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Russia's Arctic vision, how different is it really?

Mia BennettEye on the Arctic

At the same June 30 regional conference of the United Russia party in Yekaterinburg where Vladimir Putin defended Russia's growing presence in the Arctic, he spoke about his vision for developing the region. He focused on environmental restoration in the Arctic waterways and on natural gas development.

First, he called for a "big cleanup" in the region. Putin lamented,

 "I was in the North last year, and I was terrified by the number of old barrels, once used for fuels and lubricants, which have been piling up for many decades near geologists' stations and military bases there. Sometimes, these barrels become rusty and leaky from age, and the contents pour out. This is impermissible. If we don't start to clean up the Arctic right now, the consequences may be very sad."

During the cold war, the Soviet government closed off numbers of settlements in the Russian Arctic to test chemical and nuclear weapons. Much of the waste, some of it radioactive, spewed out into the rivers, like the Ob River, which flows into the Arctic Ocean. The radioactive pollutants don't just stay in the Russian portion of the Arctic, either: traces have been found to the east, around Alaska, and will continue to circulate at the top of the globe. Farther north, on Wrangel Island, the Soviets built an anti-aircraft defense base and a weather station. Approximately two hundred people lived on the island at the time. To this day, thousands of oil barrels sit leaking, the poisonous consequences of a government which cared little about the environment. These are just a few examples of the pollution that ravages Russia's Arctic.

Developing offshore oil and gas resources

Putin also spoke about the $20 billion plan to develop the Yamal Peninsula's surrounding natural gas fields. The government intends to construct a port and an LNG plant there to develop the 1.2 trillion cubic meter gas deposit in South Tambey, in the Barents Sea, though hopefully they will take a little more care in preserving the natural surroundings. Plans are indeed moving forward: on June 20, Sovcomflot, Russia's largest shipping company, which also specializes in oil and LNG transport, signed a bilateral agreement on cooperation with the state-owned Bank for Development and Foreign Economic Affairs (Vnesheconombank). Broadly, the agreement regards how shipbuilding for the Yamal project will be financed. According to a press release on Sovcomflot's website, the agreement covers "the structure of ship building finance and the acquisition and subsequent operation of conventional LNG tankers, shuttle LNG tankers, tankers designed to carry gas condensate and supply vessels for the liquefied natural gas (LNG) production project in the Yamal peninsula." The terminal is slated to be operational by 2018.

Developing offshore oil and gas resources is an integral part of both Russia's long-term economic trajectory and its plans to increase its presence in the Arctic. It's also tied in to the country's proposals to make the Northern Sea Route a full-fledged shipping route. Two weeks ago, the Maritime Collegium of the Russian Government held a retreat to discuss the topic of reviving the passage, which could see more oil and LNG tankers sailing through in the coming decades. In an interview with RIA Novosti, the governor of Arkhangelsk Oblast, Ilya Mikhalchuk, discussed why the city of Arkhangelsk would be an ideal hub for the route. He argued,

"Obviously, it's time to revive the Northern Sea Route. And this issue is given great attention at the highest level. Today, the Arkhangelsk region has all the conditions to once again become the center of the Northern Sea Route. Most of the Arctic Research fleet is still based in Arkhangelsk. Of the 14 hydrographic vessels, 12 are assigned to our port. In the area there are ice-class vessels and a shallow-draft icebreaker fleet for dredging and unloading at unequipped shores. In the region are also an oil base and the Arkhangelsk oil terminal. Arkhangelsk's hydrographic base was saved, which provides all the necessary work in the Northwest Arctic. Our regio, has created a powerful platform personnel – Northern (Arctic) Federal. That's why we believe that the administration of the Northern Sea Route should logically be located in Arkhangelsk. At the same time, other strong points of administration can be created involving separate areas of the Northern Sea Route. This was stated by Vice-Premier Sergei Ivanov, the Marine Board, and we fully support the position of the Russian Government on this issue." (edited from Google Translate.)

'Bringing civilization to the North'

In the same interview, Mikhalchuk expounded on the need for more housing in this distant northwest reach of Russia, far from Moscow. Eight social housing buildings will be constructed in the center of the region, rather than in far-flung suburban developments. Many young people will be moved from emergency housing to these new apartments once they have been built. In a survey of the residents of Arkhangelsk, housing and kindergartens were found to be the people's main priorities. These concerns resonate with those in that other big country in the North, Canada. There, in the three territories, local governments are also desperate to build more housing and improve education.

Back in Yekaterinaburg, Putin added, "Bringing civilization to the North, we must not infringe the centuries-old culture of local peoples." Again, this sounds like something Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper might say with regard to the Aboriginal peoples who have resided in Northern Canada for millennia. Maybe the Russians and Canadians do share a common vision for the Arctic after all.

Mia Bennett graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from the University of California, Los Angeles in 2010 with degrees in Political Science and European Studies and minors in Geospatial Information Systems & Technology, Scandinavian, and French. She focuses on the politics of Arctic resource management and Canadian infrastructure, and is interested in the application of GIS technology to Arctic dilemmas. She speaks French, Swedish, and is learning Russian. She freelances for the magazine ReNew Canada and currently lives in New York City.

This commentary is posted on Alaska Dispatch as part of Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.