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Valentin Davydyants, captain of Russia’s flagship northern icebreaker, hoists the Olympic Flame before heading to the North Pole. (Fedoseyev Lev/ITAR-TASS/Newscom)
Valentin Davydyants, captain of Russia’s flagship northern icebreaker, hoists the Olympic Flame before heading to the North Pole. (Fedoseyev Lev/ITAR-TASS/Newscom)

The North

Putin aims to revive Soviet-era Arctic dominance Add to ...

“It’s not very rational, our economic situation,” says Tatiana Sergeeva, a 42-year-old teacher I meet visiting “Alyosha,” the massive stone statue of a Second World War soldier that can be seen from almost anywhere in the city. Standing atop a hill overlooking the port, the sound of the whipping wind is mixed only with the occasional screech of a crane.

“A lot of people come here, get disappointed, then leave,” Ms. Sergeeva tells me, looking at her nine-year-old son.

Mr. Putin’s efforts to reverse that trend sound better to his nationalist base than to economists and environmentalists.

 

Northern Sea Route competes with the Northwest Passage

“I would like you to devote special attention to deploying infrastructure and military units in the Arctic,” Mr. Putin told Russian defence officials in December, a day after The Globe and Mail reported that Prime Minister Stephen Harper had asked for the North Pole to be included in Canada’s claim to the United Nations.

A squadron of Russian ice-breaking warships is due to arrive in the Arctic in 2014, and several Soviet-era airfields will be reopened. Russia’s bolstered naval presence is necessary to protect its new commercial interests, Mr. Vasilyev says, and to defend a border once guarded by thicker ice and harsher temperatures.

That show of muscle will be accompanied by a broad push that could see Murmansk boom economically as melting polar ice opens the Arctic to increased shipping.

Rosatomflot, the state-owned company that runs the nuclear-icebreaker fleet, claims to have guided a record 65 cargo ships along the Northern Sea Route (Russia’s answer to Canada’s Northwest Passage) in 2013. Most of them were carrying resources – coal, iron ore and liquid natural gas – from Europe to feed the growing economies in East Asia. Just three years earlier, only four cargo ships used the route.

Meanwhile, the twin pillars of Russia’s resource-driven economy – the state energy giants Gazprom and Rosneft – are being given tax breaks and other incentives to explore the warming north and reap previously inaccessible hydrocarbons.

Critics see the Kremlin’s harsh response to a Greenpeace protest at a Gazprom oil drilling rig in the Pechora Sea in September – arresting the demonstrators at gunpoint and charging them criminally – as a message to the international community that Russia’s plans to develop the Arctic are not to be challenged.

The biggest pragmatic problem with Russia’s plans is one that will sound familiar to those working in the Alberta oil sands – it’s currently so expensive that it’s cheaper to put a rocket into space (where the Sochi torch also recently journeyed) than to drill a single oil well in Arctic waters. Russia seems prepared to press ahead anyway.

Even if Arctic exploration does boost the bottom lines for Gazprom and Rosneft, there may be little trickle-down for Murmansk and the rest of the north as both companies pay taxes in Moscow rather than locally.

“The Russian state budget will get very little from this exploration, but they will loudly say, ‘We are exploring the Arctic,’” said Anna Kireeva, spokeswoman for Bellona, a Murmansk-based environmental group. “It’s a matter of pride. I can’t find any other reason.”

There’s more optimism about the prospects for Murmansk as a shipping hub, though the World Wildlife Fund opposes the planned oil and gas exploration primarily because of fears Russia lacks the technology to clean up a large spill in Arctic waters.

Moscow calls doubters morons

Watching the Soviet-era cars pushing through the slush on Murmansk’s main drag, I find myself wondering if it ever made sense to have so many people living above the 68th parallel.

Even at noon, the sun brightens the sky only a little, providing no warmth. Residents scurry from home to car to office to home as though they’re fleeing the elements, rather than living with them.

But, as in Soviet times, the issue is not up for debate. When Mr. Medvedev, the political scientist – and a former resident of northern Russia – suggested in a social-media post that the Arctic (like the Antarctic) should be treated as international territory to ensure its preservation, Mr. Putin publicly called him a “moron.”

Mr. Medvedev wears the insult as a badge of honour. He compares the Arctic plan to Mr. Putin’s other expensive, legacy-minded megaprojects, such as hosting the Sochi Olympics and overhauling the Pacific port of Vladivostok for last year’s APEC summit. Cost and common sense don’t matter when the Kremlin decides it wants to make a statement.

“It’s not a policy,” Mr. Medvedev said. “It’s a vision of Russia’s sovereignty being spread over the Arctic.”

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