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Putin sets out major upgrade to Arctic facilities, assets as nations eye area resources

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Jan. 27, 2019, marking the 75th anniversary of the complete liberation of Leningrad from the Nazi siege. (Kremlin/Released)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

President Vladimir Putin says Russia will dramatically increase its presence in the Arctic region by building new ports and other facilities and expanding its fleet of icebreaker vessels, as the competition for the area’s natural resources intensifies.

Putin told the leaders of Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden at the International Arctic Forum in St. Petersburg on April 9 that Russia’s efforts will help quadruple the level of cargo shipments across the Arctic sea route.

“This is a realistic, well-calculated, and concrete task. We need to make the Northern sea route safe and commercially feasible,” he said.

The shrinking polar ice in the Arctic region is expected to offer new opportunities for resource exploration and the development of new shipping lanes, leading Russia, the United States, Canada, Denmark, and Norway into a competition for jurisdiction in the region.

Putin set a goal for the amount of cargo carried across the shipping lane to rise to 80 million metric tons by 2025 from the 20 million tons transported in 2018, the majority under Russian-flagged vessels.

Russia, the only country with a fleet of nuclear icebreakers, is moving to expand its current inventory of four nuclear-powered vessels to a total of nine by 2035, he said. It also has four nonnuclear icebreakers in its fleet.

Putin said he was inviting foreign companies to invest in the plans to expand infrastructure along the Arctic shipping route from Murmansk to the Kamchatka Peninsula.

“We contemplate creating…preferential conditions for companies working in the challenging Arctic environment,” he said.

The forum comes as other countries have expressed concerns about the Russian military’s program to upgrade and modernize a series of Soviet-era military bases across the region and to establish a new Arctic command.

Norway’s prime minister, Erna Solberg, urged countries to respect international law in their endeavors in the region to help maintain peaceful conditions.

“Respect for international law and regional cooperation are keys to ensuring peace and stability across borders,” she told the forum.

In 2017, Jim Mattis, the U.S. defense secretary at the time, noted the Russian buildup and said that “America has got to up its game in the Arctic.”

“The Arctic is key strategic terrain. Russia is taking aggressive steps to increase its presence there. I will prioritize the development of an integrated strategy for the Arctic,” said Mattis, who left his position at the end of 2018.

At the Arctic forum, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov defended the military buildup, saying, “We don’t threaten anyone.”

“We ensure sufficient defense capabilities given the political and military situation around our borders,” He added.

The two-day forum ends on April 10.