For more than a decade, Vladimir Putin has made the development of the Northern Sea Route as well as the broader Arctic littoral and seabed a focus of his national policies. And over this period, coverage of this effort has almost invariably followed the same pattern: Putin’s plans are announced, many in the West are shocked about this latest display of Russian power projection, and then people look away until the Kremlin makes a new statement, and the whole process repeats itself (see EDM, April 29, 2016). But in fact, Putin’s major projects in the High North have been plagued by delays, disasters and cost overruns that call into question Moscow’s ability to fulfill his words. Those problems have multiplied to the point that at least some observers are now asking whether Putin has an Arctic strategy—as opposed to an Arctic wish list—at all.
It should come as no surprise that there have been such difficulties in the development of the Northern Sea Route, the exploitation of natural resources from the Arctic seabed, or the establishment of sufficient infrastructure along the country’s northern littoral to both support and project Russian power. The size and number of the associated challenges have truly been formidable (see EDM, September 11, 2018, December 6, 2018, January 22, 2019). But events in recent months, and especially in the last few weeks, suggest Moscow’s ability to meet those challenges is declining even as warmer weather has lengthened the shipping season in the Arctic, opened new portions of the sea to economic exploitation, and Moscow’s propaganda about its successes throughout the region has become ever more bombastic.
The list of disasters has been growing. Among the most prominent failures are the following: Russia’s new and much-ballyhooed atomic icebreaker, the Arktika, cannot go to sea on time because one of its engines is not functioning and must be replaced (Kommersant, February 10, 2020). Meanwhile, Moscow is pulling money away from Arctic ship construction to try to repair the Admiral Kuznetsov, Russia’s only and much star-crossed aircraft carrier (Novaya Gazeta, December 14, 2019). The drydock that sank under the Kuznetsov in late 2019 has limited the construction and refitting of other ships, thus, in domino fashion, undercutting Kremlin plans (Versia.ru, December 14, 2019; Novaya Gazeta, Lenta.ru, December 15, 2019). And the floating atomic power plant Moscow has put to sea in the Arctic to provide energy to shoreline projects was, last year, described by a Polish military expert as “a floating Chernobyl” waiting to happen (Polityka, August 3, 2019).
But three events this week have brought Russia’s problems in the High North into sharp focus: First, a bridge collapse in Murmansk shuttered that most important northern port and limited Moscow’s ability to send ships into the Arctic for some time to come (Kasparov.ru, June 3). Second, there has been yet another massive oil spill in the north—one so large and inflicting so much harm near Norilsk that even Putin, in alarm, has lashed out at local officials for failing to contain it and trying instead to hide the disaster from Moscow (Svobodnaya Pressa, June 3). And third, cost overruns, corruption, and confusion have meant that Moscow’s centerpiece for projecting its claims deep into the Arctic—the exploration ship Severny Polyus—will not be ready this year but only in 2022 at the earliest (Kommersant, May 22). This string of disasters has raised questions about a variety of other Russian projects in the northern polar region and ignited a discussion as to whether Moscow, all its claims to the contrary notwithstanding, even has a strategy for the High North.
A strategy, of course, is not simply an enumeration of goals. Rather it involves developing a plan that brings those preferences into line with resources, either by modifying the preferences or boosting the resources available. If those with particular preferences do not have or cannot mobilize sufficient resources to support them, they do not really have a strategy at all. That reality is often ignored in discussions of Moscow’s statements, where a declaration of intent is all too often equated with the existence of a strategy when, in fact, there are insufficient resources to carry it out. And it is typically forgotten in discussions about Moscow’s plans for projecting power into the Arctic. If this understanding is taken into account, however, Sergey Sukhankin, a Russian scholar now teaching in Canada, says, it is clear that Moscow is flailing about and does not have an Arctic “strategy” worthy of the name (Riddle, May 8).
After ignoring the Arctic between the end of Soviet times and 2007, Moscow has issued a series of “strategy” documents about the region, emphasizing its importance to Russia economically and geopolitically. Often, Sukhankin says, these Russian claims and plans have sparked more concern than analysis from outside observers; but “the strengthening of the military presence, selective investments in petroleum projects and the expectation of major foreign investment hardly can be called a full-blown strategy” (Riddle, May 8).
Not one of these documents “provides a solution for such important issues as the decaying and generally insufficiently developed infrastructure, the rapid contraction of human capital and the stagnation of the standard of living” in the region. In most cases, Moscow takes as facts what, in actuality, are no more than hopes. Available “statistics clearly show that the region remains unattractive and suffers from an outflow of workers. There is no evidence that this situation is changing or will. Yet another serious problem is the practically complete lack of supportive land-based infrastructure” such as roads or railways, the expert writes (Riddle, May 8).
All these things make it more difficult not only to attract foreign investment but even funding from domestic sources, especially at a time of falling oil prices and budgetary stringency. As a result, in the short and medium term at least, the Arctic will produce limited profits for Russia and will be used primarily by the defense ministry to frighten other countries and extract more money from Moscow for itself, Sukhankin concludes. The Arctic is not likely to become the miracle land anytime soon that the Kremlin regularly suggests it could be. Russia is moving north but less boldly and successfully than its leaders claim or others fear.