ARKHANGELSK, RUSSIA – Russian president Vladimir Putin has demonstrated no shortage of bravado in recent years when it comes to flexing his country’s military muscles in the far north. But the message he conveyed to a large Arctic conference today at the historic Russian port city of Arkhangelsk took a different tack by emphasizing the need to “maintain the Arctic as a space of peace, stability and mutual cooperation.”
While Putin spoke about the need for environmental safeguards, the vision he described for Russia’s Arctic centred on unlocking the region’s mineral wealth. He also expressed doubts that mankind is driving climate change. He described how he has seen glacier ice samples that contain layers of black carbon similar to what’s being produced today by pollution, created long ago by volcanos.
In addition, following some prodding from CNBC’s Geoff Cutmore, who moderated the conference’s closing panel discussion, Putin said he was willing to meet with U.S. President Donald Trump at a possible Arctic summit that may be held in Finland before July’s G20 meeting.
Putin did show his steely side when he addressed other subjects. Cutmore also prodded Putin on the subject of the biggest protests Russia has seen in recent years, which broke out on Sunday in more than 80 cities and led to the arrest of the country’s opposition leader. Putin warned that the demonstrations, aimed at government corruption, could result in “bloody events” similar to what was seen during the Arab Spring.
Putin made his pitch for Arctic cooperation during his closing remarks to more than 1,500 attendees at the conference. Among these visitors were top officials from a number of Russia’s European neighbors. The presidents of Iceland and Finland both shared the stage with Putin, and the foreign ministers of Norway and Denmark also attended the conference. For the latter two countries, this is an especially significant visit: High-level talks with Russia ceased following the country’s annexation of Crimea in 2013, and this is the first visit by their foreign ministers to Russia since then.
The Crimean crisis brought about European sanctions against Russia, and some Arctic watchers suspect the conference’s sweet talk is an effort to woo the Europeans into dropping these punishments, which could hamper Russia’s economic development ambitions for the Arctic. Russia’s plan to build new icebreakers have already faced sanctions-related setbacks, and the country’s bid to extract oil and gas from its Arctic waters may be hampered without access to Western technology.
In the meantime, some of the larger infrastructure developments in the Russian Arctic are being financed with the help of China. That includes a large liquefied natural gas plant in Yamal currently under construction, and plans to build a new deepwater port near Arkhangelsk, accompanied by a railway that will cut the distance of transporting cargo such as coal, minerals, oil, timber and construction materials from Siberia, via the Urals, to the White Sea by 800 kilometers (500 miles). No surprise, then, that China also sent a sizable delegation to the conference, led by one of the country’s vice-premiers, Wang Yang.
While attending a similar Arctic conference in Arkhangelsk in 2011, Putin predicted that the Northern Sea Route would soon rival the Suez Canal. But while shrinking sea ice may make for easier passages along the route, low fuel and commodity prices have so far conspired against any big bump in transits between Europe and Asia. For now, much of the route’s traffic is driven by Russian infrastructure projects.
This year’s forum opened with speeches by Russian officials who have made some flamboyant comments in the past about Russia’s right to assert itself in the Arctic. But in Arkhangelsk, they, like Putin, stuck to a script that seemed to aim to reassure a Western audience.
Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s deputy prime minister, created a diplomatic incident with Norway in 2015 when he made an unannounced visit to Svalbard. As someone on the European sanctions list, he is barred from entering Norwegian territory. He went on to publicly mull that what happened to Crimea could happen in the Arctic, too. But at the conference, he described the Arctic as a place of ongoing peace and cooperation, while stressing Russia’s oversized presence: Of the 4 million inhabitants who reside in the circumpolar region, 2.3 million live in Arctic Russia.
Similarly, Artur Chilingarov, a famous Russian explorer who helped his country plant a flag on the North Pole’s seabed in 2007 and later declared, “The Arctic always was Russian, and it will remain Russian,” greeted forum attendees as friends, stressing the importance of international cooperation to help overcome the region’s sizable challenges.
Russia also made efforts during the conference to present itself as a good steward of the environment. Perhaps to drive home this point, prior to attending the conference, Putin travelled to Franz Josef Land, a remote archipelago 1,000 miles off Russia’s northern coast, to inspect an environmental cleanup effort there. The islands are strewn with an estimated 90,000 tonnes of waste, including many thousands of barrels of waste oil. The announcement of the visit made no mention of work under way to build a new military base at the islands.