Will China collaborate with Russia in the Arctic?

Moscow is sending clear signals that its war in Ukraine has not shifted its attention from other strategic priorities and is seeking Beijing’s help

Russian President Vladimir Putin watches a naval exercise from the Marshal Ustinov missile cruiser in the Black Sea on January 09, 2020.
Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin watches a naval exercise from the Marshal Ustinov missile cruiser in the Black Sea on January 09, 2020.

Will China collaborate with Russia in the Arctic?

Against the backdrop of protracted hostilities in Ukraine, the Kremlin is trying to show that its failure to secure a quick win over Kyiv will not stop Russia from projecting its power, both on its borders and in the expanses of the world’s oceans.

Russian propaganda is trying to portray Xi Jinping's current visit to Moscow as another step in the creation of an alliance capable of challenging “Western hegemony”.

Russians enthusiastically followed the visit searching the internet to see where the Chinese president will land.

Russian officials tried their best to stir up interest in the visit, where possible discussions on Chinese mediation in the Ukraine war, as well as technical military cooperation, could have taken place.

On his part, Alexei Chekunkov, head of the Ministry for the Development of the Russian Far East and Arctic, said that Russia sees China as a potential partner in the development of the Northern Sea Route (NSR) infrastructure and international transit.

This statement is interesting because, against the backdrop of the ongoing war in Ukraine, it coincides with the efforts of Russian special services to tighten the rules for the passage of Nato military vessels along the shipping lane and to strengthen intelligence and air control in the Arctic region.

Increased propaganda fervour

The Russian ultimatum to Nato, which preceded its invasion of Ukraine, was a turning point in relations with Western countries. In Moscow’s view, continuing with the status quo was no longer possible, and the current state of conflict now represents the new normal.

The Russian ultimatum to Nato (in the Arctic), which preceded its invasion of Ukraine, was a turning point in relations with Western countries. In Moscow's view, continuing with the status quo was no longer possible, and the current state of conflict now represents the new normal.

It remains unclear how determined Moscow is in its quest for change, and how much time and money it is willing to invest to achieve its aims, especially when it depends on tactical allies whose loyalty is often questionable.

Despite rumours in the international press that Russia is running out of resources to sustain its war efforts, Moscow continues putting on front to demonstrate its stability.

Since its invasion of Ukraine, it has continued to host costly economic and military events such as the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, the Eastern Economic Forum, the Army-2022 international military-technical forum, the International Army Games 2022 and the Vostok-2022 large-scale strategic exercise.

Meanwhile, at least nine joint military exercises are planned in 2023, involving units of Laos, Pakistan, Algeria, Mongolia, Vietnam, China and Armenia.

On the diplomatic front, Moscow is also sending clear signals that the events in Ukraine have not shifted its attention from other strategic priorities. Overseas visits by officials continue, and returning diplomats, expelled en masse from embassies in Western countries, are ready to tackle other priorities.

Such manoeuvres by the Kremlin, so far, have been predictable and frankly naïve. Therefore, they have often had little success. However, this has not stopped Kremlin conservatives from spouting rhetoric on the absence of an alternative to the current course.

What is worse is that this propaganda is being indiscriminately peddled by Russian officials at local, regional and even international forums. Gone are the days when Russian officials could hold substantive and serious negotiations with 'friendly' counterparts in a diplomatic manner.

Grand objectives

Moscow's objectives are grand. Using the terminology of Alexei Drobinin — head of the Russian Foreign Policy Planning Department responsible for developing the new Russian foreign policy doctrine — Moscow wants to promote de-globalisation and create new centres of economic power and political influence by democratising the UN Security Council through representation of African, Asian, and Latin American countries.

"Conflict is the norm for a country with such geography and interests as Russia," Drobinin pointed out in a recent article, which experts are regarding as a test case for the current state of order still materialising after Russian President Vladimir Putin's January 2022 decree.

The key Russian document that was published during Europe's largest conflict since the World War II was the Maritime Doctrine. Signed by Putin in late July 2022, it identified American dominance in the world's oceans as a threat to Russia's national security and reinforced the Kremlin's policy of expanding its military presence in different regions.

The previous version of the doctrine was approved in July 2015 — after the Russian annexation of Crimea, but before the start of its official military campaign in Syria — so it did not reflect the significant changes in international order. 

Analysis of such strategic documents is important. Despite the specifics of Putin's power verticals, the cornerstones of Russia's foreign policy take time to develop and adapt to changing circumstances, so doctrinal documents like these clearly demonstrate the evolution of Putin's own views.

