On October 26, President Vladimir Putin formally adopted the “Strategy for the Development of the Russian Arctic Zone and Provision of National Security Through 2035” (Pravo.gov.ru, October 26). The document is to be implemented in three stages: 2020–2024, 2025–2030 and 2031–2035. In a related comment, the Minister for the Development of the Russian Far East and Arctic Alexander Kozlov argued that the strategy—as opposed to similar previously adopted documents—features two distinct traits. First is an emphasis on socio-economic development to raise the quality of life in the region. And second, it takes a more individual (de facto region-specific) approach, whereby the socio-economic development of each region/territory is to be addressed on a case-by-case basis without the previously practiced generalist approach (Eprussia.ru, October 27).
A more detailed look at the document reveals three main tasks/strategic areas most likely to attract Russian attention and resources.
The first is the development of Arctic infrastructure. Virtually all actions outlined in the October 26 strategy document revolve around the Northern Sea Route (NSR)—the shortest, least expensive way of reaching Europe from Asia by sea. The NSR is viewed by Russia simultaneously as a source of income and a means of strengthening its partnership with China (Ridl.io, May 8). Specifically, among other aspects related to the above-mentioned strategic objective, the document names the following measures to be accomplished by 2035:
– Development of general marine infrastructure (seaports and transportation routes/lanes), primarily in strategic junctures of the NSR: the Barents, White and Pechora seas;
– Establishment of “headquarters on marine/sea operations and management of naval transportation” along the entire NSR;
– Digitalization of services (particularly in the realm of cargo transportation and delivery);
– Building of five Project 22220 and three Leader-class icebreakers, in line with Russia’s “Icebreaker Diplomacy,” which seeks to rely on its icebreaker fleet in the Arctic as a means of strengthening Moscow’s regional superiority (see EDM, June 12, 2019);
– Increasing navigation capabilities via the White Sea–Baltic Canal in general and the basins of the Onega, Northern Dvina, Mezen, Pechora, Ob, Yenisey, Lena and Kolyma rivers in particular. In effect, this draws on yet another aspect of the “Icebreaker Diplomacy” approach specifically concerned with upgrading navigation in Russia’s High North areas (rivers adjacent to the Arctic Ocean).
Taken together, these measures are expected to increase the navigability of the NSR and facilitate the rapid transportation/delivery of Russia’s energy resources to strategically vital Asian markets (see EDM, May 7, 2020).
The second main task outlined in the newly adopted Arctic development strategy is boosting regional military capabilities. This is reflected in the document’s call to rearm and equip the Russian Arctic forces with the most up-to-date means of warfare (considering local climactic conditions) as well as to boost local military infrastructure. Specifically, the document emphasizes the need to “create a favorable operative regime in the Arctic […] in accordance with current and forecasted military threats.” In line with Russia’s previous steps aimed at increasing its military potential/presence in the Arctic (see EDM, April 9, 2020 and June 18, 2018), the document not only emphasizes “growing conflictual potential” in the region but also calls for a need to “constantly upgrade [Russia’s] military potential” of forces deployed in the High North. It is, however, interesting to note that the document, despite Russia’s actual steps, does not put excessive emphasis on military-related issues (Pravo.gov.ru, October 26).
Third is the expressed need for socio-economic advances. The strategy document heavily underscores that a dramatic improvement in local socio-economic conditions is key to preserving Russia’s firm standing in the region and to effectively exploit its natural resources. Among other measures, the document plans for the “creation of a special economic regime, stimulating a transition toward a circular economy,” and in turn paving the way toward achieving economic and ecological sustainability in the region. Further, the strategy mentions a number of steps aimed at attracting human capital to the region and improving its local demographic potential. Since 1989, the population of the Arctic zone and the High North has dwindled by at least 20 percent (Lenta.ru, October 29, 2019) due to worsening local socio-economic conditions and lack of attractiveness. This depopulation is identified as one of the main regional threats facing Russia.
A comparison between the document’s stated ambitions and limitations imposed by Russia’s present and long-term socio-economic conditions thus point to several important conclusions.
First, despite the rhetorical prioritization of the socio-economic component in developing the Arctic, Moscow does not have an actual plan on how this is to be accomplished. Based on commentary and analyses of many leading Russian experts, it seems that in pursuit of this objective Moscow is likely to rely on the “mobilizational” option, which heavily depends on so-called command-administrative (kommandno-administrativnii) measures (Aif.ru, May 14). One of the distinctive features of the Soviet period, this method, while effective in the short run, is unlikely to yield any long-term results.
Second, in terms of local demographics, it is not at all apparent that Moscow can or will actually embark on the policy to dramatically increase (at all cost) the size of the population residing in the High North. In fact, Russia already has the largest share of the population (2.5 million) living near or north of the Arctic Circle, and any hypothetical further increase could, in fact, be detrimental to the Russian economy. A number of influential Russian experts now claim that Russia should follow the example of other Arctic players (Canada, the United States, Norway) that rely on the fly-in/fly-out method for their regional labor forces as the most cost-effective way of exploiting local natural resources (Aif.ru, January 20).
Third, despite the seemingly marginal role that militarization and military-related efforts play in the newly adopted Arctic strategy document, these, in fact, constitute one of the central pillars of Russia’s overarching approach to the High North and will be the main recipients of financial outlays from the federal center.
Consequently, given current economic hardships, Russia can be expected to pursue an approach premised on selective investment in strategic “links” connecting key parts of the NSR. The Arctic development strategy—akin to various other documents related to the northern polar region and Russia’s prospects therein—strongly emphasizes the long-term strategic value of the NSR as an essential transportation artery connecting East and West.