Russian Arctic Goals: Are They Economy or Military Focus?

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As global warming steadily erodes the Arctic ice caps, exposing new resources, the Kremlin is preparing to expand its economic activities year-round in what it hopes is a vastly expanded area under Russian control. It also relies on the Northeast Passage to compete with the Suez Canal.

Murmansk, a town of around 300,000 inhabitants near the border with Norway, already has a modernized commercial port. But experts say there is plenty of room for expansion.

Why we wrote this

With the melting of the Arctic, the Kremlin is hoping the Northeast Passage could compete with the Suez Canal. But Russia’s military presence in the north is causing rivals to question its priorities. Part two of two.

And while Moscow’s Nordic ambitions are often discussed in military terms, experts say military build-up looms large in Western perceptions because geography gave Murmansk that fate. The region is one of the only places in the far north of Russia that is reliably ice-free year round, in addition to having ocean access. Thus, Russia naturally still bases around two-thirds of its nuclear missile submarines there, as well as the large surface ships of the Northern Fleet.

“It is difficult to say that there is a big military build-up here, compared to what we have always had,” said Vitaly Akimov, spokesman for the Northern Chamber of Commerce in Murmansk. “But we’re getting more and more icebreakers, and that says a lot about Russia’s goals. We want economic development here.

MOURMANSK from Russia

High on the large, glassed-in, largely automated 50-year victory deck, longtime captain Dmitry Lobusov says there is no ice “born from the surface of the sea” his ship cannot handle. Which apparently means it doesn’t get tangled up with icebergs.

But for nothing less, the imposing double-hulled icebreaker the size of a nine-story building is unfazed. Its two nuclear reactors generate so much energy that the ship has managed to navigate its way to the North Pole almost 60 times since it was commissioned 14 years ago. In fact, the ship often takes groups of up to 100 tourists to visit the pole, at around $ 30,000 each.

Russian state-owned company Atomflot currently operates five of these giant nuclear-powered icebreakers, an impressive symbol of Russia’s determination to advance the former Soviet Union’s strategic priority of dominating and developing the Arctic. . During this decade, the fleet will be joined by at least five other nuclear-powered icebreakers, each about twice the size and power of current ships.

Why we wrote this

With the melting of the Arctic, the Kremlin is hoping the Northeast Passage could compete with the Suez Canal. But Russia’s military presence in the north is causing rivals to question its priorities. Part two of two.

As global warming gradually erodes the Arctic ice caps, exposing new underwater fisheries and new oil fields to exploitation, the Kremlin is preparing ways to expand its economic activities year-round in this that it hopes to be a considerably enlarged area under Russian control. It is also banking on the Northeast Passage – the 3,500-mile northern sea route between Asia and Europe over Russia – to become a major maritime alternative to the Suez Canal.

Russia’s competitors in the Arctic are worried about the presence of the Russian military in the region and what this might signal for its future. But this is the result of geographic and climatic realities, Russian officials argue, and that the government’s goal is to strengthen the economic potential of arctic ports like Murmansk, not its military might in the Far North.

Nikita Greydin / Baltic Shipyard / Reuters / File

The nuclear-powered Arktika, the first of the new generation of Russian icebreakers, is seen during sea trials in the Gulf of Finland, Baltic Sea, Russia, June 28, 2020.

“It is difficult to say that there is a big military build-up here, compared to what we have always had,” said Vitaly Akimov, spokesman for the Northern Chamber of Commerce in Murmansk. “But we’re getting more and more icebreakers, and that says a lot about Russia’s goals. We want economic development here.

A booming city in the Northeast Passage?

Mr Akimov says Murmansk’s economic growth is about to take off as the Northeast Passage becomes a reality. “There is a federal plan to develop Murmansk as a transport hub,” he says. “We have an excellent port, with good rail and road links to Moscow and the rest of Russia, and the Northeast Passage will create a global link. “

Murmansk, a town of around 300,000 near the border with Norway, already has a recently modernized trading port, which is mainly used to export coal from the vast interior of Russia these days. But experts say there is plenty of room for expansion. Russia’s largest private gas company, Novatek, has a major project underway nearby to develop facilities for the arctic transport of liquefied natural gas.

