Thawing Ice Will Give Russia Access to New Resources and Trade Routes
The Arctic is heating up as an area of great power competition and Moscow is way ahead with the highest number of icebreakers.
Russia's surge of Arctic activity reflects the economic significance of the region and the impact of shifting climate patterns that now offer the prospect of an extended Russia maritime frontier. Russia has rebuilt and expanded its Cold War-era security architecture along its Arctic frontier, significantly increased natural gas production from its operations on the Yamal Peninsula, and laid out a 15-year plan to improve land-, air- and sea-based infrastructure connecting the Northern Sea Route to northern Russia and farther south. The thawing Russian coastline is both a strategic opportunity and challenge, one that may fundamentally reshape Russia's relations with its European and Asian neighbors, and with the United States.
One of the core tenets of geopolitics is the significance of geography in setting the stage for foreign and domestic policy. As American geopolitician Nicholas Spykman noted in his 1942 America's Strategy in World Politics, "Geography is the most fundamental factor in the foreign policy of states because it is the most permanent." Geography's importance is often altered by technology, from canals and railroads to new critical minerals or changing energy sources. But rarely does geography itself change enough to alter the constraints and compulsions on states, at least not in a short time frame or outside localized events or disasters. The warming of the Arctic, however, is changing the core realities of Russia's geography, and it is happening at a pace that allows and compels a Russian response.
A key characteristic of geography that has shaped Russia over the centuries has been its lack of riverine connectivity. Unlike Europe or the United States, Russia's rivers rarely served to link agricultural zones and population centers, or connect the interior to the coasts. Rather, the major river drainage systems empty into the landlocked Caspian; into the constrained Black and Baltic seas; and most of all, into the iced-over Arctic Ocean. This constraint also offered a measure of security: Russia historically has proven incredibly resilient to invasion, particularly by sea. This river drainage system was one of the primary characteristics of Russia that led British geographer Sir Halford Mackinder initially to identify the Russian region as the geographical pivot of history, and later to identify it as the Eurasian heartland.
Russia long sought to break out of its continental heartland, pushing for sea access on the Pacific, seeking to expand its frontiers in the Baltic, and pressing south toward India and the Middle East (the latter being the subject of the so-called Great Game between Britain and Russia.) The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5 made the weakness of Russia's limited maritime access manifest. Japan defeated the Russian Pacific fleet based in northern China, and it took Russia's Baltic Fleet — unable to reach East Asia via the Arctic Sea — some seven months to sail around the world only to meet defeat in the Tsushima Strait.
That inaccessibility is changing rapidly. Coastal navigation along the Northern Sea Route now starts earlier in the year, lasts longer and is even reaching the point that several passages have little need for icebreakers. Moscow's response has been to increase investment in both resource extraction and infrastructure development and to rebuild its Cold-War era military positions along the Arctic coast, updating with new equipment and technology. This year, Moscow established a special security council commission on the Arctic, and Russia produced a 15-year plan for Arctic development.
Russia has some 24,000 kilometers of Arctic coastline, compared to less than 20,000 kilometers of total U.S. oceanic coastline. The Russian Arctic accounts for more than 10 percent of national GDP, some 90 percent of Russian natural gas production and is a major contributor of strategic minerals, including nickel and palladium. An early sign of the potential future value of Russian Arctic ports came in the early years of World War II, when the allies supplied Russia through Murmansk and Arkhangelsk. The rest of the Northern Sea Route, however, remained unusable, and played little role in Russia's support of anti-Japanese fighters in the Far East, nor in the final days of the war when Russia declared war on Japan.
Today's changing climate is allowing not only greater access to the Russian Arctic frontier, but more reliable transportation of key commodities out of the Arctic. Already, Russian LNG from the Arctic has shipped to as far away as India, and this year saw the first tanker shipment of Russian Arctic oil to China. Russia has plans to develop large ports at each end of the Northern Sea Route for both containers and commodities, allowing ice-class vessels to move more frequently within Arctic waters and shifting cargos to traditional vessels for the rest of the journey to Europe or Asia.
China has shown strong interest in using the Russian Arctic seaways, and has been a major funder and consumer of Russian Arctic natural gas production. Japan and South Korea have also shown interest in the Northern Sea Route and Russian resources, and Russian and Finnish companies are cooperating on a possible undersea fiber cable through the Russian Arctic connecting Northern Europe to Japan. An opening Arctic provides opportunities for resource extraction, transportation and communications connectivity, and provides Russia with a shorter maritime route between its east and west coasts, the Northern Sea Route serving in that sense as a greatly extended Panama Canal.
