Russia’s reinvasion of Ukraine in February 2022 is producing ripple effects that will reverberate far beyond Ukraine for years to come, affecting issue areas and regions where the United States and Europe must manage relations with Moscow. Such effects will certainly be felt in the Arctic (which for this study will be limited to the European Arctic or the “High North”). Already, Russia’s aggression in Ukraine has compelled Finland and Sweden to apply for NATO membership, altering the region’s security architecture. Amid the changes that are unfolding, it is critical that analysts and policymakers reexamine long-standing assessments and assumptions about Russia. To that end, this paper reexamines Russia’s approach to the Arctic in light of events in Ukraine.
Given the high degree of uncertainty about the trajectory of the war in Ukraine and its effect on Russia, it is impossible to confidently project a single future for Russia’s Arctic policy. CNAS researchers, therefore, identified four drivers that are most likely to shape Russia’s approach to the Arctic: Russia’s perception of the Western threat, the impact of Western sanctions, China’s role in the Arctic, and whether Putin remains in power. Using different permutations of those drivers, the authors developed three scenarios for how the future Russian approach to the Arctic could evolve looking out to 2025.
Scenario One: Isolated Russia
Russia’s economy is badly damaged because of effective and lasting Western sanctions, and Moscow is isolated from the West and other partners such as China, which seeks to avoid European backlash that could stem from its support for Moscow. The degradation of Russia’s conventional military forces in Ukraine leads Moscow to double down on its nuclear arsenal, raising the importance of protecting its second-strike nuclear capability in the Northern Fleet. Russia’s poor military performance in Ukraine also leads Putin to view the Arctic as an opportunity to demonstrate that Russia is still a power to be feared. Putin seeks to use frequent displays of military power in the region, where Russia still enjoys a subregional military advantage, to restore the Russian military’s image as a formidable force. Russia occasionally stages complex, attention-grabbing “warning” exercises by flexing its nuclear capability and uses the Arctic as a testbed for new and experimental weapon systems. In this scenario, there is heightened risk of escalation, either unintentional, or because Moscow intentionally instigates a provocation designed to show that Russia is the dominant power in the Arctic—a proposition that grows if Russia calculates that the United States and NATO are exhausted amid a long, grinding war in Ukraine.
Scenario Two: Russia-China Entente
The Russian economy is resilient to sanctions, largely due to hydrocarbon and mineral exports as well as cooperation with partners outside the West, especially China. Russia and China deepen their military and economic relationship, as Putin can no longer refuse Xi’s demands to have a Chinese military presence in the Russian Arctic. Russia and China conduct joint air patrols and share satellite capability, while Russia allows China to build military facilities in the Arctic. Although little information is available, there are indications that Russian Arctic development is having a devastating effect on the environment. In this scenario, a Chinese military presence (or major exercises) in the Russian Arctic or in the Northern Sea Route would complicate U.S. Navy competition with China in the Indo-Pacific by adding another theater of operations—in this case the Arctic—where the U.S. Navy would have to monitor Chinese naval operations and perhaps even prepare for potential confrontation.
Scenario Three: Post-Putin Russia
Vladimir Putin is no longer in office. A civilian government staffed by “technocrats” is established, although real power remains in the hands of the security services. The government initiates a global charm offensive to garner support for Russia’s reintegration into the international community. Looking to bolster an economy weakened by sanctions, Moscow appeals to Western energy companies to return and for the Arctic Council to resume. Meanwhile, satellite imagery indicates continued infrastructure buildup at key Russian Arctic military bases and the acceleration of Moscow’s efforts to enhance its anti-access/area denial capabilities along the Northern Sea Route. While NATO expresses concern about Russia’s actions in the Arctic, its 32 members remain divided on the best way to deal with the new government. In this scenario, Putin’s departure raises hard questions the transatlantic allies will have to confront about how to approach Moscow. Opposition to Putin and his authoritarian regime is currently a unifying force for the West and his departure could produce uncertain and conflicting responses. The better the Russians behave, the harder it will be to keep the alliance unified. While some countries may seek to guide Russia toward democracy, others will remain skeptical of Russia’s intentions and its ability to overcome its authoritarian past. This divergence would place strains on NATO and the European Union, potentially fracturing their approaches to Russian actions, including those in the Arctic.
- Contrary to Putin’s statements suggesting that Finland’s and Sweden’s NATO membership do not pose a threat to Russia, their entry into the alliance will profoundly alter regional security dynamics, Moscow’s relations with each country, and ultimately Russia’s threat perception in the region.
- The Kremlin’s sense of security is most likely to be affected by the movement of any NATO infrastructure into Finland and Sweden, the increased size and complexity of NATO exercises in the region, the gathering of air forces on the Scandinavian peninsula, cross-border air exercises, enhanced intelligence collection, and the changed dynamics in the Baltic Sea, which will now be surrounded by NATO member states. This sense of Russian insecurity could increase the chance of miscalculation and escalation.
- Russia’s war in Ukraine and the weakening of its conventional forces will likely drive the Russian political and military leadership to see an increase in the utility of nuclear weapons in managing escalation and conflict, increasing the importance of the Kola Peninsula.
- Russia’s growing sense of vulnerability, along with reduced channels of communication with the West, is likely to lower the threshold of what the Kremlin responds to in the Arctic and is likely to increase the unpredictability of Russia’s actions there. Putin is also likely to view the Arctic as a venue for demonstrating that Russia is still a power to be feared, raising the risk of Russian provocations and miscalculation/escalation in the Arctic.
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