“Strategy of development of the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation and the provision of national security for the period to 2035”
Russian Studies Series 1/21
by Nazrin Mehdiyeva
“Strategy of development of the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation and the provision of national security for the period to 2035”
The priority that Moscow accords the Arctic as a base of future Russian power is abundantly clear, whether in repeated public statements by senior officials or through increasingly complex activities such as the Umka-21 exercises held in March 2021. To understand this priority, and the intensification of activity underway there, we must examine the constellation of strategic planning documents that the Russian leadership regularly publishes and keeps updated.
The Presidential Decrees of 2018 provide a foundation on which a series of new documents build. In December 2019, the government approved the “Plan for the Development of the Infrastructure of the Northern Sea Route to 2035” – a document of significant importance for Russia’s long-term economic and foreign policy course.1 In turn, this document is the basis on which Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin instructed the government to prepare in 2021 a strategy for the development of port, railway and airport infrastructure in the Russian Arctic Zone to 2035.2
On 5 March 2020, the document “On the Principles of the State Policy of the Russian Federation in the Arctic to 2035” (below “Principles of State Policy”) was signed into law.3And then an update of the 2013 Arctic strategy was signed into law in October 2020. Formally known as the “Strategy of Development of the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation and the Provision of National Security for the Period to 2035” (below “2035 Strategy”), this document is envisaged as the main mechanism for the realisation of the Principles of State Policy.
This review assesses this 2035 Strategy, examining the challenges and priorities highlighted in the document and mapping them against Russia’s geopolitical realities. Although socio-economic development receives rhetorical attention in this iteration, the structure of the document illuminates that the government will continue to prioritise three overlapping policy areas to 2035: resource extraction and export via the Northern Sea Route (NSR); the build-up of NSR infrastructure, including dual use facilities; and the strengthening of the Arctic’s military defences.
Delays, inconsistencies and gaps in the 2035 Strategy
Delays plague strategic planning. Of the three documents which must be considered alongside the 2035 Strategy – the National Security Strategy (NSS), the Socio-Economic Development Strategy and the Energy Strategy – only the latter was adopted on time (June 2020). An updated NSS, originally due in 2020, is late, having only been approved by the Security Council and sent to the president in May 2021, and the draft Socio-Economic Development Strategy to 2030 is also delayed, reportedly after facing severe criticism from economists and other academics.4
Furthermore, careful examination reveals inconsistencies in the prioritisation of threats in the Principles of State Policy and the 2035 Strategy. The Principles of State Policy highlights depopulation of the Arctic Zone, poor development of its social, transport and communication networks, and low rates of geological resource exploration as the top three national security threats. The 2035 Strategy reiterates some of the same threats, but not all, and not in the same order of priority; the emphasis instead is on the warming of the Arctic region as a whole, inadequate socio-economic development of the Russian Arctic, its shrinking population and delays to the delivery of key infrastructural projects.
Commenting on the 2035 Strategy, Natural Resources Minister Alexander Kozlov highlighted the unprecedentedly large socio-economic component of the adopted iteration. But it contains no specifics on how the government intends to achieve its target of halving the population outflow by 2024 from the staggering 5.1 percent in 2018 and turning it into annual inflow of 2 percent by 2035. Questions also remain about the measures and financing the government intends to use to improve the Arctic’s living conditions, primary health care and lagging education standards. Furthermore, the government’s target of creating 110,000 permanent new jobs by 2030 and 220,000 jobs by 2035 is optimistic, since companies in the Russian Arctic prefer to hire workers on a rotational basis to minimise costs: at Yamal LNG, for example, 46 percent of workers are on rotational shifts.5 The 2035 Strategy also gives no indication of how far the government would go in subsidising the revival of the polar cities or whether it would adopt command methods to force companies to change employment practice and to pay for the Arctic’s socio-economic recovery, which would likely dissuade even Chinese companies from investing.
This notable lack of a plan for the socio-economic upgrade of the Arctic region means that the government will prioritise the launch of a large number of major natural resource projects and rely on them to generate over time a positive spill-over effect on the rest of the regional economy. Actually, the 2035 Strategy is quite clear that only those population centres which are based in the areas serving the interests of national security, infrastructural and mineral resource development will benefit from the projects and programmes of “integrated development”.6 That is: social development will happen in the Russian Arctic, but it will be patchy at best and focused on serving the areas of government priority such as military bases, ports serving the NSR and resource extraction sites.
