From the end of the 19th and throughout the 20th century, Russian leaders believed that rapid, mass industrialization would modernize Russia, and make their country competitive with the West. Yet, Russia (and, later, the Soviet Union) was never able to match the productive powers of the Western states. By 2000, as George Friedman assessed, “Russia shifted its strategy.” Friedman correctly argued, “Instead of focusing on industrial development […] the Russians reinvented themselves as exporters of natural resources, particularly energy, but also minerals, agricultural products, lumber, and precious metals.”
That Russian move had two effects on the country’s fragile post-Cold War recovery, one bad, one good: first, it ensured that Russia would mirror the economic profile of a developing country rather than a profile of a developed one. In fact, the socio-political profile of Russia is beginning to mirror that of Nigeria or Kazakhstan.
The second effect was more positive, however. In the 2000s, the global price of oil and natural gas went to historic highs. Thanks to Russia’s investment into its massive reservoir of oil and natural gas, the Russians benefited mightily from that spike in prices. This, in turn, allowed Moscow to cherry-pick which other parts of its sclerotic economy it wanted to modernize. The money generated from Moscow’s massive investment also ensured that Vladimir Putin’s conservative, nationalist-imperialist vision of rehabilitating the Russian Armed Forces could become a reality.
Putin’s Arctic Dream
It was Vladimir Putin who pioneered the move away from modernization through industrialization and into the resource extraction economy. From 2006-2014, the Russian economy and military benefited greatly from the move. In 2008, Putin’s hand picked successor, Dmitry Medvedev announced that Russia would next focus its attention on making the Arctic Circle a Russian backyard. According to Michael T. Klare, who has been covering the renewed global competition natural resources for decades, the Russian National Security Council “adopted a long-term strategic plan for the region that calls for the Arctic to become Russia’s main source of oil and natural gas by the year 2020.”
In 2008, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) reported that the Arctic contains about 1,670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, 44 billion barrels of liquid natural gas, and 90 billion barrels of oil (though most of that resource is offshore). Russia has also positioned itself well in the mineral extraction business beyond oil and natural gas. The Arctic holds large quantities of untapped gold, nickel, and iron and Russia already claims almost 40 percent of the Arctic.
The other Arctic powers, such as Canada, the United States, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden, have done little to enhance their geostrategic position relative to Russia’s in the Arctic. China, a country with no physical border on the Arctic, strangely has made claims on it and likely will be working with Russia to develop their Northern Sea Route. But no country has a claim on the Arctic the size of Russia’s and neither has any other country made real moves to benefit from their claim.
Russia is also much further ahead of the West when it comes to exploiting the Arctic in terms of international shipping routes. While the United States debates whether or climate change is a natural phenomenon or manmade, the Russians have proceeded from the reality that there are drastic climate shifts, regardless of the reason, underway in the Arctic. Whereas the Northern Sea Route was only accessible for a few weeks out of the year (making the use of this shorter route unfeasible for global shipping firms), it is now accessible from July to October. And, most estimates state that in the next few decades, the Northern Sea Route will be passable for regular shipping at least during the entire summer.
Using the data available regarding the melting sea ice, the Kremlin has charted a pathway for developing what many believe could be Russia’s version of the Suez Canal by 2050. In fact, this Northern Sea Route could be a serious rival to the large amounts of global shipping between Europe and Asia that passes through the Suez Canal. The Northern Sea Route runs from Murmansk (near Norway) to the Bering Strait near Alaska.
Will the Arctic Be Russian?
Yet, even without significant loss of ice, Moscow is building a fleet of nuclear icebreakers, so as to make international investment in the Russian-dominated Arctic more likely. It is improbable that Russia’s Northern Sea Route would replace the Suez Canal any time soon. But, as with their initial investment in energy in the 2000s, Moscow is making long-term strategic plans.
Russia anticipates that their Northern Sea Route will become a major international shipping lane between Europe and Asia, so much so that Moscow announced a massive infrastructure investment of around $500 million last year through 2021. The plan also involves enhancing port infrastructure (which is shoddy at best) along this once-scarcely used route to help to woo Western shipping firms.
In 2018, Maersk, a major world shipping company, did a proof of concept by sending one of its large, 42,000-ton ice-class vessels through the Northern Sea Route. It became the first container ship successfully to navigate the northern Arctic, as France 24 reported last year.
How Should America Respond?
The United States should propose a joint development deal with Canada over the Northwest Passage, which is shaping up to be a rival Arctic transshipment lane, in order to compete with Russia’s potential northern Suez Canal. Presently, Canada and the United States are in a decades-long dispute over whether the Northwest Passage is Canadian territory or is, in fact, international waters. Rather than fight Ottawa in an endless diplomatic battle, Washington should remind Canada that, thanks to its holding of Alaska, the U.S. should be given a degree of influence in the Passage. And, together, the two great North American powers should ensure that the Northwest Passage can easily compete with Russia’s Northern Sea Route.
Meanwhile, the United States ought to completely revitalize its fleet with a massive infusion of federal dollars to build up its own nuclear ice breaking capacity. At present, the Coast Guard just operates two traditional icebreakers—one of which is 12 years past its operational life expectancy—whereas Russia has at least six (and counting) nuclear-powered icebreakers. For the United States to compete, it must do more in the Arctic than it has done. Whether or not the ice in the Arctic melts away by 2050 as the Russians assume it will, the fact remains that with their larger fleet of nuclear icebreakers, the Russians will still be able to develop their transshipment lane more than either Canada or the United States will be able to develop their own passage.
The Arctic is too vital of a strategic zone to leave to the Russians. It’s time for Washington to get serious about competing for access and dominance in the Arctic.