Ceci n’est pas une pipe: The surrealism of Russia’s three new Arctic pipelines

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Russian President Vladimir Putin before giving a speech by teleconference to commemorate the opening of three new Arctic pipelines. Photo: The Kremlin.

On January 18, Russia’s state owned gas company, Gazprom, opened a new pipeline stretching from the frozen Bovanenkovskoye gas field of the Yamal Peninsula in Russian Arctic to Ukhta, a city in the country’s north. The 1,265-kilometer long Bovanenkovo-Ukhta-2 pipeline runs parallel to an existing pipeline with the same name. Its opening thus doubles capacity to a combined total of 115 billion cubic meters per year.

Bovanenkovo-Ukhta-2 connects with other Russian pipelines that eventually feed into the Nord Stream pipeline. Opened in 2012, the Gazprom-supported project runs from Russia under the Baltic Sea and terminates in Germany. In other words, Bovanenkovo-Ukhta-2 can now theoretically double the amount of Arctic gas that flows to Europe every year.

The Yamal Peninsula: strength in imaginary numbers

Gas production facility No. 2 of the Bovanenkovo gas fields in Russia's Yamal Peninsula. Photo: Gazprom.

Gas production facility No. 2 of the Bovanenkovskoye gas field in Russia’s Yamal Peninsula. Photo: Gazprom.

The Yamal Peninsula lies at the heart of two of Russia’s national strategies: first, to breathe new energy into its oil and gas industry by exploiting  the country’s northern resources, and second, to develop the Arctic. Gazprom notes on its website that for the gas production center in Yamal, to where its main resource base is shifting, the company has built “a railroad, which includes the world’s longest bridge beyond the Arctic Circle, and the first airport in Russia’s modern history.”

It should thus come as no surprise that Russian President Vladimir Putin, who gave a speech by videoconference commemorating the Arctic pipeline’s opening, proclaimed in his first few sentences, “This is not just a pipe” [full transcript in English/Russian]. Visions of Magritte paintings floated in my head when I read those words. Before getting too distracted by pipes, apples, and tophats, however, it’s worth situating Putin’s surreal words within their broader context. He expressed,

We continue developing Russia’s pipeline transportation system. I believe that not only professionals but also people perhaps far from the energy sector are well aware that the facilities we are launching today are not just pipelines, but complicated, large-scale industrial facilities.

Rene Magritte - The Treachery of Images

René Magritte’s The Treachery of Images [La Trahison des Images], 1929. 

Putin underlined the fact that not just one, but actually three pipelines opened on Wednesday. In addition to the main attraction, Bovanenkovo-Ukhta-2, the Arctic pipelines Zapolyarye-Purpe and Kuyumba-Taishet were also unveiled. A few sentences later, Putin continued,

Their launch will substantially expand our oil and gas sector’s possibilities and will have tangible benefits for the entire Russian economy. This is indisputable. What is particularly important is that they will contribute to the [Russian Federation’s] regional development as well.

Gazprom CEO Alexey Miller took over next, extolling how his company laid more than 450 kilometers of pipeline “in the harshest climatic and geological conditions of the Far North.” At the same time, he stressed that the pipeline is the “most modern mainline gas pipeline in the world” (oddly, the Kremlin’s English transcript more modestly translates this sentence as “one of the most modern mainline gas pipeline in the world” (emphasis author).

Miller also plainly states that Bovanenkovo-Ukhta-2 will operate until 2087, a year that is almost farcically precise given how far it is into the future. For all we know, all of the permafrost underlying the pipeline may have turned to mush by then. Climate models suggest that the Yamal Peninsula may be over 6°C warmer by 2090.

IPCC climate projection with Yamal Peninsula highlighted.

IPCC projected surface temperature changes for 2090-2099 as compared to 1980-1999, with the Yamal Peninsula highlighted.

Nikolay Tokarev, President of state-owned Transneft, the world’s largest oil pipeline company, gave the following speech. He lauded the 8,000 specialists and 4,000 pieces of heavy machinery (“We used only Russian-made equipment”) that were involved in the construction of the other two Arctic pipelines. Making sure to mention the social sphere, Tokarev also explained, “…We also took care of social issues. We built 16,000 square meters of housing, created 1,500 new jobs, built 7 bridges, and energy facilities, while budgets at different levels have received around 3 billion in taxes.”

Phew!

