It’s Russia’s (Maritime) World – We’re Just Living in It

Oceanic link: the Russian and Chinese navies have conducted an increasing number of joint exercises in the Pacific. Image: Xu Wei / Alamy

In Russia’s recently updated Foreign Policy Concept, the concept of the ‘World Ocean’ takes centre-stage as a tool for achieving Moscow’s objectives.

As if Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 was not clear enough, Russia has signalled a new era of foreign policy with its 2023 Foreign Policy Concept (FPC23). This document replaces the 2016 Foreign Policy Concept (FPC16). FPC23 is indeed a clear departure from a future history in which Russia and the West had sought to coexist and perhaps even collaborate in areas of mutual interest.

An evident ‘civilisational’ thread appears in the Concept, referring to the notion that Russia has a special responsibility for the establishment of a multipolar world order, which it plans to achieve via a concerted ‘civilizational approach’ to rewrite the international system. Of interest is the primacy of the maritime domain for realising a multipolar world order, and the role envisioned by Moscow of the World Ocean in linking new ‘poles’ or centres of global development and power.

The significance of the World Ocean is evident in the emergence of an entirely new section in Russia’s Foreign Policy Concept. ‘The World Ocean, outer space and airspace’ section captures elements of existing FPC16 plans and priorities for Moscow. However, the concept of the World Ocean and the term’s rise to primacy in FPC23 is an important development in Russian strategic planning.

So too is the language used when it comes to Russia’s ‘sovereign rights’ in the maritime sphere. FPC16 framed an intent to consolidate the ‘external borders of the continental shelf of the Russian Federation’ in accordance with international law to ‘create more opportunities for the exploration and extraction of minerals’. FPC23, meanwhile, takes a more offensive line when it comes to efforts to consolidate the external borders of its continental shelf – stating that efforts are now carried out in ‘accordance with international law and protecting its sovereign rights’.

In line with the FPC23’s focus on the World Ocean, the Arctic features as an enduring priority for Moscow. It would appear that international cooperation efforts have been downgraded, with Russia previously approaching the region through a ‘policy aimed at preserving peace, stability and constructive international cooperation’ (FPC16). The spill-over effects of Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine reached the Arctic in March 2022 when permanent members of the region’s sole governance forum – the Arctic Council – paused engagement for the duration of Russia’s Arctic Council chairmanship.

Since the chairmanship rotated to Norway in May 2023, council activities have resumed without Russia. The capacity of a regional circumpolar governance forum to adequately respond to challenges is no doubt undercut or at least complicated greatly by the absence of a party – Russia – which accounts for over 50% of the Arctic Circle. It would appear Moscow is unfazed by remaining ‘out in the cold’ over Arctic affairs, with FPC23 doing away completely with references to the Arctic Council.

This body once held a place in Russian foreign policy, as illustrated by FPC16 stating that ‘Russia considers that the Arctic States bear special responsibility for the sustainable development of the region, and in this connection advocates enhanced cooperation in the Arctic Council’. FPC23 maintains ‘the premise of the special responsibility of the Arctic states for the sustainable development of the region’, but does away with any overtures of cooperation in this regard – instead stating ‘the sufficiency of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea…for regulating interstate relations in the Arctic Ocean’.

The pace of joint Sino-Russian military exercises has increased since 2016, particularly within the naval realm

A similar thread follows in Russia’s departure from the FPC16 notion that the Arctic was at risk of the politicisation of ‘international cooperation in the region’. FPC23 underscores Moscow’s intent to ‘counteract the unfriendly states’ policy aimed at militarization of the region’. Of interest is the pivot away from Russia’s traditional approach of looking towards its neighbours within the Arctic Five (the five states with Arctic Ocean coasts) for partners in Arctic affairs. FPC23 lays out the new plan for Moscow – working with ‘states pursuing a constructive policy toward Russia’.

New to Russia’s Foreign Policy Concept is a feature section on Antarctica. The Southern (World) Ocean and Antarctica once sat in bullet point form under regional foreign policy priorities. FPC16 stated that the ‘Russian Federation will continue its efforts to preserve and expand its presence in Antarctica, including through the effective use of mechanisms and procedures envisaged in the Antarctic Treaty’. On closer inspection, the featuring of Antarctica as a stand-alone foreign policy sphere and the divergent wording of Moscow’s policy at the South Pole is rather curious. FPC23 injects the concept of ‘progressive development of the Antarctic Treaty System’ into the discourse. Noting that the system turns on consensus, and that two Treaty consultative parties are currently still at war with one another (Ukraine and Russia), any hope of ‘developing’ the system seems rather out of reach.

Elsewhere on the World Ocean, Moscow appears set on sailing not with the West, but with the rest. India and China are listed as ‘friendly sovereign global centres of power’ in FPC23. The ink afforded to Beijing in FPC23 is notable. In FPC16 there was a simple reference to seeking a ‘comprehensive, equal, and trust-based partnership and strategic cooperation with the People’s Republic of China’. Such intent is doubled-down on in FPC23, with the inference that ‘equality’ between the two states has now been achieved and that Moscow is prioritising ‘the development of a mutually beneficial cooperation’.

