Putin’s territories: from Crimea to Chukotka

On an overcast day in August, Russian President Vladimir Putin put aside his phone calls to German Chancellor Angela Merkel in order to speak with graduate students and teachers attending the 10th All-Russian Youth Forum at Lake Seliger near Tver, a city a north of Moscow. Pro-Kremlin youth at the camp asked Putin about topics ranging from Ukraine to teachers’ wages.

His responses generated headlines in newspapers like The Guardian (“Putin likens Ukraine’s forces to Nazis and threatens standoff in the Arctic”), with Western journalists fretting over his desire to strengthen the country’s position in the circumpolar north.

Despite the media frenzy, Putin’s statement was boilerplate when it comes to the Arctic. He hardly threatened a standoff. In fact, later in his answer, he mentioned that Russia’s militarization of the Arctic was being done in order to “secure the passage of convoys of ships and trade routes, and not in order to fight and confront someone out there.” Of course, these days, Putin’s words have to be taken with a huge grain of salt. Regardless, more interesting than Putin’s boilerplate speech was his discussion of the administration and development of territories in the Arctic and elsewhere in Russia, including Crimea.

Though a seemingly wonkish topic, Putin’s brief overview illustrates the increasing reach of Moscow in the lives of people thousands of miles away from the capital, from Crimean Tatars to Chukchi dog mushers (who, it’s alleged, have “never been conquered by Russian troops” but were once governed by billionare Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, and who also developed the Siberian husky breed). Since May 2012, Russia has had a Ministry for Development of Russian Far East. Since March 2014, it has also had a Ministry for Development of Crimean Affairs, and since May 2014, it has had a Ministry of North Caucasus Affairs. With the Russian Far East, Crimea, and the Caucasus all having their own dedicated federal ministries for development, these regions lying at Russia’s most distant ends are now all united under the iron fist of the Kremlin.

Anadyr, the capital of Chukotka, little town nearby the Polar circle.  (iStock)
Anadyr, the capital of Chukotka, little town nearby the Polar circle. (iStock)
From geopolitical disaster to renewed supergiant

This recent change in Russian governance may have prompted Elena Kryuchkov, a student from Nizhny Novgorod State University, to ask her question. After mentioning the geostrategic importance of the Arctic and the Northern Sea Route to Russia, she inquired (translated from the Kremlin’s official transcript, in Russian):

“What will be the territory of the Arctic zone and how will these the territories or parts of territories in the Arctic zones of Russia’s regions fall under federal jurisdiction?”

Putin, infamous for calling the collapse of the Soviet Union the “geopolitical disaster of the century,” reminded his audience of the vastness of Russia, which now stretches from Crimea in the southwest to Chukotka in the northeast. He began his lengthy answer to Elena’s question with:

“Regarding the Arctic – the most important region of Russia. In general, we have the greatest country in the world by area. You know, even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which was such a supergiant, still in today’s Russia – the largest country in the world by area – 70 percent of our territory belongs to the north or to the territories of the Far North, we must understand it.”

Putin speaks quite liberally when he says that 70% of Russia falls within the north (a word itself with a flexible definition); only 20% of the country actually falls north of the Arctic Circle. For comparison’s sake, 40% of Canada is considered to be in “The North,” generally perceived as the three territories of Yukon, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut. In Canada and Russia, leaders express similar rhetoric about the vastness of their Arctic zones, whose tremendous size accords the regions special places in the national imaginations. Yet the Russian President is perhaps the most territorially minded of any leader of an Arctic state. It’s fitting, then, that at one point during his response about the Arctic, he referred to the region by saying, “Это наша территория” (Eto nasha territoriya) – translated normally into English as, “It’s our land,” but alternatively as: “It’s our territory.”

After noting the size of Russia’s Arctic region, Putin couldn’t avoid mentioning how his country would go about defending what he called “a special region: it is not only severe, but very promising.” Conjuring up images of missiles and submarines – a far cry from Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev’s famous speech about letting the Arctic become a “zone of peace” – Putin expressed:

(Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images via iStock)
(Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images via iStock)

“The Arctic plays for us a very important role in terms of our security because unfortunately, it’s the case that the United States has concentrated attack submarines not far from Norway’s coast, which can strike Moscow within 15 to 16 minutes, I remind you.

But there, too, is our fleet, a significant portion of our submarine fleet. And, you know, today it is easy enough to follow boats, but if they go under the ice of the Arctic, they are not visible. This is a big problem for those who need to monitor them. In general, the concentration of our interests is in the Arctic.”

And, of course, we must pay more attention to and development of the Arctic, and to strengthen our position there. We are doing this now, if you notice. This applies to our plans to build a nuclear icebreaker fleet, it is for our plans to return to the individual territories, including the islands: to return economically and militarily.“

The first sentence of this last paragraph, where Putin discusses strengthening the country’s position in the Arctic, is the one which The Guardian cited. But it’s actually the following sentences that are more interesting. Here, Putin underscores the importance of going back to the individual territories, including the islands, by which he means the islands along the Northern Sea Route. One such place is the New Siberian Islands, which is the site of a new year-round military installation, as the Barents Observer reports. Another island of interest is Wrangel Island,which falls under the jurisdiction of the Chukotka Autonomous Okrug and lies at the eastern end of the Northern Sea Route. Both the New Siberian Islands and Wrangel Island happen to fall within the Russian Far East, for which there is a relatively new federal ministry for development, just as there is for Crimea and, even more recently, the North Caucasus. This makes it easier for Moscow to directly oversee the Arctic islands’ development.


