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Russian media downplays Arctic freeze

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led to a freeze in cooperation within the Arctic Council. NUPI researchers have taken a closer look at how the Russian media and analysts present the situation to domestic audiences.

THE ARCTIC IN RUSSIAN MEDIA: In a new research paper, NUPI researchers has studied the coverage of the Arctic in the official government newspaper Rossiiskaya gazeta, and expert analyses published by Russian International Affairs Council and the journal Russia in Global Affairs.

Foto: Willian Justen de Vasconcellos/Unsplash/Faksimile

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 set Russian-Western relations back to their worst point since the Cold War. This move also affected the Arctic, where Russia held the chairmanship of the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum comprising seven Western states as well as Russia itself. The Western states suspended the Council’s work, until Norway took over the chairmanship last year.

A crucial region for security

“We were curious to see if coverage of the Arctic had changed. One could imagine that coverage would have changed from portraying the Arctic as a region for cooperation, to a greater focus on conflict. Another expectation was that coverage to a larger degree would stress the so-called ‘pause’ in the Arctic Council’s work,” says Senior Research Fellow Natalia Moen-Larsen (NUPI).

Together with her colleague, Senior Research Fellow Kristian Lundby Gjerde, Moen-Larsen has written the research note Changing or frozen narratives? The Arctic in Russian media and expert commentary, 2021–2022. This looks at how the Arctic and the Arctic Council have been portrayed in Russia since the onset of the war.

“President Vladimir Putin has pointed to the Arctic as Russia’s most important region, and solving social-economic challenges has been a priority. Further, the region is important to the Russian economy. Russia shares the Arctic with several NATO member states, and we find both the Northern Fleet and Russia’s strategic nuclear arms there. Thus, the region is also very important in a security context,” says Moen-Larsen.

Distracted the newspaper readers

The NUPI researchers have taken a closer look at media coverage in the government-owned newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta, as well as expert analyses published by the Russian International Affairs Council and the journal Russia in Global Affairs.

“Most of the newspaper coverage was about internal Russian issues and not foreign policy. The paper portrayed the situation in the Arctic as ‘business as usual.’ To the degree that change was mentioned, this was tied to Western sanctions, and the coverage of these didn’t mention that the cause for sanctions was the war in Ukraine. In other words, newspaper readers were distracted from seeing a wider connection between changes in Russian-Western relations and the so-called ‘special operation’ in Ukraine,” explains Moen-Larsen.

Rossiyskaya Gazeta is an official media outlet for the Russian authorities.

“Consequently, government criticism isn’t high on the agenda for journalists at this paper. There are other newspapers in Russia which aren’t government-owned, where the room for criticism has been greater. After the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, however, strict censorship legislation has been implemented, limiting what Russian media can communicate,” Moen-Larsen adds.

Limited optimism for the future

Security was a more dominant topic in the expert analyses the researchers studied than it was in the newspaper.

“This has to do with the intended reader. Newspaper articles are targeted towards a relatively broad Russian audience, whilst expert analyses are targeted towards specialized environments consisting of political experts in Russia and abroad. Thus, the focus of the expert analyses is the Arctic as a field in international relations, and security is a key component of this field,” says Moen-Larsen.

She explains that Russia’s official stance is that they don’t see any challenges in the Arctic that require a military solution, but that they will react to increased NATO activity in the region.

“Now that the security situation in the Arctic is about to change due to Finnish and Swedish NATO membership, the potential for conflict in the region increases, as seen from Russia. When Sweden joins NATO, Russia will be the sole Arctic state that is not a NATO member.”

So what does cooperation with the West in the Arctic look like from Russia’s perspective now?

“There’s not much optimism for the future of Arctic cooperation with the West. Western states have been renamed ‘unfriendly countries,’ and sanctions are characterized as ‘unfriendly actions.’ The underlying assumption in both the newspaper and the expert community is that Russia is on its own and will succeed, and that Russia will cooperate with ‘friendly’ countries such as China and India when interests coincide,” concludes Moen-Larsen.

Relevant innhold
Research project
Research project
Arctic Pressures