Of course, the pace of joint Sino-Russian military exercises has increased since FPC16, particularly within the naval realm. FPC23 tables a new ‘provision of mutual assistance, and enhancement of coordination in the international area to ensure security, stability’ between China and Russia. This provision was most recently demonstrated by the August 2023 joint naval drills held in the ‘World Ocean’ – in this case in international waters off the coast of Alaska, near the Bering Strait and Aleutian Islands.

The economic promise of the World Ocean is further touted by FPC23 via the first ever mention in a Russian strategic planning document of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. India receives an upgrade from FPC16, where it was dubbed a ‘special privileged’ partner, to a ‘particularly privileged strategic’ partner in FPC23. Both India and China appear central to Russia’s new vision for Eurasia – the link between Moscow’s maritime interests spanning the Indian Ocean and the Pacific and Arctic Oceans. FPC23 promotes the ‘rapid launch of the International North-South Transport Corridor’, the ‘improvement of infrastructure of the Western Europe–Western China International Transit Corridor’, ‘the Caspian and the Black Sea regions, and the Northern Sea Route’.

Moscow has long viewed the ‘Indo-Pacific’ as a political term, opting for the ‘Asia-Pacific’ instead when referring to the geographical zone of Asia. Therefore, it is curious that FPC23 makes reference to the ‘Asia-Pacific’ only three times, down from 16 instances in FPC16. FPC16 highlighted Russian efforts to strengthen ‘its positions in the Asia-Pacific Region’ given that Asia was ‘a foreign policy area of strategic importance’. FPC23 instead frames the strategic importance of the Asia-Pacific to Moscow in terms of simple support for ‘ASEAN principles and support for member states’.

Russia appears to have shifted its strategic approach to the Asia-Pacific, moving away from a visible or physical role in the zone and instead investing in longer-term policies of developing ‘broad international cooperation to counter politics aimed at drawing dividing lines in the region’ (FPC23). This can be read as a pointed reference to groupings such as QUAD and AUKUS.

The new Foreign Policy Concept confirms that Russia is firmly set on its course of abandoning any ideals of cooperation with the West

Perhaps one of the more overlooked elements of the Indo-Pacific narrative is Africa. The west coast of the Indian Ocean is often an afterthought, with the South China Sea and Taiwan largely shaping international security discourse when it comes to the Indo-Pacific (or Asia-Pacific, depending on your politics). So it is of interest that FPC23 singles out Africa and lays blame for developmental challenges at the feet of ‘sophisticated neo-colonial politics of some developed states’. This is certainly a stark departure from the FPC16 blanket policy of blaming ‘globalisation’ for Africa’s position today.

Europe and the EU don’t emerge unscathed from FPC23, either. Debate over Russia’s ‘pivot’ east, towards Asia, appears somewhat moot with Moscow’s blunted ambition in FPC23 to merely seek a ‘new model of coexistence’ with Europe. FPC16 at least had aspirations of ‘maintaining intensive and mutually beneficial dialogue with the EU on key items of the foreign policy agenda, as well as further promoting practical cooperation on…military and political issues’. FPC23’s vision of coexistence has ‘prerequisites’ including ‘geographical proximity, historically developed deep cultural, humanitarian and economic ties to the peoples and states of the European part of Eurasia’.

Spare a thought for Australia: while FPC16 committed to ‘continue developing its relations…on issues of mutual interest’, it has been ignored entirely in FPC23. The chills of the Cold War era return when it comes to FPC23’s framing of Russia-US relations. FPC16 noted that the ‘Russian Federation is interested in building mutually beneficial relations…taking into consideration that the two states bear special responsibility for global strategic stability and international security’. FPC23 nixes efforts to build relations, and underscores Moscow’s interest solely in ‘maintaining strategic parity, peaceful coexistence…and the establishment of a balance of interests’.

FPC23 confirms that Russia is firmly set on its course of abandoning any ideals of cooperation with the West. Ukraine has served in many ways as the precursor for a complete divorce (or decoupling) from the West – economically, socially and politically. This is where the concept of the World Ocean seems to have become so critical to Moscow. FPC23 notes a strategic interest in ‘studying, exploring and using the World Ocean’ with a view to ‘ensuring the security and development of Russia’.

For Moscow, the World Ocean is central to delivering on a litany of strategic interests. The World Ocean appears to be seen as a tool for Russia to utilise, given the potential inherent in the emergence of new global transit and trade infrastructure. It therefore seems logical that Moscow appears to be ‘leaning into’ China’s Belt and Road Initiative. What FPC23’s ambitions actually amount to is, of course, another question altogether. For now, at least, it is clear that a not insignificant amount of Russian foreign policy is set to be executed from and through the World Ocean.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Elizabeth Buchanan

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