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Conquest of the Arctic: The Expansion of the Polar Bear

Updated: May 23

With approximately 2.5 million Arctic inhabitants and a land coverage of about 53% of the Arctic coastline, Russia has a strong geographic foothold on Arctic conquest. For years Vladimir Putin has advocated for close cooperation between Russia and the Arctic Council However, since the ongoing war in Ukraine and the plethora of sanctions imposed on Russia, Vladimir Putin has focused more on the national interests of Russia in the Arctic, rather than cooperation with the West. 

The first two years of the war and the temporary economic instability that hit the country stalled his ambitions, but recent developments in the country and abroad seem to be blowing a wind of success towards Russia’s conquest of the Arctic. It is my view that just as China waited for its moment to elevate its position in international Arctic affairs, Russia will follow in the same steps but from a more favourable position of geographic dominance.

Russia sees the Arctic Circle as a key part of its territory, and has continuously explored the region since the 16th century, with the Russian expansion towards Siberia. Significant exploration did not occur until the 19th century, when Russian surveyor Boris Andreyevich Vilkitsky discovered a major archipelago in the Arctic during one of his expeditions in 1913. The Soviet era somewhat put aside these expeditions as the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union became the centre of political attention.

After the end of the Cold War, the Arctic slowly resurfaced as a key area for geopolitical conquest. Highly esteemed professors Richard C. Powell and Klaus Dodds have outlined this in their book Polar Geopolitics? Knowledges, Resources, and Legal Regimes, in which they point out that the Arctic has served as the most recent area for resource extractions, regime formations, and diplomatic quarrels. 

In 2007 Russia flamboyantly exhibited their claim when they planted a Russian flag on the Arctic seabed. The flag-planting may only have been symbolic but, 17 years later it seems a more practical display of intent to expand. Of course, a plethora of international issues such as rising alliances, economic treaties, and wars around the globe, affect that expansion. However, the construction of actual infrastructure and energy projects is the most important factor affecting Arctic conquest. It is in this way that Russia will strive to stay ahead of its Western partners.

Over the last decade, Russia has been on a massive construction and exploration drive to open up new trading routes in the Northern Sea, bypassing traditional trading routes that connect Europe with Asia. Two crucial factors contribute to this drive. One is the continuous melting of the ice caps which allows cargo ships to navigate without the help of an icebreaker. This is a massive step towards reducing the time needed to connect both continents while also avoiding potential piracy dangers that lay on the shores of East Africa. The second factor is the ongoing war in Ukraine. In my view, the sanctions and continuous attempts to isolate Russia have produced negative results for the West, as Russia alters its methods of commercial trade for its benefit.

Russia has turned to its Eastern partners, primarily China, to ensure the flow of energy and commercial goods continues. Russia and China have already set their own national goals when it comes to the Arctic Circle, and it seems very clear to me that they are connected by their will to strengthen the new trade routes up north while simultaneously weakening the West.

On more practical matters, Russia, with the help of foreign investments, is building the largest project of the modern global oil industry: a $110 billion megaport on the Taymyr peninsula. The resources needed to develop such a project are huge, given that a whole new infrastructure plan has to be created just to access the oil site. The plan also consists of the creation of several villages, airports, highways, and electricity plants that will host up to half a million workers. What is most extraordinary, however, is that this mega port is only one part of slew of developments in the Arctic. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the ultimate goal is the complete replacement of the traditional shipping route going through the Suez Canal.

As ambitious as this development project is, it could still face obstacles from the West, primarily the U.S. To do that the U.S could rely on its traditional tools of military deterrence - ensuring that Russia does not overestimate its hand in the region - and, of course, continuous sanctions and commercial tariffs. Those are indeed useful options that might stall the growth of Russian and Chinese influence and are methods that have worked in the past on numerous occasions. What I believe, though, is that Russia’s has a clear advantage. Moscow’s ongoing development of the Northern Sea routes have the growing support of third party partners and even, some may say, the support of the traditional allies of the U.S in the Middle East.

Recently, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have joined the intergovernmental organisation BRICS, comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. It is my understanding that the addition of these two particular countries may sound an alarm in the West, and for a good reason. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have both placed significant investments in the area, cooperating closely with Russia. Just last year, Russian nuclear agency Rosatom set up a joint venture with Dubai's DP World to develop container shipping for travel through the Arctic, a move that will greatly increase the development of the ongoing projects in the Northern Sea. This is a significant treaty between the two countries as it formally invites the UAE not only to consider using the new commercial routes up in the Northern Sea but also to be an active participant in their development.

The invitation for active participation also extends to Saudi Arabia. Riyad sees these alternative routes as a potential hub of influence beyond the Middle East. Saudi Arabia and Russia have agreed a $5 billion investment for cooperation on the Arctic LNG 2 project. This move is not only beneficial to Russia but also to Saudi Arabia, as it will potentially allow them to gain an observer status in the Arctic Circle. This would make Saudi Arabia the sole representative of the Gulf countries in the area. It is a deal that brings the nations of the Eastern hemisphere closer together.

Despite Western sanctions, Russia continues its ambitious goals of expansion in the Arctic. The Kremlin’s close cooperation with China and the Gulf countries, means Russia will continue to play its hand in the Arctic. The Western response could affect Russia’s plans, but I believe that a Western response might come too late. With the ongoing wars in Ukraine and Palestine, the U.S. is overstretching its financial capabilities. Additionally, many nations perceive their continued support for Ukraine and Israel, as well their rejection of peace, as acts of aggression. To gain position in the race for the Arctic, the U.S. and its Western allies will need to adjust their tactics because as it stands Russia will not be intimidated. If nothing changes, Russian expansion into the Arctic is imminent.

Image: Kremlin

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