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Alexandr Sergunin

Doctor of Political Science, professor at Saint Petersburg state university, RIAC expert

When a year draws to a close, tradition dictates that we take stock of the past 12 months and plan for the future. What developments has 2018 seen in the Arctic and, to paraphrase Pushkin, “what fate is our next year brewing”?

2018 did not bring with it any unexpected solutions or, conversely, any dramatic events prompting a sharp exacerbation in the region. For instance, the President of Finland’s “breakthrough idea” of an “Arctic summit” did not materialize. Finland will continue to chair the Arctic Council until the spring of 2019, and such a summit would sound a powerful chord at the end of the country’s northern “work.” However, Donald Trump’s sceptical attitude to such events, where he would be wary of attempts to talk him into going back to the 2015 Paris Agreement and convince him to conclude some new multilateral agreements on the Arctic, truly put the notion to bed.

On the other hand, the grim predictions of some Western analysts to the effect that the Ukrainian and Syrian crises would produce a negative effect on other regions, including the Arctic, where various powers would step up their struggle for control over natural resources, and that the military confrontation between NATO and Russia would expand, did not come true either. The forecasts of China’s expansion in the Arctic under the slogan of developing the “Polar Silk Road” initiative, part of the larger “One Belt One Road,” also came to naught. Beijing was quite constructive and demonstrated in every possible way its respect for the sovereignty of the Arctic nations.

As for Moscow, it continued the consistent implementation of its socioeconomic development of the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation (AZRF) programme in 2018. The Yamal LNG plant reached its design capacity. Seven out of fifteen icebreaker-class LNG carriers capable of delivering freight to customers all year round already sail the Northern Sea Route (NSR), transporting gas from the Port of Sabetta. Novatek plans to build another LNG plant (Arctic LNG-3) at the Salmanovskoye (Utrenneye) oil and gas field in the north of the Gydan Peninsula. In summer 2018, Novatek discovered the large Severo-Obsk field in the Gulf of Ob that might require building a third LNG plant.

Russia’s bilateral relations with individual states involved in Arctic affairs developed in a satisfactory manner. Joint steps are being taken with Norway to protect the marine biological resources of the Barents Sea, prevent poaching and improve collaboration in search and rescue operations for persons suffering distress in the Barents Sea.

In 2018, Russia and the United States achieved an agreement on approving routes for vessels travelling through the Bering Strait and in the Bering Sea. Information on the agreement was submitted to the International Maritime Organization. The parties agreed to establish six bilateral lanes and six areas to be avoided for safe navigation in the Bering Sea and the strait between two oceans. The map of the lanes will allow countries to avoid the many shallows, reefs and islands beyond the lanes and reduce the risk of environmental disasters.

On the whole, the situation that has shaped up in the Arctic in 2018 can be generally described with the English saying “back to normalcy.”

When a year draws to a close, tradition dictates that we take stock of the past 12 months and plan for the future. What developments has 2018 seen in the Arctic and, to paraphrase Pushkin, “what fate is our next year brewing”?

2018 did not bring with it any unexpected solutions or, conversely, any dramatic events prompting a sharp exacerbation in the region. For instance, the President of Finland’s “breakthrough idea” of an “Arctic summit” did not materialize. Finland will continue to chair the Arctic Council until the spring of 2019, and such a summit would sound a powerful chord at the end of the country’s northern “work.” However, Donald Trump’s sceptical attitude to such events, where he would be wary of attempts to talk him into going back to the 2015 Paris Agreement and convince him to conclude some new multilateral agreements on the Arctic, truly put the notion to bed.

On the other hand, the grim predictions of some Western analysts to the effect that the Ukrainian and Syrian crises would produce a negative effect on other regions, including the Arctic, where various powers would step up their struggle for control over natural resources, and that the military confrontation between NATO and Russia would expand, did not come true either. The forecasts of China’s expansion in the Arctic under the slogan of developing the “Polar Silk Road” initiative, part of the larger “One Belt One Road,” also came to naught. Beijing was quite constructive and demonstrated in every possible way its respect for the sovereignty of the Arctic nations.

Andrey Zagorsky, Andrey Todorov:
Integrated Marine Management in the Arctic

On the whole, the situation that has shaped up in the Arctic in 2018 can be generally described with the English saying “back to normalcy.”

