Observers typically view the race to lay claim to territory in the Arctic
as a competition for oil and gas resources or an exercise in national sovereignty. But for Russia, there could be a third reason to try to claim the North: identity. “The parallel with Stalin’s triumphalist propaganda campaign of ‘conquering the North’ launched in 1936-1939 on the background of severe internal repressions is too obvious to miss,” argues Pavel Baev, research professor at the International Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO), in “Russia’s Race for the Arctic and the New Geopolitics of the North Pole,” an occasional paper
published by the Jamestown Foundation. According to Baev, Russia’s entire Arctic campaign—including the planting of the titanium flag on the sea floor and the flights of Tu-95MS strategic bombers over Arctic waters—is intended to bolster Russians’ nationalism.
Baev believes that oil alone cannot explain Russia’s actions in the Arctic. First, no one is sure just how extensive the Arctic’s oil reserves really are, because minimal exploratory drilling has been carried out. Moreover, Russia currently lacks the technology to develop offshore oil and gas fields in harsh conditions, and does not seem interested in developing that technology. “The underlying proposition for claiming exclusive economic rights for the seabed beyond the 80°N latitude is that 30-50 years from now hydrocarbons would still be in such high demand that production at enormous costs will be economically efficient. What follows logically is that Russia is not particularly worried about the climate change and has few thoughts about alternative energy sources,” writes Baev.
According to Baev, oil is a motivation for Moscow, but only in the long term. Oil reserves, combined with other strategic interests—such as maritime shipping routes, which have historically been a significant concern for Russia—pushed the Kremlin to take steps to assert Russia’s claims to significant Arctic territories. Three factors contributed to Russia’s Arctic strategy: a growing awareness of climate change; the goal of deterring other nations from asserting their claims to the territory; and a desire to strengthen Russians’ national pride. “Putin’s spin-masters have stumbled upon rather than invented the Arctic theme,” concludes Baev.