What Russia gains from militarizing the Arctic

Russia’s military presence in the Arctic
Russia’s new bases in the Arctic protect its strategic weaponry and abut NATO’s flanks. They also ensure its control over the Northern Sea Route (source: macpixxel for GIS)

Despite mounting economic troubles, Russia continues to rebuild and upgrade its military capabilities at a fast pace. Recently these efforts again made headlines with the opening (and reopening) of a series of military bases and airfields in the Arctic. In April, the Kremlin announced it was inaugurating a brand-new forward base, the Arctic Trefoil, on Franz Josef Land, close to Norway’s Svalbard archipelago in the strategically important Barents Sea.

The base is designed to house 150 troops for up to 18 months. It will also be equipped with an airfield for strike aircraft such as the MiG-31 and the Su-34 frontline bomber. The opening was accompanied by the launch of a glitzy virtual 3D tour of the facility on the Russian Ministry of Defense website.

Driving the message home, the traditional May 9 Victory Day parade on Red Square also featured weapons systems adapted for use in the Arctic, painted in characteristic black and white camouflage.

Mounting concern

The United States claims to be watching closely. In his Senate confirmation hearing, Defense Secretary James Mattis noted that it is “not to our advantage to leave any part of the world” to others. In a written statement, he branded the Russian moves as “aggressive steps” and pledged to prioritize developing a U.S. counterstrategy.

The Norwegian government is insistent that NATO must do more to counter Russian assertiveness

Concern in neighboring Norway is also mounting. Although the U.S. Marine Corps has already positioned equipment there for a force of 13,000 troops, the Norwegian government has become increasingly insistent that NATO must do more to counter Russian assertiveness. In January this year, some 300 U.S. Marines deployed to Norway for a six-month tour, the first time since World War II that foreign troops were stationed in the country.

Are there grounds for worry? To some extent yes, but the answer needs serious qualifiers.

Old ambitions

There is no doubt that a serious Russian military buildup in the Arctic is in full swing. The new Arctic command that was set up in December 2014 has an ambitious agenda, including six new bases, four new brigades, 14 airfields, 16 deepwater ports and 50 icebreakers. Much of this infrastructure is being resuscitated from the Cold War days, but some – like the Arctic Trefoil and the Northern Shamrock naval base on Kotelny Island in Eastern Siberia – are entirely new. Much effort also goes into adapting weapons and equipment for use in the forbidding climate. The new Arctic brigades are being equipped with everything from reindeer sleds and snowmobiles to the DT-30P Vityaz articulated track vehicle.

Compared to the Soviet era, these ambitions are nothing new. The Arctic remains, as it was, a vital basing area for strategic aviation and submarines. What is different is the force structure – leaner but meaner, using nimble brigades instead of heavy divisions – and the level of missile technology, which has taken a huge leap forward.

Moscow has deployed two long-range S-400 air defense systems in the Arctic, to Novaya Zemlya in the west and to the city of Tiksi in the east. These are protected by short-range Pantsir-SA surface-to-air systems. Coastal bases are also protected by P-800 Oniks supersonic anti-ship missiles. By 2025, the Arctic will be patrolled by a squadron of next-generation stealth PAK DA bombers.

Melting ice

Why is Moscow doing all of this, presumably at quite a substantial cost? The Arctic has come into focus more generally because of global warming and the melting of the ice cover. This has produced two potentially lucrative scenarios.

Russia’s new Arctic Trefoil base in Franz Josef Land
Russia’s new Arctic Trefoil base in the Franz Josef Land archipelago was opened in April. It can house 150 troops for up to 18 months and will host high-tech aircraft (source: dpa)

One features hydrocarbon reserves that have so far been inaccessible. The U.S. Geological Survey has estimated that 13 percent of the world’s still-undiscovered oil and up to a third of its undiscovered gas may be in the Arctic, causing the global energy majors to scramble for position.

The other scenario concerns the potential for shipping from Europe to take the Northern Sea Route to Japan and China. Compared to the traditional passage via the Suez Canal, taking the Northern Sea Route reduces the distance from Rotterdam to Shanghai by 22 percent, allowing substantial savings. It is also free of the piracy that has forced shipping companies taking the southern route to invest heavily in security.

In both cases, Russia is the main beneficiary. About half of the territory north of the Arctic Circle belongs to Russia, and this territory is believed to hold about 80 percent of the undiscovered oil and almost all the undiscovered gas. The Northern Sea Route also hugs the Russian coastline, meaning that gains from icebreaker support will accrue to Russia. In theory, these scenarios offer tantalizing business opportunities, but in practice they have not panned out as originally believed.

The sharp drop in oil prices and the imposition of sanctions due to Russia’s actions in Ukraine has dealt a double whammy to the prospects for hydrocarbon exploration. Interest will remain, since the reserves are massive and will last a long time. But that interest is no longer immediate. It is of course possible that oil prices will spike and that sanctions will be lifted, but neither seems likely.

Touting that the Motherland’s northern border will again be adequately protected plays well with the population

The early hype about the Northern Sea Route has also lost much of its luster. According to official Russian statistics, the total number of complete transits has dropped from a high of 71 in 2013, to 53 in 2014 and merely 18 in 2016. Even at the high point, the number of annual transits was less than the daily number for the Suez Canal. Two-thirds of these passages were made by Russian vessels.

