Russia Reinforces its Arctic Policies (With China Alongside)

[Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
For almost two decades, the Russian government sought to redevelop its Arctic regions after a long period of neglect, not only recognising the growing economic importance of Russia’s northernmost lands but also due to concerns about other regional powers seeking to enhance their own presence in the Arctic Ocean. Much international attention has been placed on the ongoing policies of the Vladimir Putin government to re-open cold war era military bases and establish new installations, with the ‘Northern Clover’ (Северный клевер) installation on Siberia’s Kotelny Island / Остров Котельный and the larger and flashier ‘Arctic Trefoil’ (Арктический трилистник) base at Alexandra Land / Земля Александры, in the Franz Josef Land region of Siberia.

These endeavours not only recognise the growing strategic importance of the Arctic, in Moscow`s view, but also the potential for the Russian Arctic to become a secondary maritime trade route connecting Asia with Northern Europe. As well there exists  and the possibility of great power competition emerging in the region as tepid diplomatic relations between Russia and the West show few signs of improvement. However, the rebuilding of the military infrastructure along Russia’s Arctic coastlines is but one element of Moscow’s new thinking on the region, and many other components of Russian Arctic policy are beginning to include its big neighbour to the southeast, China.

Signs of a deepening in Russian Arctic policies, including in regards to the Northern Sea Route (NSR) in the Arctic Ocean, were abundant at the recently concluded International Arctic Forum in St Petersburg, the fifth such meeting Russia has held to highlight its government’s regional interests. During the event, numerous business agreements were signed with an eye towards Siberian economic development, including in the areas of energy, education and cultural exchanges, mining, land transportation and shipbuilding. The conference reportedly hosted more than 3600 representatives from Russian and international interests, as well as the leaders of four Nordic countries (Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden).

These announcements follow the release of a five-year plan detailed [In Russian] by the Russian government in December of last year to support, along with private industries, development projects worth upwards of 5.5 trillion roubles (US$86 billion) on energy, resources and infrastructure in the Russian Arctic until 2025. There is also an ambitious call, as part of the ‘May Decrees’ (майские указы) issued by President Putin last year, to bolster Russian shipping via the NSR to eighty million tonnes, (up from approximately eighteen million tonnes in 2018), by 2024, a goal which will require an expansion of Russia’s already significant icebreaker program. However, at the Russian Arctic conference, Aleksey Likhachev, head of the Russian nuclear power firm Rosatom (Росатом), made a more audacious claim that NSR shipping could actually grow to 92.6 million tonnes in five years.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at the International Arctic Forum in St Petersburg [Photo by Gunhild Hoogensen Gjørv]
In his remarks at the St Petersburg event, President Putin suggested that by 2035, Russia would have an icebreaker fleet featuring thirteen heavy icebreakers, including nine nuclear powered icebreaking ships, and upgraded ports on either side of the NSR, specifically in Murmansk on the Kola Peninsula bordering Norway and Finland, and Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky on the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia’s Far East; (this week, France’s energy firm Total announced that it was interested in investing as much as ten percent into the development of the two ports).

Other new Arctic policies which the Putin government identified since the beginning of this year included new regulations [In Russian] for foreign vessels seeking to use the NSR for cargo transits. These include the stipulations that foreign ships give Moscow at least forty-five days notice before commencing an NSR transit, with the specifics of the vessel, including size, weight and engine type, submitted to Russian authorities in advance, with a Russian maritime pilot to be stationed on the vessel in question. The argument made by the Russian government is that such measures were necessary both due to environmental concerns and the growing numbers of vessels seeking to use the NSR, leading to questions about ensuring maritime safety.

However, these rules provoked strong criticism from the United States, which has traditionally viewed [pdf] the NSR as an international waterway and not as historical waters as claimed by Russia and the Soviet Union before it. As one US editorial argued, Washington should not allow the Arctic Ocean to become Russia’s ‘frigid Caribbean’, and suggested that the restrictions on NSR use were inconsistent with international law regarding the right of innocent passage [pdf]. In February this year, a US Admiral went further with his criticism of Moscow’s proposed NSR rules by stating that the Arctic was ‘nobody’s lake’. Russia has also continued to promote its argument for jurisdiction over the Lomonosov Ridge in the central Arctic Ocean, which if accepted by the United Nations would result in the legal extension of the Russian continental shelf into the waterway.

The US has also recently expressed concerns about the emerging linkages between Russia and China in the Arctic, especially as the region has now been officially incorporated into China’s Belt and Road (yidai yilu 一带一路) initiative, representing the ‘northern tier’ of China’s expanding network of maritime ‘Silk Road’ trading routes. China was well-represented at the St Petersburg meeting, and one major announcement to come out of the event involving Beijing was the creation of a China-Russia Arctic Research Centre (E Zhong beiji yanjiu zhongxin 俄中北极研究中心 / Китайско-Российского Арктического Научно-Исследовательского Центра).

This new Arctic research hub was the result of an agreement [In Russian] signed by representatives of the Moscow-based Russian Academy of Sciences’ Shirshov Institute for Ocean Studies and China’s National Laboratory for Marine Science and Technology in Qingdao. Plans include the establishment of a joint study plan [In Chinese] for regional scientific research areas, including climate change issues, by next year. China has a similar research agreement with the Northern European Arctic states, namely the China-Nordic Arctic Research Centre (CNARC), founded in 2013.

Russia’s ‘Arctic Trefoil’ base, Franz Josef Land [Photo via / Wikipedia]
This week, Russia’s ambassador to China, Andrey Denisov, was upbeat about the growing number of opportunities for Sino-Russian Arctic cooperation, noting in an interview with the South China Morning Post that Chinese financial support was essential for many of Moscow’s Arctic infrastructure plans. The ambassador also stated that negotiations between the two governments on the specifics of the Power of Siberia 2 (Сила Сибири 2) project which, if successful, would see a new route created for Siberian natural gas shipments to China, were proceeding well. In addition to Beijing’s investment capabilities in the Arctic, Chinese technology in the areas of energy extraction and unmanned transport also make the country an attractive partner for developing Russian Arctic interests, as one regional expert recently noted.

The prospect of closer cooperation between Beijing in Moscow in Arctic affairs has further rattled foreign policymakers in Washington, and it was suggested that this partnership may factor heavily into an upcoming Arctic policy statement being prepared by the Donald Trump administration. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hinted he may attend next month’s Arctic Council Ministerial meeting in Rovaniemi as a response to growing Chinese visibility in the Arctic. American concerns over a potential Sino-Russian ‘duumvirate’ in the Arctic, however, also reflect Washington’s own anaemic policies in the region.

Other than an agreement to build a new icebreaker, at a cost of an estimated US$925 million or more, for the US Coast Guard, the only other Arctic policy of note which emerged from the Trump government was an attempt to overturn a ban on offshore oil and gas drilling, implemented by President Barack Obama. A ruling from an Alaskan court in March of this year, stating that the move was unlawful and an overreach of presidential authority, effectively stymied Trump’s plans.

Although Russia remains sensitive about its Arctic sovereignty, especially as the region assumes a greater priority in the Putin government’s strategic calculations, agreements with China in Arctic development projects are likely to increase as Beijing views the Arctic as a rising strategic priority and Russian relations with the West continue to be strained.