MILAN – Russia will kick-off multilateral drills across its Arctic territory this week, drawing in participants from nine non-Arctic nations to test Russian-made equipment, after regional cooperation halted with the West.

On April 6-7, the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations will host the Safe Arctic 2023 exercises across nine regions of the country’s Arctic zone, it said in a statement. Participants include representatives from nine unnamed African, Latin American and Eurasian countries, it said. The exercises will demonstrate rescue methods as well as vehicles, aircraft and other types of equipment produced by Russian manufacturers.

In the run-up to the drills, Moscow has also been carrying out a 12-day Arctic research expedition to conduct additional tests of Russian gear designed to ensure regional safety.

While the nature of these events is not necessarily military, they do point to a larger trend in Russia’s Arctic defense strategy: an increased interest in non-Arctic partnerships to help it secure regional interests. This was underlined in a revised strategic planning document published by the Kremlin, which highlighted a greater openness towards international collaborations. In the past, Moscow arguably exercised a larger degree of caution when involving nations not bordered by Arctic zones in regional projects.

Russian activities in the Arctic are more threatened today than they were a few years ago. With Finland officially joining NATO, and Sweden set to follow, Russia risks becoming even more isolated than it is currently, as it would be the only Arctic state that is not a member of the alliance. This implies a considerable expansion of NATO’s borders with Russia and further military cooperation between the allies, who recently concluded the month-long Arctic Forge exercise involving troops from 16 NATO member-states.

These developments are bound to be unwelcomed by Moscow, which since March 2022 has been shunned from taking part in Arctic Council working groups. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Arctic 7– Canada, the U.S., Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland – had made the temporary decision to pause the Council’s work, only to issue a statement months later that projects would resume but without Russian participation.

The Safe Arctic exercises will be held as part of the events of Russia’s chairmanship of the AC in 2021-2023, which all other members have chosen to boycott. Since ties have been frozen, there has been a large debate among experts regarding whether Arctic cooperation can be restored.

In a survey carried out by Chatham House in December 2022, 56 percent of respondents, consisting of stakeholders and experts working on Arctic affairs, wanted AC member nations to re-establish cooperation with Russia. Skeptics said re-connecting with Moscow could symbolize a diplomatic win for the country and validate its hostile behavior.

Russia is increasingly looking to engage with other partners, including ones that the West sees as strategic competitors. A report by the Arctic Institute published last month, finds that the Kremlin is actively encouraging Chinese, Indian and Middle Eastern companies to invest in Arctic initiatives that formerly involved Western firms.

“After Western companies withdrew from the Russian Arctic due to sanctions, Russia’s Novatek is now looking to the Emirati firm Green Energy Solutions to receive important technology to construct liquefied natural gas projects and to the Turkish company Karpowership for a floating power plant,” the article states.

The Russian Federation is also exploring with India the possibility of creating a trans-Arctic container shipping road along the Northern Sea Route as an alternative route to transport cargo from New Delhi to Europe. If secured, this would prove to be a considerable development between South Asia and the Arctic.

Elisabeth Gosselin-Malo is a Europe correspondent for Defense News. She covers a wide range of topics related to military procurement and international security, and specializes in reporting on the aviation sector. She is based in Milan, Italy.

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