A Sino-Russian Arctic alliance?
Russia went into the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 while holding the chairship of the Arctic Council. Despite growing concern among neighboring Arctic states about Russia’s authoritarian development, some still express hopes for a cooperative Russia in the Arctic. These hopes have been fed not least by official statements from Russia’s Senior Arctic Official Nikolay Korchunov and Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, emphasizing the Arctic as a zone of peace, which in turn has produced continued mutual reassurances among Arctic states about “Arctic exceptionalism”, that the far north can be insulated from security concerns elsewhere.
These prospects are, however, gloomy. As the seven other member states of the Arctic Council released a joint statement in early March 2022 to “pause” Council activities and then in June decided to resume activities on a limited scale among the seven Western Council members, Russia’s chairship was spent on conducting a purely domestic agenda. In consequence, very little policy of substance came out of Moscow. The conclusion is that Arctic priorities were put aside by Russia’s ambitions to seize Ukraine and challenge what the Kremlin sees as a unipolar world order dominated by the United States.
Nonetheless, Russia’s posture in Arctic affairs over the last two years indicates that the Kremlin is seriously concerned by the new situation and communicating actively to strengthen its position.
Moscow’s messaging about the Arctic
The first message from Russia is simple, and it is not new: It emphasizes that Russia is not just one of the eight Arctic states – it is the Arctic State, and it is so, the argument goes, by way of its vast Arctic territories that hold enormous natural resources, a considerable population, and major infrastructure. Russia’s self-perception as a great power in world politics very much relies on the Arctic dimension of the state – which is perceived as a region naturally dominated by Russia, due to geographical facts and longstanding historical developments.
Following this, a main narrative from Russia on the Arctic over the last two years has been that Russia is the only responsible Arctic player – socially, economically, and environmentally. The Putin regime has based this assumption on firstly the Western decision to put Russia on the sideline will result in increased tensions and problems that will have highly negative consequences for the Western Arctic states – but not for Russia. Secondly, Russian authorities have consistently argued that it is the United States, aided by NATO, which has upset the strategic order of the Arctic by militarizing the region and “forcing” Finland and Sweden into the alliance in the name of containment. Some months back, there were even statements that Russia might leave the Arctic Council and form new alliances to continue its Arctic agenda without the Western Arctic states. This message was followed by a narrative from the Russian Arctic expert community of the Arctic Council without Russia as illegitimate.
Turning east and south
Russia’s messaging about leaving the Arctic Council disappeared last year, as Norway took over the chairship and adopted a strategy of including Russia on Council’s Working Group level, only to resurface again as of February this year. Simultaneously, Russia has continued to look east and south, inviting China to invest in Arctic infrastructure and welcoming India and the Gulf Region into the buyer’s market on Russian oil and gas. Russian authorities have also published plans to develop joint Arctic research with members of the BRICS, a grouping which includes China and India, and had expanded in January of this year to include petro-economies Iran and the United Arab Emirates, (Saudi Arabia is also a candidate, but has yet to confirm). Russian northern institutions – from universities to state administrative bodies and businesses – are inviting Chinese delegations and organizing Sino-Russian events.
Russian double-speak on the Arctic
This east- and southward turn is in line with the revised Russian Arctic Strategy and Russia’s new foreign policy concept, which were published respectively in February and March 2023. Here, the Arctic is highlighted as one of the top priorities among Russian regions. Most strikingly, however, the foreign policy concept contains a certain degree of double-speak on the Arctic. On the one hand, it reads that “The foreign policy of Russia has a peace-loving, open, predictable, consistent, pragmatic character based on respect for the commonly recognized principles and norms of international law and strive towards equal rights and international cooperation aimed at solving joint tasks and promotion of common interests,”. Yet on the other hand, the concept states that a priority for Russia is to “neutralize unfriendly countries’ militaristic policy in the region and their suppression of Russia’s possibilities to develop its own sovereign rights in the Arctic zone of the Russian Federation”.
Russian narratives also repeat the ambition to establish a “multipolar world,” and describes a conflict between “the West’s destructive neo-liberal ideology” and Russia’s “traditional moral values.” Existing international cooperation structures with Western states like the Arctic Council and the Barents Euro-Arctic Council are no longer mentioned, neither in the foreign policy concept nor in the revised Arctic Strategy. The revised state documents have a higher stress on conflict issues, underlining that “unfriendly” foreign powers are actively encroaching on Russian sovereignty in the Arctic.