Changing priorities

While the 2001 and 2015 editions of the Maritime Doctrine reflected a desire to establish relations with Western maritime powers, the current version clearly defines Russia's priorities as a maritime power.

For example, the new version of the doctrine adds new areas vital to Russia's national interests in the world's oceans. In addition to territorial waters, the development of the Arctic zone and the Northern Sea Route were included on the list of key areas.

Moscow has also changed the rankings of its regional priorities. The Atlantic area, including the Baltic and Black Seas, as well as the eastern Mediterranean, have been pushed back to third place on the list, which is now topped by the Arctic and Pacific Ocean.

Getty Images
Soldiers of the Russian Navy stand on the nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine Project 955A Borei-A 'Knyaz Vladimirt' as they take part in the Navy Day parade, celebrating the 325th anniversary of the Russian Navy.

Moscow plans to establish logistical support points for inter-fleet crossings of the Russian navy in the Asia-Pacific region, as well as in the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. Interestingly, the previous version of the doctrine emphasised the importance of developing friendly relations with China, while the new one does not.

Instead, it calls for the "development of strategic partnership and naval cooperation with the Republic of India, as well as expansion of cooperation with the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Republic of Iraq, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and other states of the region."

Interestingly, the previous version of the doctrine emphasised the importance of developing friendly relations with China, while the new one does not. Instead, it calls for the development of strategic partnerships with India, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and other regional states.

Although the doctrine is an expression of political will, outlining its intentions for the coming decade, it is important to distinguish between Russia's rhetoric and its actual naval power. Observers should not worry about what Russia says it will do, until they see it actually being implemented.

Mounting obstacles

First, the realisation of the Kremlin's global ambitions is hindered by the decentralisation of its decision-making process. Virtually all of its fleets, with the exception of the Northern Fleet, are under the joint command of the land military districts and the Navy Command, whose orders often contradict each other. 

Second, the Russian navy has been chronically underfunded and has a tangible shortage of modern technology in recent years. Russian authorities seem to be in the process of updating its long-standing shipbuilding programme approved in 2014, but its implementation will be gradual, at best, given the heavy losses in ground-based military equipment since the start of the war in Ukraine in February 2022.

In fact, some ships have not been completed and many have not yet even begun construction. Retired First Rank Captain Vladimir Gundarov correctly points out that only four of the eight Bore nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines and just one of the eight Project 885 Yasen multi-purpose nuclear submarines have been built.

Only the plan to build small-size missile ships was fulfilled, and two Project 23900 all-purpose landing ships were unexpectedly quickly laid down in Kerch, as sanctions caused a reduction in port and maritime activities in Crimea.

While Russia's first new naval doctrine in the 30 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union intends to build modern aircraft-carrying warships, it is unlikely that this will be realised in practice.

The main problem is not with the construction of a ship of this class, but with the obsolete family of deck aircraft and a shortage of aircraft carrier escort ships.

This was seen with the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft-carrying cruiser, known for its poor combat performance in Syria, after which it was docked with no real prospects of returning to service. It could only be escorted at sea by one or two ships.

Overall, at least 30 new ships are required to cover just one aircraft carrier without affecting the other Russian fleets.

Getty Images
Russian Navyâs lone aircraft carrier, the Admiral Flota Sovetskogo Soyuza Kuznetsov, is towed to the 35th squadron shipyard for maintenance and repair works in Murmansk, Russia on May 20, 2022.

This is because some of them will be undergoing repairs between missions, upgrades or combat training, and only a quarter of this number can be included in the patrol ship squadron. Therefore, there is serious doubt over Russia's ability to deploy its navies in these regions.

Naval base attempts 

While there were active talks with Vietnam about the creation of a small facility in Cam Ranh, where the largest Soviet naval base was once located, predictably they did not result in any formal agreements. In Soviet times, Vietnam signed a corresponding treaty with the Soviet Union designed to contain China. Now, it is impossible to imagine that the Kremlin would be ready for such an exchange, publicly opposing its main ally in the informal anti-American coalition.

In the case of Sudan, a planned Russian naval base was halted when it was already in the process of transferring military supplies after the country's new military authorities asked the Russians for economic guarantees, which neither the mercenaries of Wagner PMC, nor Moscow could give.

And in Venezuela, the Kremlin's friendship with President Nicolas Maduro has not led to the creation of a base there, despite its strategic location near the United States mainland. The rather peculiar relationship was limited to the expansion of airfield infrastructure for the rare and ostentatious deployment of Russian strategic bombers to the South American country.

