Window on Eurasia: Russian Interests in Arctic Seen Under Threat

by Paul A. Goble  |  June 13, 2005  |  ARTICLES

The Russian Federation is rapidly losing its positions in the Arctic Sea basin as a result of the actions of other countries in the wake of the demise of the Soviet Union, the outflow of the population from the country’s northernmost territories, and Moscow’s failure to invest in the infrastructure of this region.

That pessimistic conclusion as well as the reasons for it were advanced by participants at a scientific-historical conference that took place in Murmansk at the end of May and that yesterday was reported by the Russian nationalist “Russkaya Liniya”  Internet portal (http://www.rusk.ru/newsdata.php?idar=103325).

Participants in the conference suggested that the failure of the Yeltsin government to stand up for Russia’s interests in this region ha donly encouraged other countries, particularly the United States, Japan, Germany and Norway to move into a region that Moscow has traditionally considered its domain.

With Moscow’s blessing, the United States and Japan were able to expand their commercial fishing activities and petrochemical explorations on the continental shelf near Chukotka and Kamchata.  More recently, Norway has expanded its economic activities in the Western Arctic unilaterally and at Russia’s expense. 

And Germany and Japan have advanced the idea that the Arctic should be viewed as a zone of common use, something that the conference participants said would allow other countries to establish a presence there and thus further threaten Russia’s interests in the Arctic. 

Up to now, the conference attendees said, this penetration into the Arctic north of the Russian Federation has been only economic in nature.  But several speakers suggested that Norway’s new outposts could in the future be quickly converted to military use, saying that NATO had helped Oslo to build them. 

Russia’s presence both in the Arctic Sea and throughout the northern regions of the Russian Federation have been declining in recent years, attendess said. Despite that, there are still more than a thousand Russians working in the coalmines of Spitzbergen. And an unspecified number of others are exploring for oil and gas there.

The northern regions of the Russian Federation, the conference was told, contribute 25 percent of the national income of the country as a whole and are  responsible for approximately 60 percent of its hard currency earnings, figures that would appear to justify a much more active investment program.

Unfortunately, the “Russkaya liniya” report says, Moscow throughout the 1990s largely ignored the North both in terms of its economic contribution and its role in Russian national security. It allowed old infrastructure to decline and failed to support the construction of new.

The only exceptions to this bleak pattern, conference participants said, were the Murmansk shipping company which has somehow continued to operate and the Norilsk Nickel corporation which is responsible for more than 90 percent of the tonnage carried by that shipping concern.

Elsewhere across the Arctic region, however, Russia’s prospects are increasingly grim, conference participants said. Indeed, the “Russkaya liniya” site concluded, if Moscow does not increase attention to the region in the near future, Russia’s “polar shores will quite soon become [not only] far away but alien as well.”

That prediction almost certainly is hyperbolic, but it appears to reflect the views of those who assembled in Murmansk last month as well as many other Russians who are concerned that they must now worry about a threat to their country from perhaps the only direction of the compass that most had thought secure.