US-Russian Arctic Strategies: Spatializing Governance and Governing Space

Hugo Ahlenius, UNEP/GRID-Arendal

By Sebastian Knecht Governing Arctic space peacefully and, in the best case, sustainably is currently at the heart of debates on the High North’s future. More than ever, statements issued in this debate are politically motivated and legally justified through the lens of national sovereignty over maritime territories. Since the turn of the millennium the enormity of Arctic melting processes and, as a consequence thereof, rising economic stakes in increasingly ice-free waters has attracted much attention in adjacent states as well as beyond, e.g. in the European Union and China. The hypothetical question of whether unilateral interests in the region are about to merge and thus pave the way for regional cooperation or whether stakeholders will strive only for their own good, possibly causing anything from political friction to actual conflict, remains a key issue. 

While this is one way to look at politics in the circumpolar North, one has to remember that throughout history relevant actors have perceived Arctic space differently. Such distinct perceptions include the Arctic as open space, a reductionist fragmentation into national sectors, home to indigenous cultures and source of Northern identities or ultimately as a heritage of mankind that should be governed under international authorities and ideally a treaty-based regime. 

From this follows that for today’s treatment of Arctic affairs there is a need to keep in mind that certain framings of geographical space are not set in stone. In fact, it is a promising approach to look at different spatialization moves and geopolitical narratives of the Arctic as the foundation for each littoral state’s foreign policy action, and vice versa. 

Towards a ‘Polar Mediterranean’? [1] Some Theoretical Reflections

The theoretical school of critical geopolitics [2] has contributed much to identifying discursive practices of international geography. It highlights the making and shaping of spatial narratives for executing hegemonic power over temporarily constructed social meanings bound to terrestrial and maritime territories, as is the case with current dynamics of Arctic reordering.

In contrast to that rather gloomy usage of geopolitics, a more ‘positive’ understanding of geopolitical reasoning has so far not been considered. Creating a common Arctic space narrative through discourse is a potentially useful and beneficial tool to trigger an emerging regional community. Successful region-building processes in the High North depend on the notion of a common political destiny of a ‘borderless North’ [3] in national foreign policy strategy. 

State practice usually follows a specific kind of spatialization of international politics: regional governance, political means, as well as national contributions to common challenges such as environmental degradation or joint management strategies for resource production rely on each countries vision of what the Arctic is and how it should be dealt with. The more actors tend to see the Arctic as territorially fragmented subsets, and thus not more than the sum of national entities, the region will remain a source for competition and rising tensions. Wherever, in contrast, the Arctic is intersubjectively narrated as a political idea over which all littoral states are responsible, the image of ‘otherness’ gives way to mutual trust and joint policy efforts. 

If one digs deeper into recently released Arctic strategy papers, individual spatial narratives reveal anything but an alarming picture of Arctic cooperation. Rather, they testify political will to collaborative management initiatives such as the Search and Rescue Agreement adopted by the Arctic Council in May 2011. While countries still show dichotomous interests and policy approaches, the resulting Arctic picture is not necessarily conflictive.

By way of illustration, a closer look at the old Cold War rivals of the US and the Russian Federation, who in the past primarily used the Arctic as an outpost of nuclear deterrence in order to secure their individual sectors, shall account for the principles and possibilities of Arctic spatialization narratives in foreign policy reasoning.

The Russian Federation
In the case of Russia, in September 2008 President Medvedev approved a detailed Arctic policy strategy outlined in the ‘Guidelines of the Russian Federation’s State Policy in the Arctic Until 2020 and Beyond’ (Osnovy gosudarstvennoi politiki Rossiiskoi Federatsii v Arktike na period do 2020 goda i dalneishuiu perspektivu) [4]. Though emphasizing the economic and military significance of the Arctic to Russian development in the next decade, particularly its status as an international energy superpower, the geopolitical narrative reads quite differently in the paper. Russia’s foreign policy strictly distinguishes between common political challenges in the ‘Arctic environment’, which equally affect other littoral states and hence require coordinated cross-border cooperation, and national interests explicitly referring to the ‘Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation’. 

Among the challenges of governing Arctic commons mentioned are adaptation strategies to efficiently mitigate environmental degradation processes, conservation and sustainable development of maritime ecosystems, and the integration of Arctic science, knowledge, and technologies. Russia is supportive of joint capacity-building projects, such as the establishment of a region-wide search and rescue system and emergency response mechanisms that would be beneficial to all. Moreover, securing the circumpolar North in the traditional sense of Gorbachev’s ‘Arctic Zone of Peace and Cooperation’ narrative [5] even ranked second in the list of national interests, right after stressing the importance of Russian national Arctic waters as ‘a strategic resource base’. 