There are good reasons for this. Although the ice is melting, it is not disappearing. Commercial vessels with sufficient ice class can navigate the waters offshore in the wake of icebreakers, but heavy pack ice inshore impedes the logistics for search and rescue and other forms of coastal support. There were good reasons why the Russian government decided in the 1990s to abandon much of its Arctic infrastructure. Those problems can be overcome, but it will be costly and take time.

For domestic consumption

The conclusion is that the discussion on Russian militarization of the Arctic would profit from playing down the commercial dimension and looking more closely at the region’s strategic role. When Russia announced that it would resume long-range bomber patrols, it was logical that previously abandoned bases in the Arctic would be reopened. The Arctic ground forces present a very different story. Along the bulk of its Arctic coastline, Russia is unopposed. The very thought of NATO ground forces operating in the central parts of the Arctic is ludicrous.

Something similar holds for Eastern Siberia and the Far East, where new bases are also being opened. The threat emanating from there is manifested in bomber patrols encroaching on the airspace around Alaska. The response from the U.S. side has been that from 2020, two squadrons of F-35 joint strike fighters will be based at Eielson Air Force Base to counter the Russian air force.

Russia’s Pantsir-SA missile defense system with Arctic camouflage
Russia showed off its Pantsir-SA air defense missile system designed for use in the Arctic during the Victory Day parade in Moscow’s Red Square on May 9, 2017 (source: dpa)

Viewed from this perspective, it is obvious that much of Moscow’s hype about militarizing the Arctic is for domestic consumption. Arctic brigades look good on Red Square, and touting that the Motherland’s northern border will again be adequately protected plays well with the population.

Nuclear deterrent

The potential flash point is the Kola Peninsula. There was a good reason why the military leadership of the USSR had four motorized rifle divisions stationed there. In NATO scenarios of World War III, these divisions would advance through Finland and reach into northern Sweden, threatening the northern flank of NATO in Norway. However, as a Finnish general famously pointed out, if those divisions had tried to cross well-armed Finland, by the time they reached Sweden they would no longer have been divisions, and they would definitely not have been motorized.

The key role was defensive, to protect the strategic Kola bases that are home to the Russian Navy’s Northern Fleet, whose main objective is to protect the country’s strategic nuclear submarines. If those bases were to be taken out, it would mean total disaster. That very same logic applies today. The Kremlin’s realization of the relative weakness of its conventional forces has prompted an increased emphasis on the nuclear component, including the potential use of tactical nuclear weapons in case of adverse developments in a conventional confrontation. And the strategic component of the nuclear deterrent simply must be protected.

Half of the dozen new Borei-class strategic submarines that are being delivered are slated for the Northern Fleet, whose bases are located very close to NATO territory in Norway. Viewed from this perspective, the very thought of Finland and Sweden also joining NATO must frighten Moscow.

The Kremlin is surely aware that in the case of an armed conflict between Russia and NATO, both Sweden and Finland would quickly join hands with the transatlantic alliance. But there is a major difference between having NATO present on day one, and facing NATO reinforcements on day two. Repeated Russian provocations against Sweden, in particular, must be viewed against this background.

Any moves by NATO to increase its presence close to the Kola Peninsula will be met by serious Russian escalation. Much will depend on how NATO plays the Arctic card.

U.S. response

Within the Pentagon, the Arctic as an issue is a bit of an orphan, falling between the various Commands and having no real patron inside the bureaucracy. This, according to Senator Dan Sullivan (a Republican from Alaska), is not acceptable: “What has been our national security strategy in the Arctic? Well I think until recently, from the U.S. perspective, from the Pentagon perspective, it really hasn’t existed.”

Any moves by NATO to increase its presence close to the Kola Peninsula will be met by serious Russian escalation

A key concern is the presence of a serious “icebreaker gap.” Russia has a total of 40 heavy icebreakers, six of which are nuclear, and a further 11 are in the pipeline. In contrast, the U.S. Coast Guard has only two such vessels, one of which has long been out of service due to an engine failure. In the words of Senator Sullivan, “The highways of the Arctic are icebreakers. Russia has superhighways, and we have dirt roads with potholes.” Expanding the U.S. icebreaker fleet may be a good idea, but it is not a sufficient response to increasing Russian assertiveness.

Despite increasing pressure from the Senate, it is unclear that the White House (and the Pentagon) will respond in kind. The core of the problem is that Russia has a strategy for the Arctic that ranges from hydrocarbon exploration and encouraging commercial shipping, to securing the bases for strategic aviation and submarines, and putting up a show of protecting the northern border. All these objectives are being pursued with purpose and serious economic commitment.

NATO, in contrast, is deeply divided and apparently at a loss for ideas about what to do. Its energy majors badly want in on Russian exploration but are prevented from doing so by the sanctions. Assigning NATO an expanded role in the Arctic is opposed by Canada, which views this as unwelcome. Despite talk about Russia’s “aggressive moves,” it is difficult to see a strategy emerging to counter Russian militarization.

The exception is Norway, and the Nordic part of the Arctic more generally. This is where tensions are likely to rise, and where serious confrontations may occur. The role of Sweden and Finland as gray zones between Russia and NATO, in a region strategically very important to both sides, ensures that the temperature will keep rising. The Arctic is inherently much more dangerous than the Baltic, which has caught so much attention recently. To the Kremlin, a serious threat against the Kola bases is existential.

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