Russian Arctic goals: Do they center on economy or military?

As global warming steadily erodes the Arctic ice sheets, exposing new resources, the Kremlin is preparing to extend year-round economic activities into what it hopes will be a greatly enlarged zone of Russian control. It’s also banking on the Northeast Passage to competitor the Suez Canal.

Murmansk, a city of about 300,000 near the border with Norway, already has a modernized commercial port. But experts say there is a lot of room for expansion.

Why We Wrote This

With the Arctic melting, the Kremlin hopes the Northeast Passage could competitor the Suez Canal. But Russia’s military presence in the north has its rivals questioning its priorities. Part two of two.

And while Moscow’s northern ambitions are often discussed in military terms, experts say the military buildup looms large in Western perceptions because geography handed Murmansk that fate. The area is one of the only places in Russia’s far north that’s dependably ice-free year-round, plus it has open-ocean access. So Russia naturally nevertheless bases about two-thirds of its nuclear missile submarines there, along with the big surface ships of the Northern Fleet.

“It’s hard to say that there is a big military buildup here, compared to what we’ve always had,” says Vitaly Akimov, spokesperson for the Northern Chamber of Commerce in Murmansk. “But we are getting more icebreakers, and that says a lot about what Russia’s goals are. We want economic development up here.”

MURMANSK, Russia

High up on the general, glass-fronted, and largely automated bridge of the 50 Years of Victory, longtime captain Dmitry Lobusov says that there is no ice “born of the sea surface” that his ship can’t manager. Which method, seemingly, that he doesn’t tangle with icebergs.

But for anything less, the towering, double-hulled icebreaker the size of a nine-story building is unfazed. Its two nuclear reactors generate so much strength that the ship has been able to smash its way by to the North Pole almost 60 times since it was commissioned 14 years ago. In fact, the ship often takes groups of up to 100 tourists to visit the Pole, at around $30,000 apiece.

Russia’s state-owned Atomflot company currently operates five such giant nuclear-powered icebreakers, an awesome symbol of Russia’s determination to press forward the former Soviet Union’s strategic priority to rule and develop the Arctic. Within this decade the fleet will be joined by at the minimum five more nuclear-powered icebreakers, each about twice as big and powerful as the present ships.

Why We Wrote This

With the Arctic melting, the Kremlin hopes the Northeast Passage could competitor the Suez Canal. But Russia’s military presence in the north has its rivals questioning its priorities. Part two of two.

As global warming steadily erodes the Arctic ice sheets, exposing new undersea fisheries and oil fields for exploitation, the Kremlin is preparing the method to extend year-round economic activities into what it hopes will be a greatly enlarged zone of Russian control. It’s also banking on the Northeast Passage – the 3,500 mile northern sea route between Asia and Europe over the top of Russia – to become a major shipping different to the Suez Canal.

Russia’s competitors in the Arctic worry about the presence of the Russian military in the vicinity, and what it could signal for its future. But that is a consequence of geographical and climate realities, Russian officials claim, and that the government’s goal is to bolster the economic possible of Arctic ports like Murmansk, not its military might in the far north.

Nikita Greydin/Baltic Shipyard/Reuters/File

The nuclear-powered Arktika, the first of Russia’s newest generation of icebreakers, is seen during the sea trials in the Gulf of Finland, Baltic Sea, Russia, June 28, 2020.

“It’s hard to say that there is a big military buildup here, compared to what we’ve always had,” says Vitaly Akimov, spokesperson for the Northern Chamber of Commerce in Murmansk. “But we are getting more icebreakers, and that says a lot about what Russia’s goals are. We want economic development up here.”

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