At Atomflot’s headquarters in Murmansk, a vast control room houses a giant electronic map showing the location of each ship throughout the Northeast Passage as well as changing ice and weather conditions. They expect it to be a busy place in the future. Russian President Vladimir Putin said at a recent economic forum that 33 million tonnes of goods had passed through the crossing in 2020, and that amount is expected to reach 80 million tonnes by 2024.

But while the Northeast Passage trek cuts the traditional Suez Canal route between the Far East and Europe by at least two weeks, the overall tonnage it sees is nowhere near that of the Suez Canal. Suez, which processes around 1 billion tonnes of cargo per year.

Atomflot’s control room for the Northeast Passage has a digital map that covers an entire wall, marking the positions of every ship currently traveling through the region.

There are other complications, including the fact that ships passing through the Northeast Passage will have to be adapted to navigation in ice conditions – which is not a requirement on the Suez Canal – and the need to icebreakers will remain unpredictable for the foreseeable future.

“It depends a lot on how the circumstances change with the ice and the weather,” said captain Lobusov. “Sometimes an icebreaker can pilot a route for 10 ships. But sometimes you need two icebreakers for one ship. It’s expensive and it takes time. “

Soldiers in the middle of the ice

Moscow’s Nordic ambitions are often discussed in military terms. It’s hard to miss here on the Kola Peninsula, where Murmansk is Russia’s only ice-free port with access to the high seas, and people in military uniforms abound in the streets. The nearby closed town of Severomorsk is home to the Russian Navy‘s Northern Fleet with dozens of large warships, including the country’s only aircraft carrier and a new class of state-of-the-art nuclear submarines.

But experts say military build-up looms large in Western perceptions because geography gave Murmansk this fate. Thanks to the warm North Atlantic Current – an extension of the Gulf Stream – Kola Bay is the only place in the far north of Russia that is reliably ice-free year round. This, together with the fact that Murmansk has access to the open sea, is the reason why Russia still bases around two-thirds of its nuclear missile submarines there, as well as the large surface vessels of the Russian Fleet. North.

“Russia has reopened several former Soviet air bases along the northern coast, but most activity still takes place on the Kola Peninsula, with all the air defenses and other associated military infrastructure,” said Andrey Zagorsky, expert in arms control with the person in charge. Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow.

Maxim Shemetov / Reuters / File

The Russian city of Murmansk is ice-free year round and has open sea access, making it a key port on the Northeast Passage. It also adjoins the military town of Severomorsk, which is home to the Russian Navy’s Northern Fleet.

“Russia is the only Arctic state with substantial armed forces permanently stationed in the Arctic. In contrast, Canada’s Arctic Fleet is based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. It is true that Russia has unparalleled capabilities there, but it is not only intended for war. Its objectives include combating oil spills, patrolling, securing the Northeast Passage, etc. He said.

“But we currently live in an atmosphere of confrontation in dealing with the West, and people tend to only look at capabilities and see them as threatening. It would be nice if we could find ways to reduce tensions in the Arctic “and broaden the scope of cooperation on issues like climate change and resource sharing in the High North,” he said.

“Everyone will want to be here”

Meanwhile, Atomflot officials say global warming may be real, but they’re not depending on it to make the Northeast Passage a reality. For that, they will have the icebreakers. As huge as it may be, the 50 Years of Victory is a nautical pipsqueak compared to the ice-crushing behemoths currently under construction.

“In the years to come, we will double the size of our fleet, and the new ships will be much bigger and more capable” of keeping the sea lanes open in all conditions, said Vladimir Arutyunyan, head of maritime operations at Atomflot.

“In 2010, there were only four ships that made the passage. Now there are several hundred, ”he says. “These great icebreakers will be needed for our entire lifetimes. The idea that it will be in open water 365 days a year is a fiction. In winter, ice will always be present. There will be no activity in the Arctic without an icebreaker, ”he said.

It is this kind of change – showing the determination of the Russian government to make the Northeast Passage a reality after decades of post-Soviet decline and the emigration of nearly half of the region’s population – that has made some residents optimistic in Murmansk.

“We can predict that Murmansk is moving from a backwater to a center of economic activity,” said Maxim Belov, deputy of the regional legislature. “It is the gateway to the Arctic. Murmansk has everything it takes to start prospering in the years to come, and everyone will want to be here.

Be sure to read Part 1: With the melting Arctic opening up new opportunities and stoking old rivalries, the United States and Canada are attempting a cooperative approach to exploit the thaw’s resources and trade routes.


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