This international interest may also prove a challenge to Russia. China is funding Russian Arctic resource extraction, but it is also carrying out its own energy exploration in Arctic waters, and is exploring ways to bypass the Northern Sea Route, or at least the requirements Russia puts on its use. China's reach into the Arctic matches a push through Central Asia and one through the Indian Ocean, all parts of the Belt and Road Initiative, and together wrapping around Russia and its traditional areas of influence, forcing an eventual Russian response. The opening Arctic seas have spurred Russia to restrengthen its Arctic defenses, but this has reawakened the United States and Europe to the strategic challenges of the same region, and seen renewed defense activity and repositioning of forces to match.
What once served as a largely impenetrable wall of ice protecting Russia's back is now an opening avenue exposing a long Russian coastline with little infrastructure and few population centers. Russia's Arctic coastline is largely empty. The government is offering incentives to increase migration to the region, to start businesses and develop infrastructure, but even with the melting sea ice, the area remains inhospitable and difficult territory. Changing permafrost patterns and poor quality construction and maintenance of Soviet-era infrastructure are adding to the cost of future development.
Most Russian Arctic development is in the west along the Kola Peninsula and at the Yamal and Gydan peninsulas, where the Ob River empties into the Kara Sea. There are also mineral developments in the Arctic areas of Krasnoyarsk Krai and The Republic of Sakha (Yakutia), as well as plans for expanded port infrastructure on the Chukchi Peninsula at the eastern end of the Northern Sea Route. The nearly 2 million people in Russian Arctic territories may be the largest Arctic national population, but this is far shy of what it would take to develop a truly connected and robust region capable of sustaining a broad economic base or supplying the manpower and presence necessary to ensure security along the long opening coastline.
What to Watch
For Russia, then, the opening Arctic provides both opportunity and risk. For much of Russia's history, the country has been oriented south, looking to spread its influence and at times its borders to warmer seas. The Arctic was a shield, even during the Cold War when the polar route was the shortest for strategic aircraft and nuclear missiles. An open Arctic coastline increases foreign activity along Russia's north, and draws increasing interest from Asian nations seeking resources and routes. Russia's FSB has already raised concerns that foreign actors are trying to use Arctic native populations in Russia to undermine Russian strategic security, and the government has established a new review of foreign investment and economic activity in the Arctic to ensure Russian national interests.
New Russian naval development will need to take regular Arctic operations into consideration, not merely through the construction of more than a dozen new icebreakers, but from the design of ships themselves. The longer coastline and increased maritime traffic require a robust observation and communications infrastructure, linked into territorial defense and search and rescue. Russian aviation is expanding Arctic operations, from plans to add heavy drones to maintain surveillance to additional fighter aircraft, and even experiments once again as the Soviets did during the Cold War era with establishing temporary airfields on ice to ensure expanded operational capabilities. Russia is also modifying existing weapons systems and designing new ones for Arctic conditions.
Arctic infrastructure, resource extraction, transit safety and national security all require expenditure, and while the Arctic is a critical component of Russia's GDP, it does not provide the needed resources to fund the rising infrastructure and development needs. Yet for Moscow, Arctic development isn't an option, it is increasingly a necessity. The Russians may have a head start in rebuilding Arctic defense structures and in deploying and building icebreakers, but they are also dealing with a 24,000-kilometer coastline that now needs securing. In the global naval race, Russia remains far behind the United States and China. Russia's Arctic development is a new priority for Moscow, adding to its existing long land borders, its troubled relations along its former Soviet European frontier, its expanded activity in the Middle East and North Africa, and in the face of a rising China. As we look over the next decade, the shift in Russian geography will play a significant role in how Russia reassesses its international relations and its national priorities.
Russia's Emerging Arctic Maritime Frontier is republished with the permission of Stratfor Worldview, a geopolitical forecasting and intelligence publication from RANE, the Risk Assistance Network + Exchange. As the world's leading geopolitical intelligence platform, Stratfor Worldview brings global events into valuable perspective, empowering businesses, governments and individuals to more confidently navigate their way through an increasingly complex international environment. Stratfor is a RANE (Risk Assistance Network + Exchange) company.