EU’s hesitant security policy empowers Russia in the Arctic

The European Union has started to accelerate its Arctic policy development in the past year with two EU institutions publishing its policies. Both papers highlight the need for a peaceful and cooperative approach in the area but take a varying stance when it comes militarisation of the High North, especially at the hands of Russia. High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherinihas taken a two-sided attitude between ignoring Moscow’s militarisation in the Arctic within calls for more cooperation, while maintaining her tough stance on Russian sanctions. However, without a strong stance, the EU will most likely lose its say in the Arctic.

Arctic Strategic Importance

The importance of the Arctic is growing. The climate change has brought new navigation and fishing routes in the region along with better access to its vast amount of natural resources. According to the US-government geological survey from 2009, the Arctic holds 30% of world’s undiscovered oil reserves – majority concentrated in Russian territories. The head of Novatek, one of the Western-sanctioned companies, has claimed Russia may produce more than 70 million tonnes of liquefied natural gas (LNG) per year in its remote Arctic regions, a comparable amount of LNG production in Qatar. The company plans to ship its first cargo from the Yamal LNG plant to Asia in December, for which Russia recently received a new ice-breaking tanker, a move that will open a completely new shipping route in the Arctic Ocean for oil and liquefied gas between Russia and Asia. The new route is expected to shorten the travel time to 18 days, which is 14 days shorter than the current route through the North Atlantic, Mediterranean Sea, Suez Canal and the Indian Ocean.Unsurprisingly, these energy activities are accompanied with increased military presence in the region. Alexandra Island in Franz Josef Land also hosts the Nagursky military base, where Russia has recently developed one of its biggest projects - the Arctic Trefoil complex. It will house 150 troops capable of surviving autonomously for 18 months. In addition, Russia has established two special Arctic brigades and six new bases north of the Arctic Circle, including six deep-water ports and 13 airfields. The United States and the EU both have voiced concerns over these developments calling it the ‘creation of Russian Arctic military district’.

Nordics’ side-play in Arctic

While the militarisation is of a great concern, Nordic countries attempt to maintain a dialogue with Russia over the Arctic. On 30 March, Russian President Vladimir Putin participated in the International Arctic Forum held on 29-30 March in Arkhangelsk in northwestern Russia. The summit was an important meeting place for Russian and Nordic high representatives that included the Foreign Ministers of Norway, Denmark, as well as presidents of Iceland and Finland, with the Swedish FM only missing due to illness. It is an important landmark, as Nordic countries have been strong supporters of sanctions against Russia over its activities in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. For one reason or another, the Arctic has proved to be the only topic, where the Nordic countries want to keep their diplomatic channels open with Russia. This strategy has been received somewhat negatively in the EU Parliament, where Norway’s Foreign Minister Børge Brende was met with surprise in the EU foreign affairs committee over his country’s continued ties with Russia. According to Norway, the reason why Moscow is not aiming to achieve the same as in Eastern Europe, or at least not in the same manner, is because it is not in their interest. Furthermore, the FM Brende finds that cooperation between Russia and Norway in the Arctic doesn’t violate the sanctions. Still, Norway heavily relies on NATO’s Article 5, expecting Russia to change its mind the minute Moscow loses interest in keeping good relations at the border, but that goes against Brende’s claim not believing in Moscow having dangerous manoeuvres in mind.

 

"Two-sided approach in the context of militarisation of the energetically and geopolitically key region is dangerous."

 

EU’s ambiguous Arctic policy

The Joint Communication issued by Mogherini’s office in spring 2016 has been criticised for lacking an important security dimension in its policy proposal for the Arctic. According to Urmas Paet (ALDE, Estonia), the co-rapporteur of the European Parliament resolution on the Arctic policy from March 2017, it is important to prevent the militarisation of the Arctic - a concern the Joint Communication did not address. Considering that Russia has been heavily militarising its High North areas for several years now - why was such an important aspect previously left out?

Further strategic controversy stems from the fact that Federica Mogherini has claimed the Arctic to be a key in the EU’s foreign security policy and she’s very interested in cooperating with Russia, as seen by her recent visit to Moscow. This tactic seems to go along with the other Nordic countries’ recent developments in their approach to Russia within their Arctic policies. It also mirrors Mogherini’s lenient stance towards Moscow when it comes to Syria, Libya or propaganda, leaving a side door in her Russia policy. Nordics’ side-play with Russia is a pattern that Mogherini is clearly aiming for. However, there is a threat in sending a message that the position on sanctions across European states is not as unequivocal as it seemed so far.

 "Russia apparently does not share EU’s enthusiasm for dialogue and cooperation."