Despite Moscow's rhetoric about the prospect of US dominance in the world's oceans, this threat is hardly imminent. As Russian military analyst Ilya Kramnik points out, given the combat duty schedule of US navy warships, Russia ranked last in US military planning before the war in Ukraine.

In the Atlantic Ocean, the US navy mainly performs training and organisational tasks to practice cooperation before missions, while in the Pacific Ocean, where its mission is to ward off Chinese military threats, the Russian navy is only nominally present.

It was not until June 2021 that Russian admirals were able to conduct the first, more or less, serious exercises in the central Pacific, although smaller ships were mostly used.

Prioritising the Arctic

In the past, whenever Russia has shown an active interest in the Arctic, it was followed by elections or a domestic clampdown. This causal link has been observed over several decades.

The Northern Sea Route has the potential to become an alternative to traditional waterways that connect different continents, including the Suez Canal. This could be one of the reasons why the Kremlin has made the NSR a priority.

Read more: The Suez Canal: A lifeline to Egypt and crucial gateway for global trade

To this end, Russia has seriously strengthened its military presence in the Arctic by building up its air force and air defence facilities, restoring airfields and abandoned military camps after the collapse of the Soviet Union and relocating the Rubezh mobile anti-ship missile systems to places such as the strategically significant Kotelny Island.

However, the possibility of this actually happening is improbable. Navigation along the NSR is possible for only two to four months per year due to the frigid climate. Existing icebreakers are either not able to pass the Arctic ice in the winter or are not able to do it fast enough. 

Navigation along the NSR is possible for only two to four months per year due to the frigid climate. Existing icebreakers are either not able to pass the Arctic ice in the winter or are not able to do it fast enough. 

As a result, this slows down the time it takes to transport goods which negates the economic case for using this corridor.

Russian military presence, despite the media hype, is concentrated only in the western part of the Arctic, actually on the Kola Peninsula, except for a small grouping on the Novosibirsk islands. Having said that, its military presence in the Arctic is far greater than all other countries present there, combined. On its part, the US has no serious contingents in the Arctic.

Having a well-developed airfield network, Russia can quickly reinforce its ground presence, but it is difficult to imagine battles involving armoured vehicles in this icy region. In fact, there are no US navy surface ships in Alaska, and only a few Coast Guard ships and boats are stationed there.

This region is important for US navy nuclear-powered submarines because, with only using the shortest-trajectory ballistic missiles, it can hit important targets in Russian territory from positions in the northeastern Barents Sea. However, nuclear deterrence measures are still outside conventional competition for Arctic resources in the context of global warming and melting ice.

Potential economic activity in the Arctic is unlikely to materialise, even if the ice continues to melt. After all, the problem of extracting sub sea oil and gas where there is ice cover, however temporary, has never been solved by anyone. Even if serious ice melting is allowed, it is still difficult and costly to extract hydrocarbons in such conditions.

Internationalising the NSR

In this regard, the only potential threat to Moscow in the Arctic is America's declared intention to internationalise the Northern Sea Route and the Northwest Passage. Washington has an informal ally here in Beijing, which also advocates the principle of freedom of navigation in the region.

Hypothetically, this will make it possible to reduce the cost of transportation via this route, especially since, after the start of the war in Ukraine and the sanctions imposed, China refrained from applications to sail along the NSR under the supervision of Russia.

It is unlikely, however, that this threat to Moscow is really serious.

Canada, the closest US ally, also opposes the internationalisation of the Northwest Passage. Unresolved problems of navigation in melting ice entail the need to escort merchant ships with warships along the entire route through the Arctic, which again multiplies the cost of transportation.

As for China, of course, Beijing understands that real support for US Freedom of Navigation Operation in the Arctic will be seen as discrediting its own claims to other maritime areas, including in the South China Sea.

Nevertheless, isolated incidents with the aim of testing opponents can increase the potential for conflict in the Arctic region. In June 2022, Russia's Ministry of Defence amended procedures for the passage of foreign navies through the NSR. 

It came in response to a provocation from an unlikely source — France — when it deployed its navy in Arctic waters in 2018 for the first time with its Rona logistics ship. The incident, which dominated Russian headlines at the time, caused a big splash in what could become deeply troubled geopolitical waters.

-Anton Mardasov is a Non-Resident Scholar, Researcher at Middle East Institute

font change

Related Articles