Russian Resurgence and the Arctic


2014-04-16 Clearly, the Arctic is a major area of interest for the major Arctic powers as well as global economic powers like Japan and China, who are not one of the five powers with direct claims.

The gradual melting of Arctic ice is creating the beginnings of a very different strategic situation affecting the Pacific states, Russia, the United States, Canada and Europe.  The operational geography for trade, exploitation of raw materials, and military forces is becoming altered by that most powerful of forces – nature.

The opening of the Arctic is an event somewhat parallel to the building of the Suez or Panama Canal.  The two great canals of the 19th and early 20th centuries changed the face of the United States and of Europe.  The new significance of the northern routes could well do the same for Russia.

Transpoloar sea route. From
Transpoloar sea route. From

The impact of the Suez Canal was considerable in changing the 19th century.  As one analyst of the geography of transportation has put it:  The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 “brought a new era of European influence in Pacific Asia by reducing the journey from Asia to Europe by about 6,000 kilometers.  The region became commercially accessible and colonial trade expanded as a result of increased interactions because of a reduced friction of distance.  Great Britain, the maritime power of the time, benefited substantially from this improved access.”[i]

With regard to the Panama Canal, the East and West coasts of the United States became part of the same country in a fundamental way.  And the United States transition to becoming a global power was facilitated by the opening of the “big ditch” as well. The Panama Canal shortens the maritime distances between them by a factor of 13,000 kilometers.

It will take awhile for the full impact of the opening of the Arctic to be realized, but the country whose destiny will be most altered will be Russia, an emerging maritime country.

Yes you read that correctly, the great landlocked power, will emerge as an important maritime player and with it different roles for Canada, the United States, Asia and Europe.

To get a sense of what is involved one needs to look at a map from the top of the world down.

As the sea lanes in the Arctic-bordered regions become capable of longer periods of transit, the Northern sea routes or the Northwest passage becomes a link at the top of the world which can connect Europe and the Northern Pacific in ways that rival the traditional transit routes Southward through the world’s great canals.

But it is not simply about transit.  It is about access to raw materials as well.

The Arctic holds significant oil, natural gas, rare earth minerals and other commodities vital to global economic development.  Exploitation is challenging and costly; but the long-term trajectory is very clear: the region will be a central economic zone for the global economy.

A helicopter view of NS 50 Let Pobedy nuclear-powered icebreaker sailing toward the North Pole. (RIA Novosti / Vladimir Astapkovich)
A helicopter view of NS 50 Let Pobedy nuclear-powered icebreaker sailing toward the North Pole. (RIA Novosti / Vladimir Astapkovich)

The two trends – transport and raw material extraction – will become combined.  For example, for states like Japan and South Korea, which have no landward reach to raw materials as does China, these states will now have an alternative path to acquire raw materials and have than transited to their factories.  Rather than simply relying on the Middle East, for example, South Korea and Japan can work with Russia and others to gain access to Liquid Natural Gas and then have that product transported directly to their ports.

Russia is at the center of these developments.

The Russian European ports can look forward to be directly connected with the Pacific ports and with it the growth of infrastructure, ports, facilities and shipping, along the way.

This transforms the Russian defense and security challenge to one of securing the trade and resource development belt.  It also will see a significant upsurge over the next thirty years of traffic, commercial and military, through the area.

It will be in Russia’s interest to build air and naval assets, which can provide for the various needs for defense and security in the region. 

Search and rescue, communications, maritime domain awareness, significant ISR capabilities, bomber coverage, submarine and surface fleet coverage and related efforts will become prioritized.

A new Arctic activism by Russia may well be part of the resurgence of Russia seen in recent Ukrainian developments.

A recent piece on RT (previously known as Russia Today), the international multilingual Russian-based TV network created in 2005 underscores a Russian perspective on the heating up of the Arctic competition.

But actions often speak louder than words. As the icecaps are melting, a military race is also building up in the region.

The US Navy recently debuted a revised roadmap focused on expanding America’s muscle in the world’s coldest ocean over the next decade, increasing the number of personnel trained in Arctic operations, advancing technical equipment and surveillance needs.

The ultimate goal appears to be establishing international order under US leadership.

“They want to be a leader and they see themselves as a driving force in the future planning of the Arctic,” Canadian journalist Ed Struzhik told RT.

Earlier this year, NATO countries participated in a Norwegian-led Cold Response exercise in the Arctic, rehearsing high intensity operations with 16,000 troops deployed in extreme conditions. Non-NATO participants, Sweden and Switzerland, also took part.

“The United States is anxious to militarize the Arctic Ocean. It has to do it via its relations with Canada and it is also seeking to do it via NATO, through the participation of Norway and Denmark in NATO. And now it is calling upon Sweden and Finland to essentially join NATO with a view to establishing a NATO agenda in the Arctic,” Michel Chossudovsky, from the Centre for Research on Globalization in Montreal, revealed.

Meanwhile, Canada has been staging its own independent drills with hundreds of soldiers participating in cold-weather winter warfare exercises.

Not to be left out, last year Russia announced the resumption of a constant armed presence in the Arctic, which was abandoned by the military after the fall of the USSR.

The Russian Navy’s task group headed by the country’s most powerful battleship and the flagship of the Northern Fleet, cruiser Peter the Great (Pyotr Veliky)went on a long-distance cruise in the Subarctic along the Northern Sea Route, which became a flagship mission in the region.

The group was accompanied by four nuclear icebreakers facilitating the passage through areas with particularly thick ice.

Now the once deactivated infrastructure will resume operation, with Russian strategic bombers patrolling the Arctic on a regular basis.

Last month, Russia’s Airborne Troops parachute-landed on drifting ice flows in the Arctic Ocean near the North Pole in a first-ever daredevil training search-and-rescue operation.

Moscow has been calling for tighter security along the country’s arctic frontiers and along its maritime transportation routes in the polar region…..

After highlighting that international cooperation in the Arctic was the best way to proceed for the use of Arctic resources, the piece then noted the following:

Back in 2012, Russia’s former envoy to NATO and current Vice Prime Minister, Dmitry Rogozin, said that by the middle of the 21st century the fight for resources between various states will become “uncivilized.”

In about 40 years, Russia may lose its sovereignty if it fails to clearly set out its national interests in the Arctic, Rogozin said.

“It’s crucially important for us to set goals for our national interests in this region. If we don’t do that, we will lose the battle for resources which means we’ll also lose in a big battle for the right to have sovereignty and independence,” Rogozin stated at a Marine Board meeting in Moscow.

(For the article and the video accompanying the article see the following:

But the Arctic is clearly not a pure hard or soft power domain.

The area needs significant cooperation to work.

This does not imply that military means are not part of the equation in assisting in core ISR, C2, Search and Rescue and other tasks.

Nor that having military means when others do not can clearly be useful when interpreting the map and interests in the fluid and dynamic region at the top of the world.

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[i] Jean-Paul Rodrigue, Claude Comotois, and Brian Slack, The Geography of Transport Systems (London: Routledge, 2009), Second Edition, Kindle Edition, Location 1590