The Baltic Region

2022 Vol. 14 №4

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The sea factor in the federal regulation of Russia’s spatial development: post-Soviet experience and current priorities



Current geoeconomic and geopolitical transformations project on Russian society and its spatial organisation, highlighting the problems of spatial socioeconomic development and its governmental regulation. This article examines the theoretical and applied aspects of the incorporation into the national regional policy of the sea factor, understood as a combination of location and resources, which is determined by a country’s jurisdiction over coasts and waters, its maritime activities and coastalisation potential, including the economic, settlement-­related and psychological elements of the latter. The article describes the key influences of the sea factor on the spatial development of post-­Soviet Russia. The steadily growing impact of maritime activities on the spatial-­economic and settlement dynamics has been given a new impetus by the rising geostrategic, resource and transport-­logistic significance of the World Ocean, as well as its water and water-land substructures, amid increasing military-­strategic confrontation and geoeconomic regionalisation. The article presents a retrospective analysis of the role of the sea factor in Russia’s regional policy and identifies its stages. The authors emphasise the need for a synergy between maritime and spatial policies and proposes ways of achieving it.



Spatiality is not only ‘a special type of ordering the world’ [1, p. 31], one of its universal and fundamental properties inherent, for instance, in the human community (embodied in its structure and projected on its dynamics), but also a basic approach and, to a large degree, the imperative of any productive social activity, including public policy. Careful and comprehensive consideration of the features of space, its determinants and possibilities is particularly important for Russia, a vast and very heterogeneous country, which has found itself in the epicentre of global geoeconomic and geopolitical tectonic shifts [2]. Russia has been increasingly focusing on the factors and priorities of its internal dynamics [3], including the socio-­geographical situation. A prominent element of the latter is the so-called ‘sea factor’ [4], an umbrella term for the conditions shaped by Russia’s coastal (or near-oceanic) location, its jurisdiction over the section of the World Ocean surrounding its coast and its strategic goals and interests conveyed in the national Maritime Doctrine<1> — all these factors have been recently discussed in the literature [5], [6], [7], [8], [9]. The country’s strategic goals have been significantly affected by two tendencies, which have been plainly visible in the 1990s—early 2000s: the growing marine economy and increasing coastalisation (the gravitation of the economy, infrastructure and people towards the sea).

The 2025 Strategy for the Spatial Development of the Russian Federation<2>, adopted in 2019, disclosed the major trends and problems of the then Russia, albeit with a certain degree of generalisation and political bias often present in such documents [11], and emphasised the country’s spatial goals, objectives and priorities. The strategy also defined the central concept construct of spatial development, understood as ‘improving the system of settlement and territorial organisation of the economy, including through an effective state policy of regional development’. Yet, the document only tangentially considered the maritime (land-and-water) aspects of the life of the nation. This article aims to identify the ‘maritime component’ in the regional policy of post-­Soviet Russia and describe the opportunities, limitations and priorities of federal regulation, as seen through the prism of the sea factor. The focus of the study is on both the current geostrategic context and the domestic, particularly economic situation.

The sea factor in spatial development: essential characteristics and post-­Soviet manifestations

On the one hand, the sea factor is a historical and geographical certainty for Russia: it has been at work in the country since the times of the legendary Route from the Varangians to the Greeks, the Hanseatic links of Novgorod and Pskov, as well as the Genoa connections of the Golden Horde. On the other, it is a basically cyclic innovation, which sweeps the country again and again, each time changing the spatial organisation of society and giving an impetus to certain segments of the coast. First of all, the sea factor stimulates the sectors of the national economy that are in demand ‘here and now’, as well as the related components of the settlement-­spatial structure, including coastal elements. The category ‘spatial development’ is characterised by almost inevitably intrinsic duality: on the one hand, it points to a positive, reasonable and preferable trend in the transformation of spatial socio-­economic structure and proportion, manifested in regional policies and reflected in relevant programmes in strategic; on the other, it emphasises the spatiality of socio-­economic dynamics. If we embrace this duality, the sea factor appears as a multifaceted phenomenon with important properties and characteristics, such as:

— coasts and water areas under national jurisdiction, their involvement in the economy; necessary infrastructure;

— developed maritime and coastal (water-land-industry) spatial structures, their features and significance on the national scale;

— efficient use of positioning and marine resources;

— the dependence of key industries and leading corporations on access (physical, technical and technological, economic, geopolitical) to marine resources and communications;

— the proximity of economic and engineering infrastructure and population to the coast;

— the awareness of the authorities, businesses and society of their maritime interests, opportunities and priorities.

