The Russian Arctic is remote, sparsely populated, and underdeveloped. As with the rest of the Arctic, this trifecta of challenges lends itself to organized, state-sponsored development. Accordingly, the Russian Federation recently unveiled a 15 year Arctic plan. “Basic Principles of Russian Federation State Policy in the Arctic to 2035” is an ambitious, goal-setting white paper in line with Russia’s previous Arctic policy.
Infrastructure and the North Sea Route
Infrastructure investment is slated to increase substantially. By 2035, the Federation will overhaul four airports, significantly expand preexisting railway and seaport networks, and construct at least 40 Arctic-capable ships. State gas and oil conglomerates will oversee the development of the North Sea Route (NSR). Today, the NSR hosts nearly 30 million tons of shipped goods. By 2035, Russia hopes to increase this to 80 million tons. In pursuit of this lofty goal, all new fiber-optic communication cables will be laid on the NSR seabed.
Poverty, Petrochemicals, and Industrialization
Unemployment and poverty have plagued the Russian Arctic for generations. As mentioned above, infrastructure development is a core component of the 2035 plan’s anti-poverty measures. Tax incentives are on offer for companies that invest in Arctic petrochemical projects. However, the plan goes farther. Direct payouts will be given to Russians who relocate to the High North. Demographic decline poses a real challenge to future exploitation of the region’s resources. Environmental effects, though considered, are of secondary importance compared to the national security implications of Siberian poverty, depopulation, and underdevelopment.
Territorial Integrity and Careful Cooperation
The Russian government rightfully sees China as a potential threat to its sovereignty. As such, Arctic cooperation has been reframed in terms of ‘stable mutual benefit’ versus unconditional cooperation. Russia is keen on developing investment relationships with other Arctic Council observer states to its east, like South Korea and Japan. Reducing reliance on Chinese capital is of concern for Russia, but policymakers are careful to avoid derailing the current Sino-Russian relationship and its ‘stable mutual benefit’.
Military modernization and ‘defensive military development’ remains a priority. The planned upgrades Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems will further integrate Russian Arctic military capabilities. However, the 2035 plan emphasizes international bodies and diplomatic organs as the primary means of ensuring territorial integrity. Russia is on track to hold the Arctic Council Presidency in 2021. The Federation accordingly seeks to empower the organization in dispute resolution, policymaking and so on. Furthermore, Russia will continue pressing its claims via the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Responding to the 2035 Plan
Russia’s 2035 plan is sound Arctic policy, emphasizing national security and much needed regional development. Arctic-American security and quality of life depends on a similarly long-term vision for Alaska. The United States must embrace infrastructure development, anti-poverty policy, and military modernization to defend its interests and people.