Russia's Coercive Diplomacy in the Arctic

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Jul 28, 2021, 12:51:31 PMJul 28
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Russia’s Coercive Diplomacy in the Arctic

July 6, 2021 By Jonathan Jordan 

With the rising significance of the Arctic due to climate change, as well as the increasing militarization of the region, great power competition has become one of the important discourses in Arctic studies.  NOAA

With the rising significance of the Arctic due to climate change, the opening of new maritime routes, and growing exploitation of natural resources in the region, as well as the increasing militarization of the region, great power competition has become one of the important discourses in Arctic studies. A concrete example is the rivalry between Russia and the United States – two of the most powerful countries in the world militarily, whose relationship has seen increasing tensions in recent years. Russia sees the Arctic as one of the regions where it would like to deter American global hegemony and strengthen its relative power position towards it.1) While trying to limit the potential of a military conflict in the region and still hoping to cooperate with the United States for global and regional stability, Russia is bolstering its influence in the Arctic through coercive diplomacy, to show that the United States should not overlook or underestimate Russia’s interests in the Arctic – part of Russia’s desire to be recognized as a global power by the United States.

In recent years, Russia has been investing huge amounts of resources to develop its Arctic territory. In its latest Arctic Strategy, aimed towards 2035, the country lists the managing of resources and the urgency to address threats as priority interests in the region. As it has the longest Arctic coastline, as well as the most populous and industrialized Arctic region of all northern states, and a significant quantity of natural resources in the north, Russia holds the sources of material power needed to solidify its presence in the Arctic, both through the development of its Arctic territories and its stronger maritime presence in the Arctic Ocean. Russia’s growing attention to the Arctic can be seen both in concrete actions such as the building of various infrastructure in the region, such as building icebreakers, opening up oil and gas pipelines, developing the Arctic for tourism, encouraging international cooperation for Arctic development, in addition to prestige-oriented “stunts” such as the planting of the Russian flag in the North Pole seabed in 2007.2) Furthermore, Russia has become increasingly concerned with the effects of climate change in the Arctic, especially regarding thawing permafrost, which could endanger its northern population and infrastructure.

This article examines how Russia is trying to use its increased involvement and presence in the Arctic as a way of coercive diplomacy towards the United States – another great power in the region with which Russia is competing while trying to seek cooperation and points of mutual interest. By applying Thomas Schelling’s concept of coercive diplomacy, this article will first summarize Russia’s views of the Arctic and the plans for its development, before looking at Russia’s increasing great-power competition with the United States in the region, and eventually applying Schelling’s concept of coercive diplomacy in framing Russia’s coercive diplomacy towards the United States in the Arctic. The conclusion of this article will touch upon the implications of US-Russian great power competition towards international relations in the Arctic region, which includes its security, economic, and environmental effects.

Background: Russia and the Arctic

Russia has the largest landmass in the Arctic region. Geographically, Russia’s Arctic spreads from the Kola Peninsula in the Murmansk Oblast, bordering Norway, to the Chukotka Autonomous Region in the east, found near the US state of Alaska. There are nine Russian federal subjects located on or north of the Arctic Circle: Murmansk Oblast, Republic of Karelia, Arkhangelsk Oblast, Komi Republic, Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug, Nenets Autonomous Okrug, Krasnoyarsk Krai, Republic of Sakha (Yakutia), and the Chukotka Autonomous Okrug. There are several cities and ports located north of the Arctic Circle, such as Murmansk, Arkhangelsk, Norilsk, and Verkhoyansk. There is another Russian term to describe a similar region, the “Extreme North” (Krainy Sever), which includes not only regions north of the Arctic Circle but also includes some areas near the Arctic Circle but with similar climates and conditions – which includes Magadan Oblast, the Kamchatka Peninsula and some parts of Khabarovsk Krai.

