential Responses

With China seeking Arctic power projection and Eurasian economic integration, a closer relationship with Norway is as of now inevitable. China’s surgical engagement in the Nordic country’s small towns and coastal hinterlands will continue without a unified national or regional policy toward the People’s Republic. The 2020 Nordic Foreign Security and Policy Report acknowledges China as a potential cause for concern, and establishes the need for such a unified approach. 

The void Chinese government capital and development fills is real, and simply locking the power out is not enough. For Norway to maintain its sovereignty, alternative sources of investment are necessary. A renewed American focus on Arctic development is essential to counter China’s one-town-at-a-time integration of the High North into its Polar Silk Road. 


Japan and Arctic Policy Patterns

Like many ‘Arctic-adjacent’ countries, Japan is interested in the region for its energy and its maritime trade potential. Their activity in the High North is emblematic of near-Arctic countries generally, with some caveats.

Natural Gas and the National Interest

Since the 2011 Fukushima Crisis, Japan has been searching for alternatives to nuclear power. Alterations to energy policy saw nuclear power decline from making up a third of the country’s total energy production to just two percent. Liquified natural gas (LNG) imports have filled the void, and Japan’s new appetite for natural gas has drawn their attention to Russia and Scandinavia. 

Key Japanese corporations are cooperating with Russia in an LNG development project. Japanese Prime Minister Abe praised the deal, saying it “facilitates Russia’s efforts to develop the Arctic and ensures stable energy supply to our country”. As with other near-Arctic countries like Britain and South Korea, deference is displayed to Arctic partners so as to deflect sovereignty concerns. The deal includes substantial cooperation between China and Japan, a further calcification of the People’s Republic’s regional power. 

Norway’s first LNG tanker arrived in Japan in 2012, inaugurating their present cooperation in development of the Northeast Passage. Since Japan wants to diversify its energy imports as much as possible, importing Arctic gas from several countries is a must.

Diplomatic Reshuffling

In 2013, Japan unveiled its Basic Ocean Policy Plan and was made a permanent observer on the Arctic Council. As with most Arctic and near-Arctic states, the country’s High North policy was woefully out of date. In order to correct this, Japan appointed an Arctic Affairs Ambassador the same year, and in 2015 released an official Arctic policy statement. Japan is focused on improving relations with Russia and increasing cooperation along the Northeastern Passage.

Climate Change Credibility

Japan has operated an Arctic climate research center since 1990. While valuable in itself, climate concerns are often used to legitimize near-Arctic powers’ presence in the High North. 

Japan officially resumed Arctic whaling in 2019, a traditional but highly contested practice. However, Norway and Iceland are also whaling advocates, and the three have proved highly resilient to international intervention against them.

Future Projects

Japan’s Arctic involvement is mild and forthright, preeminently focused on LNG access. The island nation will continue economic integration with Russia and Scandinavia, with a shakier future ahead for its Chinese and Korean circumpolar partnerships. As with other near-Arctic states, Japanese investment and development may be of value so long as Arctic regional sovereignty is respected. 


South Korea and the Arctic

Since South Korea gained observer status in the Arctic Council in 2013, the country has cultivated strategic Arctic partnerships. Most of their involvement in the region depends on these partners due to their “near-Arctic” status. Korea is primarily concerned with Arctic energy, and outlined the region’s importance in their 2012 policy masterplan.

Energy Dependence and Diversification

Importing a whopping 98% of its fossil fuels (which account for a majority of the country’s energy consumption), South Korea is highly dependent on the Gulf states. The country’s leadership is looking to diversify its energy imports, as well as produce more of their own. As a result, Korea is turning toward Russia, China, and other Asian countries for their energy needs.

Korea, Russia, and the New North

Korea’s “New Northern Policy” aims to develop stronger bilateral ties with Russia in the face of Western sanctions. As part of this, the two countries agreed to the “Nine Bridges Initiative”, a series of Arctic-related, mutual projects. South Korea built two-thirds of the world’s LNG tankers in operation today. Accordingly, the Republic aims to integrate its own Arctic-capable ships further into Russian LNG shipping. On land, the two countries are partnering to construct an LNG pipeline originating in Russia, passing through North Korea, and feeding into South Korea.

The Asian Arctic-Adjacent States, Scandinavia, and North America

The Republic’s Arctic ties with China and Japan are mostly research-related, but are moving toward further commercial integration. All three countries maintain an interest in the opening Northeast Passage, which significantly reduces shipping times to Europe. The possibility of a sub-organization for the three Arctic-adjacent Asian states is hotly-debated, but not yet realized. In the meantime, Korea remains an active observer in the Arctic Council, and its leadership conducts goodwill visits to the Scandinavian Arctic frequently.

Korea’s Arctic Future

Korean involvement in the Arctic revolves around trade and energy. Korea’s future in the Arctic depends largely on how ownership of emerging energy resources is decided and managed. The country is not positioned to unilaterally project power throughout the region, but the formation of sub-councils for the Arctic-adjacent Asian states could give the Republic increased diplomatic leverage.


The Arctic’s Closest Neighbor

As the Arctic’s value becomes more apparent and the region more accessible, several ‘near-Arctic’ states are moving to expand their polar influence. The success of China’s aggressive campaign depends on legitimizing this ‘near-Arctic’ identity. However, the People’s Republic is not the only non-Arctic state interested in the High North . The United Kingdom is building their own 21st century Arctic policy, and attempting to legitimize their identity as the region’s ‘closest neighbor’.

