Russia’s Soft Balancing in the Arctic

The Arctic has been undergoing various kinds of environmental, sociological and political changes, owing to the melting of glaciers in the region which is a direct result of global warming. The Arctic which has never gained international attention over the years is now witnessing global interest because of the very same reason, as various expeditions and research in the region have found out the presence of natural resources, oil and natural gas. The United Nation Convention of Law of the Sea’s implementation of Exclusive Economic Zone to solve the problem of territorial maritime disputes and the Arctic Council though have been successful in its efforts to retain peace and cooperation among the coastal nations like Canada, Denmark., Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russian Federation, Sweden and USA, no resolution has been found out yet to the question of “ who owns what share”.

In the year 2002, Russia planted its national flag in the Arctic waters near the North Pole signalling its sovereign rights in region. Other instances showing Russia’s efforts to show the world its sovereign claim in the region are the regular flights that Russian military takes to neighboring circumpolar nations and the grey zone clash in the Barents sea. These instances denote the identical relationship between Russia’s Arctic policy and foreign policy.

Soft balancing can be explained as a foreign policy analysis which is limited to military strength and a broad understanding of the security among the states along with preventive strategies involving the use of non military tools to discourage aggressive policies by similar great powers. In the light of this idea of foreign policy, Russia has been aiming to achieve its state security by laying focus on its economy which is a crucial tool of soft balancing.

Since energy sector is one of the vital domains of Russia’s economy which includes the major contribution of oil and gas revenues to its GDP, these soft balancing strategies, however, are led by the use of zero-sum game logic which excludes the options of absolute gains. Since oil and gas industry are the main sources of Russia’s economic development, Moscow in these efforts shall try to boost this sector by seeking new transportation roots. And as per the use of soft balancing, it will do everything to protect its economic interest. Ekaterina Piskunova in his journal “What’s lurking behind the flag?” asserts that natural resources and transportation routes encourage Russia to proclaim its territorial rights in the region.

Prior to 1997 when Russia became a signatory to the 1982 UNCLOS, Russia considered the territory between the North Pole and the Kola Peninsula which lies in the western part and the eastern part of the littoral zone as its own. The Russian Arctic along with its continental territories covered about six million sq kms surface, hosting a population of one million people which produces 20% of the nation’s GDP, 22% exports, 90% of its nickel and cobalt, 60% of its copper and 96% of its platinum. As per the U.S geological survey, Russia’s claimed territory comprises of 22% of the world’s oil and gas natural resources, one third of which is yet to be discovered.

The relevance of Northern sea route represents an economically beneficial passage that connects Eurasia. The area holds an advantageous position in the Arctic as it reduces the distance between Europe and Asia from 2000-3000 nautical miles than the passage from Baltic ports through the Suez Canal, cutting down transit and services costs of different international ports. Therefore, natural resources and transportation routes make Russia want more access in the region as its long term future needs want it.

Russia’s approach to the Arctic is dramatically different from that of Canada or Norway as most of the Arctic’s energy waters lies in the Russian waters. Similarly, most of the hydrocarbons significant for Russia are located in the Arctic – both on land and continental shelf. It also lays emphasis on the forms of international cooperation in terms of forming partnerships with international companies in extracting resources.

Helga Haftendorn in “Soft Solution for Hard Problems” shares her views on the future of the Arctic, which according to her would be a violent and conflictual one. In the journal article, a cluster of conflicts such as, the sea boundary conflicts in relation to the Barrents Sea which is of great economical and military relevance to Russia to the Straits and the passages which consists if the Northwest Passage in the Canadian archipelago and the northern sea route or north east passage along the Siberian coast have been mentioned.

Hence, there is a need for Russia to resolve these conflicts by building mutual trust and confidence amongst these states. Moscow must also tone down its aggressive military strength which includes military fights around the coastal waters of Canada and Norway. Another far reaching solution is the formation of international institutions which can solve territorial disputes more peacefully and ensure cooperation in the utilization of resources. Some of the institutions so far have been Nordic Council, the Barents Euro-Atlantic Council etc. Also, circumpolar coordination in the Arctic Council must be encouraged by addressing security issues moving away from laying emphasis on national security to a regime based on collective security.

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