The United States
The US’ foreign policy reasoning towards the High North follows the same spatial logic of exclusive internal territories and inclusive external common waters. Former President George W. Bush in January 2009 signed the ‘National Security Presidential Directive/NSDP – 66’ that established the US’ Arctic strategy for years to come [6]. Compared to the Russian strategy, the geopolitical reasoning is not that much different, except for maritime shipping. While Russia claims parts of the Northern Sea Route as internal waters, the US views it as an international strait.

Acknowledging that its offshore areas under national jurisdiction are in total rather poor in fossil fuels, the United States seeks to develop resources, maritime shipping and national security issues under uncontested state sovereignty only within its own territories. Still, the US is willing to consult and ‘work closely with other Arctic nations’, all the more with regard to ecological and socioeconomic implications of Arctic raw material production. Particularly when it comes to environmental protection and conservation management strategies, the US refers to the ‘Arctic environment’ and ‘marine ecosystems’ as a whole and emphasizes the need to respond in a coordinated manner to rising common challenges. 

The narrative of an open Arctic space also guides controversial aspects of national defence and military intervention in the circumpolar North, i.e. all issues related to homeland security. The US Department of Defense even downplays US military ambitions in the High North given that all Arctic states have ‘publicly committed to working within a common framework of international law and diplomatic engagement’ [7]. Interestingly, the document makes a fundamental shift in US Arctic policy reasoning. While the 2009 Presidential Directive made clear the possibility of unilateral action in order to maintain national security by operating ‘either independently or in conjunction with other states to safeguard these interests’, two years later this policy has been revised towards a predominantly cooperative approach. The US now wants to act ‘in conjunction with other states when possible, and independently if necessary’.

Geospatial Patterns of Arctic Cooperation: A Different Conflict Dimension

In comparison, the US’ and Russia’s Arctic strategy papers read similarly in terms of their respective Arctic spatialization narratives. This indicates a common ground for joint management efforts and cooperative behaviour in the High North’s vulnerable environment. Seen through a geospatial lens, Arctic governance is thus already well-equipped to progress peacefully and in the spirit of a common Arctic space. National sovereignty and regional stewardship are not in any case contradictory policy patterns, but sometimes two sides of the same coin. 

On the downside, observers of Arctic affairs should be more anxious about third actors like China and the EU narrating the Arctic as a global commons to substantiate their claims for political and economic involvement in the region. As Anthony Speca [8] recently argued, well-meant NGO involvement like Greenpeace’s ‘save the Arctic’ mission could actually be impeding progress to the peaceful cooperation that is likely to dictate Arctic affairs in the near future.

Sebastian Knecht is currently a M.A. student at the University of Bath and Humboldt-Universität Berlin writing his master thesis on post-Cold War US-Russian relations in the Arctic. His main research interests include Arctic affairs, EU external relations as well as international climate and energy governance


[1] Stefansson, V., 1921. The Friendly Arctic: The Story of Five Years in Polar Regions. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.
[2] Ó Tuathail, G., 1996. Critical Geopolitics: The Politics of Writing Global Space. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
[3] Cf. Heininen, L., ed. The Borderless North: The Fourth Northern Research Forum. Oulu: University of Oulu and Akureyri: Northern Research Forum.
[4] Security Council of the Russian Federation, 2008. Guidelines of the Russian Federation’s State Policy in the Arctic Until 2020 and Beyond, 18 September 2008. The official document is only available in Russian: A reliable English translation can be found here:
[5] Gorbachev, M., 1987. Mikhail Gorbachev’s Speech in Murmansk at the Ceremonial Meeting on the Occasion of the Presentation of the Order of Lenin and the Gold Star to the City of Murmansk, Murmansk, 1 October 1987. Moscow: Novosti Press Agency. Available via:
[6] The White House, 2009. National Security Presidential Directive/NSDP – 66, 9 January 2009. Washington, D.C.: The White House, Office of the Press Secretary. Retrieved from:
[7] US Department of Defense, 2011. Report to Congress on Arctic Operations and the Northwest Passage, May 2011. Available online:
[8] Speca, A., 2012. Arctic Saviour Complex. Northern Public Affairs, 07 July 2012.