We believe that the cumulative influence on spatial dynamics of such basic geographical phenomena as borders, neighbourhood, connectivity, regionalism, resource availability, transport and geographical position also fall into the sea factor category. In the broadest sense, the sea factor in spatial development can be also understood as ensuring a balance acceptable for society in socio-­economic, geo-economic and geopolitical terms — a balance that is constantly calibrated within the land-sea dichotomy and accompanied by the advanced development of coastal areas, regions and municipalities. In an even broader interpretation, the sea factor also encompasses the total influence (which has geopolitical and geo-ideological elements) exerted on a certain territory by the so-called maritime states and civilisations (as understood by Alfred Thayer Mahan [12]) as well as by trans-­continental, trans-­basin production chains effective by virtue of maritime transport (the founder of Eurasianism Piotr Savitsky accurately defined this phenomenon as the oceanic economy [13]).

The effect of the sea factor on Russia has been growing over the past three decades. At times, it was recovery growth: the country was reverting to the performance levels of the 1960s-early 1980s, when it was expanding into the World Ocean [14], becoming a ‘continental-­oceanic’ nation [15]. Another, post-­Soviet, period of growth commenced when the country was becoming closely involved in the global economy, including as part of maritime transboundary macro-­regions [16]. The range of marine economy activities was increasing at the time, along with the number of maritime objects: ports, industrial port complexes along major routes, submarine pipelines, offshore oil and gas extraction facilities on Sakhalin Island and in the Arctic, etc. [5]. Another major influence on coastalisation is geopolitical and situational changes: the growing exclavity of the Kaliningrad region as tensions rise between Russia and the West [9], the incorporation of Crimea into Russia [17], the economic and geopolitical imperatives of the development of the Northern Sea Route [18].

The current period, whose onset was effectively marked by the military-­political events unfolding since February 2022, is characterised by a combination of the inertia of the previous twenty-­twenty-five years, on the one hand, and new targets and trends. An example of the former is transport and logistics: despite the sanctions pressure and market turbulence, Russian ports processed the same volume of cargoes in the first seven months of 2022 as over the same period a year ago.<3> As for the latter, it concerns, firstly, the growing geostrategic significance for Russia of coastal areas and territorial waters. There is also a need to shift towards new markets and rethinking logistics, transport and other interactions in the principal coastal regions: the Baltic and Black Sea areas. Secondly, it is essential to prioritise import substitution of maritime activities, which must be more intensive and effective than before in cargo shipping, shipbuilding, oil and gas exploration and extraction, as well as to generate positive socioeconomic externalities of the sea factor at a regional and municipal level. Thirdly, it is necessary to unlock the potential of the territorial waters skirting the country for greater spatial cohesion. Today, this particularly applies to the Kaliningrad region, albeit the principal target objects of such initiatives are the Arctic zone and Pacific Russia. These national objectives have an apparent local and regional dimension and thus the federal system for spatial development regulation must accommodate them along with the sea factor.

The sea/coastal trajectory of federal spatial development regulation: an inventory of approaches and periodisation of trends

The multifaceted federal impact on the socio-­economic dynamics of territories is exerted either directly, as part of the national regional policy, or indirectly, within industrial or social policy, etc. The specific feature of coastal regions is that they are affected by the nation’s tailored maritime policy<4> targeted at maritime transport, shipbuilding and ship repair, fishery, offshore oil extraction, underwater pipeline construction, etc. As of August 2022, Russia had 23 coastal regions accounting for a quarter of its area and almost 27 % of its population.

The logic behind the evolution of Russia’s maritime and regional policy was determined by landmark events in the socio-­economic life of the country. Thus, the key stages in the development of Russia’s maritime and regional policies closely coincided in chronological terms, but often differed in essence (Table 1).

The first decade of the post-­Soviet period, the 1990s, was marked by dramatic economic transformations and federal budget deficit. Therefore, the focus shifted to the most acute problems and radical challenges. In the marine economy, this was Russia’s heavy post-­Soviet dependence as regards transport and logistics on major seaports in newly independent neighbouring states: Odessa, Klaipėda, Ventspils and others. These ports handled 40 % of Russia’s maritime cargo traffic [19]. As to regional policy, prompt action was needed on the Kaliningrad region, a territory detached from mainland Russia. Since the 1990s, its exclavity has been compensated by the regimes of free, and later special, economic zone and funding within the FTP for the region’s development. The very first year s of market transition highlighted the persistent problems of the Far East, which was no longer supported by the state as it happened under Soviet rule, and particularly the Kuril Islands . Remarkably, in 1989—2002, the population of the Magadan region decreased by two-thirds; of the Kamchatka and Sakhalin regions, by one-third. For all these regions, individual FTPs were adopted, which, like all initiatives undertaken at the time, were seriously underfunded. The regional policy did not consider coastal regions: the principal regulatory act, the presidential decree of 1996 On the Fundamental Principles of Regional Policy in Russia mentions only border regions, but not coastal regions.

