The Arctic offers Russia natural riches in two conflicting types: valuable minerals and spectacular wildlife. While the decline in Arctic sea ice has threatened many species, at the same time, it has generated a new economic opportunity for Russia in this isolated habitat.
President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian firms to increase cargo traffic on the Northern Sea Route to 80m tonnes per year by 2024 in a decree last year.
Russia signed ambitious energy co-operation deals with India in Vladivostok, in the far east of Russia, in October.
In the far north of central Siberia, it is a big open-cast coal mining project in the Taymyr Peninsula which is rich in high-quality coking coal (anthracite), used for making steel and aluminum.
Dharmendra Pradhan, India’s Minister of Petroleum and Natural Gas, said: “We are the second-largest coal importer in the world, and we intend to achieve production of 3m tonnes of steel per year by 2030, so we need to increase coal supplies.”
Taymyr is also a haven for wildlife where Russia’s largest nature reserve Bolshoi Arkticheskiy is located covering 4.2m hectares (16,200 sq miles).
Apart from presenting himself on TV as a caring conservationist, famously relaxing in Siberia’s unspoiled wilderness, President Putin is also championing the fossil fuel expansion projects in that wilderness.
For countries like China, India, and other growing Asian markets that are hungry for raw materials, Russia is boosting trade with them. The target of 80m-tonne set for Arctic deliveries going via Russia’s far East.
But there will be considerable risks in such shipments.
When winter temperatures go down below minus 20C, icebreakers still play a crucial role, and remote settlements lack the equipment to deal with any pollution emergency. Besides, the long voyages to India will involve emissions of more greenhouse gas from shipping.
An estimated 72% of Russia’s total gas reserves are in the Arctic, and mega-projects of oil and gas are far advanced in further west, notably on the Yamal Peninsula.
The coastal tundra – marshland in Taymyr with permanently frozen subsoil is a nesting ground for migratory birds during Arctic summer.
Polar bears are sometimes seen ashore on Taymyr; vast reindeer herds roam and snowy owls hunt lemmings. According to Alexey Knizhnikov, a conservationist at WWF Russia, reindeer are now seriously threatened by poaching apart from pollution threat.
“Developing new projects in such an ecologically sensitive area is madness, in our view,” he told the BBC.
The area around the city of Norilsk is heavily polluted with heavy metals and sulfur dioxide (SO2) from the Norilsk Nickel ore smelter.
A Greenpeace study published in August said: “In terms of individual hotspots, the Norilsk smelter complex continues to be the largest SO2 emission hotspot in the world.”
India is also found to be the world’s top SO2 emitter.
Recently a bay located south of Dikson, which is a tiny weather-beaten port and one of the world’s remotest settlements, has become a new, ecological danger zone.
An anthracite coalfield lies at Medusa Bay, which is a part of the Bolshoi Arkticheskiy nature reserve. It attracts big flocks of birds, including six rare or endangered species, including the falcon, gyrfalcon, peregrine, red-breasted goose, small swan, white-headed loon, and white-tailed eagle.
The open-cast coal company, Vostokugol, is embroiled in a running legal battle with the state environmental monitoring agency, Rosprirodnadzor, over mining violations. It was fined 601m roubles (£7.3m; $9.4m) by a Moscow court because although it had permits for prospecting only, it mined and exported coal from Medusa Bay.
It has a joint production deal with Coal India Limited, an industrial giant.
The zone which had 3020 hectares of the area where mining and related construction were banned was now reduced to 1,150 hectares (2,842 acres).
Although developing slowly, Vostokugol, along with the Medusa Bay coalfield and two coal terminals, are in line with Mr Putin’s Arctic ambitions, for loading on to ships.
The Chaika terminal is located just 1km (0.6 miles) away from the nature reserve, Greenpeace says. “At that distance, when coal is loaded at the terminal, coal dust will pour down on the nature reserve,” says the Greenpeace legal complaint against the natural resources ministry.
Vostokugol is planning to export 20m tonnes of coal from there by 2024 alone. Severnaya Zvezda, another firm, also has licenses to mine coal in Taymyr.
The Willem Barents Biological Station, an international bird monitoring center is 2km from the open-cast coal mine.
Dr Sergey Kharitonov, a biologist who was there last year, told the BBC that mine’s coal dust had already reached as far as Dikson.
“The bird populations are in danger, I’m worried about their future,” he said. “The place has lots of coal, and it’s apparently easy and profitable to mine it.”
WWF’s Alexey Knizhnikov said, ” there is little transparency in this project – there is a lack of regulation and they didn’t do any public consultations.”
India increasingly needs imported coking coal for metallurgy, says Rohit Chandra, a coal expert at Delhi’s Centre for Policy Research.
Russia is targeting to increase its coal exports by six-fold by 2025 to India to 28m tonnes per annum.
Mr Chandra told the BBC such a volume was “realistic – it’s not massive by international standards.” Every year China consumes vastly more coking coal than that.
Earlier in the 1970s, the then-communist Russian state had been helping India to industrialize, he noted.
“India’s co-operation with Russia is deeper than with other coal-exporting countries,” he said. “It’s a reliable partner, and there are lots of other commercial deals [with Russia].”
Moreover, he said, “renewable energy is not replacing traditional power sources any time soon in India.”