The announcements of numbers so large as to be incomprehensible (what, after all, constitutes 16,000 square meters of housing in human terms? Four of this Russian mansion in Rublyovka?) make the pipeline seem like an even more impressive achievement for the Russian state. It was not enough for Russia to simply open a pipeline that will ceaselessly pump Arctic gas to warm the gingerbread houses of Germany and beyond. Instead, the heads of industry and the Russian state itself, Putin, had to herald the magisterial symbolism of pipelines to the Russian nation.

The lines of steel that unify the nation

In nineteenth-century America, the opening of railroads spurred the nation’s people imagine themselves as more physically unified. In twenty-first-century Russia, the opening of pipelines is key to the country’s mastery of the Arctic, picking up a task that the Soviets left off as the twentieth century was drawing to a close. But whereas railroads at least connected communities (along with the wheat fields, cattle ranches, and orange orchards whose products they brought to market) pipelines really only connect resources to terminals. They do little to connect people or strengthen a nation’s social fabric, except when people use them in unexpected ways as has been documented by geographers like Michael Watts and others working in Nigeria. That is why it is even more important for state and business officials like Putin, Miller, and Tokarev to speak of pipelines in sublime and magical terms. If leaders endow pipelines with a certain national mystique, then the people may support them as national “infrastructure objects,” to use Putin’s words. Otherwise, citizens may ask: Where is the benefit for us? (Oh, right, it’s in the 16,000 square meters of housing.)

The Germans smoke the (Arctic) pipe 

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Griefswald, Germany: Where Russia’s Arctic gas touches down upon the European continent. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Nord Stream terminates in the German city of Greifswald. The coastal Baltic metropolis once belonged to the Hanseatic League, which was etched into the deep recesses of my brain during 10th-grade history class. While the trade alliance of the Middle Ages is most well-known for its activities around the Baltic and North Seas, there is some evidence of its involvement in the “early penetration of the North,” according to German scholar Klaus Friedland.

In a fascinating paper, he suggests that an Icelandic family may have lived in the Westphalian city of Lübeck. Using art and poetry rather than historical documents to base his findings, he determines that members of the “Ysland” family used their connections to import 12 hawks every year from Iceland. Falconry was all the rage in Europe at the time, and the North Atlantic nation was seen as having some of the most prized birds. These hawks were sent to Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. Recently, the media has fawned over how former president Barack Obama managed to read a bevy of books in office (and even publish a paper in Science). But Frederick II wrote an entire treatise on hawking in his spare time, which is believed to have been the longest written work by any European monarch of his time or prior. In De Arte Venandi cum Avibus [The Art of Hunting with Birds], he proclaimed Icelandic birds to be the best birds, sending European hawkers and bird bandwagoners into a tizzy. The 12 hawks imported from Iceland every year were delivered to the emperor as a sort of duty, in return for which they received enough money to feed cereals 100-200 people for a year.

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Hawks – a 13th century Arctic export. From De Arte Venandi cum Avibus

The buck didn’t stop with Frederick II, however. In fact, in the late 1300s, one Lübeck trading company’s bread and butter was transporting Icelandic hawks alive all the way to Alexandria, Egypt via Venice. Much as Queen Elizabeth has her Welsh corgis today, the aristocrats of Alexandria had their hawks.

Hanseatic League members later became involved in other lucrative Arctic commodity trades, like stockfish (cod). Yet today, former Hanseatic league members like Greifswald are turning to the east for northern commodities, namely Russian gas. Und so, while Emperor Frederick II once demanded Arctic commodities in the way of Icelandic hawks, today, Russia’s president is pushing Arctic commodities onto Germany in the form of Russian gas. Coincidentally, Gazprom’s CEO, Alexey Miller, comes from a Russian family of German descent.

Nord Stream II: doubling down the exploitation of Arctic gas

Gazprom is heavily pushing Nord Stream II, a pipeline that would run parallel to the current one. It is highly geopolitically contested, for it could decrease Russia’s dependence on using Eastern European countries as thoroughfares to export its gas to markets in Western Europe. Even without Nord Stream II, Gazprom’s ownership of European gas markets has been rising: it reportedly increased from 31% in 2015 to 34% last year.

In a press release published the other day on Gazprom’s website, Miller expressed,

“The new gas pipeline, Bovanenkovo – Ukhta 2, commissioned today as part of the northern gas transmission corridor, reshapes the geography of gas flows for both domestic supplies and exports. The northern corridor becomes fundamental to gas supplies throughout European Russia and integral to the shortest, most reliable and efficient new route for gas exports to Europe, stretching from Yamal to Germany across the Baltic Sea. It is the Nord Stream 2 project, whose implementation is running on schedule.”

