President Vladimir Putin recently visited Russia’s Franz Josef Land archipelago in March, where he was briefed about scientific research taking place at the glaciers. He even grabbed an ice pick and carved out a sample from one of the glaciers. The main purpose of the trip was to inspect the progress of a project to clean up more than 40,000 tons of military and other debris from the Soviet era, as reported by Russian news agencies.
Accompanied by the Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Minister for Natural Resources Sergey Donskoy, and Minister of Defense Sergey Shoigu, Putin arrived on Aleksandra Land, the westernmost island of Franz Josef Land. Located in the Arctic Ocean, Franz Josef Land lies in the northernmost part of Arkhangelst oblast (a type of administrative division analogous to a province) and consists of 191 uninhabited islands, except for a remote Russian military base.
85 percent of Franz Josef Land is glaciated. He was taken on a tour through a cave in the Polar Aviators’ Glacier, which is used to study permafrost. He also visited the Omega field base in the Russian Arctic National Park, where he was briefed about environmental cleanup and biodiversity conservation efforts in Franz Josef Land, the Kremlin reports. Other activities included participating in the launch of a weather probe and visiting a military facility.
The visit comes amidst a variety of efforts by Russia to assert its foothold in the Arctic. “Putin’s recent visit draws attention to the long-standing objective of Russia to maintain its position as the leading Arctic power,” explained Katarzyna Zysk, an associate professor at the Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies, to GlacierHub. “It is to be achieved by strengthening the state presence… by developing rich natural resources and implementing a large-scale military modernization programme, as Putin reiterated himself during the visit. The fact that Putin was accompanied by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has highlighted the importance of Russia’s military presence in the region.”
In 2015, Russia submitted a formal claim to the UN that asserted control over a large swathe of the Arctic that extends more than 350 miles from mainland Russia’s coast. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, countries can claim an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) up to 200 nautical miles from their coastline. However, it also allows countries to claim territory as far as the continental shelf extending from the country’s coast line.
This claim was made under the latter provision and rests on the basis that the Lomonosov ridge, an underwater mountain range in the Arctic, is a natural extension of the Russian continental shelf. Denmark made a competing claim in 2014, which asserts that the Lomonosov ridge is part of Greenland.
“The visit is likely to be read (by other countries with interests in the Arctic) as a reassertion of the Russian interest and a clear message that despite a host of problems Russia has been struggling with at the domestic and foreign policy fronts, the Arctic remains nonetheless strategically important and on the authorities’ radar,” Zysk stated.
Territory within the Arctic is disputed as it holds 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered gas reserves and 13 percent of the oil reserves. The three other Arctic coastal states – Norway, Canada and the U.S. – also have claims to territory within the Arctic.
“Russia tries to define the Arctic and its cooperation structures isolated from other conflicts … Arctic exceptionalism is the word,” shared Veli-Pekka Tynkkynen, professor of Russian energy policy at the University of Helsinki, with GlacierHub. “This is logical, as the Arctic is extremely important for Putin’s future. This is related to the notion that Putin’s regime is suffering from a hydrocarbon lock-in (heavy dependence on oil and gas). Thus it does all in its power to enable exploitation of Arctic energy and sea routes.”
In terms of domestic policy implications, Zysk added, “In a time of continued economic decline and domestic instability, the visit has created an opportunity for attractive photo shots and for directing the public attention toward the largely positive success story of Russia’s position in the Arctic.”
Putin is no stranger to attractive photo opportunities. He was photographed discovering two Greek urns while scuba diving in the Black Sea in 2011, for example.
During Wednesday’s visit, Putin reportedly stated that Russia is open to “broad partnership with other nations to carry out mutually beneficial projects in tapping natural resources, developing global transport corridors and also in science and environment protection.”
However, this visit and Russia’s previous activities in the Arctic, which include planting a titanium flag on the Arctic seabed, appear to be part of an effort to exert a greater presence in the Arctic, particularly as melting sea ice increases the possibility of exploration.
Read about Obama’s visit to an Alaskan glacier here.