During the Soviet era, the government relocated millions of people (through the use of forced labor and economic incentives) to work in Russia’s Arctic, in order to strengthen its industrial and infrastructural capacity in the region. However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the decline of Russia’s industrial capacity, emigration out of Russia’s Arctic increased, with several regions reporting a significant population decline.3) Some of Russia’s Arctic regions continue to suffer from this decline, while in other regions it has halted and a slight increase has been recorded. The population dynamics of Russia’s select Arctic regions are shown in the table below.4)






Murmansk Oblast

1 146





Arkhangelsk Oblast

1 570

1 336

1 227

1 183

1 136 

Nenets AO






Krasnoyarsk Krai

3 596

2 966

2 828

2 858

2 866


1 072





Chukotka AO






Table 1. Population Dynamics of Russia’s Select Arctic Federal Subjects (in Thousands)

As described above, the rising significance of the Arctic has increased Russia’s attention to this region. This can be seen in the formulation of the Arctic Strategy of the Russian Federation, which outlines Russia’s priorities and interests in the Arctic. The most recent edition of the strategy, directed towards 2035, describes the situation of Russia’s Arctic region and addresses challenges, such as the low population density, development of its indigenous population, climate change, management of the Northern Sea Route, inequality of industrial development of the regions, and the rise of potential conflicts in the Arctic. In addition, Russia also has a Ministry of Arctic Development to further initiatives in the region.

One of Russia’s main priorities in the Arctic is to expand and strengthen its economic, infrastructural and technological development. Several of Russia’s Arctic regions have had leaders who have personally invested in local improvements, such as the Chukotka region, which was led by Russian businessman Roman Abramovich from 2000 to 2008, who invested in the wellbeing of its population and increasing the quality of its airports, roads, buildings, and accessibility.5) Russia is also planning to build and upgrade several airports and ports in the Arctic.6) Energy has been another field where Russia has shown its commitment to development in the Arctic, especially with the huge oil and gas reserves in the Arctic Ocean. Russia has been working on promoting the Northern Sea Route (NSR), and cooperating with various countries, especially China, in oil and gas projects in the region.7)

In addition to increasing its economic stronghold in the Arctic, Russia has also gone on to strengthen its military presence in the north. This is seen as vital by the government considering that the security of the Arctic is an important part of Russian national security, due to shipping in the region, and also to maintain state control over natural resources.8) Russia has reactivated several Soviet-era bases in the north and strengthened its presence in remote Arctic areas such as the archipelago of Novaya Zemlya, an air base near the Taimyr Peninsula, while also building more icebreakers, including nuclear powered ones.9) Russia’s militarization of the Arctic will be further examined in the next section, which analyzes it as an instrument of Russia’s coercive diplomacy in the region vis-à-vis the United States. Relations with the US are important for Russia, as Russia’s Arctic territory in the Far East borders the U.S state of Alaska, separated by the Bering Strait.

Schelling’s Coercive Diplomacy and Its Role in Russian Arctic Foreign Policy

Thomas Schelling’s concept of coercive diplomacy was developed to explain relations between conflicting powers, which he theorized fear escalation and need cooperation to ensure stability.10) It argues that major powers try to coerce their opponents to respect its interests without triggering an armed conflict. It takes the example of relations between the United States and the Soviet Union, which were characterized by strong tensions for many decades, but were also both eager to avoid a major conflict. This status quo is now also applicable to the current nature of relations between the United States and Russia. The multidimensional great power competition has been intensifying in recent years, but with both countries trying to maintain stability in their bilateral relations to avoid a major conflict. Schelling identified five conditions of coercive diplomacy, outlined in his book, Arms and Influence:

  1. The threat conveyed should be sufficient to convince the adversary that the costs of non-compliance with demands will be unbearable;
  2. The threat must be credible for the adversary;
  3. The adversary should have some time to comply with the demands of the coercer;
  4. Both sides should have a minimal level of trust to believe that compliance will not lead to more demands at future rounds of their communication;
  5. The conflict should not be seen by both sides as zero-sum