Perhaps this double-speak can be best understood as a reflection of the Kremlin’s current strained position and divergent interests in the Arctic, and in consequence, Russia’s complex and basically two-fold policy mode regarding the Arctic – where military power is seen as a main means of advancing Russia’s interests in the Arctic, and at the same time, developing international cooperation and portraying Russia as a gatekeeper of international law in the Arctic has been a long-standing strategy serving economic purposes. For years, we have seen how this cooperative policy mode has been directed at the other Arctic states, producing the narrative of Arctic exceptionalism and sustaining Russia’s perception of the Arctic as a locomotive of growth. In the new geopolitical situation, Russia is directing these efforts elsewhere, in what can be read as a pragmatic attempt to acquire new allies for its Arctic policy and thus strengthen its posture both in the Arctic and on the global scene.
China – a natural Arctic ally?
Where does China fit into these visions from Moscow? Conventional wisdom has suggested that the two powers are natural allies in the Arctic, due to their mutual distrust of Western motives in the region, and Beijing’s reluctance to condemn the invasion of Ukraine. The joint Sino-Russian Declaration, which included the now notorious vow of a ‘no limits’ partnership, and took place days before the full-on Russian invasion of Ukraine, only heightened fears that China was going to be as much of a threat to the ‘rules-based order’ of the Arctic as Russia itself.
Discussion of an ‘inevitable’ Sino-Russian pact in the Arctic however must be tempered first by the fact that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has dramatically slowed down China’s engagement of the Arctic, and more crucially the degree of trust between Beijing and Moscow about each others’ Arctic visions remains low, despite periodic calls for deeper cooperation.
As to the first point, when China began to formulate the Polar Silk Road alongside Russia in 2017-8, the Xi regime had plans to engage all Arctic governments, including Norway, with various projects including infrastructure, mining, energy, and shipping. Very few of these plans ultimately appeared, and China became very reliable on one Arctic economy, Russia, for much of its regional access. After February 2022, Beijing, nervous about being subject to Western sanctions for aiding and abetting Russia, delayed support for various infrastructure projects in the Russian Arctic, sharply reduced shipping along the Russian coast, and has been reluctant to openly endorse new Russian Arctic initiatives such as the Power of Siberia 2 LNG project. While Beijing has purchased Russian oil and gas (at discounted prices), and occasionally has expressed concern at Western sanctions on Russian firms, Beijing still has hopes of developing joint projects with other Arctic states, and so has tried to adapt a Goldilocks approach to Arctic economic cooperation with Russia, with so far limited success.
Regarding trust, the Putin regime has stressed on many occasions that while financial and political support for development in the Russian Arctic is welcome, decisions made in the far north should be reserved for Arctic states themselves. China, meanwhile, has long-term goals which include shipping in the Central Arctic and expansion of resource extraction industries, and has referred to the Polar Regions as a ‘strategic new frontier’ (zhanlue xin jiangyu) for Chinese interests. Those who argue that Chinese and Russian interests in the Arctic are getting inexorably closer need to consider these diverging views. While China has often echoed Russian narratives about the current state of Arctic security, including that NATO is the driving force in militarizing the region, that is a far cry from moves towards greater strategic cooperation. To give another example, China published an official map in August of last year which included longstanding claims in the East and South China Seas, but also designated Bolshoi Ussuriysky Island, known in Chinese as Heixiazi, as solely Chinese territory, despite a 2004 joint agreement splitting the island between the two countries. As China continues to settle into great power status, and with Russia’s political future cloudy at best, there must be the consideration that the interests of the two states will actually diverge, and that will have adjacent effects in the Arctic.
Using the Arctic as leverage
The questions which must now be asked are how Russian ambitions are evolving in the Arctic at present, and how can we effectively evaluate the role of China, as well as potentially those of India and other BRICS members? One key ambition from the Kremlin seems to be to lift Russia out of international diplomatic and financial isolation, using the Arctic as leverage – by engaging non-Western states, including China, in a region where Russia feels strong ownership. Moscow obviously sees an extended BRICS as useful in its fight against the West, helping it to overcome the sanctions, but it remains to be seen whether China and others have the same level of enthusiasm. For Beijing, which saw its ideological partnership with the then-USSR crumble into enmity and conflict in the 1960s, there is the enduring cautionary tale of aligning too close to Moscow.
It remains to see how these new constellations for cooperation in the Arctic will develop – but Russia is now a junior partner in relation to China, a relationship which makes both parties uneasy, and it is not a given that this partnership will develop in the Arctic in line with Moscow’s interests. There is no guarantee either that Russia will be able to build a counter-coalition in the Arctic, as in addition to Beijing’ aloofness, other new non-Arctic potential partners of Russia have so far not shown much interest in Arctic affairs. So, when considering the emergence of new great power strategies in the Arctic, it remains imperative to separate the rhetoric and the realities.
Professor Kari Aga Myklebost and Associate Professor Marc Lanteigne are both working with UiT Arctic University of Norway.