Russia Pushes To Claim Arctic As Its Own

Aug 16, 2011
Originally published on August 19, 2011 9:52 am

Four years ago, Russian researchers made a bold, if unseen, move. From a submarine, deep beneath the icy waters of the North Pole, they planted a Russian flag on the ocean floor.

Russia has the world's longest Arctic border, which stretches more than 10,000 miles. And for Russia, that 2007 research mission was only the beginning of a major drive to claim ownership of vast portions of the Arctic, as well as the oil and gas deposits that are beneath.

At present, Russia has some islands in the Arctic Ocean. But aside from that, the country's northern border effectively ends where the Arctic Ocean begins.

Yet the Russian government is now making the argument that its border should be extended northward. The government says that hidden under the Arctic's icy waters is a mountain range, the Lomonosov Ridge, which goes all the way to the North Pole. They say this shows that Russia continues north below sea level, and the country has scientists in the Arctic Ocean now, collecting evidence for the claim.

On a recent visit, a speedboat raced up the Pechora River in one small part of the vast region. The river cuts through hundreds of miles of empty green and sandy tundra and empties into the Arctic Ocean.

In a small fishing village with a smattering of wooden houses in the Nenets Autonomous Region, Yuri Tyulyubayev, a travel company owner, says many local residents agree with the government.

"People are happy that we have oil because ... we have more work, we have more profit, we have everything," says Tyulyubayev.

In many ways, Tyulyubayev is a poster child in Russia's campaign for Arctic energy. He arranges travel for the oil industry. So his small company stands to profit if foreign energy companies flock here. His native land of north-central Russia is largely unspoiled.

"It's a very, very reindeer region," he says. "We have more than 150,000 reindeer for 40,000 people."

'They Could Break Everything'

And now, a lot of oil and gas companies. There are Russian firms, but also companies from the U.S. and Vietnam, all exploring for oil and gas onshore. And if Russian leaders have their way, exploration will begin in the Arctic Ocean itself as early as this winter. Tyulyubayev says the more money and business that come to this region, the better.

But what about the risks to the environment?

"Of course we worry. But I would not say that this is the first worry in our life," he says. "Economic life is much more important for people."

The Russian Arctic has the scars of history. The northwest, around the port city of Murmansk, was pummeled by Adolf Hitler's forces during World War II. The Arctic was also one of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's favorite places to send his perceived enemies, with gulags that dotted the snowy landscape.

The indigenous people of this region bore much of the brunt. The Saami tribe, for one, has lived centuries in Russia's northwest, near the Norwegian border. Saami people were forcibly collectivized on farms under Stalin. Nadezhda Lyashenko, the Saami woman singing traditional tribal music here, can recount the horror stories. Her grandfather, a reindeer shepherd, was shot in 1937, accused of being a spy after he crossed into Finland chasing a reindeer herd.

After decades of relative peace, Lyashenko says, trouble seems to be returning to her native Arctic lands. She sees Russia and other world powers in a race for oil and gas, ignoring the potential impact to a part of the Earth that's been rarely touched.

"The Arctic is just so fragile," she says. "This time, it's a research boat going out there. It's like the prick of a needle, and the land will heal. But if they go with knives, with spears, they could break everything. And then what?"

Putin's Political Gift

Russia has signaled that it means business. The government seems determined to militarize the Arctic, announcing recently that two army brigades — several thousand troops — will soon be patrolling there.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, in a speech to the country's ruling United Russia party this summer, vowed to open the Arctic Ocean for offshore development. He announced plans to build a new, year-round port on the Yamal Peninsula in the center of Russia's north coast. Putin said that Russia would consult with other Arctic countries. But, he added, Russia will be "firm and persistent" in protecting its interests.

Konstantin Simonov, who heads the National Energy Security Fund, a Russian think tank that consults with oil and gas companies, says the Arctic is a political gift for Putin. As Soviet power fades into memory, Putin can say this is one part of the world where Russia still calls the shots.

"With the help of Arctic, Putin can show to people that Russia is still a serious power," Simonov says.