The Empire in the Arctic

The UK’s Arctic presence dates back to the 15th century, mostly concerned with uncovering new trade routes through to Asia. 

Britain was an Arctic power until the late 1800s, when its last regional holdings were transferred to Canada. A strong British presence persisted until shortly after World War II, as a countermeasure against Germany and the Soviet Union. Since then, Britain’s observer status has rightfully limited their role in Arctic affairs. 

With Scandinavian countries like Norway and Finland looking for safer alternatives to Russian partnership, the UK’s regional history and strong relationships open the door to meaningful involvement.

Geostrategy and the Northern Frontier

With the end of the post Cold War world order, geostrategic competition is increasing in the High North. The United Kingdom, concerned by possible Russian militarization and lockdown of the Arctic, increasingly views the region as critical to national security. 

Two-thirds of Russia’s navy docks in the Kola Peninsula near Finland and could quickly bear down on Britain from the North Sea. Accordingly, the Royal Marines undertake cold weather training in the Scottish highlands regularly. 

The United Kingdom and its Scandinavian partners are pushing for a permanent NATO presence in the Arctic as a ‘tripwire’ against Sino-Russian encroachment.

Commerce and Climate Change

Britain’s capital and expertise is attractive to Arctic states and projects. As such, the United Kingdom contributes to and cooperates with several EU and American-led development and research programs. 

The UK’s position between the Atlantic, the European Continent, and the Arctic will prove advantageous as they maneuver to develop fishery access, cargo ports, energy infrastructure, and the tourism industry. 

Britain’s contributions to climate research are somewhat disorganized, but considered a valuable asset by regional partners.

Deferential Diplomacy

The most significant obstacles to British success in the Arctic is the government’s lack of organization and focus. Though Britain’s Minister for European Neighbourhood and the Americas’ oversees the polar regions, there is no dedicated diplomat for the Arctic.

Britain’s web of investments, grants, and diplomatic commitments requires consistent and active engagement. The 2018 policy paper ‘Beyond the Ice’ presents a thorough vision for the future, largely maintaining a hands-off, conservative approach to Arctic involvement. If Britain maintains this limited engagement, they may be a positive force in Arctic affairs. 
Norway, the UK’s closest Arctic ally, is wary of China and determined to move away from Russia. With Chinese investments threatening Arctic sovereignty, alternative partnerships are becoming more attractive.

Arctic-Adjacent Britain

With membership in the NATO umbrella and allies eager for increased British participation, Britain is poised to expand in the High North. To the extent the United Kingdom acts as a secondary partner, their contribution will be valuable. However, Arctic regional sovereignty remains essential for sustainable and secure regional development.


Russia’s 15 Year Plan for the Arctic

The Russian Arctic is remote, sparsely populated, and underdeveloped. As with the rest of the Arctic, this trifecta of challenges lends itself to organized, state-sponsored development. Accordingly, the Russian Federation recently unveiled a 15 year Arctic plan. “Basic Principles of Russian Federation State Policy in the Arctic to 2035” is an ambitious, goal-setting white paper in line with Russia’s previous Arctic policy.

Infrastructure and the North Sea Route

Infrastructure investment is slated to increase substantially. By 2035, the Federation will overhaul four airports, significantly expand preexisting railway and seaport networks, and construct at least 40 Arctic-capable ships. State gas and oil conglomerates will oversee the development of the North Sea Route (NSR). Today, the NSR hosts nearly 30 million tons of shipped goods. By 2035, Russia hopes to increase this to 80 million tons. In pursuit of this lofty goal, all new fiber-optic communication cables will be laid on the NSR seabed.

Poverty, Petrochemicals, and Industrialization

Unemployment and poverty have plagued the Russian Arctic for generations. As mentioned above, infrastructure development is a core component of the 2035 plan’s anti-poverty measures. Tax incentives are on offer for companies that invest in Arctic petrochemical projects. However, the plan goes farther. Direct payouts will be given to Russians who relocate to the High North. Demographic decline poses a real challenge to future exploitation of the region’s resources. Environmental effects, though considered, are of secondary importance compared to the national security implications of Siberian poverty, depopulation, and underdevelopment.

Territorial Integrity and Careful Cooperation

The Russian government rightfully sees China as a potential threat to its sovereignty. As such, Arctic cooperation has been reframed in terms of ‘stable mutual benefit’ versus unconditional cooperation. Russia is keen on developing investment relationships with other Arctic Council observer states to its east, like South Korea and Japan. Reducing reliance on Chinese capital is of concern for Russia, but policymakers are careful to avoid derailing the current Sino-Russian relationship and its ‘stable mutual benefit’. 

Military modernization and ‘defensive military development’ remains a priority. The planned upgrades Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems will further integrate Russian Arctic military capabilities. However, the 2035 plan emphasizes international bodies and diplomatic organs as the primary means of ensuring territorial integrity. Russia is on track to hold the Arctic Council Presidency in 2021. The Federation accordingly seeks to empower the organization in dispute resolution, policymaking and so on. Furthermore, Russia will continue pressing its claims via the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Responding to the 2035 Plan

Russia’s 2035 plan is sound Arctic policy, emphasizing national security and much needed regional development. Arctic-American security and quality of life depends on a similarly long-term vision for Alaska. The United States must embrace infrastructure development, anti-poverty policy, and military modernization to defend its interests and people.