As for Moscow, it continued the consistent implementation of its socioeconomic development of the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation (AZRF) programme in 2018. The Yamal LNG plant reached its design capacity. Seven out of fifteen icebreaker-class LNG carriers capable of delivering freight to customers all year round already sail the Northern Sea Route (NSR), transporting gas from the Port of Sabetta. Novatek plans to build another LNG plant (Arctic LNG-3) at the Salmanovskoye (Utrenneye) oil and gas field in the north of the Gydan Peninsula. In summer 2018, Novatek discovered the large Severo-Obsk field in the Gulf of Ob that might require building a third LNG plant.

LNG is mostly shipped to countries in East and Southeast Asia, but some LNG shipments go to European customers, which prompted a sharp reaction from the United States, which intends to sell its own LNG to Europe; thus far, however, the United States is behind Russia in shipment volumes and cannot compete with Russia pricewise. In November 2018, the U.S. Department of State expressed concern over Europe purchasing Russia’s LNG, believing that it increases Europe’s dependence on Russia and in the final analysis allegedly undercuts Europe’s energy security.

Solving its own energy problems in the remote regions of the AZRF, Russia intends to site a floating nuclear power plant (FNPP) in Pevek (Chukotka). Currently, nuclear fuel is being loaded on the FNPP in Murmansk, and in 2019, it will be transported to Pevek. The FNPP is intended to replace the Bilibino Nuclear Power Plant and the Chaunskaya Thermal Power Plant in Pevek, which have nearly exhausted their lifespan.

Moscow continues its course to actively develop the Northern Sea Route as both a national maritime route and an international transportation route. There has been a significant increase in the activity of ports connected with energy commodities supplies: Sabetta (Novatek), Novy Port (Gazpromneft) and Varandei (LUKOIL). Compared to 2017, the volume of freight carried over the Northern Sea Route has grown by 80 per cent. The Northern Sea Route infrastructure is gradually being upgraded. This includes ports and infrastructure needed for search and rescue, navigation, meteorology, etc. Novatek has decided on a site for an LNG transhipment terminal in Kamchatka. The terminal will be built in the Bechevinskaya Bay, where Arctic LNG will be transhipped to customers’ vessels and subsequently delivered to East and Southeast Asia. This is profitable for both the company, whose ice class LNG carriers will not have to sail warm seas, and for Asia Pacific customers, who will be able to use ships without ice strengthening.

Of course, international transit shipments along the Northern Sea Route are not developing as fast as had been hoped, but certain progress has been made in this area.

To prevent and relieve emergencies along the Northern Sea Route and in the Arctic as a whole, the Ministry for Civil Defence, Emergencies, and Disaster Relief of the Russian Federation formed a unit that entails building 11 comprehensive Arctic rescue and emergency centres.[i] Currently, five centres are in operation in the Northwestern Federal District (Naryan-Mar, Arkhangelsk, Vorkuta and Murmansk) and one is in operation in Dudinka in the Siberian Federal District. They are on standby to provide immediate response to emergencies in the Arctic.

The Ministry for Civil Defence, Emergencies and Disaster Relief of the Russian Federation in collaboration with Roscosmos established joint centres in Murmansk, Dudinka and Anadyr for receiving and processing space information.[ii] In October 2015, the first Arctic Centre for Remote Earth Sensing was established at the Murmansk Region Main Office of Russia’s Ministry for Civil Defence, Emergencies and Disaster Relief together with Roscosmos, and is functioning successfully. The Centre makes it possible to provide prompt information on all risks significant for the region: deteriorating ice, forest fires, flood situations, emergencies stemming from oil and oil product spills in marine basins.

The Northern Sea Route management system has undergone major changes. In 2018, the Ministry of Transport of the Russian Federation and Rosatom agreed to divide their powers on the management of the Northern Sea Route. The Ministry will retain its powers with regard to: the legal regulation of navigation on the Northern Sea Route; Russia’s compliance with its international obligations; supervising and monitoring functions, including the approval of navigation safety standards and requirements, etc. Meanwhile, Rosatom will have the powers of the principal operator of the Northern Sea Route, the manager of budgetary allocations, and the head administrator of budget revenues and the public procurement authority for state programmes to develop the Northern Sea Route, sustainable operations and the Northern Sea Route port infrastructure. Rosatom will also be vested with the power to ensure year-round navigation and piloting along the Northern Sea Route. Rosatom has established a Northern Sea Route directorate. A draft law on the management of the Northern Sea Route is currently under consideration in the State Duma.

