The Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) has regulated the current status quo in Antarctica since it came into force in 1961. However, the ATS regime is set to expire in 2048, and some actors, including Russia, have been intensifying their activities on the world’s southernmost continent in anticipation (see Part One, EDM, June 9). The toolkit employed by Moscow in the competition for influence is diverse, frequently controversial, and multifaceted. In many ways, Russia’s behavioral patterns aimed at accreting power in Antarctica share certain common traits with its activities in the Arctic. The approach regarding Antarctica includes the following five major elements (Ridl.io, May 8):
The first is scientific research and has been premised mainly on geological exploration, which intensified after 2017, and ground-based space research. The initial stage of this policy was carried out between 2017 and 2018, when the Stock Venture “Polar Marine Geosurvey Expedition” (PMGE)—a branch of Russia’s state-run geological surveyor Rosgeologia—conducted a series of research expeditions primarily aimed at seismological and geo-physical exploration of the Weddell Sea and its shelf (Neftegaz.ru, May 21, 2018). In the official statement, it was also revealed that the work, carried out by the research vessel Akademik Aleksandr Karpinskiy, had the goal of “geological and geophysical study and assessment of the mineral potential of the subsoil of Antarctica and its marginal seas” (Pmge.ru, accessed June 5). This expedition explored the Riiser-Larsen Sea, the Cosmonauts Sea, the Commonwealth Sea, the Davis Sea, the Mawson Sea and the D’Urville Sea. During the second stage (2019–2020), research focus shifted to the Riiser-Larsen Sea, the least-studied area in the southern part of the Indian Ocean. On February 12, PMGE reported on the successful completion of a “complex of marine geophysical exploration work, within the scope of the 65th Antarctic expedition” (Neftegaz.ru, February 12).
In terms of developing space-related capabilities, Russia`s main goal is to deploy a ground-based GLONASS (satellite navigation) complex on the territory of the Russkaya polar station in 2022. According to an unnamed source in the Roscosmos State Corporation, Antarctica is instrumental for space research, since locally based stations can secure visibility and enable the tracking of spacecraft/objects in outer space. To achieve maximum accuracy, GLONASS stations have to be located in the near-to-equatorial zone (currently operating in Nicaragua, Cuba, Brazil) and at the poles (Izvestia, October 25, 2019). Though presented by Russia as purely scientific, these actions have raised doubts among international experts and observers. Specifically, the Australian government—while referring to similar Chinese “scientific activities” in Antarctica—specified that these actions are, in fact, “ ‘dual-use’ scientific research that’s useful for military purposes” (BBC News, June 20, 2014). The same can certainly be applied to Russian actions. Namely, Brazilian experts have claimed that in addition to GLONASS, which could be used for intelligence-gathering purposes, Russia may seek to covertly deploy the anti-satellite Triada-2 electronic warfare (EW) complex, also known as the “sputnik neutralizer” (Ciencia.estadao.com.br, February 24, 2019). This EW system has already been observed in the Donbas region (Osce.org, March 19, 2019). The deployment of the Triada-2, if it happens, would be the first step toward the militarization of Antarctica and a clear violation of the ATS.
The second aspect of Russia’s approach to the Antarctic is the “soft power” legacy of its voyages to circumnavigate the Earth. The first such maritime voyage by Russia was carried out between 1803 and 1806. Historically, these were a tool relied upon by the Russian state to maintain its status as a great power with global ambitions. In fact, the current commander-in-chief of the Russian navy, Admiral Nikolai Yevmenov (in accordance with an order from Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu) has specifically ordered a new such voyage, dedicated to “the 200th anniversary of the discovery of Antarctica” (Tvzvezda.ru, December 2, 2019).
The third element is the employment of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) and the “religious factor.” In March 2020, it was decided that a church dedicated to Saint Nicholas will be built on the territory of the Novolazarevskaya Station (near Queen Maud Land) (Izvestia, March 4). This church will become the second Russian holy place on the icy continent; the first was completed in 2004, on King George Island, near the Bellingshausen Station. In 2016, the King George Island church was visited by the head of the ROC, Patriarch Kirill (Polit.ru, February 18, 2016). Interestingly, prior to his appearance in Antarctica (as part of a representative Russian delegation), Kirill had visited Cuba, where he made a historic joint declaration with Roman Catholic Pope Francis (Patriarchia.ru, February 13, 2016).
Fourth is the “Latin American factor.” In 2020, Argentina’s former ambassador to the United Kingdom (2012–2016), Alicia Castro, stated that Russia and Argentina need to deepen their bilateral ties by strengthening their cooperation in the South Atlantic, Tierra del Fuego and the Argentine Sea and, prospectively, Antarctica. The Moscow-friendly Argentine diplomat additionally noted, “[W]e could create a seaport in this geostrategic area.” Following this statement, the Russian ambassador to Argentina, Dmitry Feoktistov, headed to the city of Ushuaia, where he stated that “[T]he time of colonialism has come to an end. The UK must return the islands [the Falkland Islands] to Argentina” (Clarin.com, February 17).
The fifth element consists of Russia creating various provocations. On November 16, 2019, to celebrate Unity Day, members of the pro-Kremlin Night Wolves motorcycle gang and the All Worlds (Wse Miry) patriotic movement unfurled a 1,400-square-meter Russian flag in Antarctica. Similar ceremonial activities were previously carried out in the Arctic, Elbrus, Kamchatka, Lake Baikal, Moscow and in Crimea (RIA Novosti, November 16, 2019). Moreover, during the infamous “Arktika-2007” underwater expedition, a Russian flag was specifically installed on the seabed of the North Pole as a means to claim Moscow’s sovereignty over parts of the Arctic region heavily endowed with natural resources (TASS, January 18, 2014). Importantly, this symbolic act became another milestone that encouraged Russia to extend further Arctic territorial claims to the United Nations (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, April 30, 2014).
It is increasingly clear that the Russian Federation is positioning itself to revise the five-decade-old ATS provisions in order to increase its role in Antarctica. And though many of Moscow’s present-day moves may appear mostly symbolic, they should not to be underestimated. Taken together, they are part of an emerging revisionist strategy for developing greater Russian influence in the region.