In cooperation with the 2015 High North Dialogue we conduct a series of podcast interviews with some of the speakers and participants of the conference as well as other Arctic voices. This project is a collaboration between the University of Nordland’s High North Center and The Arctic Institute. The podcasts will be available on iTunes via The Arctic Institute, as well as on the High North Dialogue Website.
In our 3rd podcast for the High North Dialogue 2015 we talked with Alexander Sergunin, Professor in the Department of International Relations at St. Petersburg State University. Alexander Sergunin received a Ph.D. in history from Moscow State University in 1985. He is the author of numerous publications on regionalism, foreign and security policy, EU-Russia relations and Russian Arctic policy.
In the often referred to so-called “Western World”, the public perception of Russia foreign and security policy is still dominated by black-and-white Cold War paradigms. The main objective of our conversation with Alexander was to counteract that particular picture and briefly highlight some aspects of Russia’s current Arctic endeavour.
Alexander stressed that Russia’s main Arctic intention is its focus on regional cooperation, avoiding any potential spill-over from the Ukrainian unrest. Consequently, Russia’s current aim to modernise its armed forces, of which most are located in the Arctic region, should not be perceived as Russian re-militarisation efforts of the Arctic. According to Alexander the simple purpose of related efforts is to modernise antiquated strategic and conventional forces.
Alexander was also highly critical about Denmark’s most recent submission to the UN Commission on the Continental Shelf concerning an extended continental shelf that partly covers the central Arctic Ocean. The submission seems to lack sufficient geological and geophysical proof that justifies Denmark’s claim, a mistake that has also been made by Russia in its first submission in 2001.
Again, he also commented on the oil and gas situation in the Russian (offshore) Arctic, criticising the Western sanctions, underscoring the long-term detrimental effect for both Russia and Western countries. However, a closer relationship between Russia and China is not exactly the ideal situation neither. Especially from a technological perspective Russia still heavily depends on their Western partners. Yet, a closer relationship between these two countries could give boost to the Northern Sea Route, a sea route that could be developed jointly for mutual benefit.
Andreas Raspotnik: Hello and welcome to this 3rd podcast for the High North Dialogue 2015, a collaboration of the University of Nordland (Bodø), the University’s High North Centre for Business and Governance, and The Arctic Institute.
We are speaking with attendees and speakers about their work, the High North Dialogue and the conference’s theme of security and business in the Arctic. Thanks for joining us. I am Andreas Raspotnik.
Today we are talking with Alexander Sergunin, Professor in the Department of International Relations at St. Petersburg State University. Alexander Sergunin received a Ph.D. in history from Moscow State University in 1985. He is the author of numerous publications on regionalism, foreign and security policy, EU-Russia relations and Russian Arctic policy. He currently works on a research project entitled “EU and Russia: Two Competing ‘Soft Power’ Projects in the Baltic Sea Region.”
Dear Alexander, thanks for joining us today.
Alexander Sergunin: Thank you Andreas. I am looking forward to our conversation because I guess what we are lacking most recently is the lack of dialogue between Western and Eastern experts, particular on the Arctic.
Andreas Raspotnik: Let met start with our first question. The theme of High North Dialogue 2015 is “The Arctic in a Global Perspective – Arctic Business & Security”. Discussing Arctic security in our 1st podcast Michael Byers explicitly highlighted the increasing need for Arctic policing – provided either by militaries or coast guards. What is your first association when you think of the term “Arctic security”?
Alexander Sergunin: Well, actually the first perception is certainly not associated with military or hard security. I guess for Russia it’s much more important the soft security aspects – the soft security dimensions, such as environment, such as economic challenges, such as some non-traditional challenges related to potential oil spills, things like potential increase in poaching, in smuggling. Also we still have a residual problem with indigenous peoples, so that kind of stuff. And I think that we have to distinguish between the journalistic things and the experts’ opinions on approaches because sometimes the journalists, not only Western but also Russian, they tend to focus on hard security, military security issues rather than on real problems which face Russia in the Arctic.
Andreas Raspotnik: And yet it is still hard security that dominates our Western public perception of Russia, which did not seem to have changed even thirty years after the end of the Cold War. As a matter of fact the Ukrainian unrest has revealed a still prominent public conception of the West vs. the East – political rationality vs. political inconsistence. In the Arctic the picture seems to be rather similar with analysts claiming that the “Russian bear” aims to militarise the Arctic in order to achieve its regional economic goals. How do you oppose this distinct Russian-Arctic picture?