The development of Russia’s Arctic via the exploitation of the Yamal Peninsula is inseparable from the construction of Nord Stream II under the Baltic Sea, thousands of miles away. While the pipelines bring the Arctic closer to Germany, these enormous cylinders of Russian steel cut up the peninsula’s vast reindeer pastures into smaller and smaller parcels. Their construction constricts the mobility of the nomadic indigenous Nenets people, who are already under severe pressure from climate change. As a spokesman for Greenpeace Russia remarked, “Our research shows that the biggest fear nomads have is not global climate change, but the fear of being pushed out of the tundra.”

The pipeline’s impacts on lives and lands at both ends thus prove Putin right: this is not just a pipe.

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Nenets reindeer herders on the Yamal Peninsula. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Five ways the Dakota Access Pipeline affects the Arctic

Construction on the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Construction on the Dakota Access Pipeline. Photo: Lars Plougmann/Flickr Creative Commons License 2.0

Protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in Standing Rock, North Dakota have erupted this past week. For months, members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and their allies have been demonstrating at the confluence of the Missouri and Cannonball Rivers to stop the pipeline’s construction, which would cut through the tribe’s water resources and sacred lands with potentially damaging consequences. The $3.7 billion, 1,172-mile pipeline would carry oil fracked from the Bakken Formation across four states to a refinery outside Chicago. Fortune 500 company Energy Transfer Partners is overseeing the pipeline’s construction, which is planned to be able to move half of the oil coming out of the Bakken Formation every day.

Dakota Access Pipeline protests: No parallel in the Arctic

The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) has become a flash point for indigenous rights and climate change activism in a way that no recently proposed resource extraction project in the Arctic has. That’s not to say that there haven’t been significant environmental movements to halt industrial development in the Arctic. From 1979-1981, Sami and Norwegian protests attempted to stop the construction of the Alta Dam in Norway. The dam was eventually built, but protestors were successful in preventing a Sami village from being flooded. The construction of the $400 million Karahnjukar hydropower plant and aluminum smelter in Iceland in the mid-2000s also sparked a significant protest movement in Iceland that attracted global attention. Finally and more recently, 44 Greenpeace activists were arrested after scaling the Russian offshore oil platform Prirazlomnaya in 2014, while hundreds of protesters gathered in Seattle in 2015 to rally against Shell’s plans to drill in the Alaskan Arctic.

Yet at least in recent memory, no Arctic protest has captured global attention in the way that the movement against DAPL has. I’m not even sure if anyone waved a sign to protest the arrival of the Goliat floating production, storage, and off-loading unit when it arrived in Hammerfest last year to commence operations at the world’s northernmost drilling site in the Barents Sea. In a Barents Observer article from earlier this year, a politician from northern Norway admitted the difficulties with protesting Arctic oil drilling, especially in a country like his where the future of the enormous domestic oil industry lies to the north.

The firestorm that is #NoDAPL

While drilling in the European Arctic continues relatively under the radar, the #NoDAPL movement has gained enormous traction in the media and on the internet. The main protest site along the Missouri River has attracted celebrities like Mark Ruffalo and Shailene Woodley, an actress whose arrest for trespassing and rioting garnered media headlines. Mark Ruffalo, who has made a considerable effort over the years to raise climate change awareness, wrote an op-ed in The Guardian asserting:

“Given this ongoing shift to clean energy – and the fact that renewables offer a more sustainable, more prosperous, and healthier future – it seems almost unbelievable that North Dakota authorities are spending energy and money violently defending a dying and dangerous system of energy production.”

North Dakotan authorities want a pipeline because it will supposedly make shipping oil out of the state safer. Since June 2012, more Bakken crude has been moved by rail than by pipeline due to a surge in production and resulting pipeline congestion. Rail cars heavy with fuel, however, are subject to explosion. Moving oil by pipeline is also cheaper, which is an important motivation for both oil and shipping companies as the price of oil continues to remain low. As this Wired article explains, two years ago, Energy Transfer Partners promised oil refiners that the pipeline would be completed by the end of this year in exchange for them agreeing to purchase oil shipped through it at rates set in 2014, back when oil hovered around $75 a barrel. If the pipeline is not completed on time, rates will have to be renegotiated and DAPL may no longer be such a lucrative project. Time is money when it comes to oil, and that’s why so many oil majors had to pull out of the Arctic once the price dropped below $80-$90 a barrel – said to be the range of the breakeven price for a barrel coming out of the north.

