Russia and the Arctic: the irony of an aggressor in charge of a ‘zone of peace’ 

Old communistic signboard / Pyramiden - Svalbard (Credit: Unsplash/Vince Gx)

Dr. Agne Cepinskyte, a Lithuanian international relations researcher specialised in Arctic security, shares her analysis of the war in Ukraine and draws parallels with Russia's ambitions in the Arctic.

A couple of years ago, in 2020, I wrote an article about Russia’s increasingly assertive role in the circumpolar North. Some weeks later, as I was working in Berlin as a postdoctoral fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, a Russian diplomat summoned me for a tête-à-tête in a Russian restaurant. He had a briefcase filled with most of my articles printed out, highlighted throughout, and confronted me about every statement I had ever made that did not conform to the Kremlin’s narrative: “Why did you mention that Crimea was annexed in this chapter?”, he would ask.

It was then that I – somebody born in Lithuania, a country occupied by the Soviet Union until 1991 — who has constantly been told to soften my ‘anti-Russian’ tone while living in Western Europe, got reaffirmation about the true nature of Russia’s political culture. Its diplomacy does not exist, policies are enforced through intimidation and the regime will use any means to achieve its goals. The West should now finally realise that Moscow’s ambitions to restore the imperial influence are real, and no dialogue has a chance of succeeding.

While trying to grasp Russia's ruthlessness and brutality in Ukraine, it is essential to not lose sight of regions beyond the present conflict zone. The Arctic, where Russia’s coastline amounts to over 24,000 kilometres, is one such region. Even though Moscow’s chairing of the Arctic Council was effectively suspended on 3 March, the North remains a key strategic priority for the Kremlin. Aside from developing the infrastructure aimed at taking the best advantage of expected economic benefits of the Northern Sea Route and of vast resources made available as the ice melts, Russia, for over a decade now, has been militarising the area that Mikhail Gorbachev once called a ‘zone of peace’ and scholars later labelled as ‘exceptional’ and immune to a conflict.

Moscow’s Arctic policy, envisioning the country’s role as a ‘leading Arctic power’, explicitly refers to the maintenance of military formations in the region as one of the main policy objectives. This should not be mistaken as just empty political rhetoric: the Northern Fleet on the Kola Peninsula, which hosts submarines equipped with ballistic missiles, comprises two-thirds of Russia’s maritime nuclear strike capacity — only one example of many. An escalation of the war in Ukraine, particularly in the event of NATO involvement, could easily trigger Russia’s further aggression, resulting in military repercussions beyond the polar circle.

The absence of a dialogue, or rather Moscow’s seeming incapacity to engage in a meaningful one, exacerbates the risk for military spillover. Numerous scholars, myself included, have argued for restoring a military-security dialogue between Russia and the other seven Arctic countries after communication froze following the occupation of Crimea in 2014. Such an argument was driven by our naivety that a dialogue could mitigate strategic competition, increase policy transparency and lower the risk of a conflict. We have been proven wrong. As clearly manifested by Russia’s murderous encroachment of Ukraine and the mockery, displayed by the Kremlin’s officials, of any attempts to negotiate, rogue states do not perceive dialogues the way Western democracies do, and talks will not lead to agreements ensuring peace.

With Russia in the picture, let alone in charge as the largest Arctic state and one that still officially chairs the Arctic Council, the circumpolar North as ‘immune to a conflict’ has become a meaningless expression. In the foreseeable future, the Arctic will no longer carry the idyllic title of a “zone of peace”, and, unless Russia’s expansionist policies are hindered by Western sanctions and consequent budgetary constraints, its great-power ambitions and merciless politics of intimidation and callousness will likely have detrimental effects on a highly fragile region.

This article was first published in French on