The “Strategy for the Development of the Russian Arctic Zone and Provision of National Security Through 2035” (Pravo.gov.ru, October 26, 2020) highlights, among others, three crucial aspects. First, it de facto introduces a “region-specific approach” in the strategically important though problem-riddled Arctic region, where special priority will be given to Arkhangelsk Oblast, the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia), Republic of Karelia, Komi Republic, Murmansk Oblast, the Chukotka Autonomous Okrug, Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug (YaNAO) and Nenets Autonomous Okrug (see EDM, November 19, 2020). Second, the document outlines strategic project and development goals that most importantly include general marine infrastructure (seaports and transportation routes/lanes) located at strategic junctures of the Northern Sea Route (NSR) in the Barents, White and Pechora seas. And third, the document emphasizes the necessity of expanding the digitalization of services in the Russian High North, particularly in the realm of cargo transportation and delivery (see EDM, November 9, 2020). This third aspect of Moscow’s latest Arctic development strategy now seems to be gaining prominence and notably fits within the broader goal (adopted in 2017) of digitalizing the entire Russian economy (Government.ru, July 31, 2017).
Three examples, in particular, demonstrate Russia’s commitment to expanding the digital connectivity of the Arctic. First, perhaps, the most ambitious and grandiose plan developed by Russia is the project envisaging the creation of a 14,000-kilometer fiber optic cable stretching along and beyond the entire NSR. The project, whose cost has been preliminarily estimated at $800 million–$1.2 billion, would link Asia and Europe with an uninterrupted data trunkline offering data speeds as high as 200 terabytes per second (see EDM, January 26, 2021). The megaproject, dubbed “Arctic Connect,” promises to become a turning point in establishing digital infrastructure between the two continents, while at the same time allocating a special role to Russia, turning it into a “continental digital bridge.” Some concrete steps in this direction have already been made. Specifically, works in several Russian Arctic regions—where the key role is played by MegaFon, the second-largest mobile phone operator and the third-largest telecommunications operator in Russia—have already been initiated. For example, in Sakha, MegaFon has not only pledged to enhance internet coverage in the region in general but also to start integrating digital technologies in the energy sector of the local economy (Neftegaz.ru, February 1). In the Komi Republic, the key goal pursued by MegaFon within the scope of the Arctic Connect project is integrating new digital technologies in this region to increase the operational efficiency of locally operating oil- and coal-extracting companies (mainly in the Pechora coal basin). In a related comment, Vladimir Uyba, the acting head of the Komi Republic, stated that the realization of this megaproject has a strategic meaning for his region since it will convert Komi into “one of the main junctions securing the technological development of the Russian Arctic” and an indispensable element of the NSR (Abnews.ru, February 26). Finally, in the Chukotka Autonomous Okrug, the main objective (aside from work on the Arctic Connect megaproject itself) is achieving a “qualitatively new level of internet connection and improving communications” (Newdaynews.ru, February 5).
A second, less grandiose, though perhaps equally important aspect of the digitalization of the Arctic is linked to the Russian state-owned oil giant Rosneft. Namely, the company has been emphasizing integrating the most up-to-date digital technologies to improve its operations and extraction practices (in 2020, more than 800 types of various technological solutions received patents). Specifically, two main projects are being developed as part of this goal. The first one—pursued by Rosneft together with Lomonosov Moscow State University (MGU) and the non-governmental development institution Innopraktika—is concerned with technological solutions for accurate analysis and collection of information related to the geological structure of soil. Ultimately, when fully developed, this technology is expected to help find unique ways of drilling in various types of terrain. The other of these initiatives—to become fully operable in 2021—is premised on the development of domestic information technologies in the domain of geological modelling vital for oil engineering. By working on this project, Rosneft is said to be introducing new solutions to overarching problems in Russia’s oil-extraction industry. But at the same time—and as is vigorously accentuated by its corporate management—Rosneft is overcoming sanctions-related deficiencies, acting in line with the main principles of the import-substitution strategy introduced by the Russian government after 2014 (TASS, February 16).
The third indication of Moscow’s focus on digital solutions for the High North can be observed in the ruling elite’s deliberations over how to convert the Arctic’s challenging climate conditions—typically perceived as a major disadvantage—into a strategic strength. Specifically, Dmitry Chernyshenko (Russia’s deputy prime minister for tourism, sport, culture and communications) stated that conditions in the Arctic region are ideal for the deployment of digital data centers, which are notorious for producing extreme levels of heat that must be mitigated. According to him, the frigid temperatures of the High North during most of the year could result in significantly lower maintenance costs compared to other regions. He also stated that by exploiting the local climate conditions properly, Russia could use the Arctic region for mining of cryptocurrency (which similarly generates substantial heat and uses a lot of energy due to the vast computation power required). Along the same vein, the senator from Pskov Oblast, Andrey Turchak, has referenced the Swedish example, where local climactic conditions are used to naturally cool data storage centers. Turchak urged the government to begin work on a comprehensive roadmap and elaborate specific plans on how to achieve this in the Russian Arctic (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, November 10, 2020).
Despite some negative forecasts, Russia is likely to achieve many of its High North digital connectivity objectives, including the Arctic Connect fiber optic cable megaproject. This primarily stems from the fact that both the European Union (Submarinenetworks.com, accessed March 8, 2021) and China are interested in this happening, meaning that the necessary resources and political support will probably be found and allocated.