How a protest in North Dakota affects the Arctic

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An oil rig floats offshore from the largely indigenous Canadian hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk in the Northwest Territories. The Arctic is no stranger to oil and gas development. Photo: Mia Bennett

The Standing Rock protests shine a light on five issues that are key in Arctic development: indigenous rights, fossil fuel infrastructure, asymmetric protests, climate change, and unconventional oil. Many projects in the Arctic involve these controversial issues, including the Yamal Liquefied Natural Gas project in Russia and the new highway to the Arctic Ocean in the Northwest Territories, Canada. Thus, the protests in North Dakota have the potential to affect the Arctic. Here’s how.

1. Indigenous rights

A map of native lands and pipelines around the U.S.-Canada border

A map of native lands and pipelines around the U.S.-Canada border. Map by Cryopolitics.

Like many indigenous peoples in the Arctic, the Sioux suffer from poor health, pervasive unemployment, and low incomes. Shockingly in Sioux County, where the Standing Rock reservation is located, nearly 24,000 years of potential life are lost per 100,000 people compared to the North Dakota average of 6,305 (PDF of report). Reliance on local land and water resources in both North Dakota and the Arctic means that the environment requires safeguarding. And in the North American Arctic and the Lower 48, land is one thing that been guaranteed to many indigenous peoples through land claims agreements and settlements. The boundaries of Standing Rock were delineated in 1889 by the Dawes Act, a policy that had devastating consequences nationwide for Native Americans due to its attempt to break up the tribal system of societal organization. But it did guarantee them their rights to the land.

Even though many indigenous peoples now own and oversee their land in both Canada and America, industrial development on the outskirts of these protected areas is still putting pressure on them. As the map above shows, pipeline companies simply avoid having to deal with native land regulations by laying them right outside their jurisdictions. To be fair, these projects often give jobs to native people. But they can also wreak havoc on their environment and precious resources even though they do not directly cut through their land.

The Dakota Access Pipeline, however, would run directly through the Standing Rock Sioux’s water supply. Protests there emerged first and foremost out of a concern among the natives, who are members of the Dakota and Lakota nations, for their water and land. “Water is life” is one of the movement’s main slogans. Last week, 50 demonstrators were arrested for sitting and blocking the pipeline’s construction in land that the Sioux consider theirs, but which technically belongs to Energy Transfer Partners. A court injunction in October denied the tribe’s request to halt construction of the pipeline through what they claim to be sacred grounds.

Pipelines placed anywhere near a water source are risky. Oil sands extraction in Alberta has polluted the Athabasca River, which supports many indigenous communities and ultimately flows to the Arctic Ocean. And in the Arctic itself, the countless number of ponds, streams, and rivers in the boggy tundra mean that pollution of a water source might be even less easily contained. Pipelines seem like quiet and sturdy infrastructures, but the protests in North Dakota are attempting to show that if one thing goes wrong, an entire way of life could be jeopardized.

2. The proliferation of fossil fuel infrastructure

If built, DAPL will perpetuate the spread of fossil fuel infrastructure across North America. While politicians in forums like the COP 22 meeting convening this month in Morocco talk about the need for states to lower greenhouse gas emissions, new pipelines continue to be bolted into the ground. Brand-new liquefied natural gas terminals are being constructed as well, particularly in the U.S. In December 2015, a glut of American-produced oil and gas led to the lifting of a 40-year ban on exporting U.S. oil. Now, American crude exports are “reshaping the world’s energy map,” according to Bloomberg.

Even if protestors and native groups are able to halt the construction of pipelines that would cross native land in the Lower 48 and Canadian provinces, a large amount of infrastructure is slated to be constructed in the Arctic in the coming years. If DAPL protestors are successful in stopping the pipeline’s construction, however, this might make project such as the proposed Alaska liquefied natural gas pipeline appear to be a less economically secure investments if protests, especially those organized by indigenous peoples with land claims, could threaten the ability to finish construction in a timely and profitable manner.

3. Social movements that unite indigenous and environmental activists on a global scale

The NoDAPL movement is a magnet for indigenous and environmental activists because it concerns issues dear to both movement’s hearts. Surprisingly, this is contrary to the Arctic, where many development projects are seen in a more black and white frame. The protests against Arctic offshore oil, for instance, have typically been about preventing climate change rather than protecting indigenous interests. Many indigenous groups in the Alaskan Arctic actually have a material stake in offshore drilling due to the fact that they own corporations with vested interests in the industry.