Stages of the co-evolution of maritime and regional policies in post-­Soviet Russia

Maritime policy


Regional policy

Import substitution in the port and logistics infrastructure handling export and import flows; localisation of positive socio-­economic effects in selected coastal cities (the 1993—2000 Russia’s Merchant Navy Revival programme, 1992)


Attempts (mostly unsuccessful) to devise a regional policy drawing on international best practice; the emergence of federal targeted programmes (FTP) as a central tool of regional policy (2010 Economic and Social Development of the Far East and the Transbaikal Region, 1996; FTPs for the Kuril Islands (1993), Krasnodar Krai (1996) the city of Sochi (1997), the Kaliningrad region (1997), the Astrakhan region (1997); the Special Economic Zone in the Kaliningrad region

A more intense and diversified maritime activity; closer attention paid to Russia’s jurisdiction over territorial waters (World Ocean FTP, 1998; 2010—2021 Russia’s Transport System Development FTP, Maritime Transport subprogramme, 2001; 2005—2020 Creating a Black Sea Fleet Stationing System in Russia FTP, 2004; 2020 onwards National Policy Framework for the Arctic, 2008


The virtual abandonment of regional policy, accompanied by the systematisation of regional development FTPs; renewal of FTPs for the Far East, the Kuril Islands and the Kaliningrad region


The first steps towards a federal regional development policy (the Ministry of Regional Development established in 2004, the introduction of Regional Development into the 2020 Strategy); new federal tools for supporting regions (2007 amendments regarding port special economic zone to the 2005 federal law On Special Economic Zones in the Russian Federation)

A focus on the development of Russian shipbuilding; the declared realignment of maritime activity towards the Arctic and the East (2009—2016 Development of Civil Maritime Equipment FTP; 2009—2012 Greater Efficiency of Exploiting and Developing Fishing Industry Potential FTP; 2010 Strategy for the Maritime Activity of Russia; 2030 Strategy for the Seaport Infrastructure of Russia; 2020 Policy Framework for Navy Activities, 2012; 2013—2030 Shipbuilding Development, 2021)


Stronger federal support for regional development in response to the 2008—2009 crisis; growing importance of Far Eastern policy (Ministry for the Development of the Far East established in 2012; new economic zones; support for company towns)

A focus on the geostrategic import of coastal areas and territorial waters, the development of the Northern Sea Route; technological re-equipment of the maritime economy; the development of the Arctic in the framework of the maritime economy (the 2015 Maritime Doctrine of Russia; 2030 Strategy for the Development of Maritime Activity of Russia, 2019 version)


Formalising the federal policy on regional/spatial development (2025 National Policy Framework for Regional Development, 2017; 2025 Strategy for the Spatial Development of Russia, 2019); various measures to support priority geostrategic regions, both new (the Arctic, Crimea) and old ones (the Far East, the Kuril Islands, the Kaliningrad region): national programmes; 2014 federal laws on advanced development territories; 2015 law on the Free Port of Vladivostok; 2014 law on the free economic zone in Crimea; 2020 state support programme for business activity in the Arctic, etc

Delimiting the sphere of Russia’s geostrategic interests in the World Ocean; a focus on shipbuilding as the key element of the maritime economy, as well as on the socio-­economic development of coastal areas (2035 Maritime Doctrine of Russia)

The economic growth, which followed the 1998 crisis, opened up new opportunities for federal investment. Regional and maritime policies exhibited opposite trends at the time: maritime policy was gaining momentum, whilst the regional policy was relegated to the background: only major FTPs for the development of regions and the Kaliningrad SEZ remained in place. The reason was probably the then dominance of liberal approaches to regulation of the economy. It was assumed that a favourable macroeconomic situation would solve regional problems without any additional support from the state. The maritime policy sought to create such a situation and, what is more important, safeguard national security and interests in the competition with other coastal states. Particularly, the volume of cargo handled by Russian ports increased 3.7 times compared to the initial post-­Soviet levels; other maritime resources were also utilised more fully.

