“Red Arctic: Russian Strategy Under Putin”
By Elizabeth Buchanan; Brookings Institution Press, 2023; 224 pages; $37.
Americans, and even Alaskans, tend to forget that ours is an Arctic nation. But our state extends our nation’s reach beyond the Arctic Circle, making the United States one of eight countries lying partially within the globe’s northernmost region, and one of just five to have shorelines along the Arctic Ocean. We have a strategic interest in the Arctic, even if we don’t act like it.
This means we need to be paying attention to Russia, because Russia is, by geography alone, the prevailing power in the Arctic. This creates a problematic situation for the West, which has experienced deteriorating relations with Russia since the country seized the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014, an estrangement that has only intensified since the 2022 invasion of the rest of Ukraine. It’s understandable if Russia’s Arctic neighbors, watching as Moscow violently seeks to regain great power status, worry that a new conflict is imminent.
Elizabeth Buchanan, a researcher at the Royal Australian Navy’s Sea Power Centre and a nonresident fellow at West Point, considers such concerns unwarranted. In her recent book “Red Arctic,” she argues that whatever Russia’s intentions elsewhere on the planet, within the Arctic, Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin is intent on preserving the status quo that has held since the close of the Cold War. That’s when the region shifted from being a frontline for nuclear conflict to a zone of peaceful cooperation between the stakeholder nations lying within it. It’s not that Putin is genuinely honest north of the Arctic Circle, she maintains, but simply that it’s good strategy for him. Her book is an argument on why she thinks this way.
Russia has always viewed itself as an Arctic nation, and the phrase Red Arctic originated in the Stalin era, when the Soviet Union saw dominating the resource-rich Arctic as key to its power. During the Cold War, the Arctic became a heavily militarized zone, with the two nuclear-armed sides walled off from each other. After communist rule collapsed, however, shared scientific, environmental, and economic endeavors became the norm for three decades. The Arctic Council was created as a body for overseeing mutual concerns and resolving differences, and the eight Arctic states entered into a period of intense cooperation in the region.
Buchanan posits that this remains Russia’s preferred mode, despite expansionist moves in Europe and interventionist policies elsewhere. Her argument, which gets somewhat circular in this book, is that Russia has dual economic goals for its share of the Arctic.
The first objective is the development of resources, particularly fossil fuels, that are increasingly accessible owing to climate change. Russia’s hopes of recovering the global position Moscow enjoyed during the Cold War are predicated on the money and market strength the country can gather by recovering these resources.
Putin’s other primary objective in the Arctic is turning the Northern Sea Route into an international shipping corridor. Also known as the Northeast Passage, this route travels over the northern coast of Russia and can dramatically cut distances and time for companies moving freight between East Asia and Europe. Climate change is again a key factor here, making this route viable for a few months every summer.
For Putin, Buchanan believes, maintaining these entwined interests requires retaining the post-Cold War spirit of cooperation that has led to peaceful coexistence among the five nations with Arctic coastlines. This also means, despite flaunting of international law elsewhere, he will follow it in the Arctic.
Buchanan documents how Russia has already been doing this for decades. Among the evidence she presents is Russia’s willingness to resolve a longstanding territorial dispute with Norway by ceding to Norwegian demands. This is one of several examples where she shows how Russia has worked within the framework of international bodies such as the Arctic Council and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to peacefully settle disputes within the region (she dismisses the country’s 2007 planting of a Russian flag on the seabed under the North Pole as a stunt).
These international conventions are critical. The continental shelves that extend beyond the shorelines of the Arctic nations determine what areas under the Arctic Ocean each of the five countries can declare as exclusive economic zones for resource exploitation. This will ultimately be adjudicated under UNCLOS. And this means that the United States is left out of the negotiations, because the Senate, citing sovereignty concerns, has yet to ratify the treaty that can determine our own Arctic footprint.
Russia needs capital and technology to develop its Arctic resources, and this requires maintaining functioning relations with those countries that can provide such necessities. Meanwhile, dreams of turning the Northern Sea Route into a major shipping corridor require political stability in the Arctic. Human activity is going to do nothing but escalate in the region, and this, Buchanan maintains, will act as a check on Russian misbehavior in the North.
It’s reassuring, and perhaps true. Buchanan spends far more time than most of us thinking about these things, and she cautions repeatedly against letting Russia’s actions in Ukraine and elsewhere stoke fears of a militarized Arctic and a new Cold War. Yet as the war in Ukraine has dragged on, Putin has persisted despite Russia being largely cut off by the West (including in the Arctic). He’s now moving closer to China, which has its own Arctic designs and can provide at least some of the money and technology Putin’s objectives require. It seems foolhardy to trust a leader who has proven himself impervious to international law.
Buchanan wants readers to presume Russia will maintain the Arctic status quo. She makes a good short-term argument, but the long-term outlook seems more dubious. What she does accomplish is summarizing Russian aims and activities in the Arctic. And for this reason, it would serve America’s interests to start thinking as an Arctic nation. We have our own stake in the region. We should be paying closer attention to the neighboring giant.