President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday put forward an ambitious program to secure Russia's foothold in the Arctic, including efforts to build new ports and other infrastructure facilities and expand an icebreaker fleet.
Speaking at the 5th International Arctic Forum in St. Petersburg attended by leaders of Finland, Denmark, Iceland and Norway, Putin said that Russia plans to dramatically increase cargo shipments across the Arctic sea route.
He said that the amount of cargo carried across the shipping lane is set to increase from 20 million metric tons last year to 80 million tons in 2025.
"This is a realistic, well-calculated and concrete task," Putin said.
He noted that Russia, the only nation with a nuclear icebreaker fleet, is moving to expand it.
Russia currently has four nuclear icebreakers, and Putin said that three new such ships are currently under construction. By 2035, Russia stands to have a fleet of 13 heavy icebreakers, including nine nuclear-powered ones, he said.
The Russian leader said that Russia plans to expand the ports on both sides of the Arctic shipping route — Murmansk on the Kola Peninsula and Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky on the Kamchatka Peninsula — and invited foreign companies to invest in the reconstruction project.
Other ports and infrastructure facilities along the route will also be upgraded and expanded, he said.
Putin also asked the government to draw up plans for tax relief that would promote the development of the Arctic region.
Russia, the U.S., Canada, Denmark and Norway have all been trying to assert jurisdiction over parts of the Arctic as shrinking polar ice creates new opportunities for resource exploration and new shipping lanes.
Speaking at the forum, Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg emphasized the need to respect international law and noted that the Arctic Council provides a key arena for dialogue.
"Now and then I hear the Arctic described as a geopolitical hotspot," she said. "This is not how we see it. We know the Arctic as a region of peace and stability."
She noted that "this should not be taken for granted," adding that "it is the result of political decisions and practical cooperation between the Arctic states."
"Respect for international law and regional cooperation are keys to ensuring peace and stability across borders," Solberg said.
The Russian military has revamped and modernized a string of Soviet-era military bases across the polar region, looking to protect its hold on the region, which is believed to hold up to one-quarter of the Earth's undiscovered oil and gas.
Addressing the forum, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that military deployments in the Arctic are intended to protect national interests.
"We ensure the necessary defense capability in view of the military-political situation near our borders," Lavrov said, noting that a recent NATO exercise in Norway was openly directed against Russia.
Russia's relations with the U.S. and other NATO allies have plummeted to post-Cold War lows over the Ukrainian crisis, the war in Syria, Moscow's meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and other issues.
Lavrov noted contacts between military officials of the Arctic countries have been frozen amid the Russia-West tensions and called for restarting them.
He said criticism that Russia is militarising the Arctic is not fair.
"We don't see a single issue that requires a military solution," he said, accusing "some NATO states" of "imposing a militaristic spirit" on coordination of Arctic nations in the Arctic Council.
Moscow has built several massive Arctic garrisons in the Arctic and made the hydrocarbon-rich region one of its strategic priorities.
Some in the U.S. command have warned about Washington's and Canada's vulnerabilities in the north, and President Donald Trump's administration is drafting a new Arctic defense strategy to reflect competition with Russia and China in the region.
Moscow has filed a bid in the U.N. to assert sovereignty over a vast Arctic shelf area, which received a "positive recommendation" regarding areas in the Okhotsk, Barents, and Bering Seas, Lavrov said.
The U.N. Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf is still reviewing Russia's claim in the Arctic Ocean, which includes the North Pole.
"We expect a successful conclusion of the review" of this part of the claim, which contests with Denmark, Lavrov said.
"All possible overlaps will be solved through negotiations," he said.
He added that the Northern Sea Route which Moscow has billed as a viable alternative link between Europe and Asia, is a "national transport artery" for Russia, but Moscow nevertheless wants to "develop and use it collectively."
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