This concept can be applied to Russia’s policies towards the United States in the Arctic. Russia has used several forums to state that international cooperation with all partners, including the United States, is necessary in the Arctic. A report by RAND Corporation indicated that most aspects of Russo-American cooperation in the Arctic remains intact, such as the maintaining of diplomatic channels, Russian-American cooperation in the Arctic Council, and working groups on problems such as climate change and Indigenous population.11). Russia has promoted an image of “the Arctic as a zone of international cooperation” and argues that many threats may occur in the region if international cooperation is neglected, which fits well with the first variable of Schelling’s concept.12) In its cooperation with the United States, Russia is trying to show that it is an indispensable power in the region and the United States must cooperate with Russia, or face the “unbearable” neglect in solving Arctic problems as indicated in Schelling’s concept.

The case of great power relations in the Arctic is applicable to the second and third components of Schelling’s concept as well. Russia has built a credible presence in the Arctic, which is shown through its military and economic influence in the region as explained above.13) The state also maintains significant power projection capabilities in the Arctic, which supports its goal of being seen as a global power by the United States. While the American National Security Strategy document has put Russia, alongside China, as revisionist powers which pose the greatest challenges to American strategy, there is still a strong view among American policymakers and specialists that Russia is no longer a global power and not able to seriously challenge American global hegemony.14) Russia views this as concerning because if the United States does not see Russia as a global power, it fears that the United States would not respect its security interests. By holding enough military and economic strongholds in the Arctic, Russia shows that its power projection is strong enough and should not be underestimated by the United States. This fulfills the second element of Schelling’s concept, wherein Russia is a credible threat to the United States in the Arctic, while at the same time, it is not making demands or ultimatums regarding American military presence in the Arctic either. A Valdai Club report outlined several disputes between both countries in the Arctic, and it can be observed that Russia does not give fast demands or threats regarding the disputes. This is in line with the third element of Schelling’s concept.15)

Finally, we will examine the fourth and fifth elements of Schelling’s concept. Despite Russia and the United States being two global adversaries whose rivalry has become especially heated in recent years, both countries have managed to maintain a tone of cooperation and some kind of trust in the region’s international relations. Both states see the need for international cooperation to mitigate threats and challenges, such as the need to avoid military conflicts in the region, the need to ensure each nation’s national security in the Arctic, and the urgency of environmental effects in the region – which resonates well with Russia’s concerns regarding thawing permafrost in the north. Russia’s Foreign Policy Strategy states that it is “a policy aimed at preserving peace, stability, and constructive international cooperation” and “settling any regional issues with negotiation”.16) Similarly, the American Arctic Strategy published by the Department of Defense also indicates the need for “multilateral cooperation to address shared interests and challenges” which includes cooperation on scientific research, maritime traffic, and environmental issues.17) In addition, Russia and the United States have also agreed on the delimitation of its maritime borders between Chukotka and Alaska, which was signed in 1990, though the Russian Parliament has not yet ratified the agreement. Nevertheless, the official statement by both countries regarding international relations in the Arctic show that both countries share a level of trust and see international relations in the region as positive-sum, compared to the largely zero-sum perceptions of US-Russia competition in other regions such as Eastern Europe or the Middle East.

Reflections and Implications for the Region

From this analysis of Russia’s coercive diplomacy towards the United States in the Arctic, it can be seen that Russia values cooperation and stability for its national Arctic development, as well as tackling various shared issues in the Arctic such as environmental issues. Therefore, it understands and respects the importance of a stable relationship with all Arctic powers, including the United States. This is reflected by Russia’s aim for continuous dialogue with the United States for international cooperation in the Arctic. However, the Russian state also sees that in order to gain a stable and positive-sum cooperation, the country needs to diplomatically coerce the United States to recognize its importance and interests in the region. Russia’s coercive diplomacy is carried out to ensure that the United States sees it as an important power in the region whose interests should not be ignored, and that it should be treated equally as a global actor and regional leader in the Arctic.

