Many in the West see it as the edge of civilization, but for Russia, the Arctic Circle is central to the future.

Anyone with illusions that the Arctic region is a wasteland at the world’s edge, devoid of strategic importance, will have their views shattered upon listening to Thomas Rotnem.

In late August, the professor of political science at Kennesaw State University spent the better part of an hour with the Atlanta Council on International Relations explaining how Russia views what many see as the edge of the world as central to its economic and security ambitions.

Thomas Rotnem

During the webinar, Dr. Rotnem outlined the thrills (military expansion) chills (COVID-19 outbreak) and spills (oil damage) in the region, saying the seemingly flippant title of his presentation belies how serious these developments are for the world — and especially for those countries with a stake in the Arctic, including the United States.

As the world warms, ice is melting in the region, opening up new shipping routes and enabling deeper oil and gas exploration.

In the Russian Arctic particularly, he said, temperatures have risen to more than 2.5 times 1960 levels, and the last 12 years displayed the warmest average on record since Russia began taking measurements in 1936. In the last 40 years, the area has lost 40 percent of its ice by surface area and 70 percent by volume. Some predictions see the region going ice-free by 2040.

This melting of both sea ice and permafrost (which makes up two-thirds of Russia’s huge land mass) brings myriad challenges, including shifting land, forest fires, an open northern front to defend and even the re-emergence of dormant diseases.

But it also brings unprecedented opportunities that are not lost on Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has kept his hold on the country for two decades.

“They believe that developing the Russian Arctic is their future, and in fact right now 11 percent of their GDP is created from Arctic economic activities, and 22 percent of their exports. They just want to increase that further,” Dr. Rotnem said.

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For that reason, Russia is undertaking a massive infrastructure buildup, dredging old ports and building new ones, installing liquified natural gas (LNG) terminals and building railroads and pipelines. Some help is coming from China, which is funding some developments and providing technical help in oil-drilling operations, even though it can’t directly transfer technology to the country, Dr. Rotnem said.

Russia is also expanding its world-leading fleet of ice-breaker vessels, including the Project 22220 fleet with nuclear reactors on board to power bursts of energy strong enough to break up nine feet of ice. For perspective: The U.S. now has one ice-breaker to Russia’s 42.

Mr. Putin has issued 24 directives in a national Arctic strategy that lasts through 2035, creating special economic zones and initiating legislative reforms designed to attract international investment.

He has even put a number on the cargo volume he’d like to see on the northern sea routes: 80 million tons by 2024. Volumes for 2020 so far on pace to surpass last year’s 31.5 million tons. The chief executive for top private gas company Novatek says his company alone will export 70 million tons of LNG alone by 2030, Dr. Rotnem says.

COVID-19, which has hit Russia hard, has stalled some of these plans. Russia now has more than 1 million coronavirus cases, though its total official death tally is relatively low at just over 18,000. The downturn in oil prices has also decimated Russian government revenues, crimping spending as funds have been diverted to shoring up the health system.

But Russia’s Arctic plans aren’t going anywhere. Next year it will begin a stint at the head of the Arctic Council, an eight-nation group of stakeholders charged with governance over international issues in the region.

“Putin wants to be seen as a success during that era, and why? Because they’re not taken seriously, they think, in many other venues in the world. Here’s an area where they are a stakeholder, a major force, and they want to see success over that two-year period,” Dr. Rotnem said. “Perhaps that’s some leverage for the United States to use to create better opportunities for collaboration.”

That’s needed at a time of frayed relations, when the two nuclear rivals are not meeting in regular security forums and when a military buildup means more exercises that breed opportunities for an accidental misstep.

In the Arctic, Russia has renovated or established 14 air bases, installed new radar systems, improved telecommunications and more. It’s also testing cold-weather drones and has deployed two 10,000-soldier mobile brigades, Dr. Rotnem said.

At the Arctic Council, the U.S. could push for a joint agreement on the issue of marine plastics in the region or on broader environmental concerns, “ring-fencing” the Arctic from some broader disagreements in the relationship of the preceding years, like the Russian invasion of Ukraine, election interference, intervention in Syria and most recently, the alleged poisoning of anticorruption activist Alexei Navalny, Dr. Rotnem said.

U.S. sanctions, he added, have pinched officials and made companies hesitant to invest in Russia, but they have also pushed the country toward developing its own technological capabilities in areas from dairy production to oil exploration.

“It did have great effect,” he said of sanctions on individual Russian officials and businessmen and more recent iterations barring arms sales and U.S. government financing for projects in Russia. “However, it had no impact on Russia’s behavior from our perspective.”

Russia will need to upgrade its oil equipment, especially in the Arctic, where shifting permafrost in May destabilized a diesel storage tank, leading to a 21,000-ton spill — about 60 percent of the size of the Exxon Valdez. The country averages about 10,000 spills per year.

The remote nature of these outposts can also present problems for accountability.

“The Russian government found out about these spills from social media, not from the company or from local governments,” Dr. Rotnem said, adding that the central government’s credibility has taken a hit as the pandemic has exposed the poor conditions of rural hospitals during the pandemic.

Some health care facilities lack heating and running water, and polls show that a majority of Russians lack confidence in the nation’s hospitals as Mr. Putin’s approval rating hovers at around 63 percent, near a historic low.

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Read Dr. Rotnem’s bio here or email him at

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...