08/07/2013 04:14 pm ET Updated Oct 07, 2013

Russia in the Ocean World

Not so long ago Russia had a 1,000-ship navy and was considered a major force in the balance of maritime power. And yet the nation has had historically limited access to the sea, primarily through ports in the Baltic Sea in the west, the Bering Sea in the north, and the Barents Sea and Sea of Okhokst in the east -- each with such complications as distance from the open ocean and seasonal ice which increase cost and constrain regular trade.

I can remember visiting Karlskorna some 15 years ago, among the first visitors to be allowed access to that Baltic naval station near St. Petersburg, to be amazed by the number and insubstantiality of that fleet, something that had inspired awe as a Cold War threat. Today the Russian Navy numbers less than 300 vessels, including one aircraft carrier and 70 submarines. That is changing. The Navy expects delivery of 36 new warships in 2013 and the Putin government has committed substantial resources to further expansion.

As a trading entity, the majority of Russia's transport passes through the Baltic Sea which experiences some the world's heaviest marine traffic -- some 2,000 ships moving daily carrying combined cargo of almost 840 million tons, about 10 percent of global seaborne trade of loaded goods. This too is changing, with the opening of the Northeast route across the top of Russia as a new connection between Asia, Europe, and the Americas, a function of the rapidly increasing temperature and consequent melting of prohibitive ice that has increased the time window for navigable passage. The implication of that route as a more direct and inexpensive way to transport oil, raw materials, and manufactured goods is enormous, and that financial opportunity is not lost on the Russians either.

And so we might expect Russia to amplify its voice beyond debate over missile systems, political influence, or human rights. President Putin seems determined to restore Russia's maritime role, not just in the face of the United States, but also China, Japan, and the European Union (EU).

In the Baltic region today, for example, there is a growing concern over the impact of this inter-regional trade on the sea itself where the amount of hazardous materials being shipped, along with oil and other toxic spills, have engendered a growing eutrophication, a major disruption of the ecosystem through increasing numbers of algal blooms, turbidity, oxygen depletion, and a resultant lifeless sea floor. Tourism suffers as coastal beaches are closed. Regulations have been proposed to limit nitrogen and phosphorus loads in Baltic waters. The EU is proposing guidelines and regulations for management of these problems, but seems uncertain as to Russian response to its invitation for cooperation, "based on mutual trust, equality, and shared interests," a necessary affinity and cooperation if these initiative are to succeed.

Their optimism might be challenged by Russia's recent behavior regarding environmental issues in Antarctica, a place many thousands of miles distant from more developed regional interests. In mid-July 2013, at a meeting in Germany, the International Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Living Marine Resources was surprised and disappointed by Russian opposition to two proposals, one by New Zealand and the United States, and a second by the EU, France, and Australia, both to designate large tracts of that ocean off-limits for almost all activities, including oil and gas exploration and commercial fishing; in effect declaring an expanded marine protected area and habitat sanctuary for scientific research and protection of Antarctic whales, fish, and penguins. Russia challenged the Commission's legal authority for such an action, and, since approval requires consensus, the proposal failed or was at best delayed.

A consequent headline read: "WORLD LOSS -- AT THE HANDS OF RUSSIA! EXTRAORDINARY MISSED OPPORTUNITY!" Here are some quotes from participating parties: "After two years of preparation, including this meeting which Russia requested to settle the scientific case for the Ross Sea and East Antarctic proposals, we leave with nothing."

"All Members, except Russia, came to this meeting to negotiate in good faith."

"The actions of the Russian delegation have stalled progress on protecting the Ross Sea and East Antarctica, and have put international cooperation and goodwill at risk, two key ingredients needed for global marine conservation."