While Russia’s coercive diplomacy towards the United States in the Arctic region has raised alarms in the US about increased Russian activity in the region, it has also opened a path for more constructive cooperation between the two countries in the north. Fortunately, the United States has also stepped in for more constructive dialogues between both countries, despite the more confrontational tone displayed in other regions in the US-Russia rivalry. This reluctant cooperation is further seen in the institutional arrangements in the Arctic, as evidenced by the membership of both countries in the Arctic Council. Although tension remains between the two states, with the rising militarization of the region, the United States and Russia are expected to have a relatively more cooperative tone in bilateral relations in the Arctic than other regions of the world, which is an important achievement considering the importance of Arctic issues for humankind, such as climate change and shipping routes across the Arctic. This relationship is also important for other Arctic countries, such as the Scandinavian countries, Canada, Iceland, and Finland, to maximize the use of existing mechanisms in the region, such as the Arctic Council, as well as to ensure that the forum does not become an instrument of great power competition between these two powers.

Jonathan Jordan is a final-year undergraduate student at the University of Indonesia.



Serguei M Plekhanov

Jul 28, 2021, 7:29:04 PMJul 28
to Arctic Security Discussion
This is worth being published in The Onion: an undergrad student in Indonesia explains how Russia "coerces" the United States in the Arctic. 

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Jul 28, 2021, 11:59:08 PMJul 28

Sergei  - yes I knew that the author was an undergrad student.   I wondered if I should have pointed that out as a note accompanying this piece. 

BUT  this discussion group should know what sort of article is being circulated  and by a relatively well known source  - the Arctic Institute




jdsharries jdsharries

Jul 29, 2021, 10:46:23 AMJul 29
to arctic-nuclear-weapon-free

Hi Adele,

Is Serguei being sarcastic, or critical, or what?

If either of the first two, I will send out a note.

The writer is obviously not 'native' Indonesian, among other factors.


Serguei M Plekhanov

Jul 29, 2021, 12:26:40 PMJul 29
to arctic-nuclear-weapon-free
Hi Adele and David: With my experience in having taught thousands of undergrad students over the years, I actually encourage my students to write for the media, because some of them are really up to it. What matters is quality of research and writing which is sorely lacking from this piece. As an undergrad paper, it would get a C at best. The writer is obviously not an ethnic Indonesian, and my point in mentioning that he is studying at an Indonesian university is that it is highly unlikely that there is academic expertise there on the Arctic (for obvious reasons, as would be the case for Indonesian studies at a Norwegian university, for example), which means that the student is freelancing free of quality control. Among other flaws, the notion that Russia is "coercing" the US in the Arctic is really The Onion stuff. The fact that the Arctic Institute publishes such materials tells us more about the Arctic Institute than about the Arctic. Sergei

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Sent: July 29, 2021 10:46 AM
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Subject: RE: Russia's Coercive Diplomacy in the Arctic

jdsharries jdsharries

Jul 29, 2021, 1:20:26 PMJul 29
to Serguei M Plekhanov, arctic-nuclear-weapon-free, Adele Buckley


My personal experience in Indonesia (CSIS and the U Of I) and Singapore (NTU and military )  and Malaysia (seven years of attendance at the annual Asia Pacific Roundtables) is that - as the internet emerged and expanded - where a person was studying or teaching or doing research became less and less important than their location. All-way instant connections and (up to) global collaboration, together with often enthusiastic willingness to try to do well and then better produced (in my six years in Asia) some outstanding work.

I met experts, and those who claimed to be experts, who located to SE Asia because it freed them from the (sometimes extreme*) constraints at home on what they wanted to do.

* financial, or academic, or institutional politics).

Stay Safe,


Serguei M Plekhanov

Jul 29, 2021, 1:33:59 PMJul 29
to arctic-nuclear-weapon-free, jdsharries jdsharries, Adele Buckley
Thanks, David. I am glad to know that there are excellent experts on the Arctic in Indonesia. Unfortunately, their existence does not improve the quality of the text in question. Cheers, Sergei  

From: jdsharries jdsharries <>
Sent: July 29, 2021 1:20 PM
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