The story of the Russian Arctic development has taken a back seat to the major geopolitical stories that grab the news headlines and are more suitable to one-sentence Twitter discussions. The Arctic is not. It is a cold mystery wrapped in a freezing enigma.
Yes I know that is an old line, but it fits. While the potential riches of the Arctic have been extensively written about, so have the unknowns of what the long term costs and future problems could be.
One of the biggest concerns is that while global warming will open up the sea lanes for more traffic through the Northern Sea Route (NSC), the melting of the permafrost could create a nightmare in maintaining infrastructure; and the earth is literally moving beneath it.
But Putin is committed to Arctic development, as Russia stands to gain the most from it regardless of the cost and difficulties. While the US is burying its people under trillions in government debt on top of all that Americans personally owe, Russia is increasing the capital value of its national wealth and avoiding being baited into a shooting conflict with the West to waste it all.
Creating long term economic leverage
The Arctic natural resources are of limited value unless they are extractable, deliverable and marketable at a competitive price, despite the large front end investment and harsh working conditions. Both capital and skilled talent are critical to success. Putin has knitted them both together.
Russia has shown leadership in challenging its people to fulfill their personal potential. While it has an educational system that is second to none, Russia does not want to be like the growing number of countries that have university graduates working at blue collar jobs and incomes. You cannot maintain a cutting edge in technological human capital without the needed projects to provide the jobs at their skill level. Arctic development is contributing to that need.
Russia technology for working in and under Arctic conditions is way ahead of everyone else because there are no short cuts. You have to work there to master the skills to develop and test the equipment needed and learn from mistakes.
Despite the current EU sanctions, Russia has continued to be a dependable supplier of gas for its European customers, as it always has. It was an aggressive pipeline builder to make sure it had a competitive edge with low delivery costs. But Europe is now “in play”, as the US is looking to push Moscow out of that gas market and replace it with US exports to help cushion the negative balance of trade it has with the EU.
Offering key customers a two for one
Putin wants his energy customers to feel comfortable that Russia is not only a dependable long term provider of pipeline oil and gas but also LNG for the overseas market. But that is not all. He wants to offer some of his nearby customers like China, South Korea and Japan the ability to deliver exports to Europe via the Northern Sea Route.
Shipping time from the Far East to the main European ports can be reduced by 40% in some cases. And this route could be more easily secured from the growing “Sanctionista” movement that some countries find useful to tip the balance of trade deficits back into their favor, as the US has done.
This brings us to the military aspects being mentioned in the West, particularly in Britain for example, as part of its bogeyman propaganda against Russia’s “militarization” of the Arctic, which is another fake news item.
Sure, Russia has been rebuilding some of its Soviet-era bases, but these have multiple purposes, the first of which is to provide security for transiting cargo traffic and also for dealing with the kinds of emergency situations that can occur in that region due to the harsh conditions, such as a ship in distress.
And yes, Russia does have defensive weapons posted in the region, as it has a long border to protect, not the least of which could be against incoming missiles. The military equipment there is being tested for its durability under the harsh conditions where 50 degrees below zero is not unusual.
What is the West doing for its Arctic planning?
The short answer is basically nothing. Some token military training has taken place by some countries like Canada, known for its hard souls in the north country who freely admitted that the Arctic cold was beyond anything they had imagined.
And I did not use the term “token” to demean their military people, but their whole effort starting with no Western country having the needed modern icebreakers to secure and maintain any credible shipping supply lines. Even the US Coast Guard does not have a single icebreaker ship at sea, and only one planned purchase. The Brits have trouble keeping their warm water ships at sea with enough sailors to run them, including those needed to tow them back to port.
Russia is a decade ahead of everyone, with the largest current fleet of icebreakers, about 45. The icebreaker that the US Coast Guard is looking to order is estimated at a design cost of $700 million. Modern Arctic tankers are also a must, with Russia’s Rosneft oil and gas company having an order for 25 vessels from the Zvezda shipyard.
The huge $27 billion Yamal LNG plant was finished a year early because Russia’s fleet of nuclear icebreakers was able to keep construction material and equipment flowing to the site smoothly.
The Arctic and Russia’s strategic nuclear defense
With the US and NATO having over an 11 to 1 superiority in military spending to the Russian Federation, the West’s air power advantage in terms of combat planes is much higher. NATO also has a current tactical advantage of having moved forces up to the Russian border, and the US Navy is able to stand off Russia and China in international waters with a large inventory of nuclear-armed intermediate-range missiles.
But the West does not have a missile shield in the Arctic, not yet anyway. A key part of Russia’s defensive strategy, to offset US first strike weapons being moved up to Russia’s border, is to have a retaliatory capacity that cannot be defeated.
It can launch its hypersonic nuclear glide missiles to fly over the South Pole, if needed, where there is no US missile defense at this time or none planned. And it could fire over the North Pole, as could the US. Hence, it is not an act of aggression to see Russian air defense military in the Arctic any more than it is to see the US moving military assets to the Aleutian Islands and northern Alaska.
This is the world we live in, the new Cold War, with Mr. Threat and Treaty-breaker Donald Trump at the helm of the US military. He recently posted that he would try to squeeze both Russia and China into a new strategic weapons agreement, or the US would outspend and out deploy them with advanced weapons.
But what the former poor student at school still does not grasp is that the days of having a technological edge on Russia and China together are over. The Soviet Union had a mutually assured destruction capability back when it had a failing economy. It is light years ahead of those days now.
The top-tier major powers always have defense/offense technologies that have never made public. Even Iran demonstrated this when it took control of and landed one of the US top drones, giving up the secrecy of having that electronic warfare capability so it could reverse engineer that drone within a year.
Donald Rumsfeld once put it well when he said, “You don’t know what you don’t know,” and that is what gives commanders many sleepless nights.
Jim W. Dean, managing editor for Veterans Today, producer/host of Heritage TV Atlanta, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.