Alexander Sergunin: Yes again, it’s just one more journalistic stereotype about Russia and its foreign policy behaviour in general and specifically in the Arctic region. I would say that actually it’s not the intention of Russia to militarise the Arctic. On the opposite I guess Russia wants to keep the Arctic cooperation, which is quite a unique one as compared to other regions. And the Russian leadership many times repeatedly told that we wouldn’t want to have a spill-over effect of the Ukrainian crisis to such a fragile and unique region like the Arctic. I think that some of these stereotypes on the Western part about Russian military policies in the Arctic they stem from the fact that they tend to forget that actually what Russia is doing is the continuation of previous plans to rebuild and modernise the Russian armed forces and Russian military infrastructure which actually degenerated over the last quarter of the century after the end of the Cold War. Let me remind you that in the 1990s the Russian military simply abandoned all these air bases, naval bases and border stations in the Arctic region. And the whole military infrastructure just deteriorated for years and years. And about 10 years ago the Russian leadership decided to just keep alive all this military infrastructure, so talking about modernisation, quite modern modernisation of Russian armed forces and military infrastructure in the high north, rather than about revisionism and expansionism, some aggressive plans, that kind of things. So I mean don’t forget that other Arctic nations also do the same. Maybe the problem is that and again some journalists tend to forget that in contrast with other Arctic nations Russia has to combine the modernisation of its conventional forces and strategic forces in the Arctic. I mean it’s a unique combination. None of the other Arctic states have that kind of combination. For example the United States: They have strategic forces, nuclear weaponry which is not only based in the Arctic. But in Russia the uniqueness is that the Russian Arctic, in particular the Kola Peninsula, hosts ⅔ of Russia nuclear submarines. So when Russia wants to modernise its armed forces it has to take care of both conventional and strategic components. That might have some negative impressions on the rest of the World that Russia has some aggressive plans but that’s not the case. I mean if you compare for example the modernisation of Russian conventional forces in the region and those for example of the Norwegian ones I would say that Russia does not have and will not have in the foreseeable future that kind of class, let’s say frigates like Norway has or will have; or Denmark. So in terms of conventional modernisation, I guess we now have forces comparable with those neighbours. The strategic component is different but it has nothing to do with the Arctic region as such it is just for the global confrontational interaction with the United States.
Andreas Raspotnik: Another Arctic topic often connected with the issue of militarisation and potential dispute in the region is the question of an extended continental shelf. Russia is supposed to re-submit its submission in 2015. In the context of Canada and Denmark’s submissions it seems that the public media and some analysts already start again to invoke potential conflict and disagreement between the Arctic states, as for instance in a recent article by Newsweek. How would you analyse this particular issue?
Alexander Sergunin: Yes, first of all let me clarify the status of these submissions on claims of the continental shelf. Canada filed the claim for the continental shelf but not in the Arctic region. It did it with regard to the North Atlantic continental shelf, which has nothing to do with its claims on the Arctic maritime spaces and Arctic continental shelf. Canada did not submit that kind of claim yet. Russia also is only planning to do that this spring but we will do it because Russia several times postponed this submission because it did not have sufficient geological and geophysical proofs and materials to prove that kind of claim. So Russia now is very cautious, because, let me remind you, Russia had already filed that kind of submission in 2001 and it was declined by the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf because Russia was unable to provide sufficient geological and geophysical arguments. So Russia is now very cautious. The only country, which submitted its application for the extension of the continental shelf, is Denmark. And it’s quite strange because first it overlaps with the potential Russian one and to my knowledge Denmark did it without that kind of detailed investigations like Russia did over the last several years. So I guess the chances for the approval of the Danish application is not very good, not very high. My impression is that Denmark repeats the same mistakes like Russia did it in 2001, so I mean the legal experts said that the chances are not very good. And I guess Russia has a much more balanced approach with this problem because actually what are we talking about – we are talking about the extension of the continental shelf, extending over 200nm, which already every Arctic country has this 200nm maritime territory and the seabed. So if you look at the mineral resources, I mean the potential mineral resources, especially oil and gas which can be discovered in these waters, I would say that approximately 70% or 80% of these potential mineral resources are already within these exclusive economic zones (200nm) and even having that kind of exclusive economic zones, I mean the extraction of oil and gas in these deep waters is impossible for many, many decades ahead. What are the Arctic countries doing now? They simply would like to have a strategic control over these territories or maritime spaces rather than having real plans to start extraction immediately or in the foreseeable future. The Arctic, I guess, is something very distant.
