A Thaw in Relations at the North Pole?

Russia’s Policies in the Arctic and Ukraine: The Endurance of Russian Cooperation in the High North

Reviewed by Alastair Pearson
October 21, 2014

Russia, argues Tyler Ditmore of Pepperdine University, is overtly concerned with enlarging its international standing and ensuring that it receives respect from other states. Russia seeks great power status, which it believes requires a brutally realist foreign policy that will render it “capable of influencing the economics and politics of the minor states in its region.”

This means that Russia will have to antagonize its neighbors to assert its dominant regional position, using its substantial economic leverage – gained through its immense natural resource wealth – “as a tool to be wielded on behalf of its foreign policy interests.” The Russia that Ditmore sees depends on prestige, both internally through patronage networks and externally through aggressive public relations campaigns. Consequently, it is conflict prone when it feels its reputation and interests are at stake.

However, Ditmore asserts that Russia’s Arctic behavior is fundamentally different from the revisionism of Putin’s regime, in particular the annexation of Crimea and support for the rebels in the Donbass region. While the Russian economy is capable of absorbing the combined costs of reduced gas exports and foreign sanctions, Ditmore says that Russia does not yet possess that degree of economic development in the Arctic Circle. As such, it will be more cooperative. The “contumacious” Russian behavior in Eastern Europe is replaced by “irenic” behavior in the North, working closely with the seven other members of the Arctic Council.

The economic prosperity that Russia seeks to attain in the Arctic Circle is, according to Ditmore, reliant on international cooperation. Hydrocarbon extraction, Arctic fishing, mining, and other minor areas for mutual gain – including “renewable energy sources, telecommunications, data clusters, and tourism” –all require a concerted multinational effort to brave harsh Arctic conditions. Furthermore, Russia strives to increase traffic along the Northern Sea Route between Vladivostok and Murmansk, which Russia and Canada work to have classified as internal, and not international, waters.

In general, Ditmore’s scholarship is grounded in a firm theoretical understanding of the goals of a great power like Russia, along with a grasp of the historical context for Russian behavior and thinking. He emphasizes the role of Russian identity in constructing the response to both the Ukraine crisis and to Arctic policy. Although Russian nationalism is central to both instances, Ukraine, given its proximity and shared history, understandably provokes a far more fervid nationalist reaction. He admits that any international attempt to understand Russian Arctic policy will fail if it does not give Russian identity its due.

The paper thoroughly and convincingly develops a model for the sources of Russian behavior, and explains why Russia is so much more cooperative in the Arctic sphere than elsewhere. Its main weakness is the relatively short shrift given to why Russia might choose not to behave cooperatively in the Arctic in the future, which Ditmore basically dismisses given his low threat estimation of Chinese agitation in the Arctic, and his belief that Arctic sovereignty disputes will likely be peacefully resolved.

View the full paper here!

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