This Op-Ed first appeared in Kommersant
In September, the Russian Navy completed an exercise that was unprecedented, both in size and complexity. A fleet of 10 ships, led by a nuclear cruiser, sailed to the New Siberian Islands, which are located between the Laptev Sea and the Eastern-Siberian Sea, in one of the least-studied corners of the Arctic Ocean.
All the nuclear icebreakers in the Navy's fleet joined the expedition. On the islands, the icebreakers and ships left construction and technical material, living supplies, 46 tons of fuel and 43 tons of food. In short, they brought everything needed to reopen the military airport that had been shuttered in the 1990s. In the next couple of months the airport will start accepting transport planes. And then strategic bombers.
There is no doubt that this is just another step in Russia strengthening its military presence in the Arctic - the importance of which officials have been talking about for the past eight years. Key government figures were present at the opening of an outpost on Franz Josef Land, one of the northernmost groups of islands in the world. From time to time there is talk about establishing a special "Arctic department" complete with special equipment and even a possible air base in the north polar region.
The reason behind this necessary presence in the Far North is well known. Ice is melting in the Arctic Ocean, which will leave a new, shorter shipping route connecting Europe and Asia - one that passes Russia's northern shore. For Russia, which will serve the ships on this route, this is manna from heaven. In addition, there are opportunities for increased oil and gas exploration underneath the Arctic ice.
But leave it to the sneaky West to try and infringe on Russia's good luck: Moscow has already rejected Western claims to rights on 1.3 million square kilometers of water in the Arctic Ocean. At the same time, the country is preparing to defend its interests using force, if need be.
First of all, there is the question of whether there is anything worth defending. The theory of global warming is still a theory. Others, like the Russian Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute, believe that we are just experiencing cyclical warming and that an Arctic cooling period will begin in 10 to 15 years.
But even if global warming is real, it is more likely to bring us problems than riches. Because as the ice melts, so will the permafrost, turning kilometers of Russia's coastline into deep swamps. How will we be able to provide infrastructure for a sea route and oil exploration if that happens?
At the same time, according to the UN Convention on Maritime Rights, there cannot be any restrictions on another country's shipping traffic - meaning that Russia would be required to provide weather, oceanographic and rescue services for other countries' ships, without compensation. The only opportunities for making money would be to provide navigation and icebreaking services, as well as the development of infrastructure. And by just looking at a map, it's easy to see how developed the infrastructure is along the country's Arctic coast.
About 1.2 million tons of cargo were transported on the Arctic shipping route last year. According to some estimates, the route will start being profitable once 4 million tons are transported annually - with other projections going as high as 14 million tons. The truth is, in the 80 years that the route has existed, no one has asked themselves about its return on investment. The route was important in supplying military installations and bases.
Now the primary hope is that that the transport route will allow access to Arctic oil. But at the moment, all Western oil companies have refused to explore oil reserves in the Arctic, saying it is too dangerous and expensive. In addition, large ships like oil tankers can't follow the Arctic passage. A route through the Novosibirsk Islands for ships with a keel depth of more than 12 meters still has to be found. And in any case, most researchers agree that even under the best conditions, the Arctic's riches won't be able to be reasonably exploited for another 40 or 50 years.
Hoping in vain
You could say that the Russian government is showing commendable foresight, preparing several decades in advance for the future of the Arctic route. Or you could also say that Moscow is preparing to claim all of the Arctic riches for itself, dispatching military units to the Far North.