New land infrastructure is also being established alongside the maritime infrastructure to service the AZRF. In May 2018, construction started on a bridge over the Ob River between the cities of Salekhard and Labytnangi, the key part of the so-called Northern Latitudinal Railway. The new railway in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District will be 707 kilometres long, running along the Obskaya – Salekhard – Nadym – Novy Urengoi – Korotchayevo route and linking the Severnaya (Northern) and Sverdlovskaya railways.

Another project involves building a new Belkomur (White, or Beloye, Sea – Komi – the Urals) railway along the Arkhangelsk – Syktyvkar – Solikamsk route. The railway will be 1161 kilometres long and will cut the delivery distance for freight from the Urals and Siberia down to 850 kilometres. It will have a capacity of up to 35 million tonnes of freight annually. Thus far, the project is searching for investors. It is worth noting here that foreign investors have already shown interest in the project. For instance, China’s Poly International Holding is ready to invest $5.5 billion.

Russian regions interested in developing the AZRF are stepping up collaboration. For instance, in May 2018, Governor of St. Petersburg Georgy Poltavchenko concluded a bilateral cooperation agreement with several AZRF regions: Yakutia, Krasnoyarsk Krai, the Komi Republic and the Murmansk Region. The decision was made to establish a Committee on Arctic Affairs at the St. Petersburg city administration, which will become fully functional in 2019.

The State Committee on Arctic Development has been reshuffled. Former Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation Dmitry Rogozin will be replaced as the head of the Committee by Yuri Trutnev, a new Deputy Prime Minister in charge of the development of the Far East and Siberia.

New and impressive plans for exploring the Arctic were unveiled at a recent governmental meeting in Sabetta on the development of the Arctic, which was chaired by Prime Minister of the Russian Federation Dmitry Medvedev. In the period 2019–2024, Moscow intends to attract 5.5 trillion roubles in public and private investment for the purpose. This amount will reach 13.5 trillion roubles by 2050. Following these developments, the voices of “Arctic sceptics” on the state’s waning interest in the region and the inevitable decline of the AZRF have been far less noticeable.

Along with the socioeconomic development AZRF, Moscow has continued to bolster Russia’s defence capabilities in the region. For instance, the military infrastructure of the Russian Arctic is being improved by reconstructing several polar airfields and military bases that will be used as dual-purpose facilities (for both military and civil purposes). In all, 13 airfields, a ground aeronautical range, and ten radar locations and air direction centres will be built in the AZRF.

The army and navy are being rearmed with new weapons. For instance, rocket artillery units of the Northern Fleet are being rearmed with new Bastion and Bal coastal defence missile systems to protect the Arctic coast.[iii] In 2018, the Russian military received new Tor-M2DT mobile systems capable of operating in low temperatures (as low as −50 degrees Celsius). The first military icebreaker – Ilya Muromets, which is now part of the Northern Fleet – completed its ice testing programme, and on its return to home port piloted the strategic missile cruiser Yuri Dolgoruky through the ice fields of the White Sea. The Border Service of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation are set to receive new Polyarnaya Zvezda (Polar Star) ice class vessels.

In 2019, a new naval base will open in Tiksi on the coast of the Laptev Sea. In 2019, the Knyaz Vladimir Borei class strategic submarine and the Kazan multipurpose nuclear submarine will join the fleet.

As for the international situation in the Arctic in 2018, it was characterized by rather contradictory trends.

On the one hand, NATO stepped up its activities in the region in 2018. The alliance continued to build up and strengthen its military activities in the Arctic by preparing forward airfields, modernizing sea ports and creating a system of prepositioned stockpiling. Provocative military activity was recorded close to Russian borders.

NATO started holding regularly military exercises in the Arctic. In 2018, the alliance held its largest ever drill in the north. 50,000 troops, 250 aircraft and 65 large surface ships from 31 states participated. The drill failed to have an intimidating and provocative effect, though. Moscow reacted rather calmly and did not respond in kind, for instance, by holding an exercise on a similar scale.