The attitude to regional policy started to change in the mid-2000s, when the need to support problem-­ridden regions became evident, along with the prospects of developing Russian regions collectively, and promising points of growth were identified. The 2020 Concept for the Long-term Socio-economic Development of Russia (2020 Strategy), which was approved in November 2009, contains a section dedicated to the centres of regional development, where the advantages of coastal regions are underscored. At the same time, new regional policy tools were not widely introduced until the 2008 crisis. This equally applied to coastal regions. Despite the plans to create a port-based special economic zone (SEZs) in each of Russia’s five sea basins, only one was established in Sovetskaya Gavan in Khabarovsk Krai (it, however, never reached its capacity, and was liquidated). The Investment Fund of Russia, created in 2005, backed just one project aimed at seaport development, namely Ust-­Luga in the Leningrad region.

The 2008 crisis prompted the federal authorities to support the economy of the country and its regions. Since mid-2010, the priorities of maritime and regional policy have been converging, albeit the decisions on regional policy lagged behind those on maritime policy, which has a longer history. And the new Maritime Doctrine of 2022 finally emphasised the development of coastal territories. This convergence seems to be due to three circumstances.

Firstly, both maritime and regional policies pay enhanced attention to the priority geostrategic territories, including the Far East and the Arctic. A dedicated ministry has been created for these regions; multifarious federal measures have been adopted to support them. In particular, the prospects of the Northern Sea Route and Far Eastern ports is discussed with the objectives of regional and maritime policy in mind.

Secondly, the sanctions imposed on Russia brought to the fore the topic of import substitution. Central for many focus areas of the federal authorities, import substitution is supported within both industrial and regional policy. For example, the Lotos industrial SEZ, established in 2014 in the Astrakhan region, was a response to the need for import substitution in shipbuilding. In 2020, a port-based SEZ appeared in the region. Together with the industrial SEZ, it comprised the Caspian cluster.

Thirdly, the incorporation of the Republic of Crimea and Sevastopol into Russia necessitated a coordinated policy with a maritime angle. In 2015—2020, the regions of Crimea received a total of 788 bn intergovernmental transfers among other forms of funding from the federal budget, which make up 7.3 % of the national total.

A substantial increase in federal support for the economy driven by the 2008 global crisis, the sanctions imposed on Russia in 2014, the Covid pandemic raging since 2020 and the new 2022 sanctions spurred many decisions for additional assistance to coastal regions. Yet, the federal regulation of spatial development lacks a comprehensive vision of the role these territories have in the space of the country, of their development prospects and peculiarities, as well as of interactions between coastal and inland areas. The 2019 Strategy for the Spatial Development of Russia limits itself to seaports or, at best, increasing the traffic capacity of corridors leading to them. Therefore, no considerable efforts have been taken to coordinate Russia’s maritime policy and federal regulation of spatial development.

Concrete tools for regional development rarely involve the sea factor. Amongst the few that do are port-based SEZs and the regime of the free port of Vladivostok, which applies to 22 municipalities in five regions of Russia’s Far East. In other words, coastal regions are mostly supported by federal measures common to all regions, coastal and inland. Nevertheless, these measures often focus on the marine economy, like the above-­mentioned SEZ in the Astrakhan region or the Bolshoy Kamen advanced development territory created in Primorsky Krai to develop shipbuilding. Yet, as long as the actual volumes of federal support for coastal regions are considered, the territories account for a higher proportion in federal investment and national intergovernmental transfers than in the country’s population and total GRP (Table 2). The distribution of funds by region is not stable, which is probably due to the Covid-19 crisis and the lack of prioritising characteristic of today’s Russia [11]. We believe that the sea factor and its potential contribution to national development must be fully taken into account.

Coastal regions and Russia’s demography, economy, capital investment and inter-­budgetary transfers, 2019—2020


The proportion of coastal regions
in Russia’s demography, economy, capital investment
and inter-­budgetary transfers, %



Public capital investment

Inter-budgetary transfers from the federal budget








All Russian coastal regions, including








Geostrategic territories*








Marine economy regions**








Black Sea regions








including the Republic of Crimea and Sevastopol








Baltic regions








including the Kaliningrad region








Pacific Russia








Arctic Basin regions








Caspian regions








Including Dagestan








Source: prepared by the authors based on data from Rosstat.


Comment: * According to Russia’s 2025 Strategy for Spatial Development; ** see [20].