The risk, Simonov says, is exaggerated expectations. Many of the offshore oil and gas projects are at least a decade away from bringing economic benefit — assuming they succeed.

Yet Russians who live above the Arctic Circle are growing excited. They look to neighboring Norway, or to Alaska, where citizens share in oil profits. And they believe their time has come. Simonov thinks about one desolate village, Teriberka. It's on the coast near the Norwegian border. People there were told that as soon as a new offshore gas deposit, known as the Shtokman field, is explored, the community will get a natural gas processing plant and plenty of jobs.

"I can understand these people because they have no other alternative but to dream that our plans to develop Arctic will be realistic," Simonov said.

Holding On To Hope

To reach the village of Teriberka requires driving 100 miles across empty tundra. It's a place that's struggling. It has dirt roads and maybe 700 residents who live in old Soviet housing that's crumbling.

According to 33-year-old Andrei Udin, life in Teriberka is depressing. He has tried for years to find real work. Udin likes the tough talk from Putin, the promise to fight for Arctic territory. "What's ours should be ours," Udin says. But after years of delay, he's beginning to wonder if that natural gas processing plant is really coming to Teriberka.

"If I don't have a job, natural gas does nothing for me," Udin says. "I can't exactly use the gas for food." Frustration is growing around this village. People are beginning to say that unless the oil and gas riches will be shared, maybe it's best to leave nature alone.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

All this week we're taking you to the Arctic. A number of countries are battling for territory and resources there, but they face the reality that developing that icy region for oil and gas may be years away and also very expensive. NPR's David Greene is covering the Russian side of this story. He's been based in Moscow for the last two years. But as it happens, and happily, he's going to be with us for the next several weeks here on MORNING EDITION. So David, I just want to say welcome...

DAVID GREENE, Host:

Well, thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: In 2007, Russians planted a Russian flag at the North Pole. Now, that was quite a statement.

GREENE: Yeah, it was quite a moment, and Russian leaders have been making these types of bold claims and promises about how the Arctic really most of it belongs to them and how exploring the Arctic can be a real boost to the Russian economy. But there are a lot of questions, Renee, about the environmental consequences of their plans and also about whether they're even being realistic about what they can do in the Arctic.

And one place I visited recently was the Nenets region. It's about the size of Florida and it's way above the Arctic Circle. The size of Florida, but only 40,000 people, and so it's this vast, empty green tundra. There are very few roads. You have to get anywhere by taking a plane or a boat.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOAT)

GREENE: I'm on this little metal speedboat flying across the Pechora River. This river cuts across hundreds of miles of empty green and sandy tundra and the river empties into the Arctic Ocean just north of here. Now, what the Russian government wants you to believe is this might seem like the northern border of Russia, but actually they say that underwater, underneath the Arctic Ocean, there's a mountain range - the Lomonosov Ridge - that extends all the way up to the North Pole. They say it shows that Russia continues north underwater.

Russian scientists are up in the Arctic Ocean now collecting evidence. And the Russian government, this is part of their battle to claim ownership of the Arctic - the oil, the natural gas, and establish their dominance.

(SOUNDBITE OF BANGING)

GREENE: We've climbed off the boat and stopped on the land in this little village with a smattering of wooden houses.

YURI TYULYUBAYEV: People are happy that we have oil, because this is, obviously that we have more work, we have more profit. We have everything.

GREENE: In many ways, Yuri Tyulyubayev is a poster child in Russia's campaign for Arctic energy. The father of three arranges travel for the oil industry. And if Russia can explore for oil and gas in more of the Arctic and attract foreign energy companies, Tyulyubayev's small business could thrive. This area where he grew up had always been unspoiled.

TYULYUBAYEV: It's a very, very reindeer region because we have more than 150,000 reindeers for 40,000 people.

GREENE: And now there are a growing number of oil and gas companies - Russian firms, also companies from the U.S. and Vietnam. For now, they're exploring for oil and gas onshore, but Russian leaders say they're ready to explore offshore as soon as this winter, and Tyulyubayev says the more money and business that come to this region, the better. As for harming the environment?

