The Kremlin’s hopes for the development of the Northern Sea Route and for protecting and projecting power into the Arctic may soon collapse. This is not due to global warming, the moves of other countries in the Arctic Ocean, nor Russia’s own problems with developing and maintaining the onshore facilities needed to keep the route operating efficiently. Rather, it is because of the accelerating flight of ethnic Russians from the northern regions of the country. That flight is making it impossible for Moscow to maintain, let alone expand, the facilities needed to support its ambitious plans for the Arctic, tipping the ethnic balance of the population there away from ethnic Russians to indigenous populations increasingly at odds with the Kremlin. Such a development is even raising fears that other countries, China and the United States in particular, may challenge Moscow for control of the Northern Sea Route and even key parts of land now within the Russian Federation (see EDM, September 11, 2018, December 6, 2018, May 6, 2021; Stoletie, November 9).
Not surprisingly, many in Moscow are worried because the Russian authorities do not currently have at their disposal either of the two means the Kremlin has traditionally employed in the past to support the Arctic. First, they do not have the massive number of prisoners Stalin did, who could be dispatched to the region when needed. Second, they do not have the money that the Soviet government had to provide subsidies to workers, which would attract them to the region in the first place and keep them there for the long haul. Indeed, it is a measure of desperation that some are now hoping that, by sending Russian cultural groups to the north, this will somehow stem the mass departures of ethnic Russians from the region, which are now turning even larger settlements in the Arctic into ghost towns (Regnum, November 1). However, even those who are calling for such programs recognize that these measures alone will not solve the problems Moscow now faces in the north, as in many places soon there will not be any Russian audience for such cultural productions.
The Russian government has not published comprehensive data on the extent of the Russian flight from the Arctic, but evidence is mounting that it is significant and almost certainly irreversible, at least in the short term. A newly released study by the Federal Sociological Research Center of Russia’s smaller cities, which has a chapter devoted to settlements in the north, says that some Arctic cities are now declining in size by 10 percent or more every year and that smaller villages are disappearing by the hundreds (Isras.ru, accessed November 14). And a new report shows that Dikson, a 5,000-strong settlement in the Far North, which some at the end of Soviet times christened “the world’s Arctic capital,” has now declined to fewer than 500 people, with no end in sight as most of those leaving are younger professionals and ethnic Russians. The only people left are pensioners and members of indigenous nationalities who practice traditional forms of economic activity and thus cannot support Moscow’s expansive plans (Regnum, December 16, 2019; August 30).
One major reason for this Russian flight is the collapse of the economic basis for many of the settlements along the Arctic; another related but perhaps even more important cause is that these communities have become increasingly isolated in recent years. On the one hand, global warming has meant that these places can no longer rely on the ice roads along the major rivers running north to south, as they did in the past to supply them with food and other necessities (Iarex.ru, January 31, 2021). Given that these settlements are not connected to the rest of the country by highways or rail lines, this is even more critical than one might think. On the other, Moscow, to save money under Russian President Vladimir Putin’s various “optimization” plans, has closed many of the smaller airports in the region and cancelled plans to build highways and railways to connect these places to the rest of Russia (RITM Eurasia, March 7, 2021; Znak, May 27, 2021; Profile, July 25).
The lack of transportation has accelerated this Russian flight, especially in the politically sensitive eastern portions of the Russian Arctic, where China and the US are thought to be most active (East Russia, August 1). As a result, this has led some Russian analysts to argue that Moscow, by failing to stem Russian flight and population collapse, is putting not only the country’s economic development but even its sovereignty and territorial integrity at risk (Jhist.bgu.ru, 2021; NVO, December 2, 2021). This past week, expressions of alarm about such a possibility intensified in response to the appearance of an article suggesting that Washington should seek the return of Wrangel Island in the northern Chukchi Sea, now under Russian control (Stoletie, November 9).
But what may matter even more is that, increasingly, officials and experts in the north have lost confidence that Moscow will do anything to address their problems and therefore feel they must go it alone. They say the center simply does not have the money nor the inclination to develop the infrastructure the Arctic needs; and northerners have to decide on their own which settlements to abandon and which to save (Regnum, January 20, 2021). But such an approach is unlikely to work for three reasons. First, if much of the population in the north does leave and this approach does not stem the exodus, Moscow’s ability to extract resources and promote the Northern Sea Route will be heavily reduced. Second, the ethnic balance in these regions will shift dramatically away from ethnic Russians to the indigenous non-Russian population, many of whom are increasingly hostile toward Moscow (Window on Eurasia, October 8, 25).
Finally, if the Russian population in the region disappears, the activities of outside powers, such as China and the US, are likely to become increasingly important, both economically and politically. Taken together, these developments will almost certainly mean that officials and businesses in the region will increasingly look not just inward but also to Beijing, Brussels or even Washington rather than to Moscow for assistance. Thus, these powers will have more opportunities to provide support and build influence in what will be an ever-less Russian Arctic—thereby creating yet another challenge to Russia’s territorial integrity that Putin cares so much about.