An expert panel for the Polar Regions in the British Parliament discussed “whether Russia was preparing for war in the Arctic” at the invitation of James Gray MP. Contributing were Dr Andrew Foxall (Henry Jackson Society), Professor Klaus Dodds (Royal Holloway, University of London), Chris Donnelly (The Institute for Statecraft) and General Sir Richard Shirreff (former NATO 4 Star Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe). A paper by Dr Dmitriy Tulupov (an independent consultant) added to the conversation.


Since 2012, Russia has massively modernised its defence capabilities in the Arctic, the combined military re-enforcement activities represent the biggest build-up of Russian defence forces in the area since the end of the Cold War.

Global interest in Arctic oil and gas reserves with the potential for new easier shipping routes through North West and North East passages has grown substantially. The North East passage partly passes through Russia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), known internationally as “the Northern Sea Route”. The Kremlin believes that a substantial military presence is necessary to guarantee its regional interests, estimated at 20% of Russia’s GDP and 22% of all Russian exports.


The Kremlin’s fear appears to be geographical encirclement by NATO, seemingly nervous about the possibility of Sweden and Finland joining NATO and “plots” to destabilise Russian areas of interest. The West’s concern is that Russia may be preparing to act in the Arctic in the same way that it has in Georgia and Ukraine. So far, Russia has shown little interest in challenging international law in the Arctic, having reaffirmed its commitment to the prevailing legal status quo when it signed the Ilulissat Declaration in 2008.

Currently the international legal regime favours Russian interests. Under the law of the sea, Russia can exert control over maritime activity in the North East passage and its EEZ. Once Russia’s submission has been reviewed by the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, Russia is expected to secure legitimate sovereign rights to a substantial section of the Arctic Ocean sea floor, giving Russia control over almost half of the entire Arctic.

The weakness in this international legal framework is that de facto control is being established through the development of constabulary forces. Another area of concern is the contested nature of the 1920 Svalbard Treaty. Russia, Norway and UK, among others, currently dispute provisions relating to the use of the waters around the archipelago.

The flipside to Russia developing its security forces along the Northern Sea Route is that if transit shipping between Europe and Asia is to become a profitably viable activity in the Arctic, it will need to be supported by extensive investment in search and rescue facilities, communication links, surveillance systems, ice-breaking technology, hydrography and skilled crews, all of which Russia could provide.

The West has struggled to predict Russia’s actions on a range of foreign policy issues but real fears in Moscow of Western encirclement suggest it is possible that Russia is preparing for the option of war but not trying to start one, particularly in the Arctic.


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