The unequivocal focus of the section dedicated to the “Significance of the Arctic zone in the socio-economic development of the Russian Federation and the provision of its national security” is on the region’s mineral wealth, the NSR and the strategic forces based there. The region’s value is assessed through the prism of its hydrocarbons as “over 80 percent of natural gas and 17 percent of oil of the Russian Federation” are produced in the Arctic zone while the continental shelf contains “over 85.1 trillion cubic metres of gas and 17.3 billion tonnes of oil (including condensate)”. The Energy Strategy to 2035 reinforces this view when it asserts that Russia’s socio-economic development will be a function of its resource development.7
The 2035 Strategy specifies the launch by 2035 of five oil projects on the continental shelf, 21 projects to develop solid minerals (from diamonds to rare earth minerals, titanium, quartz, gold and coal), and three petrochemical plants. But the biggest increase in resource production is to come from Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) which is projected to increase from 8.6 million tonnes in 2018 to 91 million by 2035.8 Securing outlets for such large volumes of LNG will depend on Russia’s ability to develop the year-round route for deliveries to Asia via the NSR.
The 2035 Strategy differs from its predecessors because it takes a regionally differentiated approach, listing priority projects for nine of the Arctic zone’s administrative entities. This aligns with the carcass-cluster approach (karkasno-klasternyi podkhod) set out in the 2014 State Programme, which envisaged the creation of a group of development zones (clusters) scheduled to receive priority government attention and treatment, with funding channelled to a handful of pre-selected transportation, energy and social projects. The proclaimed intention was to create the backbone (carcass) of regional development.9 The 2035 Strategy contains an extensive list of undertakings for each of the selected areas.
The areas of the Arctic selected for funding to 2035 clarify Moscow’s priorities. These fall into two categories: those rich in mineral resources (hydrocarbons and solid minerals) and those with access to the ocean. The latter point shows both the priority assigned to constructing ports for the export of mineral resources via the NSR and trans-shipment hubs in Kamchatka and Murmansk for reloading cargoes from ice-class ships to reduce transportation costs to end-markets, and the priority accorded to the construction and upgrade of dual use military facilities, including the ports of Pevek, Dixon and Tiksi.
The 2035 Strategy is significant because advocates the creation of mineral resource centres (MRCs), aligning it with the country’s Strategy of Geological Development to 2030. The concept of MRCs, defined as a set of fields connected by common (existing or planned) infrastructure and having a single point of shipment of extracted raw materials or products for delivery to consumers, is expected to be rolled out for all mineral resources. It represents a more innovative and economically orientated approach to resource extraction and management.
Within the framework of MRCs, the 2035 Strategy does not advocate a large-scale development of continental shelf resources. It treats them instead as a “strategic reserve” to be claimed, explored and kept untouched until economic conditions change and prices increase sufficiently to support the development of the expensive Arctic offshore. The desire to control the largest part of offshore mineral resources in the Arctic plays an important role in motivating Moscow’s successive claims to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf to extend its continental shelf. Having invested in data gathering over the last years, Russia’s claims currently cover nearly 1.9 million square kilometres or 70 percent of the seabed in the central part of the Arctic Ocean outside of its Exclusive Economic Zone.
Russia has moved away from regarding international transit through the NSR as a priority, emphasising instead the use of the route by Russian companies for the delivery of strategic energy resources to the global markets. This is now formalised in the Strategy, which indicates that NSR throughput is projected to rise from 31.5 million tonnes in 2019 to 130 million by 2035. International transit will comprise only 10 million tonnes of this total.
The 2035 Strategy stipulates that the infrastructural projects at risk of being delayed are those essential for the NSR development, including the construction of search-and-rescue facilities, nuclear-powered icebreakers and offshore supply vessels. Indeed, a fleet of nuclear icebreakers is regarded as a prerequisite for effective consolidation of control over the NSR. The 2035 Strategy envisages the construction of “at least five” nuclear-powered icebreakers in the Project 22220 series, the first of which, Arktika, became operational in October 2020. Russia has commenced the construction of a Lider-class ship (Project 10510), Rossiya, designed to crush ice along the most difficult part of the NSR. These vessels will make the impassable stretches from the Laptev Sea through the East Siberian and Chukchi seas open to year-round navigation.
In light of the efforts to transform the Arctic Zone into a ‘strategic resource base’ of Russia, delays to NSR infrastructure, including icebreaker construction, are of utmost significance as they would derail the implementation of the LNG projects and the year-round delivery of mineral resources, including LNG, to the Asia-Pacific region. This would have profound economic, foreign policy and national security ramifications for Moscow.
Despite the tense relationship with the Euro-Atlantic community, cooperation and cooperative rhetoric have prevailed in Moscow’s Arctic policy. But the 2035 Strategy now contrasts with earlier documents and sends a clear signal. It explicitly mentions the growth of conflict potential in the Arctic as a threat and states that countering it will require ‘a continuous increase in the military capabilities’ of Russia’s armed and security forces in the Arctic.
