Russia’s strategic exploitation of the Arctic

Martine Dirkzwager Wu
March 28, 2022

Russia’s strategic exploitation of the Arctic

Martine Dirkzwager Wu
March 28, 2022

Russia’s strategic exploitation of the Arctic

A long-standing resource-dependent economy, a melting Arctic, and technical capabilities have thrown the Arctic into the spotlight for Russia’s upcoming economic strategy.
Martine Dirkzwager Wu
March 28, 2022
Russia’s strategic exploitation of the Arctic
Martine Dirkzwager Wu
Maya Turolla
March 28, 2022
Design by Zeynep Algan. © FreedomLab

The ongoing war in Ukraine and the harm it is causing stresses the importance of understanding Russian politics. Some have argued the confrontation is a result of a miscalculation on Russian capabilities and a misinterpretation on Russian intentions, both in the short and long term. Taking a paused look at Russia – its history, geography, economic projects, etc. – can attempt to start bridging a problematic cultural divide that might never fully bridge. The following article looks at the current digitalization of the Arctic, a project for which Russia has been showing a lot of enthusiasm. What explains the excitement? Some reasons below hope to make Russian politics more intelligible, while recognizing that these are far from being exhaustive.

Abundance of oil, gas and mineral reserves have made Russia a rich nation with much geopolitical significance since it is a key provider of energy at a global scale. Indeed, Russia has a long history of using its reserves as foreign policy tools: ‘petro-sticks’, used to defy states such as Georgia, Ukraine or the Baltic States by applying high prices and supply interruptions, and ‘petro-carrots’, that have been used to reward state and statelets such as Armenia, Belorussia, North Ossetia or Abkhazia with subsidies and ample offer.

At the same time, however, the abundance of resources has made the Russian economy one heavily dependent upon oil, gas, and mineral exports, which is why the nation is constantly looking for new sites of extraction. This is where the Arctic comes into the picture. Analysts estimate that the Arctic hosts around 90 billion barrels of undiscovered oil, and almost 25% of untapped global natural gas resources. In light of these forecasts, Russia has been investing in infrastructure for exploiting and exploring the Arctic as a strategy that will guarantee its geopolitical power. Ironically, the deterioration of the Arctic led by rising temperatures and melting ice sea have benefitted Russia in gaining access to a Northern shipping route and developing strategic military advantage.

The Polar Express

Extraction and processing centers (mainly developed by the world’s largest oil services company, Schlumberger Ltd.) and infrastructure built for personnel qualified to live and work under extreme conditions are changing the geography of the. In parallel with the development of such technologies, projects of digitalization along the Arctic have also been addressed. A submarine cable project - the ‘Polar Express’ - aims to connect the Barents Sea to the eastern port of Vladivostok, neighboring North Korea. The project is planned to commercially expand to Europe and Asia, via the North-East Passage (NEP). By laying undersea fiber optic cable, the Russian government is set to provide high-speed internet to the northern region. Japan and Norway have expressed interest in the project, and China too has offered to cooperate. Northerners themselves are set to benefit from broadband internet connection, which could provide tele-health, tele-education, e-government, e-business, amongst other services.

Google Maps Street View image capture from December 2011. Picture taken by Dmitry Krasko
Who owns the Arctic?

The potentials of the Arctic have gathered a lot of attention, which has raised the question of ownership. The Arctic lacks a properly authoritative government, and instead is governed by the Arctic Council, even though the Council is not recognized under international law. Without a clear territorial demarcation in the Arctic, the grids that emerge from the fiber optic cable’s mapping become the Arctic’s new political geography

The grids are a way of making sense out of the Arctic’s vast and white territory. Not only do they map the territory at a very basic level by assigning it a political identity of sorts, but they also develop and infrastructure that allows Russia to situate its industrial complexes and their corresponding employees. Echoing Benjamin Bratton’s words, technology produces geographies in its own image. The fiber optic cable is both a computational apparatus and a model for a new geopolitical architecture. The United States, Finland, and Canada are more examples of countries that have invested in the Arctic recognizing that it is not so much about who owns the land, but rather who owns the technology to exploit it that can claim authorship over it.

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