Russian’s have always had a certain affinity with the Arctic and a fascination for their mystical frozen north.Under Peter I Russia launched the Great Northern Expedition, one of the largest exploration enterprises in history which successfully led to the mapping of Russia’s Arctic coastline from the European white sea to the mouth of the Kolyma river in Asia .The first successful voyage through the treacherous North East passage was achieved by Adolf Erik Nordenskjold, a Russian Finn born in Russia’s Grand Duchy of Finland in 1832. Indeed even today Russia still carries out pioneering geological and hydrological research in the Arctic recently finishing new bases on Samoilovsky Island and one of the Svalbard islands. Of late however Russia is using its historic role in the North to justify its increasing presence and implicit control over a greater expanse than it is due- in 2007 a Russian expedition led by Artur Chilingarov planted a titanium Russian tricolour on the seabed below the North pole and claimed that the Arctic “has always been Russian”.
One of Moscow’s most imaginative points on its nationalist agenda is the bolstering of its northern frontier -a 7000km long chunk of Arctic tundra that Russia uses for testing its military hardware as well as for a base for its ambitious space programme and increasingly incursive submarine activity. Russia has been carrying out major combat exercises in the Arctic for the first time since the end of the cold war, it has restored former Soviet bases in the area including a massive one on the New Siberian Islands and in July 2014 it tested its new-generation Angara rockets from a cosmodrome hidden deep within its northern territory. Two thirds of Russia’s naval power is concentrated in its Northern fleet and it is believed to have approximately 35 submarines operating in the Arctic. Last summer in fact the Swedish navy were busy tracking an almost certainly Russian submarine snooping around its Baltic waters whilst Russian sorties over the rest of Scandinavia have become an almost routine occurrence.
Russia has direct territorial ambitions in the Arctic too. It recently filed a case under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) against Denmark’s claim to a larger slice of Arctic territory which overlaps with Russia’s own. Russia argues that the underwater Lomonosov mountain range is an extension of the Eurasian continent and thus part of the Russian continental shelf, a claim that would legitimately give it control over the North Pole under UNCLOS. In addition in April this year Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rozogin defied warnings and inflamed the disputes by visiting a Russian mining community on the Norwegian Svalbard archipelago before flying to a new Russian military base on a nearby ice floe. Calling the Arctic “Russia’s Mecca” Mr Rozogin spectated as a Russian Orthodox priest blessed the new station in a clear expression of Russia’s growing and uncompromising confidence in the North. In 2010 when asked about Russia’s position in the Arctic, Russia’s Navy Commander Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky said “Russia will not give a single inch in the Arctic”.
Russia understands that control of the Arctic seabed will generate big returns in the future when global warming allows for cheaper and more efficient drilling for oil and gas reserves there. Perhaps a quarter of the worlds untapped gas is in the Arctic as well as about an eighth of its oil and Russia’s government plans to spend 222bn roubles on mineral exploitation in the region between 2015-2020 a move that could revitalise Russia’s sagging economy.
In addition ,and possibly more importantly for Russia, the melting of sea ice is making Arctic sea lanes evermore traversable which has the potential to speed up and facilitate trade between Europe and Asia. Russia’s s long term strategic position in the Arctic may enhance therefore as evermore commercial vessels venture through the north-east passage and the Russian Kara Sea. 71 cargo ships travelled across the top of Russia last summer up from 46 in 2012 and the increasingly easy and pirate free passage can almost half fuel costs for commercial vessels and cut journey times by up to 37%. In 2012 Russian state media reported that 85% of vessels travelling through the North East passage were carrying gas or oil, again increasing Russia’s strategic gain from global warming.
For now though Russia’s increasing presence in the North has failed to reap generous economic and strategic rewards and has largely been a symbolic exercise with populist objectives. No matter how much the planet warms Russia is never likely to have even a partial monopoly over Europe-Asia shipping lanes as the conventional route through the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal will remain a relatively cheap and viable alternative. In addition Russian icebreakers, navigational support, ports and naval vessels would be required for the North East passage to become a popular shipping route and these ae things that Russia’s barren and undeveloped north will struggle to provide at least in the near future. Poor infrastructure is likely to hinder investment in the region and scupper Russia’s ambitious programme for exploitation of the Arctic’s mineral wealth whilst western sanctions imposed in 2014 have dramatically reduced the attractiveness of the North east passage for foreign investors whilst already cutting back the number of voyages through the passage. Russian Railways plans to connect Indiga which is being considered for the construction of a new deep water port and Mr Putin recently announced plans for the development of a new all year-round port on the Yamal peninsula. However without foreign investment and with a worsening economy Russia is unlikely to be able to carry such grand capital investment schemes especially since they are themselves planned to rely on the world’s first and also astronomically expensive floating nuclear power pants. It is easy therefore to take an exaggerated view on just how empowered Russia will become as it consolidates control over the far North and such action is certainly not the type of short term economic strategy required for Mr Putin to shore up his support in an increasingly poor economic environment.