Russia significantly steps up Arctic engagement with new strategy

Icebreaker in Arctic waters. [Shutterstock]

Thirteen years after a Russian-led polar expedition planted the country’s flag on the Arctic Ocean sea bed directly under the North Pole, Moscow published its 15-year Arctic masterplan on Thursday (5 March), confirming its growing appetite for the polar region.

The Kremlin decree “On the Basics of State Policy of the Russian Federation in the Arctic for the Period Until 2035”, signed by President Vladimir Putin, set out its policy plans paving the way for massive industrialization of the energy-rich region.

Authored by the Ministry of the Far East and Arctic, the strategy stresses the development of the Northern Sea Route as “a globally competitive Russian national transport communications”, de facto preparing the ground for a major natural resource exploitation.

In recent time, the Arctic’s Northern Sea Route has seen explosive growth in traffic as the sea corridor between China and Europe cuts the travel by 40% compared to sailing via the Suez Canal.

Arctic nations are building new, more powerful icebreakers able to open year-round shipping lanes.

Moscow approved a number of decrees on 30 January which were the economic foundation for newly introduced Russian Arctic strategy. They divided the tasks of developing the Northern Sea Route, Russia’s remote Arctic sea artery, among the country’s state oil and gas monopolies.

By 2035, Russia intends to build at least 40 Arctic vessels, upgrade four regional airports, construct railways and seaports and facilitate massive exploitation of Arctic natural resources.

Before his resignation, Russia’s now-former prime minister Dmitry Medvedev signed a resolution allocating €1.85 billion for building a nuclear-powered icebreaker, bigger and more powerful than anything that has previously sailed in Arctic waters.

Cruising the ice along the Northern Sea Route, the icebreakers will escort commercial ships, including the largest LNG tankers sailing east from the Yamal region towards the Pacific.

The new strategy document also outlines plans for an underwater fiber-optic communication cable along the Northern Sea Route.

According to the Bellona Foundation, an international environmental NGO based in Oslo, Norway, cargo shipments passing through the Northern Sea Route topped 30 million tons during the past year, marking a major uptick in fossil fuel deliveries from one of the world’s most vulnerable environments.

The emphasis of the hoped-for increase in shipping, however, comes after warnings from Russia’s own ministries that the heavy industrialisation plans for the region could worsen the impact of climate change.

The new 15-year strategy also aims to “prevent infrastructure damage from global climate change” which occurs more rapidly in northern latitudes due to melting permafrost, flooding and forest fires.

A primary part of the strategy is a mandate to drill for more fossil fuels in the polar region by offering massive tax breaks to investors interested in Arctic energy projects

According to government estimates, the proposed measures could lead to up to 15 trillion rubles (€216 billion) of new investments in the Russian Arctic zone over the next 15 years.

The new strategy lists Russia’s priorities in the region as “strengthening national sovereignty and territorial integrity, promoting peace, stability and mutually beneficial partnerships, high living standards for the regional population in the Arctic zone” and improving infrastructure and technology to help “settle the Arctic”.

Russia’s Arctic population counts approximately 2 million people, about half of the total living in the Arctic worldwide, with Murmansk as the country’s main Arctic hub, with a population of 303,754 people.

Historically, the region has seen higher than average unemployment and poverty rates, contributing to a net decrease of the population over the past two decades.

In addition, the document identifies the main threats and challenges for Russia’s national security in the Arctic.

The melting Arctic ice in Europe’s High North leaves the region caught between cooperation and militarisation amid growing divisions in the polar region over global warming and access to minerals.

By as early as 2030, the Arctic Ocean could be largely ice-free in the summer, the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program of the Arctic Council estimates. And while climate change pushes the ice-shelves a little further north each year, a race to claim it is heating up too.

In recent years, Russia has been boosting its presence, reopening military bases closed after the Cold War and modernising its powerful Northern Fleet to safeguard its interests, making especially the Scandinavian countries wary of the consequences.

The growing competition for regional influence also puts Moscow on a confrontation course with Washington.

“In the Northern Sea Route, Moscow already illegally demands that other nations request permission to pass, requires Russian maritime pilots to be aboard foreign ships, and threatens to use military force to sink any that fail to comply,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said during a visit to the region last year.

US wariness also results from the fact that Russian economic ambitions in Siberia and in the Russian Far East, often require Chinese financial assistance, which has led Moscow to strike up a limited pragmatic Arctic partnership with China, temporarily shelving the mistrust of Beijing’s growing appetites.

Under international law, Arctic states can claim an “exclusive economic zone” (EEZ) in the waters they border, up to 200 nautical miles (370 kilometres) offshore. The areas beyond the economic zones have an international legal status and are part of the world’s oceans.

This means that everything is “up for grabs” as long as a country can prove to the UN the ownership of the outer zone.

Only Norway and Iceland have made Arctic claims that have been approved by the United Nations so far. Several countries, including Russia, Denmark and Canada have overlapping claims that the United Nations has yet to rule on.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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