But if there were an issue in the Arctic like DAPL that attracted the interests of both indigenous and environmental activists, it could be a lightning rod for global dissidents to come and support the movement. The events in North Dakota show that not all locals are happy about out-of-state and foreign activists coming to ally themselves with the cause. CNN interviewed members of Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, including one man who complained about the non-local protesters he said were responsible for inciting violence. “It irks me. People are here from all over the world,” he remarked. “If they could come from other planets, I think they would.”

If a protest were to arise in the Arctic, it would generally be less feasible for allies and supporters of the movement to travel to the site given the sheer costs of getting up north. The movement in Iceland against the Karahnjukar project, which mainly focused on environmental issues, managed to attract many international protesters. There was even an organized “Summer of International Dissent against Heavy Industry” in 2007 that featured concerts and free vegan food for international dissenters. But just as in Standing Rock, many places in the Arctic simply cannot handle the sheer volume of people who might come thinking they are helping local causes when they are actually straining local resources.

4. Gas flaring and climate change

Night light satellite imagery reveals the prominence of gas flaring in the Bakken Oil Fields and Athabasca Oil Sands and its proximity to the Arctic.

Night light satellite imagery reveals the prominence of gas flaring in the Bakken Oil Fields and Athabasca Oil Sands and its proximity to the Arctic.

While it’s easy to see DAPL as the site of a relatively localized project and protest, its construction would have knock-on effects on other regions, including the Arctic. If DAPL is built, it will help secure and encourage the continued projection of oil from the Bakken formation. This could be perilous for the Arctic, as a NASA study found that every year between 2000 and 2015, nitrogen dioxide emissions increased 1.5% at Bakken and 2% over the Athabasca oil sands in Canada. Both Bakken and Athabasca are high-latitude oil fields whose emissions can exacerbate Arctic warming. Many of the pollutants they release into the atmosphere come from the wasteful practice of gas flaring, which is done to get rid of excess oil that cannot be economically shipped to market. The bright lights of gas flares can even be seen from space. The above map shows how the polluting gas flares over the Bakken and Athabasca oil fields are some of the closest major areas of industrial development to the Arctic. If the knock-on consequences of the DAPL protests mean that Bakken production is slowed, Arctic warming may be, too.

5. The rise of unconventional oil

On the other hand, let’s say the protests are successful in stopping DAPL and Bakken production does slow. This could push producers to look to other resource frontiers, such as the Arctic. As easy-to-access oil has dried up over the past few decades outside of the Middle East, tapping into unconventional oil resources has becoming more commonplace. Fracking is becoming an accepted way of dredging up more of the black stuff from deep underground. Deepwater oil in the Gulf of Mexico is also considered unconventional, as is Arctic oil. Since at least 2008, North American Arctic oil, especially in Canada where there is even less infrastructure to get product out to market than in Alaska, has been on the back burner. This is partly due to the glut created by the Bakken boom, which has made Arctic oil impossible to profitably extract. But if Bakken were to suddenly cease production (an unlikely proposition, but let’s just hypothesize) and prices were to go back up, Arctic oil could potentially be more attractive.

From North Dakota to the Arctic

The plains of North Dakota may seem a long way away from the Arctic Ocean. But while no project so far has yet united environmental and indigenous movements in the same electrifying manner in the Arctic, many of the underlying conditions in the North – an indigenous people with rights to land who still feel neglected, vulnerability to pollution and climate change, and the dominance of the extractive industries – are the same. The NoDAPL movement doesn’t seem to be letting up and protestors have vowed to stay through winter. Ultimately, it may be the longer staying power of the movement in North Dakota, which is centrally located within the U.S., reachable by car, and, while cold, not insanely so in winter, which allows the NoDAPL protests to succeed. In the Arctic, similar movements might eventually have to come in from the cold.

China’s One Belt, One Road project comes to the Arctic

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The frozen Amur river separating Russia and China between the cities of Blagoveshchensk and Heihe. The yellow sign in the frozen river warns onlookers not to cross. Photo: Mia Bennett, 2016.

I’ve just published a new article in the peer-reviewed journal Area Development and Policy called “The Silk Road goes north: Russia’s role within China’s Belt and Road Initiative.” The article is available to read online here (paid firewall; but a copy is also available on academia.edu).

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is the name that the Chinese government is using to describe what the media has referred to as the “One Belt, One Road” strategy. The policy envisions the construction and rolling out of land and maritime transportation networks to connect China to the markets and resources of the Eurasian continent while also providing an outlet for China’s excess capacity in steel.

