The fifth Russia-sponsored international forum “The Arctic: Territory of Dialogue” was staged last week (April 9–10), in St. Petersburg, and President Vladimir Putin used the occasion to demonstrate his particular interest in the international issues affecting this extreme region. He was joined on the panel by the prime ministers of four northern European states—Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden—who sought to collectively ensure that the tensions in the High North would remain manageable (Kommersant, April 11). Putin has few concerns about such global challenges as the melting of Arctic ice or pollution of heretofore largely untouched natural habitats—that is, issues currently prioritized by Finland in its rotating chairmanship of the Arctic Council. Rather, Putin’s interest focuses on the forthcoming (2021–2022) Russian leadership of this institution as a means to reinforce Russia’s coveted status as a “Great Arctic Power” (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 9).
Economic cooperation could have been a natural topic for discussion at the forum, but such prospective ties have been effectively curtailed by Western sanctions, which specifically target joint projects in the Arctic. The plain point, made by Finnish Prime Minister Juha Sipilä, that sanctions would remain in place as long as Russia’s aggression against Ukraine continues, irked Putin. The Kremlin leader, in response, declared that Crimea had nothing to do with the Arctic and that Europe suffered twice as heavy losses from sanction as Russia did (RIA Novosti, April 9). The accuracy of such wishful assertions cannot be verified. Meanwhile, Putin’s exaggerated estimate of Russia’s investment in import substitution left Minister of Economic Development Maxim Oreshkin rather flabbergasted (Kommersant, April 10). The Russian president followed up by denying the spectacular growth of shale oil and natural gas production in the United States, claiming that in some states where these resources were developed households saw black soot instead of water pouring from their tap (Kremlin.ru, April 9).
Such off base assertions invite questions about the sources of information available to Russia’s leader, who has been trying to convince foreign customers that the Northern Sea Route (off the country’s northern coast) is open for commercial transit. Maritime traffic along this difficult-to-navigate waterway has indeed significantly increased as Novatek started shipping liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the Yamal peninsula, mostly for the Chinese market (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 4). Western investors, however, remain wary of exposure to political pressure and corruption in the Russian energy business, profitable as it may be; and Shell opted last week to pull out of the Baltic LNG project with Gazprom (RBC, April 10). As for transit traffic in the northern seas, it is certainly not boosted by new rules and regulations introduced by Moscow every year. The chain of modernized military bases from Chukotka to Frans-Josef Land is supposed to ensure capacity to enforce these rules, even if China is not exactly thrilled about the militarization of the Arctic (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, April 11). Russian top brass are most worried about the US Navy’s expressed intention to exercise combat ships in the High North in order to re-establish the norm of freedom of navigation (Russiancouncil.ru, March 12).
For Russia, therefore, demonstrating readiness to counter this challenge has become a much higher priority than cultivating cooperation with its Arctic neighbors. Indeed, as Putin was trying to lure Western investors with new tax cuts for joint projects in the Arctic, the Northern Fleet was conducting exercises off the coast of Norway (Novaya Gazeta, April 12). The exercises involved missile launches from the nuclear cruiser Petr Veliky and were much larger in scale than those aimed at disrupting the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) Trident Juncture exercises last autumn (Barents Observer, April 11). Mainstream Russian media is usually keen to advertise Russia’s military might; last week, however, it was completely silent regarding the Northern Fleet exercises.
One important addition to the combat order of the Northern Fleet last year was the icebreaker Ilya Muromets. So this summer, its landing ships will be able to visit the distant Arctic bases without requesting support from the civilian icebreaker fleet (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, April 8). Russia’s main strength in the northern seas is, however, its nuclear submarines. And this year, several new ships are due to be commissioned, including the fourth Borei-class strategic submarine Knyaz Vladimir (Izvestia, March 12). Putin has boasted about the newly designed, nuclear-propelled, unmanned underwater vehicle Poseidon, which will be carried by the submarine Belgorod, due to be launched this year after 17 years of construction (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 31). Another of his pet projects is the hypersonic Tsirkon anti-ship missile, which was successfully tested from land-based launchers and is scheduled to be launched from the new Yasen-class nuclear submarine Kazan in the coming months (TASS, March 19).
This massive submarine-building program demands sustained priority funding, and one inevitable consequence is a curtailing of budget allocations for social programs, which is particularly painful in the impoverished regions of the High North. The accumulating discontent manifests itself in unexpected outbursts, like the angry protests in Arkhangelsk against the dumping of garbage from the Moscow Region (Fontanka, April 8; see EDM, January 23). Corruption in the military-industrial complex may be a top state secret, but it contributes directly to the extreme social inequality: the upper 3 percent of Russia’s population controls 89 percent of all financial assets (Newsru.com, April 12). The Arctic still occupies a special place in Russia’s national identity, but the government’s attempts to assert Russian sovereignty over the region by building up the military presence there does not command public support. Only 41 percent of Russians are now prepared to vote again for Putin, the lowest indicator in many years (Levada.ru, April 11).
New submarines and missiles probably produce a feel-good geopolitical perspective for the Kremlin. But this military show of strength does not pay any political dividends, because the Nordic neighbors refuse to be intimidated. The buildup also makes little strategic sense: Russia’s security is not threatened from the High North, but it is quite vulnerable to threats in other theaters, particularly the Far East. Putin’s two-track Arctic policy has thus become self-defeating. Resolute militarization undercuts prospects for developing international cooperation while also yielding diminishing returns in terms of capacity for projecting power. The Kremlin leader may still hold some strong emotions toward the Arctic, but he has not visited the region in at least two years, and he is unlikely to have a clear understanding of the deteriorating living conditions for the majority of its local population. Brandishing wonder-missiles is a poor substitute for the sober downsizing of unsustainable ambitions.