The russian nuclear icebreaker Yamal. (iStock)
The russian nuclear icebreaker Yamal. (iStock)
The evolution of Russian governance – a “mockery of federalism”

Russia, like other federal countries including Canada and the United States, has different levels of subdivisions. Whereas Canada has provinces and territories and the U.S. has states, territories, and American Indian reservations, among others, Russia has six types of federal subjects: krais, oblasts, republics, federal cities, one autonomous oblast, and one autonomous okrug (Chukotka). Krais and oblasts are the most common type of political subdivision, and the two are relatively equivalent. Republics, such as Crimea and also Chechnya, tend to have ethnic minorities and are on paper more autonomous than a krai or oblast. They can have their own official languages, constitutions, and legislatures, for instance. Somewhat similarly, autonomous okrugs, like Chukotka or Yamalo-Nenets, also are home to ethnic minorities and are supposed to have increased legal rights. Federal cities are those such as St. Petersburg and Moscow. The March 2014 treaty (not recognized by most countries) between Russia and the Republic of Crimea turned the latter into a republic of Russia, while the city of Sevastapol became a federal city.

But that’s not all: since 2000, Russia has also been divided into federal districts, a reform made in order to “strengthen the unity of the state,” according to a federal decree. Russian scholar Dr. Cameron Ross, at the University of Dundee, has called these political reforms made by Putin “a mockery of federalism.” Notably, the federal districts hew closely to the outlines of the country’s military districts. Each has a plenipotentiary representative who is appointed by and represents the Russian president, and the representative is supposed to ensure adherence to the Russian constitution and the execution of Russian federal law.

The federal districts seem to be only growing in importance, especially given the recent proliferation of federal development ministries. Since the annexation of Crimea, there have been nine federal districts, and three of them now have a dedicated federal development ministry: the Far Eastern Federal District, the Crimean Federal District, and the North Caucasian Federal District. Moscow’s close oversight of these districts’ development outweighs the fact that these political subdivisions are composed of numerous republics and autonomous okrugs which should, in theory, be able to exercise more autonomy than krais or oblasts. The Russian Far East, for instance, is home to the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, the Chukotka Autonomous Okrug, and a range of other subdivisions, while the North Caucasus includes six republics and one krai.

Ushguli, Georgia, in the North Caucasus.  (iStock)
Ushguli, Georgia, in the North Caucasus. (iStock)

When Putin answered Elena’s question about the administration of Arctic territories, he actually instead discussed the administration of federal districts. He explained:

“Now, regarding the territorial-administrative division and the organization of work in these areas. We have a federal state and we have some territories that are all immersed in the subjects of the Russian Federation, which have certain rights in the management of these areas. There are some functions, which are assigned to the federal government, and some of the functions are assigned to the regional and local governments. Of course, in some cases, where special attention is required, we create … Yes, by the way, in some countries, in spite of their federal structure, some of the territories are under direct federal submission. This practice exists throughout the world, it’s true. By and large, though nothing prevents us from doing it, those plans have yet to materialize.

Look, now we have organized several regional ministries involved in territorial development: it is in the Far East, it is in the North Caucasus, it is in the Crimea and Sevastopol. We still need to understand how it works; it is necessary to realize it in practice. Even now, when everything is working, some experts tell us: it would be better if a deputy were at each ministry, a directly appointed deputy for some areas. Then, maybe it would work even more effectively. Because the Ministry of Regional Development was created, but in order to decide something, it must run it by the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Economic Development. But it is too early to draw any definitive conclusions. It is necessary to see how it will work in all areas.”

So is Moscow moving towards more centralized administration of its federal districts? Even Putin does not know. But the mere inclusion of Crimea and the Russian Far East in the same sentence is geographically mind-boggling. The proliferation of dedicated federal ministries shows an increasing tendency for the Kremlin to centralize governance of its most far-flung regions, from the southwest to the northeast. To think that bureaucrats in Moscow could administer two areas thousands of miles apart, one near Turkey and the other close to Alaska, suggests that although Russia’s superpower status may have been in doubt, its “supergiant” status, to use Putin’s word, is unquestionable. It may be hard to believe, but already, it’s possible to get from the Sea of Okhotsk to the Asov Sea via the Northern Sea Route and Russia’s inland waterways leading south from Arkhangelsk via Moscow to Rostov-na-Donu.

This post first appeared on Cryopolitics, an Arctic News and Analysis blog.


Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Canada’s foreign affairs minister talks Arctic, Ukraine with Norway, Eye on the Arctic

Norway:  Nordics rethink security after Ukraine crisis, Yle News

Russia:  Canada, Russia and The North Pole, Blog by Mia Bennett

Finland:  Hard to imagine a good explanation for Russia’s airspace violations, YLE News

United States:  Can an aggressive Russia remain U.S.’s nice Arctic neighbor?, Alaska Public Radio Network

Mia Bennett

Mia Bennett is an assistant professor in the Department of Geography and School of Modern Languages & Cultures (China Studies Programme) at the University of Hong Kong. Through fieldwork and remote sensing, she researches the politics of infrastructure development in frontier spaces, namely the Arctic and areas included within China's Belt and Road Initiative. Read Mia Bennett's articles

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