The Russian Dynamic in the Arctic: Strategic Positioning


2014-06-05 Although Norway and Canada are very engaged in the Arctic area, the policy stage is still set by the Cold War superpowers Russia and the United States.

Russia has a proactive policy; the United States has a reluctant policy.

In 2008 after Canada, the United States, and Denmark criticized Russia’s territorial claims to the continental plateau of the Arctic, Russia set out training plans for military units that could be engaged in Arctic combat mission, extended the “operational radius” of its northern naval forces, and reinforced its army’s combat readiness along the Arctic coast— just in case of a potential conflict.

Russia, Canada, and the Arctic. Credit Graphic: Second Line of Defense
Russia, Canada, and the Arctic. Credit Graphic: Second Line of Defense 

In its new national security strategy, Russia raised the prospect of war in the Arctic Ocean if Russia’s interests and border security were threatened by neighboring nations, likely considering the current circumstances of pending border agreements and disagreements between Russia and those nations.

To secure and guarantee its overall energy and security interests, Russia stated that “in a competition for resources it cannot be ruled out that military force could be used to resolve emerging problems that would destroy the balance of forces near the borders of Russia and her allies.”[ref] “Russia’s National Security Strategy to 2020,” May 12, 2009, http:// russia-s-national-security-strategy-to-2020.[/ref]

According to authoritative Russian sources, Russia is willing— and able— to use the entire spectrum of instruments to settle legal status problems in disputed regions such as the Arctic, Caspian, and South China seas.

Russia’s 2007– 15 rearmament program plans to rebuild the submarine force, recommending building several dozen surface ships and submarines, including five Project 955 Borey nuclear-powered strategic ballistic missile submarines equipped with new Bulava ballistic missiles, two Project 885 Yasen nuclear-powered multipurpose submarines, six Project 677 Lada diesel-electric submarines, three Project 22350 frigates, and five Project 20380 corvettes.

With the end of the Cold War, the United States steadily closed some northern military bases, including the naval base on Adak and Fort Greely. These developments reflected the United States’ perception that a significant military presence is— since Soviet Union submarine force collapsed— no longer needed in the Arctic. Although the collapse of the Soviet Union seemed to make the challenges easier to resolve, the challenges in the Arctic facing now U.S. policy makers are much more complicated than expected in 1991. Threats are much more nebulous, long term, and complex.

Given the importance that Putin assigns to maintaining control of Russia’s energy resources, it is unsurprising that he has already outlined ambitious goals to develop Arctic hydrocarbon resources in coming years.

Indeed, the Arctic can be seen as to be part of the overall expansion of Russia’s role in providing global energy and shaping its influence via these means.

The Russians have issued several key policies on the evolution of their Arctic policies. For example, on January 14, 2011, the Russian newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta published an interview with Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of the Russian Security Council, on what he called an issue of “an enormous strategic and economic significance.” Patrushev stated that the council had directed that the government approve a long-term program to extract the mineral resources, especially oil and natural gas, located on Russia’s Arctic shelf by the end of 2011.[ref] Vladimir Baranov, “Russia to Draft Program for Arctic Shelf Exploration by 2012,” RIA Novosti, January 14, 2011, http:// russia/ 20110114/ 162137002. Html.[/ref]

That same day, two of the world’s giant oil companies, Russia’s Rosneft and BP, announced an unprecedented partnership that will see them exchange shares and expand their joint ventures, including launching a new Arctic oil-drilling project. Both companies bring important assets to their new alliance, but the deal has alarmed foreign governments and environments due to its potential commercial, security, and ecological implications.

The deal also raises interesting questions related to the Russian government’s economic modernization program.

In terms of Arctic and energy security issues, the new partnership could mark the commencement of a major Russian government drive to develop the energy resources that fall within the boundaries of Moscow’s territorial claims in the Arctic. In recent years, the Russian government has set forth ambitious territorial claims in the Arctic reinforced through recent scientific research expeditions and military measures.

Despite losing considerable territory with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation still has the world’s longest Arctic border at over 17,500 kilometers, which amount to one-third of the entire length of Russia’s national frontiers.

The Russian Federation also possesses several Arctic archipelagoes, including Franz Josef Land and Wrangel Island.

Furthermore, the Russian government claims its continental shelf extends up to the North Pole— and is taking steps to strengthen and enforce this claim in the face of opposition from Canada, Denmark, Norway, and the United States. For example, the Russian government believes that the underwater Lomonosov Ridge, which lies on the North Pole’s seabed, along with the Mendeleev Ridge and Alpha Ridge, are part of Russia’s continental shelf.

Comparing the Northern and South Maritime Routes. Credit Graphic: Second Line of Defense
Comparing the Northern and South Maritime Routes. Credit Graphic: Second Line of Defense

As with the case with Canada and the Northwest Passage, Russia also seeks to exercise exclusive control over a burgeoning shipping lane of the Northern Sea Route (NSR). The NSR is a system of sea-lanes from the straits between the Barents and Kara seas (south of Russia’s Novaya Zemlya nuclear test site) to the Bering Strait, a distance of approximately 5,000 kilometers.

This route connects Asia and Europe and when navigable saves transportation time and costs as compared with using the Suez Canal. Russia’s Arctic policy defines the NSR as a core national interest. In contrast, the U.S. government considers the NSR as an international shipping route.