Andreas Raspotnik: Turning to “business”, the High North Dialogue’s 2nd theme. Over the last decade the development efforts of the various oil and gas fields located on the Russian Arctic continental shelf have seen a multitude of up and downs. What do you think is the immediate, let’s say 10 years, future of Shtokman or the various fields on and surrounding the Yamal Peninsula, especially if we consider the current low oil price?
Alexander Sergunin: Let me just repeat what I have already said. The Russian leadership and also the people from the oil and gas business they never had that kind of rosy picture of the future of Russian gas and oil extraction. They are quite realistic about that. They are thinking about some distant future, they are preparing for that kind of distant future. They believe that in order to develop oil and gas industries in the high north you should plan it well in advance. You have to plan these kinds of things 20, 30 years ahead and the problem is that you cannot do it over night. First you have to explore these territories, then you have technologies for offshore drilling and Russia does not have these kinds of technologies for the time being. Then you have skilled workforce for that, so you also need time to train it. Anyway, I mean Russia has very strategic plans for the future not for now. More or less we can speak realistically about oil and gas industries on the Yamal Peninsula and also the shallow waters of the Pechora and Kara Seas, that’s it. Where Russia has its own technologies and technologies it obtained from Western companies before the sanctions. And of course Western sanctions they impede the development of that kind of technologies and impede Russian plans to develop these areas. But I guess it’s not very smart on the Western part because not only Russia but also Western countries would need the Arctic oil and gas in the future. So why make barriers and obstacles now for what these countries will need, not tomorrow but the other day. So I think that that kind of sanctions in case of the Arctic is quite detrimental not only for Russia but also for the Western countries themselves.
Andreas Raspotnik: Coming to our last question now. Over the last years China has often been depicted as the “hot” new Arctic actor. With regard to the region and keeping in mind both “security” and “business” what is your opinion and assessment on a closer Arctic-relationship between Russia and China?
Alexander Sergunin: Yes, it’s also quite a complex question. As in the case of Arctic oil and gas Russia’s mass media had quite high expectations about the Sino-Russia cooperation in the high north. I myself was quite critical and sceptical about that because actually China has little to offer for Russia in terms of cooperation in the Arctic. China does not have the technology for drilling at big depths and the technology of China is quite backward compared to Western companies and Western industries. So what Russia hopes and hoped that China would provide some investment to the development of the, let’s say, Northern Sea Route and the infrastructure and also to mining in the Arctic – that kind of stuff. But quite recently both Chinese officials and Chinese experts have visited several kinds of seminars and conferences over the last months and they all told that actually China is now quite cautious about the prospects for that kind of cooperation, for many reasons. First of all, because of the drop of the oil price, which actually makes the extraction of oil and gas in the Arctic not profitable; also because of political reasons, plus when it came to the practice it turned out that actually Russian companies, mining companies and oil and gas companies, they are quite reluctant to let Chinese companies in. The most lucrative businesses they want to keep to themselves. Not very welcome to Chinese companies when asking about things to share. So when it comes to practicalities it seems quite difficult to find a common ground for cooperation. So now I guess right we have some kind of shaky moments, as both sides are quite sceptical about those kinds of cooperation. The natural gas deals are not about Arctic gas, they would come from Siberia rather than from the Arctic. I think that both sides have to work slowly, gradually, cautiously and just single out priorities. The most promising is the Northern Sea Route as both Russia and China need that kind of sea route and it could actually be done jointly for the mutual benefit.[i]
Andreas Raspotnik: Dear Alexander, thank you very much for taking the time to highlight some of the most pending questions concerning Russia’s Arctic endeavour. We look very much forward to see you in Bodø.
Alexander Sergunin: Thank you, it’s my pleasure. I am also looking forward to the conference. I think all of us will come there with a lot of ideas, fresh ideas and also very inspiring dialogues, rather than confrontation. This is my hope. Thank you.
Andreas Raspotnik: Thanks for joining us for this podcast. Follow along with the series on iTunes or via our websites highnorthdialogue.no and thearcticinstitute.org. The music you’ve heard at the beginning and at the end comes from Hebber Zepherin and can be found at ccmixture.org.
[i] Due to some problems with the recording program, the sound quality of the last sentence is considerably poorer. Sorry!!