In the early 18th century, Russia sent a number of large expeditions to explore and map the Siberian coastline. These missions were not cheap – funding these expeditions cost Moscow one-sixth of its state budget in 1724.
The explorers, scientists, and adventurers who partook in the Kamchatka expeditions, known as the Great Northern Expeditions, numbered in the thousands. Even by today’s standards, this was probably the largest scientific expedition in history.
Some things never change.
Almost 300 years later, Russia is still staking new claims in the Arctic. In 2007, Artur Chilingarov, a member of the Russian Duma, led a submarine expedition to the North Pole and planted a Russian flag on the seabed. Later he said: “The Arctic is Russian. We must prove the North Pole is an extension of the Russian landmass.”
A few weeks ago, Russia submitted a claim to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCF), arguing that its continental shelf stretches beyond the North Pole. Russia’s submission in 2001 to the commission was promptly rejected. Moscow is hoping for a change in fortune.
Russia has a desire to play an active role in the Arctic region for three reasons: Russian President Vladimir Putin’s continuous promotion of Russian nationalism, the economic potential of the region, and Russia’s security.
For Putin, the Arctic is an area that allows Russia to flex its muscles without incurring any significant geopolitical risk. Because nationalism is on the rise in Russia, Putin’s Arctic strategy is popular among the population.
Putin sees himself as an imperial leader out to reclaim Russia’s former greatness. Russian activity in the Arctic, whether military, economic, or scientific hearkens back to images of Peter the Great and the Great Northern Expedition.
Because nationalism is on the rise in Russia, Putin’s Arctic strategy is popular among the population.
With Russia’s terrible economic situation, declining birthrates, and international isolation over Crimea, Putin’s Arctic rhetoric goes down well with a population that has little hope for its future.
Energy and economics
Russia is also eager to promote its economic interests in the region. Half of the world’s Arctic territory and half of the Arctic region’s population is located in Russia. It is well-known that the Arctic is home to large stockpiles of proven, yet unexploited, oil and gas reserves. The majority of these reserves is thought to be located in Russia.
Russia is investing greatly in the region. Around $3.3bn will be invested in the Arctic on oil and gas and major infrastructure projects over the next five years. This is a huge sum that is more than the total gross domestic product of Mauritania. Even with declining oil and gas revenue, the Russian state budget will pick up the tab for 70 percent of this investment.
The melting Arctic ice during the summer months presents opportunities for new shipping lanes and has caused great excitement in Moscow. In reality, the use of the Northern Sea Route along Russia’s northern coast should not be overstated.
The shipping lanes of the Northern Sea Route are a considerable distance from search and rescue facilities. When ships use the Northern Sea Route, they often rely on support from Russia, especially in the form of icebreakers, which are costly.
There is still a long way to go before the Northern Sea Route becomes a viable option. Ice is not melting as fast as expected. For example, in 2013, a total of 71 ships made the journey around the top of Russia. In 2014, only 23 ships took the same route. This amounts to less than one-quarter of one percent of the number of ships that transited through the Suez Canal.
Furthermore, it is often forgotten how large Asia is. Using the Northern Sea Route certainly makes a trip between Rotterdam, Netherlands, and Yokohama, Japan, 30 percent shorter than using the Suez Canal route. However, a journey between Rotterdam and Shanghai is only 8 percent shorter.
Considering all of the risks and costs associated with using the Northern Sea Route, it remains to be seen if such a small difference in distance is really worth it.
Militarisation of the high north
Thankfully, the Arctic region remains an area of low conflict, and it is in everyone’s interests to keep it this way. Even so, Russia has taken significant steps to militarise its part of the Arctic.
New Arctic brigades have been established. Russia’s Northern Fleet has its headquarters in the Arctic, and it is the largest fleet in the Russian navy’s new Soviet-era military facilities in the Arctic that are being reopened for the first time in 30 years.
Even Russia’s newest main battle tank, the T-14 Armata, is believed to be designed to operate in extremely cold temperatures.
While other global actors with Arctic interests, such as the United States and NATO, have been focused elsewhere, Russia has taken the region seriously. As long as Russia keeps its Arctic activity inside its national borders, there is nothing wrong with Moscow’s actions.
What Russia’s true motives are in the region remain to be seen. But if Russia’s recent actions in Ukraine are any indication, there might be a reason to be worried.
Luke Coffey is a research fellow specialising in transatlantic and Eurasian security at a Washington DC-based think-tank. He previously served as a special adviser to the British defence secretary and was a commissioned officer in the United States Army.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.