Russians living in the Far North are fed up with the lack of basic living supplies from their local governments. This discontent may soon escalate to the federal level. Moscow must be able to supply population centers and military bases along the country’s northern border on a regular and reliable basis for the Northern Sea Route (NSR) to be effective and for Russia’s military facilities to be able to project power into the Arctic (see EDM September 11, 2018, December 6, 2018). That is no small task, as two-thirds of the roughly 1,800 populated areas in the Russian north have no road or railway connections to the outside world and must be supplied by sea or air. The system Moscow relied upon in the past—sending goods by sea during the brief summer navigation season—has collapsed due to the redirection of resources that were originally set aside for the construction of icebreakers to support the war against Ukraine instead (see EDM, June 12). As a result, the populations in these areas are fleeing, and Moscow’s ability to operate the NSR and control portions of the Arctic are at risk.
At the end of October, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered government officials to address the mounting problem. Thus far, they appear to have failed that task. Moscow’s plans to boost support to the populations in the north, consequently, are unlikely to be realized anytime soon, if at all (Kremlin.ru, October 25).
While much of the planet is warming, some places are first growing colder. One of the greatest misconceptions about global warming is that it proceeds everywhere at the same time in a linear fashion. Much of the NSR has become ice-free in recent years; however, some sections suffer from more, not less, ice. This pattern has limited the route’s development, especially after more than 20 ships were caught in the ice of its eastern portion in 2021 (The Barents Observer, November 9, 2021).
Today, Moscow needs more icebreakers and ships capable of sailing through the thick Arctic ice. Since last year, however, domestic production of icebreakers and arctic ships has decreased (The Barents Observer, November 16, 2022; Window on Eurasia, November 18, 2022). The Kremlin has slashed its much-publicized program to build new, larger icebreakers due to the high material costs of the war in Ukraine (Kommersant, October 12; The Barents Observer, October 16). The Putin regime has also postponed the construction of a railway in the north that would link many of these population centers until at least 2027 (Kommersant, June 19). Despite the hopes of some and the fears of others, China has not yet been able to compensate for Russia’s drawback in its ventures into the Arctic (see EDM, May 6, 2021, March 9, 2023).
Moscow has succeeded in hiding most of the issues in the north stemming from the decrease of cargo transiting along the NSR. Through a series of accounting tricks, changing the outer limits of the NSR to capture trade at each end, Moscow has propagated the façade that all is well in the north. In addition, the Kremlin no longer publishes data that distinguishes between vessels that transit the entire route and those that move only between two or three specific points. This scheme, however, will not enable Russian officials to meet Putin’s orders to expand development of the NSR in the coming years. They have already failed to hide the mounting challenges for the populations in the Far North, which undercuts Moscow’s plans and may threaten its ability to control the situation (RBC, May 20, 2020).
Russian residents of the Far North have been leaving the region at increasing rates. Over the past decade, almost 500,000 people have left the Asian portion of Russia’s northern regions, and 300,000 have fled the European part. This exodus continues regardless of Putin’s push for more Russians to move into the region, with the incentive of free land as part of the “northern hectare” program (Demographic Review, accessed November 14). The declining regional population has led to the collapse of some small cities that the NSR and Russian military bases had depended on. Dikson, a city that Soviet authorities celebrated as “the world’s Arctic capital,” remains a center for communications and search-and-rescue services along the NSR. It has experienced a population collapse from just over 5,000 at the end of Soviet times to only about 500 now. The town no longer has a hospital or even a doctor, and flights to and from Dikson have been reduced to once a week and only in small planes when weather conditions permit (Regnum, August 20, 2022; URA.ru, October 7, 2022).
Most of those leaving the Far North are ethnic Russians who were dispatched there in Soviet times. As a result, the share of indigenous non-Russians in the population is rising and may eventually present a threat to the Kremlin. Being numerically small, such peoples do not yet form a majority in any of the federal regions of the north, though this shift is already worrying Moscow officials and experts. They know that such demographic changes could give a fresh impetus for national movements to take off (Scientific Russia, July 13; Window on Eurasia, August 16; Indigenous Russia, November 3).
The Russian government, however, faces a more immediate problem. Outrage is spreading among those who remain in the north because they are not receiving the supplies they need. Three months ago, Putin signed into law a measure that would make deliveries to the north a federal priority and charge a single official and supporting bureaucracy with ensuring that none of the population centers along the country’s northern border suffer from shortages (Kremlin.ru, August 4). This has led to some much-heralded actions, including the delivery of coal by helicopter to a village in the north (VK.com/Alexander_Dudorov, November 1). Such stunts are more for propaganda material and do not solve the overarching problems. As a result, residents are furious (The Barents Observer, November 13).
Regional officials have been falsely relaying to Putin that everything is under control. The growing dissatisfaction of Russians in these northern regions with their local governments may soon escalate to discontent directed at Moscow. This will certainly be the case if nothing changes after Putin took the extraordinary step of personally announcing that the situation would be corrected and ordering prosecutors to bring charges against local officials responsible for any shortcomings (VK.com/Prokuratura_Nenetskovo_avtonomnovo_okruga, October 31). One local man, under the name Vladimir Vladimirov, provided passionate evidence to back up such a conclusion. He posted on the VKontakte page of Yury Bezdudny, the governor of Nenets Autonomous Okrug: “We simply do not believe you and your assurances. You have discredited yourself with lies in August and September that plans to supply the north were ahead of schedule. You are nothing but liars” (VK.com/Yury_Bezdudny, November 2). Such attitudes point to trouble ahead for Moscow in the Arctic and along the NSR, which threatens to spread deeper into Russia.