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Russia set to stage charm offensive in Arkhangelsk

A big Arctic conference this week may help Russia thaw icy relationships
with its European neighbours, says George Soroka in an interview with our
partners at Arctic Deeply.

By: /
28 March, 2017
A woman stands on an embankment during celebrations on the 75th anniversary of the arrival of the first allied Arctic Convoy at the northern port of the Soviet Union during WW2, in Arkhangelsk, Russia, August 30, 2016. REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev
By: John Thompson

Managing editor, Arctic Deeply

Russia is about to convene a major conference on the Arctic this week in Arkhangelsk, a historic port city that sits on the White Sea near the Arctic Circle. Beyond panel discussions on topics like the challenges of scientific research, economic development and environmental protection in the Arctic region, the International Arctic Forum, being held on Wednesday and Thursday, may serve as a means for Russia to help thaw the country’s icy relationships with its European neighbours.

Similar Arctic forums were staged for several years up until 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, sending relations between it and Europe into a deep freeze. The country has since found itself pummeled by economic sanctions while its leaders received the silent treatment from their European counterparts. The Arkhangelsk event will provide an opportunity to start to repair these relationships.

As the Barents Observer reports, among more than 1,500 attendees expected at the event will be the biggest delegation of high-ranking Nordic officials to visit Russia in recent memory. Among them will be Iceland’s president, Guðni Jóhannesson, as well as Finland’s president, Sauli Niinistö. Also in attendance will be the foreign ministers of Norway and Denmark, Børge Brende and Anders Samuelsen respectively. Both countries froze high-level political talks with Russia following the Crimean fallout, and this will be the first time since that time that their foreign ministers will visit Russia.

China is also expected to send a sizeable contingent, including Vice Premier Wang Yang. The country is helping to underwrite some of Russia’s more ambitious Arctic infrastructure projects, including a big liquefied natural gas plant in Yamal. China is also helping to build a new deep-water port near Arkhangelsk, as well as a railroad that would link the port to the mineral-rich Komi Republic.

For some perspective on what Russia may hope to accomplish from this event, we asked George Soroka, a lecturer at Harvard University and author of “The Political Economy of Russia’s Reimagined Arctic,” to share his thoughts by email.

What do you think Russia hopes to get out of this conference? What goals are trying to be advanced?

Aside from the obvious goals Russia has articulated for a conference billed as providing an important forum for discussing pan-Arctic issues (e.g., fostering environmentally conscious development, promoting good relations with neighbouring states, and dealing with the socioeconomic challenges facing the Arctic’s inhabitants), there are also implicit benefits Russia hopes to accrue from hosting such an event.

Foremost among these: Russia wants to begin normalizing relations with the West, and sees the Arkhangelsk conference as a step in that direction (recall the formal name of this event is “The Arctic – Territory of Dialogue”). Note that the fourth iteration of this forum is being held only in 2017 (the previous ones were in 2010, 2011 and 2013); this suggests that Moscow believes the potency of the geopolitical fallout from the Ukrainian crisis and its 2014 annexation of Crimea has significantly dropped over the course of the last several years. And make no mistake about it — while representatives from various Asian states will be present, the conference’s primary international audience is decidedly European.

Russia has made some headway on this front. For instance, while Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov did not attend (despite being invited) this year’s Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromso, Norway, reports are that Norwegian foreign minister Borge Brende will attend the Arkhangelsk gathering. (According to the Russian media, representatives from 14 states are expected, including the leaders of Finland and Iceland.)

So there is most definitely a component of status attached to this event, as Russia seeks to move beyond being an international pariah. The choice of this year’s theme, “people of the Arctic,” is indicative of this in both its innocuousness and implicit focus on human rights. But bettering relations with the West also has the very real potential of benefiting Russia materially. Specifically, the Kremlin has proposed a slew of ambitious Arctic projects in recent years, but in order to be realized, many of them will almost certainly need infusions of Western cash and technology.

Therefore, this event allows Moscow to officially reiterate its long-standing rhetoric of peaceful coexistence in the Arctic, while also seeking to accrue symbolic and economic benefits from hosting it. In this respect, the choice of venue is interesting. Arkhangelsk is almost — but not quite — an Arctic city, being situated just below the Arctic Circle. But unlike Murmansk, which is a true Arctic city roughly the same size as Arkhangelsk, the latter is not as closely associated in peoples’ minds with the Northern Fleet and Russia’s military complex, making for better optics.

What is the message that you think the conference will send to its domestic audience?

I don’t really see much awareness of this event outside the Arkhangelsk region, where the conference is being heavily reported on. I ran a quick search of the EastView database of Russian central newspapers (some 74 periodicals) from Jan. 1, 2017, to March 20, 2017, and found relatively few mentions of the upcoming forum in the national-level press. While this was not a scientific sampling and did not include radio or TV reporting (the way the vast majority of Russians get their news), it is still indicative.

However, to the limited extent to which the Arkhangelsk conference does resonate within Russia as a whole, the international stature of the event allows the Kremlin to demonstrate that not only is Russia being taken seriously on the international stage (after all, a lot of foreigners are taking the trouble to be present at a conference being held in what is, in reality, a relatively small provincial city), but that it can also pull off hosting a major international event (whether it will be able to do so in the high style being advertised remains to be seen).

Particularly at the local and regional levels, there is also a palpable “feel-good” aspect to the conference, with the media in and around Arkhangelsk reporting on stories featuring local handicrafts, stressing the history and culture of the city and surrounding region, and showcasing how foreigners will be entertained while there. Meanwhile, politicians and business leaders are promoting myriad ways in which this event will improve life in Arkhangelsk and the Russian Arctic more generally, though they are characteristically short on details when it comes to explaining how exactly this will be accomplished. One concrete example, however, concerns the newly unveiled plan to build a permanent exposition center in Arkhangelsk by 2019, when the forum (now anticipated to be held there on a biennial basis) will meet for the next time.

What is Russia’s message for its international audience?

In terms of wider audiences, Russia is engaging in somewhat passive-aggressive international behaviour: It wants Europe and the U.S. to acknowledge it as a major power and a normal (e.g., non-sanctioned) member of the Arctic club, which is why successfully hosting this event is very important to it, but it also can’t quite get over the impulse to thumb its nose at the West, as if to say, “see — we really can go it alone on some very challenging Arctic projects.” Illustrative of this, Russian deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin stated in a recent press release that “as part of this event, we plan to demonstrate Russia’s significant achievements in developing the Arctic despite the current political situation and the international pressure on Russia.”

This piece originally appeared on Arctic Deeply.

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