Vladimir Putin’s much-ballyhooed plans to project power in the Arctic have attracted widespread notice and sparked serious concerns in many countries, with some like the US committing themselves to building up an icebreaker fleet to be able to challenge Russia in that strategically important region (EDM, May 14, 2020). But far less attention has been paid to the problems Russia faces in building the ships and bases it would need to carry out its plans anytime soon. Its yards have not been able to produce the new generation of icebreakers on time and on budget, its efforts to establish bases along its northern border have fallen short, and the entire effort has been compromised by corruption and now the pandemic (Window on Eurasia, February 22, 2020).
Something similar is happening at the other end of the earth in the Antarctic. Moscow has also announced expansive plans to increase its role there, both to exploit natural resources under the ice and to challenge what it sees as the West’s unfair advantages on that continent and its surrounding waters (EDM, June 9, 2020; EDM, June 24, 2020). Russian analysts and officials are arguing that Russia must reclaim its position in the Antarctic—a position they say should reflect that the continent was explored by Russian sailors 200 years ago—or lose out to other countries and suffer the indignity of doing so (Krizis-Kopilka.ru, January 8).
Moscow undoubtedly will be able to achieve something in this direction, but as in the Arctic, it has so far faced difficulties that call into question how soon and how much. Six years ago, the Russian government decided it needed to replace its aging Antarctic monitoring center it had established more than 60 years ago. But as important as this task is for Vladimir Putin, the Russian government found that it did not have the money to pay for it. Consequently, it turned to Russian oligarch Leonid Mikhelson who agreed to pay for the construction of modules for a new Antarctic facility if the Russian government would take responsibility for delivering and installing them (Meduza.io, December 16, 2020.)
Mikhelson kept his promise, but the Russian government has not been able to keep its pledge. The modules were constructed in Russia and loaded on one of the much-celebrated new atomic-powered Russian icebreakers. But that ship did not make it to the southern polar region as planned. Instead, off the coast of Africa at the end of 2020, the Sevmorput’s propeller broke off, and the icebreaker was dead in the waters for weeks before engineers were able to fix the ship enough for it to limp back to the docks in St. Petersburg. Having arrived there, however, the ship’s problems have continued. The difficulties that have plagued shipyards in the northern capital along with the pandemic, which has hit St. Petersburg hard, have so delayed refitting the vessel that Russian media now say there is no chance that it will put to sea this season or be able to deliver the modules for the replacement base sooner than a year from now (Kommersant.ru, November 26, 2020; NPlus1.ru, December 7, 2020).
This is yet another embarrassment that Moscow has not talked much about, which means that Russia is not only losing its ability to monitor the weather originating in the Antarctic—something it needs to develop its shipping and fishing industries in the southern oceans—but it is also not gaining the leg up it has hoped for to explore for uranium and other natural resources under the ice (Krizis-Kopilka.ru, January 8). That has prompted Moscow to look in another direction, with some Russian officials convinced they can check what they see as a Western effort to freeze Moscow out of the region by allying their country more closely with China and using diplomatic means. Beijing, they argue, has a common interest with Moscow in developing fishing in the seas around Antarctica and because of the Law of the Sea Treaty, which the US has not ratified. (SVpressa.ru, October 26, 2020).
One move on this legal front that some in Moscow have long been considering is abandoning the international protocol governing the exploitation of natural resources of Antarctica. Adopted in October 1991, that agreement can be abrogated if one or more of the powers, which include Russia, leave it. One Russian analyst, Aleksey Kupriyanov, argues that Russia must be prepared for the collapse of the accord even if it does not initiate that process itself; and he urges Moscow to explore the establishment of military bases in the Indian Ocean to support power projection into the Antarctic (Profile.ru, September 2, 2019). Moscow has not made much progress in that direction; but according to Kupriyanov, there is reason for optimism: officials in Moscow are in fact thinking about these longer-term possibilities while those in other major capitals are not. That gives Russia a real chance to overcome its difficulties by staging an end run around the West.
Another Moscow analyst, Andrey Koshkin of the Russian Economics University, argues that Russia has no choice but to do so and for a reason many have not focused on. According to him, the West is now using tactics in the southern polar regions that it will apply to the Arctic if it succeeds. Because the Arctic is so much more important to Russia but it needs time to develop its infrastructure there, Moscow must at least delay Western activity in Antarctica until it is actually ready to defend its interests in the north (SVpressa.ru, October 26, 2020). This linking of the Arctic and the Antarctic as a common security interest almost certainly means that Moscow will continue to try to project power into the southern polar regions in the next year, even though the problems it faces in both places make it unlikely that Russia will be anything as successful as its boosters like to suggest and many in the West clearly fear.