Although counties in Central Asia like Kazakhstan receive the bulk of the attention in terms of how they fit into BRI, Russia also forms an important transportation nexus within the project. The Russian Arctic in particular has attracted BRI planners’ interest, for the region is rich in oil and gas. The seasonally ice-covered Northern Sea Route could also potentially offer a shorter shipping lane between China and Europe than the Suez Canal, enabling the creation of a so-called “ice road” within the larger network of maritime and land routes that constitute the new Silk Road.

Trade and transportation connections between Russia and China are nothing new. In the article, I briefly explore the history of commerce and transport links between the two counties. These were formalized in 1689 by the Treaty of Nerchinsk, which delineated China and Russia’s shared border along the Amur River. In the three centuries that have followed, the two countries have waffled between awkward friendship and all-out enmity nearly exploding into war.

1891: Russia builds the Chinese Eastern Railway

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Chinese workers constructing the Russian-financed Chinese Eastern Railway in China in the 1890s. Photo: Wikipedia Commons/Creative Commons 2.0 License

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An early 20th-century map of the Chinese Eastern railway.

In 1891, the Russo-Asiatic Bank was established in St. Petersburg partly in order for the Russians to build railways in China such as the Chinese Eastern Railway. This railway allowed Russia to cut across Manchuria (northeast China) to the city of Vladivostok on the Pacific Coast, shortening an all-Russia route by approximately 500 miles. As I explain in the article, “the Russian state ultimately held supervisory power over the railway and had the unusual right to transport Russian military forces along it, while the Russo-Asiatic Bank could build subsidiary railways, telegraph lines and mining explorations.”

In the 1950s under Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Union continue to provide material and technical assistance to the Chinese, who were yearning to industrialize quickly under Chairman Mao Zedong. This program came to a halt with the Sino-Soviet Split in 1960, which endured until 1989. The two communist countries of China and Russia had fallen out over differences in ideology, and Soviet engineers were sent home.

Today: China lends know-how and capital to Russia

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The city of Yakutsk, where Chinese state-owned company Sinohydro may one day build a bridge to connect what is one of the world’s most isolated cities to Russian road and rail networks.

In the 21st century, China and Russia have had reversals of fortune. China’s economy is booming while Russia’s is faltering as the bottom continues to fall out from under the price of oil. The Chinese Politburo is now looking to construct railroads across Russia in order to gain access to its resources and markets in Europe. As a result, Chinese companies are providing capital and expertise to projects like the Moscow-Kazan high-speed railway and, importantly for the Arctic, the Yamal Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) project. In one of the northernmost reaches of Russia on the Yamal Peninsula, the Silk Road Fund, a state-run investment vehicle associated with BRI, has lent US$12.1 billion to the Yamal LNG project in exchange for a 9.9% stake. If and when Yamal LNG comes onstream as planned in 2017, LNG will be shipped to Asia in summer and Europe in winter via South Korean-built ice-class tankers.

The Silk Road Fund’s loan to Yamal LNG represents China’s first investment in Russia’s oil and gas sector and may signal a shift away from previous energy agreements between the two countries. These were made more with a view towards Russia serving as an energy supplier rather than as a place in which China was willing to actually make investments in energy. If Yamal goes well, then it is possible that the Chinese government, possibly under the auspices of the Silk Road Fund or the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, may make future loans to projects in the Russian Arctic. In Yakutsk, Chinese-state owned company SinoHydro, a hydropower engineering company, may build a long-awaited bridge across the Lena River that would grant the city of 300,000 people year-round access to Russia’s rail and road networks. China also has the knowledge to build railways on permafrost, as it did when it built the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, completed in 2006.

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The Tibet-Qinghai Railway as it crosses over permafrost-laden ground. Photo: Wikipedia Commons/Creative Commons 2.0 License

As U.S. and E.U. sanctions on the Russian energy sector continue with no end in sight, China may have an opportunity to rewrite the rules of Russia’s Arctic development. Already in Africa, Chinese state-owned firms have exercised a significant effect on development in countries like Zambia and Tanzania. Beijing’s goals in Africa have been described by UCLA sociologist Ching Kwan Lee as oriented towards the creation of long-term access to resources and political influence rather than a sole focus on short-term financial gain, as is characteristic of global private investment. Given the tumultuous nature of the Sino-Russian relationship, Yamal could end up becoming something that the Silk Road Fund comes to regret. But if China’s involvement in African development is any sign, in the Arctic, the dragon is here to stay.

Read “The Silk Road goes north: Russia’s role within China’s Belt and Road Initiative” here.