Putin’s Fourth Term: What Next for the Russian Arctic?

(Photo by Marc Lanteigne)

With little fanfare, or surprise, it was announced this month that Russian President Vladimir Putin had easily achieved victory in the first round of presidential elections held this year. With more than 76% of the vote, the Russian leader was given a mandate to govern the Russian Federation for another six years, (or possibly longer).

This campaign unfolded as relations with the United States remained frosty, and diplomatic ties with Great Britain reached new lows over the alleged poisoning of a former Russian intelligence official in the UK earlier this month. Domestically, Russia continues to face numerous economic challenges as Western-backed sanctions, in the wake of the annexation of Crimea and ongoing violence in eastern Ukraine, show no sign of being lifted. However, there are also recent signs that the worst of the economic downturn may be easing, as Russia’s GDP reportedly grew by 1.5 percent in 2017. There is now, however, the question of future roles to be played in the Russian Arctic regions given their growing visibility in the country’s domestic affairs and strategic thinking.

Before 2014, there was much optimism that fossil fuels, especially with new sources to be tapped in Siberia, would provide a windfall for the Russian economy. The ‘double trouble’ created by the post-Ukraine sanctions and the drop in global oil and gas prices may have tempered expectations, but did little to diminish the importance of the Arctic region to the country’s energy sector. Experimental drilling began in the Laptev Sea off Siberia, in April last year, with initial results showing promise in regards to oil deposits, according to a statement [In Russian] by the energy firm Rosneft. With Western energy partners still lacking, (this month, the US firm Exxon Mobil announced that it was withdrawing from some Russian energy projects, citing the sanctions), there is much optimism about emerging energy partnerships with China.

Sino-Russian initiatives connected to a possible ‘Ice Silk Road’ in development such as the Yamal Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) project and associated gas pipelines to Chinese markets, are seen as strong potential contributors to the Russian Arctic economy. It was likely not a coincidence that the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Okrug, where the LNG facilities are based, gave overwhelming support for Mr Putin at the ballot box, with figures suggesting he won over 85% of the votes there. While in nearby Sabetta, on the Yamal Peninsula, the figure was reportedly 95%. Russia’s drive to develop Arctic fossil fuels has also caught the attention of next-door Norway, which has recently called for an acceleration of its own oil and gas surveys in light of potential competition from Moscow.

The potential of Arctic shipping north of Siberia has also been recognised as an economic priority, as the Russian government is hopeful the melting ice cap will open the door to growing numbers of Russian, and also potentially Chinese, Japanese and other Asia-based cargo vessels transiting between the Atlantic and the Pacific. The Russian president vowed during his campaign that Arctic shipping would ‘increase tenfold’ by 2025. While the Northern Sea Route has been touted as an emerging alternative for maritime shipping to the Indian Ocean passages, it remains to be seen when conditions will allow for mass shipping. The majority of this route lies in Russian waters, and Moscow has made it a priority to better monitor the region in anticipation of greater local and foreign traffic.

The growing importance of resources in the Russian Far East and Siberia has also prompted dialogue, and many governmental promises, about security in these regions. In campaign speeches, President Putin stressed the need to protect Russian sovereignty in the far north while not threatening its northern neighbours. These promises were made at a time when other countries were also augmenting their Arctic security policies.

This month, the American Navy engaged in submarine exercises under the Arctic ice, with a British submarine, HMS Trenchant, joining the simulation and becoming the first such UK vessel to enter the Arctic in a decade. These manoeuvres were viewed as a partial response to Russia’s ongoing transfer of military resources to its northern territories. For example, in September 2017, the nuclear icebreaker Sibir, the largest ship of its type, was successfully launched, complementing Russia’s icebreaking fleet of over forty vessels. Putin had argued that Russian icebreakers, especially nuclear-powered vessels, were a crucial component in ensuring the country’s Arctic sovereignty.

Russian relations with Canada have also been difficult since the Ukraine crises, and these differences have on occasion spilled over into the Arctic. Russia and Canada, (along with Denmark), have made competing claims to the Lomonosov Ridge region of the central Arctic. Russian officials noted this month Ottawa would likely forward to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) a revised claim to the region, late this year or early next. After Putin’s re-election was confirmed, the Russian Embassy in Ottawa sharply criticised the Justin Trudeau government for critical comments following the Ukraine vote as well as the British poisoning incident, saying that such a stance might affect future Arctic cooperation. Mr Trudeau also declined, (unlike his American counterpart), to congratulate President Putin on his election win.

Assuming that Mr Putin’s upcoming term does indeed mark his last as Russian president, it is certain that the Arctic regions will form a significant part of Moscow’s strategic and economic plans for the next half-dozen years. How Russia’s ambitious Arctic development plans will come about, and what the effects on the whole of the region will be remain open questions. The answers will also be tied to both domestic politics and how Russia is able to navigate difficult relations with many of its circumpolar northern neighbours.