Conflict Between Russia And The West Heating Up In Frozen North – Analysis


While overshadowed by Moscow’s war against Ukraine, developments in the Arctic over the past month have set the stage for the region to be the next flashpoint in the economic, geopolitical, and military confrontation between Russia and the West.

The latest salvo in this struggle occurred at the International Seabed Authority meeting in Jamaica at the end of March. There, Russian representatives lashed out at the United States for the new claims Washington made last December on the Arctic and its mineral-rich seabed (US Department of State, December 19, 2023;, December 25, 2023). Russian representatives insisted that the United States was misusing international law to its benefit and putting itself in conflict with Russia, other Arctic powers, and the world writ large (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, March 25; Svobodnaya Pressa, March 27).

According to Moscow commentators and politicians, the Kremlin’s response may include withdrawing from the Arctic Council, the Law of the Sea Treaty, denouncing the 1990 Baker-Shevardnadze agreement that set the sea borders between Moscow and the West, and boosting its military presence in the Arctic to counter the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the United States (Window on Eurasia, February 25, September 24, 2023; Izvestiya, March 18; Fond Strategicheskoi Kul’tury, March 31).   

Three developments are adding to the Russian ire for the latest US moves in the Arctic. First, the expansion of NATO to include Finland and Sweden puts the Western alliance far closer to Russia’s doorstep than ever before (The Barent Observer, March 11). Second, Moscow has acknowledged that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hopes for the expansion of the Northern Sea Route have been put on hold due to Western sanctions arising from the war in Ukraine and the failure of China to make up for other countries avoiding this route (The Moscow Times, March 25, 29; see EDM, December 12, 2023, March 12). Third, the Pentagon announced it would release a new Arctic strategy as early as the end of April, building on its three recent military exercises in the Arctic in the past month alone (Defense News, March 12). Many Russian writers openly declare that all this constitutes a direct attack on Russia’s national interests because it involves an area over which the Kremlin believes Moscow should have exclusive control (Fond Strategicheskoi Kul’tury, March 31).

Three other concerns weighing on Putin’s mind lie behind these factors, making it more likely that the Kremlin leader will move beyond diplomatic and propagandistic tools and use force.

  • First, and most immediately, Putin believes that Western leaders’ actions in the Arctic stem from the belief that he is distracted and even weakened by his war against Ukraine. Many Russian commentators and officials are saying that openly and insisting that Putin must respond forcefully lest the West undermines Russia elsewhere (Expert Ural, March 28, 2022; Fond Strategicheskoi Kul’tury, December 4, 2023; The Barent Observer, December 7, 2023).
  • Second, Putin has made the expansion of the Northern Sea Route a central part of his “turn to the East” and his efforts to reaffirm Russian power. Recent signs that the route is in trouble have not led him to change his mind. Rather, he has committed more resources to this endeavor lest its failure weaken both him and his country in relation to China and the West (The Moscow Times, March 29; cf. see EDM, September 3, 2019, May 6, 2021,December 12, 2023,  March 12).
  • Third, similar to many Russians, Putin appears to fear that, if Moscow loses exclusive control over the Northern Sea Route, it might lose control over the northern reaches of the Russian Federation. Such a loss might trigger the country’s disintegration as a whole (Window on Eurasia, May 30, 2021;  see EDM, December 6, 2018, November 14, 2023).

Putin has some diplomatic levers left, such as trying to play the rest of the world and even US allies against Washington on expansion into the Arctic. He and his diplomatic representatives tried to do exactly that at the Jamaica meeting, highlighting differences between the United States and Canada, specifically, and between the United States and other countries, more generally. They have also carried out such efforts in other venues (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, March 25; Svobodnaya Pressa, March 27; Fond Strategicheskoi Kul’tury, March 31). It is a near certainty that such attempts will continue and even intensify in the coming weeks. Such propagandistic and diplomatic actions, however, are unlikely to block the West and the United States from expanding into the Arctic, unless a display of Russian military strength backs them up.

Consequently, Putin is increasingly likely to lean toward using the military to block the West in the Arctic. That approach would be consistent with the Kremlin leader’s goal of trying to destroy international law. It would also show that the arguments of Russian lawyers have convinced him that he can ignore international law and organizations when it comes to asserting Moscow’s claims in the Arctic and acting unilaterally. Such a move would have to be backed up militarily if challenged (Hoviye Izvestya, November 9, 2020).

Whether Russia can use military force in the Arctic successfully remains an open question. According to experts, Russia’s fleet is in trouble and lacks the resources to build enough ships and provide enough manpower to change that in the near term (Window on Eurasia, January 19, 2022). Those shortcomings, however, make the situation more dangerous because they suggest that any future conflict would escalate rapidly.

Twenty years ago, American novelist John Griesemer titled one of his books Nobody Thinks of Greenland. The phrase has captured the attitude of many Western analysts examining relations between Moscow and the West in the Arctic. Recent events, however, should change that view. If not, inattention to developments in the region runs the risk that the situation could spin out of control.

This article was published at The Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 52

Paul Goble

Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. Most recently, he was director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Earlier, he served as vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. He has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Goble maintains the Window on Eurasia blog and can be contacted directly at [email protected] .

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