Putin’s Arctic Visit: Polar Bears, Pollution, and (Border) Protection

© Ria Novosti/Reuters
© Ria Novosti/Reuters

Putin certainly has a penchant for megafauna. Over the past few years, he has been photographed with horses and tigers in a variety of poses and has stopped the baby seal slaughter in Russia. Now, he is off to the Arctic to save the polar bear.  Just one day after Russia and Norway signed the historic agreement resolving the maritime border dispute in the Barents Sea, the Russian Prime Minister traveled to Alexandra Land Island in the Franz Josef archipelago for some photo-ops before attending a series of meetings regarding the fishing industry in Murmansk, the world’s largest city north of the Arctic Circle. He called the polar bear the “master of the Arctic” and helped attach a GPS collar to one of the furry creatures.

Yet his visit consisted of much more than just another photo-op with an animal pal. Putin also took the chance to emphasize Russia’s national security interests in the Arctic, visiting the northernmost checkpoint of the Russian border guards. According to the Times Online, Putin announced to the camera,

“We must not forget that Russia has the deepest interests linked to the Arctic. It is here that the defense capabilities and security of Russia are ensured.”

Furthermore, in polluted Severnaya Bay, Putin demanded a clean-up of Russia’s northern territories, many of which are environmental disasters leftover from Soviet times. In Murmansk, a nuclear fleet is decomposing into the ocean. Fuel tanks brought to the frozen tundra for Soviet military bases on Alexandra Land waste way, polluting rivers and the ocean (Russia Today has a 3-minute news clip on the fuel barrels), and consequently marine mammals. Putin said of the fuel tanks,

“They leak and go into the soil. We need to organize not just a subbotnik, but a voskresnik, and will have to do some work on the other days of the week too.”

Subbotnik (from the Russian субботу/subbotu, for Saturday) refers to a Soviet tradition in which the local community cleaned and beautified its neighborhood on Saturdays, and a voskresnik would extend that clean-up to Sunday.

One has to be somewhat skeptical of the sincerity behind Putin’s demands. Russia may very well want to clean up its northern hinterlands, yet at the same time, it is looking to exploit oil and gas resources in the newly-delineated Barents Sea.

As a last aside, it is interesting to note the simple differences in the ways in which the Western and Russian media portray Putin. The British Times Online pokes fun at Putin’s animal escapades, while the Russian Moscow Times emphasizes the environmentalist aspects of the prime minister’s Arctic visit, and his authority.

Russia Today has a news clip of Putin’s Arctic visit…

…and for the Russophones out there, here’s a long, 8.5 minute Russian version.

News links

“Prime Minister Vladimir Putin visited Alexandra Land island on the Franz Josef Land archipelago,” Government of the Russian Federation

Vladimir Putin saves the Arctic polar bear in latest animal adventure,” Times Online

Putin orders Arctic cleanup,” The Moscow Times

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