TYULYUBAYEV: Of course, we worry. But I would not say that this is the first worry in our life. The economical life is much more important for people.

GREENE: Russia has the world's longest Arctic coastline - 10,000 miles, stretching from Europe almost to Alaska. It's a remote, pristine place that has the scars of history. The commercial heart is the city of Murmansk up by the northern tip of Norway. This port city, industrialized by the Soviets, was pummeled by Hitler's forces during World War II. The Arctic was also one of Joseph Stalin's favorite places to torture people in gulags that dotted the usually snowy landscape.

NADEZHDA LYASHENKO: (Singing in foreign language)

GREENE: Indigenous people, like the Saami tribe, bore much of the brunt. They were forcibly collectivized on farms under Stalin. Nadezhda Lyashenko, the Saami woman singing tribal music here, recalls how her grandfather, a reindeer shepherd, was shot in 1937. He was accused of being a spy after he crossed into Finland chasing a reindeer herd.

LYASHENKO: (Singing in foreign language)

GREENE: After decades of relative peace, Lyashenko says, her native Arctic is now entering a new era of horror. She sees Russia and other world powers in this race for oil and gas, ignoring what the disturbance could do to a part of the Earth that's rarely been touched.

LYASHENKO: (through translator) The Arctic is just so fragile. This time, it's a research boat going out there. It's like the prick of a needle and the land will heal. But if they go with knives, with spears, they could break everything. And then what?

GREENE: Russia is signaling it means business. The government seems bent on militarizing the Arctic. They announced recently that two army brigades, several thousand troops, will be on the way soon to patrol the north. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, in a speech to the country's ruling United Russian Party this summer, vowed to open the Arctic Ocean for offshore development. He also announced plans to build a new year- round port on the Yamal Peninsula in the center of Russia's north coast. Sure, Putin says, Russia will consult with other Arctic countries, but he adds, Russia will be...

VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Russian spoken)

GREENE: ...firm and persistent in protecting its interests.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

GREENE: Konstantin Simonov heads the National Energy Security Fund, a Russian think-tank that consults with oil and gas companies. He says the Arctic is this political gift for Putin. As Soviet power fades into memory, Putin can say here's one part of the world where Russia still calls the shots.

KONSTANTIN SIMONOV: With the help of Arctic, Putin can show to people that Russia is still a serious power.

GREENE: The risk, Simonov says, is false expectations. Many of the offshore oil and gas projects are at least a decade away from bringing economic benefit, assuming they succeed. Yet Russians who live above the Arctic Circle are growing excited. They look to neighboring Norway or to Alaska, where citizens share in oil profits, and they believe their time has come.

Simonov thinks about one desolate village, Teriberka. It's on the coast near the Norwegian border. People there were told that as soon as a new offshore gas deposit, known as the Shtokman Field, is explored, their community will get a new natural gas processing plant and plenty of jobs.

SIMONOV: I can understand those people, because they have no other alternative but to dream that our plans to develop Arctic will be realistic.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: I went to find this village, Teriberka, and it was 100 miles driving across empty tundra, and got here and this is a really struggling place. I'm standing in the center and it's dirt roads, maybe 700 or so people who live in this old Soviet housing that's crumbling.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: Andrei Udin was fixing up an old car, listening to dance music that was filling the empty streets.

ANDREI UDIN: (Russian spoken)

GREENE: Hope is hard to come by here. Udin hasn't worked for years. There are no jobs. He has liked the tough talk from Prime Minister Putin, this promise to fight for Arctic territory. What's ours should be ours, Udin says, proudly patriotic. But after years of delay, he's beginning to wonder if that natural gas processing plant that's been promised is really ever coming.

UDIN: (Russian spoken)

GREENE: If I don't have a job, natural gas does nothing for me, Udin says. I can't exactly use the gas as food.

Frustration is growing around this village. People are beginning to say unless the oil and gas riches will be shared here, maybe leave our Arctic alone. This beautiful nature is really all we have.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: And you can explore some maps to see how shrinking Arctic ice intersects with growing global ambitions at our website, NPR.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.