The new U.S. administration did not act in a manner that is conducive to increasing Arctic cooperation. Soon after moving into the White House, the new President announced the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Agreement on the grounds that it went against the national interests of the United States by holding back the development of American industries. In his national security strategy published in December 2017, Donald Trump announced his intention to conduct a policy of “energy dominance” (in contrast to Barack Obama’s energy safety policy). An integral part of the policy is to produce oil and gas in those parts of Alaska where production had been virtually prohibited before, that is, in the National Petroleum Reserve and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, on the Alaska shelf and in the basins of the Chukotka and Beaufort seas.

Donald Trump has also repeatedly voiced his criticisms and claims he was “not satisfied with the outcomes of international bodies it engages with” in the Arctic. Although the new administration did not block the agreements on expanding scientific cooperation in the Arctic (May 2017) and prohibiting unregulated fishing in the Central Arctic Ocean (November 2017) developed with the participation of Obama’s “team,” it was made clear the United States was not going to actively promote their implementation. It is no accident that polar research financing was cut by a total of 10.3 per cent in 2018 compared to the 2016 fiscal year. Arctic research financing fell by 18.1 per cent over the same period. The changes in the Arctic policies of the President of the United States resulted in major personnel reshuffling in the Trump administration. Over 2017–2018, virtually all key officials of the Department of State in charge of the U.S. Arctic policy resigned, as they had advocated the active participation of the United States in Arctic cooperation programmes. The United States has noticeably reduced its activities in the Arctic Council, the principal regional institution. Washington’s partners in the Arctic dialogue do not yet have a clear idea of the contents and priorities of the Trump administration’s Arctic Strategy.

At the same time, these negative trends were partially offset by a series of positive developments in international Artic cooperation.

The Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation between Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States that was concluded in 2017 entered into force in May 2018.

In October 2018, an agreement prohibiting commercial fishing in the Central Arctic Ocean was officially signed. The principal parameters of the agreement were approved by the Arctic “five” (Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the United States), Iceland, China, South Korea, Japan and the European Union back in November 2017, but it took time to fine-tune some technical details.

Russia’s bilateral relations with individual states involved in Arctic affairs developed in a satisfactory manner. Joint steps are being taken with Norway to protect the marine biological resources of the Barents Sea, prevent poaching and improve collaboration in search and rescue operations for persons suffering distress in the Barents Sea. The United States Coast Guard and the Kamchatka Territory Border Guard Department of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation have accumulated significant experience in the joint maritime and air patrolling of the Chukotka Sea basin and monitoring the navigational situation on the Bering Strait. In March 2018, officials of the coast guard services of eight countries agreed on holding the second live exercise of the Arctic Coast Guard Forum (established in 2015) in Finnish waters in early 2019.[iv]

In 2018, Russia and the United States achieved an agreement on approving routes for vessels travelling through the Bering Strait and in the Bering Sea. Information on the agreement was submitted to the International Maritime Organization. The parties agreed to establish six bilateral lanes and six areas to be avoided for safe navigation in the Bering Sea and the strait between two oceans. The map of the lanes will allow countries to avoid the many shallows, reefs and islands beyond the lanes and reduce the risk of environmental disasters.

South Korea continued to implement an ambitious project to build 15 ice class LNG carriers for Russia.

The development of Russia’s relations with China was particularly dynamic. Back in 2017, Beijing proposed the Polar Silk Road initiative, part of China’s larger “Belt and Road” initiative (the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st century Maritime Silk Road). In January 2018, China published its White Paper on the Arctic, offering the first explanation of its strategy in the North. Much attention here is given to cooperation with Russia.

On the whole, 2018 laid some good groundwork for the future both in ensuring the sustainable development of the AZRF and in bolstering international cooperation in this strategically important region.


[i] V. Zhuravel. The Russian Army, Ministry of Civil Defense, Emergencies and Disaster Relief and the Russian Guard in the Arctic: Matters of Security and International Cooperation // Nauchno-analytichesky vestnik IE RAN (Scientific and Analytical Bulletin of the Institute of Europe of RAS) 2018 (5), p. 160.

[ii] Ibid., p. 161.

[iii] Ibid., p. 159.

[iv] Ibid., p. 162.


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