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Polar Plots

Climate Change Is Putin’s Best Ally

The melting Arctic offers a lifeline for the increasingly sanctioned Russian economy.

People stand on the deck of a ship, looking at an iceberg in the water.
Ekaterina Anisimova/AFP/Getty Images
Russian teenagers who won a contest to travel aboard the Russian “50 Years of Victory” nuclear-powered icebreaker look at an iceberg in the Arctic Ocean.

On a cold and drizzly day in November 2021, a colossal boat in Russian colors left a shipyard in St. Petersburg on its maiden voyage. Named Sibir, it was the second of five nuclear icebreakers, collectively known as Project 22220. The ships are the centerpiece of a years-long strategic gamble by President Putin, who is counting on climate change to unlock the Arctic Ocean, vastly reducing Russia’s dependence upon—and vulnerability to—the West.

Sibir and its siblings (three of which are still under construction) are the largest icebreakers ever built, each as long as six NBA courts and as wide as two. Below deck, uranium-powered engines drive 20-foot-wide propellers. These enormous vessels were designed to split apart frozen Arctic seas and churn hundred-foot-wide marine highways in their wakes—battering rams for the Anthropocene.

For most of human history, the Arctic Ocean north of Russia has been frozen; each summer, after weeks of perpetual daylight, the sea ice thaws enough to fracture in some places. The southern reaches gradually turn into a slurry of ice starting in July and lasting until September, when temperatures fall with the shortening days and the seas freeze solid once again.

But all that is changing. Today, the High North is warming at four times the rate of the rest of the planet. The area of Arctic sea ice in the summer has nearly halved in the last 40 years, leaving behind a wildly different seascape. The entire Arctic Ocean, including the North Pole, could be ice-free as early as summer 2035.

Purpose-built icebreakers have cautiously navigated these waters in the summertime since the late nineteenth century. Northern Russia is rich in mineral deposits but poor in roads and railways. The world’s largest natural gas reserves are on the Yamal Peninsula, a Michigan-like mitten of land jutting out into the Arctic Ocean, roughly halfway between Great Britain and the west coast of Alaska. Until recently, developing these resources was hampered by the sheer logistics of transporting gas, oil, and ore from one of the most remote regions on earth, surrounded by sea ice and permafrost.

Enter climate change. In 2017, a Russian oil tanker became the first boat to traverse the entirety of the Northern Sea Route without an icebreaker escort, linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans without traveling through the Suez or Panama Canal. Depending on the route, traveling via the Arctic could halve the distance between Europe and East Asia. The transit was a grim milestone for the melting Arctic—and a rosy harbinger for the Russian economy. In 2008, only two vessels transited the entire route. Last summer, 84 ships made the journey.

Designs for Russia’s Arctic economy took on new urgency in 2014, after the wave of sanctions that followed the annexation of Crimea. That event, perhaps more than any other, accelerated Putin’s planning for economic independence from European energy markets.

In 2018, Putin gave a speech to Russia’s parliament, laying out the nation’s Arctic ambitions. “We have had the most powerful icebreaker fleet in the world, and this will remain so. The Northern Sea Route will be the key to developing the Russian Arctic and Far East,” Putin said, with construction already underway on Project 22220. “Our goal is to make it a truly global and competitive transport route. We will definitely develop this route and reach new horizons. I have no doubt about it.”

Just a few years ago, many observers dismissed this as bluster or symbolism, akin to Russia planting a flag on the North Pole in 2007—14,000 feet below the surface of the Arctic Ocean. But in the last decade, cargo volume along the Northern Sea Route grew by a factor of 15, driven in large part by new gas production on the Yamal Peninsula.

“This is absolutely not about mere symbolism,” Klaus Dodds, professor of geography at Royal Holloway, University of London, told me. “This is the Federation making—I think—a very rational decision, which is that in the face of continued sanctions and isolation from Europe and North America, gas and oil export potential has to find other markets.”

The timing appears similarly calculated. Two months after Sibir left port, Putin recognized two breakaway regions of Ukraine as independent nations and ordered troops into the region. In response, German Chancellor Olaf Schultz halted the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. The $11 billion project was hailed as a lifeline for Russia’s economic future—and a diplomatic last resort for Europe. But Putin didn’t blink; he had planned for this moment. Two days later, Russian missiles fell on Kyiv.

Although the invasion of Ukraine was a failure for Putin in many respects, the economic and political consequences are consistent with Putin’s contingency planning. “Russia has kind of been rehearsing some of this for some time,” Dodds told me. “This is part and parcel of a pretty well-thought-through escalation on the part of Russia.”

Last October, weeks before troops began amassing on the Ukrainian border, Russia announced its ambitions to keep the Northern Sea Route open year-round, beginning this coming winter. To achieve that goal, Russian icebreakers will regularly have to transit the Arctic Ocean through the long polar night, breaking apart the same pathway again and again before it becomes impassable—even to ships like Sibir.

Progress toward year-round navigation won’t be smooth. In December, just after the announcement about year-round operation, Russian icebreakers were deployed to rescue more than a dozen commercial vessels that had become trapped on the Northern Sea Route after freeze-up began earlier than anticipated.

But these speed bumps are not deterring Russian ambition. “They are going full throttle on Arctic affairs,” Thomas Rotnem, professor of political science at Kennesaw State University, told me.

As Russia further develops its Arctic infrastructure, it becomes increasingly open to Asian markets—and insulated from Western sanctions. Thus far, this petro-pivot to the East has been an unmitigated success. Russian oil revenue, buoyed by overheated prices, rose by $1.7 billion from April to May, as buyers in China and India gamely picked up the slack from the European and North American markets. Russia recently became China’s largest supplier of oil, knocking Saudi Arabia into second place. Putin, playing geopolitics like a game of chess, has been thinking several steps ahead, and understands how climate change is reshaping the board in real time.

In April, he addressed his senior ministers, saying coolly, “Let us assume that energy supplies to the West will continue going down in the foreseeable future. Therefore, it is important to consolidate the trend of the past few years: to redirect our exports gradually to the rapidly growing markets of the South and the East.”

“Russia has been very clear in its recent strategies,” Dodds told me, “that protecting and enhancing the Northern Sea Route is integral, not only to the resource development of the Russian North but also to the financial and political security of the Federation.” Russia, feeling increasingly claustrophobic and paranoid about NATO expansion along its Western border, found economic breathing room in the melting ice.

For many, the Russian invasion of Ukraine was unthinkable until the moment it began. But the postwar international order (if it still exists) is not just political but geological. The ongoing violence in Ukraine can only be understood within the new geopolitics of the Anthropocene. Climate change has been, and remains, the polestar of Putin’s decade-long turn away from the West.