April 9, 2013
Center on Global Interests, 10th Floor, 1050 Connecticut Ave, NW, Washington, DC

CGI hosted Dr. Pavel Baev for a discussion on Russia’s interests in the Arctic, an increasingly relevant topic in international affairs. Baev is a research professor at the Peace Research Institute in Olso and a resident senior fellow at the Center for the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. In attendance were prominent experts from local think tanks and universities, as well as rising scholars and young professionals.

Baev spoke about Russia’s multifaceted agenda in the so-called High North, noting that interest in the region has been sparked by its economic and military potential, as well as by geopolitical considerations for Russia vis-à-vis its neighbors.

Baev explained that political interest in the Arctic boomed in the late 2000s following Russia’s expedition to the North Pole, a move that coincided with global increases in oil prices. He noted that in the Russian discourse, the Arctic is a “treasure chest of resources.” However, the key word when it comes to the economic potential of the High North is just that—potential. Baev pointed out that relying on oil and gas reserves that have yet to be discovered, and may not be as robust as believed, makes little economic sense for Russia.

Baev relayed that the military dimension of Arctic strategy has become increasingly important. He noted that efforts to bolster Russia’s military might in the Arctic began in 2008 with great energy and very little thinking. Russia has a fleet of nuclear submarines in the Arctic which, in the past, have been prone technical defects that have led to catastrophe. Moreover, Russia is beginning to discover that military strength does not necessarily transfer to political influence in the region. Indeed, according to Baev, “Russia is playing Russian roulette” with its military strategy in the Arctic.

He also spoke about the identity dimension of Russia’s interest in the High North. The idea of conquering and owning the Arctic is a remnant of Russia’s Soviet past that President Vladimir Putin has very much tapped into, though with the new aim of economic gain. Baev explained that there is interest in reopening the Northern Sea Route for commercial envoys. In the context of global warming, opening the trade route links directly with questions of sovereignty. Baev warned that as ice continues to melt year after year, Russia faces the possibility that neighboring countries will have better alternatives to that route, which is currently under Russian control. This prospect threatens Russia’s sovereignty and influence over its neighbors in this sphere.

Lastly, Baev discussed geopolitical competition in the region and Russia’s relationship with the Arctic Council and other countries with interests in the Far North. He questioned whether Russia’s attempts to promote Arctic cooperation would succeed and if Russia’s goals fit with the wider regional agenda.

Baev ended his presentation with a look to the future, noting that for major world powers, political interest in the Arctic is waning. With the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia, the world is now looking to the Far East. Baev sees Russia keeping a close eye on these developments and refocusing its energy on maintaining a strong relationship with China.