The 2013 Arctic Strategy set out tasks for the period to 2020 that encompassed the prevention of smuggling, terrorism and illegal immigration, but contained no references to the military activities of other states. By contrast, the 2035 Strategy has brought traditional military security back onto the Arctic agenda with the emphasis on maintaining a favourable operational regime and adequate level of military preparedness to counter “existing and projected” military threats to Russia’s national security interests in the Arctic.10
The 2035 Strategy also highlights the need to enhance the structure and composition of armed forces in the Arctic as well as arm and equip regional forces with the most up-to-date means of warfare suitable for the harsh Arctic climate. The measures to accomplish these tasks have been underway since 2014, but their embodiment in the 2035 Strategy represents a formal acknowledgement of the leadership’s chosen course of action, including large-scale military exercises in the Arctic to improve command and control.
The 2035 Strategy confirms that security concerns have grown in strength and prominence. Highlighting the need for dual-use facilities and technologies, it aligns Russia’s strategic documentation with the geopolitical realities on the ground. The three ports along the NSR route identified as key tasks in the 2035 Strategy have been on the government’s agenda since the reconnaissance trip organised by the Ministry of Defence in August 2014 – only a few months after the imposition of sanctions on Russia. Furthermore, an integrated system for covering the Arctic’s information space to monitor ‘all types of situations’ on land, in water and in the air has been designed with both military and civilian segments. Its implementation commenced in 2015 and is due to be completed by 2025.
In April 2021, Deputy Minister of Transport Alexander Poshivay announced that the laying of the Polar Express trans-Arctic fibre-optic cable would start in May-June. It is expected to be completed in two stages: the western section connecting Teriberka (near Murmansk) with the former military base of Amderma in the Nenets Autonomous Okrug by 2024, and the eastern section – through the dual-use ports of Dixon, Tiksi and Pevek to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, Nakhodka and Vladivostok – by 2026. The cable will provide high-speed communication transmission for the NSR infrastructure, including ports. Such digital transformation will serve civilian and military purposes, and it will mark yet another step in enabling Russia consolidate jurisdiction over the NSR.
Although the 2035 Strategy does not lay excessive emphasis on conflict or militarisation, it strikes a tone consonant with Moscow’s prevailing stance of enhancing Arctic defences. The Russian leadership does not purposely choose open confrontation in the Arctic. Quite the opposite: Moscow seeks to achieve its national interests in the region by non-military means, while simultaneously planning for an undesirable eventuality where its key interests, such as control over the NSR, come into direct conflict with those of other states and the situation escalates. Similar to the earlier iteration, the 2035 Strategy does not mention any adversary state nor does it frame regional security policy in competition to NATO.
1 (back) “Plan razvitiya infrastruktury Severnogo morskogo puti na period do 2035 goda”, Website of the Russian Government, 21 December 2019, http://government.ru/docs/38714/
2 (back) “Mishustin poruchil prorabotat’ mery po nalogovomu stimulirovaniyu geologorazvedki v Arktike”, TASS, 2 November 2020, https://tass.ru/ekonomika/9890513
3 (back) Ob Osnovakh gosudarstvennoi politiki Rossiiskoi Federatsii v Arktike, 5 March 2020, http://static.kremlin.ru/media/events/files/ru/f8ZpjhpAaQ0WB1zjywN04OgKiI1mAvaM.pdf. See E. Buchanan, “The overhaul of Russian strategic planning for the Arctic Zone to 2035”, Russian Studies Series 3/20, NATO Defense College, 19 May 2021.
4 (back) “Ekonomisty raskritikovali novuyu strategiyu sotsial’no-ekonomicheskogo razvitiya”, Vedomosti, 13 May 2021,https://www.vedomosti.ru/economics/articles/2021/05/13/869660-ekonomisti-raskritikovali
5 (back) “Uzniki Zapolyarya. Kto budet osvaivat’ rossiskuyu Arktiku?”, Argumenty i Fakty, 15 January 2020.
6 (back) The 2035 Strategy, pp.31-33.
7 (back) “Energeticheskaya Strategiya Rossiskoi Federatsii na period do 2035 goda”, Website of the Ministry of Energy, 9 June 2020, https://minenergo.gov.ru/node/1026
8 (back) 2035 Strategy, Appendix, Key Indicators, N13.
9 (back) “Gosudarstvennaya programma Rossiiskoi Federatsii ‘Sotsial’no-ekonomicheskoye razvitiye Arkticheskoi zony Rossiiskoi Federatsii na period do 2020’”, 21 April 2014, https://www.prlib.ru/en/node/468341, pp.24-25.
10 (back) 2035 Strategy, p.21.