Current priorities. Federal regulation of spatial development with a focus on the sea factor: capabilities and limitations

A global and universal phenomenon, the sea factor has peculiar features in the case of Russia. These peculiarities are a result of the substantial length of the shoreline (88 % of the 38,000 km lie in areas with a harsh climate requiring special approaches to settlement and the economy) and the multiplicity of geographic and geostrategic trajectories of maritime activities, which are often economically linked to distant inland areas. Different in a range of socio-­geographic characteristics, the country’s coastal regions and territorial waters require spatially adjusted and even targeted regulatory approaches taking into account the intricate connections between the sea and the land. When devising and improving these approaches, one may draw on international practice, particularly that of the EU, which has clearly outlined different avenues of supranational European policy and developed a consistent regional policy. The principal difference between international and Russian experience is the focus of the latter on spatial issues and the much sought-­after synergy between land and water structures and processes.

It is worth noting that the EU developed an integrated maritime policy quite recently, in 2007, when the relevant directive was adopted.<5> Russia’s first integrated maritime doctrine was approved six years earlier. Yet, as mentioned above, the questions of the socio-­economic development of coastal regions were first raised only in 2022, whilst the EU has discussed the integrated management of coastal zones since the 1990s.<6>

The coastal regions of the EU are NUTS 3 territories that have a sea border and more than half of their population living within 50 km from the sea.<7> Although the Union’s regional and cohesion policies pay little attention to coastal areas, most of which are prosperous territories, Eurostat continues to collect and analyse statistics on coastal and inland regions as two distinct territorial types. The statistical yearbooks of 2011 and 2012 have special chapters dedicated to coastal areas.<8> Such practices have not been adopted in Russia because of the low quality of municipal statistics and the tendency of the federal authorities to treat municipalities as objects of spatial development regulation [11]. These problems must be solved. Moreover, greater efficiency of maritime policy is an additional argument in favour of a federal system of municipal development monitoring.

In international and particularly European practice, a maritime policy is usually followed by marine spatial planning (MSP) initiatives. This is a new area, which has rapidly developed over the last decade on the basis of online platforms developed by the EU,<9> the European Commission and the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO.<10> In March 2017, the Union and UNESCO adopted a joint roadmap to accelerate MSP processes worldwide. According to their data, by mid-2018, about 70 states had prepared or were preparing marine spatial plans at a regional, national or local level, but countries, regions and municipalities still needed support to fully implement them. There is a growing body of publications on MSP [22], [23], all of them labelling this topic as new, demanding well-trained human resources [24] and offering enormous opportunities for integrating different industries, forms of knowledge and stakeholders [25].

In Russia, MSP was first mentioned about ten years ago in the context of the need to harmonise it with spatial planning [26].<11> However, works on MSP remain few until now [6]. Nor has been MSP embraced in the practices of public bodies.

In view of the sea-land nature of coastal municipalities and their parent regions, the most urgent task for Russia is the launch of an MSP system coupled with the traditional spatial planning format. Approaches to the integration of marine and terrestrial/land/land-based<12> spatial planning are an emerging area of research worldwide [27], [28], [29], albeit the problem was first formulated over a decade ago [30]. Nevertheless, substantial groundwork has been laid (see [31] for an overview of the relevant literature) for research on a less complicated subject: MSP-driven interactions between the land and the sea. There are also publications on coastal industrial clusters (inventoried in [32]), many of them concentrating on the case of Germany.<13>

Unfortunately, these problems have not yet been formulated in Russia. The country’s strategy for spatial development limits itself to identifying promising economic niches, whilst it would be more productive to evaluate the possibility of developing in coastal zones corresponding marine economy formats, including coastal clusters and complexes, industrial port complexes, etc. The situation in Russia is aggravated by the absence of coastal connecting links between maritime policy and spatial development policy. Further work should seek to couple maritime and terrestrial spatial planning, which is an urgent task at both the national and international levels.


In today’s world, the role of the sea factor in socio-­economic development is immense, almost all-embracing and undeniable. Having rightfully identified itself as a ‘great maritime power’,<14> Russia must identify and calibrate its spatial development goals, taking into account the specifics of coastal areas and territorial waters, as well as the land-water dichotomy, which is extremely pronounced in the case of the country. Within the logic of further harmonising national maritime and regional policies, it is necessary to combine the municipalisation of targeted measures and approaches with embedding maritime issues into the system of federal regulation of spatial development. The socio-­economic geography of the World Oceans, which has been rapidly developing in Russia in recent years, can make a significant contribution to solving this problem.

This study, conducted at the Southern Federal University, was supported within the Priority 2030 academic leadership programme.