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.