Russia is the largest country in the world. All natural environments exist on Russian territory: deserts and steppes in Central Asia, dozens of still active volcanoes in Kamchatka, vast forests in Siberia. The underground and the ground provide immense natural resources: oil, uranium, iron, nickel, timber and natural gas. The extraction and processing of raw materials have always been fundamental to the Russian economy. The imperial expansion into the cold North and Siberia starting in the 16th century was partly driven by the desire to obtain the warm furs of the animals that lived there to sell them on the international market.
The immense natural heritage is one of the greatest assets of the Russian state and, in the era of climate change, Russia is not standing idly by. However, Russia is not behaving in the way we might all expect.
The Russian government is one of the few in the world, among those of the most advanced, large, rich and, therefore, polluting industrialised countries, to take climate change seriously. Russia, however, has no interest in halting the perceived inevitable process of global warming but has every intention of exploiting its benefits as soon as it happens.
The apocalyptic hypotheses of melting polar ice, rising sea levels up to or over a metre and rising global temperatures with the consequent desertification of southern Europe (there are many models, we refer here to just one. The future could be very different) are, however, synonymous with money and great opportunities for increased political and military influence – and not only that – for a conscious and unscrupulous government.
The Arctic Ocean is covered by a thick layer of ice for most of the year (November to June) due to low polar temperatures, but it could soon be free of ice. Melting ice would open new trade routes: cargo ships from China could reach Russian or European ports in a much shorter time than it takes today crossing the Suez Canal. This would benefit the Russian Federation, which shares 24,000 kilometres of coastline with the Arctic Ocean. Vladimir Putin has an ambitious plan to take the Russian Arctic region to unprecedented levels of development. Russia is focusing on the opening of the so-called Northern Sea Route to induce heavy shipping traffic to move from the Suez Canal to the Bering Strait. To this end, Russia will invest hundreds of billions of roubles (almost ten billion euros) in the development of the infrastructure of the small – for now – Arctic ports, and in strengthening the already massive fleet of nuclear icebreakers under Rosatom’s competence.
The Arctic is very interesting for several reasons other than the possibility of opening the new trade channel: according to authoritative sources, around 30% of the natural gas and 15% of the oil on earth lie beneath the Arctic ice. And the Arctic ice has an expiration date: we do not know it for sure, but it seems to be very close.
Russia wants to be recognised as the sole and legitimate ruler of the Arctic. It is trying to achieve its goal by following two paths. The first is through military means. There are now dozens of military bases in the Russian Arctic, airports and ports, radar or missile stations. Bases dating back to the Soviet period have been renovated and now function perfectly well, and new ones have been built. The achievement of full efficiency of the so-called Trefoil Base has recently attracted the interest of various international newspapers. Russia’s northernmost military installation, officially opened in 1947 and now completely renovated, can accommodate 150 soldiers. It has a new military airport from which all types of aircraft used by the Russian armed forces – including nuclear bombers – can take off, fuel depots and various warehouses, which allow the base to survive for up to a year without any contact with the outside world. The Russians are conducting increasingly large-scale military exercises in the Arctic to prepare their air, land and sea forces for the possibility of a conflict to establish supremacy in the region, which is certainly not unlikely given the enormous economic possibilities and natural wealth mentioned above.
The second path, perhaps more subtle but certainly better accepted by the international community, is that of so-called soft power. Russia presents itself as the ruler of the Arctic in the eyes of the world, but it needs everyone to believe, to be convinced of that. To do this, Russia invests in tourism, especially to the small town of Barentsburg on the Svalbard Islands, which are officially under Norwegian sovereignty but freely exploitable for non-military purposes. Russia wants to turn a tiny village, the northernmost inhabited place in the world, into an affirmation of its own identity as closely linked to the Arctic since the time of the Tsars and the Cossacks. It is a very particular and intelligent way of establishing influence over a geographical area.
In conclusion, we can say that Russia is indeed the only country among its Arctic neighbours that is ready to take advantage of the situation that is inexorably arising in the North. Whether by soft power or in the purely economic or military sphere, the United States of America, Canada, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Sweden or Iceland do not seem interested in keeping up with the Russian giant, whose advantage, already very significant, is growing more and more.