President Vladimir Putin’s promotion of the Northern Sea Route (NSR) and Russian development of the seabed of the Arctic Ocean and adjoining parts of the Russian Federation were intended to excite and unify Russians at a difficult socio-economic time (see EDM, October 20). But things have not worked out as planned: Not only are people in the Russian High North angry about his plans, but in a dangerous sign for the Kremlin, Moscow elites are increasingly willing to challenge this Putin initiative in the name of protecting the environment or saving government money for other projects.
From Putin’s perspective, Arctic development has long been tantalizingly attractive. First is the prospect that a Russian-dominated Northern Sea Route will attract substantial (and growing) volumes of lucrative Europe-Asia shipping that has heretofore gone through the Suez Canal. And second, the enormous oil, natural gas and other mineral wealth on the seabed of the Arctic Ocean and adjoining Russian areas promises to boost Russia’s sluggish economy. Yet despite declaring such development activities in the High North a national priority, problems arose immediately. Russia lacked and still lacks sufficient infrastructure in the region to support the NSR, its military presence there is inadequate, and its icebreaker fleet plans, while much ballyhooed and perhaps less critical because of global warming, have been behind schedule from the beginning (see EDM, September 11, 2018, December 6, 2018, September 29, 2020; The Barents Observer, October 26, 2020).
Moreover, the numerically small non-Russian nations living in the Russian High North have been outraged by development efforts in the region. They have famously staged protests at proposed Moscow trash dump sites, most prominently at Shiyes (Novaya Gazeta, July 3). But they have also rallied at other locations across the country’s Arctic coast, all the way to the Pacific Ocean, objecting to local development mega-projects and the construction of facilities to support the NSR (Sibreal.org, Svobodnaya Pressa, Novaya Gazeta, New Times, April 28). Furthermore, non-ethnic-Russian activists have mounted an international campaign, supported by environmentalists in both Russia and the West, to discourage Western companies from purchasing ores mined by Russian companies in the Arctic. These extractive industries, critics charge, have been destroying not only the local environment but also the basis for indigenous peoples’ way of life (Novaya Gazeta, Meduza, August 7).
Up to now, Putin has been able to ignore such sentiments because the protests have come from distant regions rather than from Moscow and because his wealthy supporters, like oligarch Viktor Potanin, continue to benefit from the Kremlin’s program in the High North. But now three factors have come together to change that situation. And those developments are splitting key Russian elites and prompting some prominent Russian politicians to question what Putin has been trying to do or at least has allowed to happen.
First, global warming is reducing the ice cover of the Arctic for longer parts of the year, thus reducing Russia’s icebreaker advantage and opening the way for China and other powers to outpace it (see EDM, September 3, 2019). Second, environmental issues are coming to the fore in so many places that Russian politicians and officials no longer feel they can afford to ignore them (Newizv.ru, October 15, 2020). And third, the COVID-19 pandemic and associated economic crisis this year has made more officials in the Russian capital ready to question programs that cost a lot but fail to bring promised returns.
In mid-October, Rosatom, the government body responsible for inter alia developing nuclear-powered icebreakers, in an almost unprecedented fashion, declared bluntly that President Putin’s NSR goals will not be met. The statement prompted a response from Aleksandr Kozlov, Russia’s minister for the Far East and the Arctic, who continues to maintain the opposite. Kozlov suggested that Rosatom lacks the expertise to make such projections and, therefore, should be ignored on this point. This kind of open bureaucratic warfare has, until now, been rarely seen in the upper echelons of the Putinist regime (The Barents Observer, October 26; Government.ru, October 21; RBC, September 10).
More seriously, at the same time, a Federation Council (upper chamber of the Russian parliament) delegation visited Norilsk and denounced the way in which Potanin’s Norilsk Nickel has despoiled the region. The senators released an official statement declaring that “Norilsk today is one of the most polluted cities not only in Russia but in the world” and demanding that the company take prompt action to correct its past mistakes (Council.gov.ru, October 21). From Putin’s perspective, that was bad enough, but then Federation Council head Valentina Matviyenko expanded on those findings, and herself denounced the company for mismanagement, pollution and corruption, thus raising those issues with far greater resonance in the Russian capital (The Barents Observer, October 26).
At a press conference last week, Senator Matviyenko said Potanin’s operation had turned Norilsk into “a slum,” and she blasted “the complete cynicism” of his Norilsk Nickel in addressing oil spills, like the major one last summer, as well as the health and wellbeing of residents. “This is not a socially responsible company,” she argued, and Moscow must intervene (YouTube, October 21). Not only does this link her and the Federation Council with local politicians who have joined their voters in opposing the central government (The Barents Observer, September 15), but it has split the ranks of Russia’s ruling elite in Moscow.
When government funds tighten as much as they have in Russia this year, and when people’s anger intensifies, politicians almost inevitably will engage in populist exercises. That may be all that Matviyenko and her colleagues in the Federation Council are doing. But the sight of such an open breach between them and the Kremlin on an issue Putin has made so central to his regime is likely to encourage others unhappy with additional issues as well. And that may prove to be a serious development. At the end of Soviet times, environmental protests became the first stage in the rise of many ethno-national and regional movements because a healthy environment was an issue even officials felt uncomfortable opposing. Something similar appears to be happening in Russia today, and it may become a crack in Putin’s armor in a place he did not expect.