BRICS and Indo-Russian Cooperation in the Arctic

Photo: Flectone

Russia assumed the BRICS Chairmanship on the first day of 2024, the 4th time in 16-year history of this multilateral forum. Russia will promote BRICS partnership in three key areas: politics and security, economy and finance, and cultural and humanitarian contacts. Russia’s priorities include promoting cooperation in science, high technology, healthcare, environmental protection, culture, sports, youth exchanges, and civil society.

Since the Arctic is of great geoeconomic and geopolitical importance for both Russia and India, the question arises, to what extent will Russia’s BRICS Chairmanship help these two countries in expanding cooperation between them in this region?

It should be noted that the idea of involving the BRICS countries in the exploration and development of the Arctic is far from new.

On 6 April 2023, Alexey Chekunov, the Russian Minister for Development of the Far East and Arctic stated that the State-owned Arktikugol (Arctic coal) Company will develop an international scientific station with BRICS counterparts, on the Svalbard Archipelago. A year earlier, the Russian government had ordered the ministry to undertake management of the company, which has been providing Russia's presence on Svalbard since 1931. Owning an area of 251 sq. km in Svalbard, the minister stated that the two Russian settlements in Svalbard had the potential to become an important international tourist, scientific and transport hub.

Subsequently, in December 2023, the Russian News Agency TASS reported about Arktikugol’s plans to organize an international scientific and educational center for the BRICS and SCO countries in the Russian Pyramiden settlement on the Svalbard Archipelago. Pyramiden, one of the two Russian settlements, and the largest on the Svalbard Archipelago, was abandoned in 1998 in favour of Barentsburg, primarily on account of shrinking coal production. Arktikugol’s CEO was quoted as saying that China, Brazil, India, Turkey and Thailand had expressed interest in the project. He also talked about plans to upgrade the port infrastructure at the Russian settlements for them to become transport hubs in that region".

Commencing with cooperation in scientific research, gradually, Russia wants to enhance the engagement with the BRICS and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) countries in the Arctic in the following areas:

  • Science and Education;
  • Environmental Protection and Combating Climate Change;
  • Development Of Arctic Resources;
  • Green Energy;
  • Support For Indigenous Peoples;
  • Transport And Logistics;
  • Sustainable Tourism.

Presently there are already existing platforms and mechanisms in the BRICS which can be used for undertaking BRICS cooperation in the Arctic without creating any additional structures. Some of these are:

  • Since 2015, BRICS environment ministers have been organizing meetings to discuss common goals, areas of cooperation, principles and initiatives in the field of sustainable development. A Working Group on Environment for identifying and discussing priority areas of cooperation, to facilitate the exchange of ESTs and their best practices has been established. Also, BRICS Environmentally Sound Technology (BEST) platform was launched with the aim to facilitate an exchange of ESTs and to achieve SDGs.
  • As part of the BEST platform, in 2016 Russia proposed to implement the umbrella program “BRICS Clean Rivers”.
  • BRICS Working Group on Ocean and Polar Science and Technology aims to promote cooperation between BRICS member countries in the field of ocean and polar science and enabling technologies through joint activities of government, universities, research institutions, and industry, as relevant, in order to generate new knowledge, train human capital, develop new technologies and applications, and improve public understanding of ocean and polar science. The first meeting of the Working Group was held in 2018.
  • Financing “green” projects is one of the priority areas of the BRICS operated New Development Bank (NDB) set up in 2015. To date, the NDB’s loan portfolio includes 90 projects amounting to more than USD 30 billion.
  • The Memorandum of cooperation and understanding in the field of science, technology and innovation aims to establish a strategic system for cooperation in the field of science, technology and innovation between the BRICS countries.
  • A Memorandum of Understanding on Environmental Cooperation was signed between the BRICS countries in 2018 to facilitate exchange of experiences, best practices and technical know-how through both public and private sectors in priority areas like Air Quality, Water, Biodiversity, Climate Change, Waste Management and SDGs.
  • The Moscow Declaration of the BRICS 2020 Summit, which, among other things, established the “Research and Innovation Network Platform of the BRICS Countries” in five areas of scientific and technical cooperation, with each country being responsible for one of the areas.
  • The BRICS Network University (BRICS NU) is a network of the BRICS member countries' higher education institutions. It is an educational project aimed at developing bilateral/multilateral short-term joint training, master's and PhD programs along with joint research projects in various knowledge fields.
  • The Science, Technology and Innovation Framework (BRICS STI FP), which aims to support research in priority areas to be addressed by a multinational approach. The initiative should facilitate cooperation among the researchers and institutions in the consortia which consist of partners from at least three of the BRICS countries.
  • BRICS Energy Research Cooperation Platform (BRICS ERCP) found a mention in the Xiamen Declaration of 2017 and was agreed upon and acknowledged in the Johannesburg Summit Declaration in 2018. Meetings of BRICS ERCP commenced in 2019 and presently it is a global platform for promoting energy based sustainable development. The platform also aims at creating synergies in BRICS energy co-operation across various platforms - Academic Forum, BRICS Science, Technology and Innovative Initiative, Program of Economic Co-operation and New Development Bank.
  • As part of its BRICS Chair ship priority, Russia is also looking to prioritize accelerated development of the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC), which will connect Russian ports in the northern seas and the Baltic Sea with sea terminals in the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean and in the future, will be able to facilitate annual transit of up to 30 million tons of cargo. Towards this, Russia is seeking to establish a permanent BRICS transport commission, which would deal not only with the INSTC, but also on a broader scale with the development of interregional and global logistics and transport corridors.

Policy Recommendations

Considering the exponentially increasing multi spectrum Sino-Russian cooperation including in the Arctic, it is imperative for India, not only to enhance its bilateral cooperation with Russia on the Arctic, but also to whole heartedly support the Russian proposal of enhanced BRICS+ engagement in the region.

Not only would this provide Russia an alternative to the “coercive” Chinese embrace, it would also permit Indian scientists access to the Russian scientific laboratories, equipment and data.

It would also open the Russian Arctic to Indian industries engaged in telecommunications, mining, oil and gas sector, coal, diamond, timber, healthcare, remote diagnostics, ports infrastructure, to name a few.

Enhanced Indian engagement would also result in diluting the A7 (seven Western Arctic States) monopoly in the Arctic affairs and help to overcome several inequities in the Artic Council, applicable to an Observer State such as India.

It is strongly recommended that India set up a separate Working Group under the India-Russia Inter-Government Commission on enhancing bilateral cooperation with Russia in the Arctic. Such a mechanism was set up between Russia and China in 2017.

It is also recommended that India and Russia take up coordinated positions on Arctic within the BRICS, to prevent getting blindsided at the last minute by jointly coordinated Russian and Chinese proposals. Already, there appears to be some movement on this. During a recent telephone conversation between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi, they agreed to develop a roadmap for further evolution of bilateral cooperation. They also had a useful exchange of views on various regional and global issues, including Russia’s Presidency of the BRICS".

It appears that Moscow is keen to engage with New Delhi on the Arctic. In the recent press conference of India’s External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar at Moscow he spoke about discussions with the Russian counterparts about connectivity - connectivity from western India through the INSTC. Also, connectivity from eastern India, from Chennai to Vladivostok and the Northern Sea Route. He discussed with the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov various related areas where India's polar capabilities could be enhanced in collaboration with Russia.

Photo: Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and India’s External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar

Anurag Bisen

Senior Research Fellow

Vivekananda International Foundation

New Delhi, India