In an effort to bolster its claims of ownership over the NSR, the Russian Ministry of Transport announced on March 18, 2010, that it is drafting legislation to define the route’s precise dimensions and to create a federal agency that would regulate and collect fees from foreign vessels using the NSR.

During the Cold War, the Arctic region was a place of competition between the United States and the Soviet Union. Both operated nuclear vessels, long-range bombers, and tactical aircraft in the region. Following the USSR’s collapse in 1991, Russian government interest in the Arctic decreased considerably.

During the 1990s, Moscow’s concerns were maintaining the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation in the face of secessionist threats in the North Caucasus and elsewhere. During the 1990s, Russian military overflights and naval patrols in the Arctic declined significantly as the Russian military faced drastic funding and fuel shortages. The Russian army withdrew from many Arctic bases. The inward concentration of the Russian government’s attention and resources hampered the development of a comprehensive policy toward the Arctic. Furthermore, the economic problems that Russia confronted in the 1990s also made it difficult for Russians to conceive of resource-intensive plans to exploit the Arctic region’s mineral wealth.

But the rise in world oil and gas prices that began in the late 1990s simultaneously provided the Russian government with increased revenue and renewed Russian interest in developing the increasing valuable energy resources in the Arctic region. The renewed attention was evident on September 18, 2008, when the Russian government issued a “Framework for the Arctic to the Year 2020 and Subsequent Perspectives.”

More recently, the “Russian National Security Strategy for 2020” illustrates the growing importance that Russian strategists attribute to exerting control over the maritime domains around Russia, especially the resource-rich Arctic Ocean, Barents Sea, and Caspian Sea.

After a series of incidents in the late 1990s, in which several foreign research ships allegedly trespassed into Russian territorial waters, the Russian government began taking steps to secure its northern border. In recent years, Russia has taken more concrete measures than any other country to assert its Arctic claims. Russian warships and warplanes have increased their military activities in the region. The Russian government also began sending more scientific research expeditions to the Arctic.

In the past, Russia relied heavily on military personnel and equipment in its Arctic expeditions, but now is using primarily civilian technologies since these can be more readily detailed to the United Nations and other international bodies to justify Russia’s Arctic claims. Russia’s earlier submission to the UN regarding its territorial claim to the Lomonosov Ridge was rejected due to a lack of supporting evidence, which Moscow declined to provide for fear of revealing military secrets.

The 2007 Arktika expedition represented a dramatic, high-profile assertion of Russian interest in the region. In August the research expedition climaxed when ship Akademik Fedorov and icebreaker Rossiya sent two specially designed submersible vessels, Mir-1 and Mir-2, 4,300 meters deep to the North Pole seabed. After collecting soil samples and further mapping the Lomonsov Ridge, the expedition planted a Russian flag made of titanium on its floor. Reacting to foreign criticism of the flag ceremony, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said, “The aim of this expedition is not to stake Russia’s claim but to show that our shelf reaches to the North Pole.”

Russian government claims and actions regarding the Arctic stem not only from economic and domestic political considerations but also from offensive and defensive strategic considerations that encourage a greater Russian military presence in the Arctic. The Eurasian landmass of Russia is effectively “walled in” by Siberia and the Pacific to the east, Asia and the Middle East to the south, and Europe to the west.

The Arctic has for centuries served as the “fourth wall,” restricting Russian maritime activity to areas largely controlled by other powers. As the Arctic climate changes to open more waters to navigation and exploration, the Russian Federation can extend the range of its military operations. Russia’s Northern Fleet, the largest element of the Russian navy, is based in the port city Severomorsk on the Barents Sea.

Although the Northern Fleet maintains year-round access to the north and south Atlantic, its mobility could be strictly limited to the Barents Sea by a Western naval power in the event of unrestricted warfare. An ice-free Arctic would negate this advantage but also present new strategic challenges to Russia.

The opening of the Arctic Ocean makes vulnerable Russia’s northern ports, particularly those in the Kola Peninsula that house the majority of Russia’s ballistic-missile submarine fleet. Furthermore, the opening of the NSR could serve as a maritime link between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through which warships could pass. At present warships in the NSR are susceptible to structural damage from floating ice, weather conditions, and icing. These conditions will become less severe on a seasonal basis as climate change progresses.

Russia is partly able to address the issue of Arctic maritime conditions by maintaining a fleet of icebreakers. There are 18 icebreakers of various sizes in Russia’s military fleet. Seven of these are equipped with nuclear reactors, rather than conventional diesel engines, allowing them to break through ice twice as thick as can be breached by standard icebreakers.

The most capable Russian icebreakers are operated not by the Russian navy but by privately owned mining giant Norilsk Nickel. Its icebreakers can penetrate ice up to 1.5 meters thick. But Russia needs to rebuild its icebreaker fleet since all the existing ships except one are scheduled for decommissioning in the next decade. Russia’s economic troubles have delayed the construction of new, third-generation icebreaking vessels.

Russia must acquire at least three new vessels of this type in the next several years in order to maintain adequate icebreaking capabilities. Russia must also expand its coastal border guard to better accommodate increased commercial and military traffic.

In addition to Arctic regions, the coastal border guard patrols the Baltic, Black, and Caspian seas as well as Russia’s Pacific coast. Changing Arctic conditions could double this area of responsibility. The National Security Strategy of the Russian Federation until 2020 includes provisions to strengthen and upgrade the coastal border guard. In 2009 border guard units based on the Barents Sea began patrolling the NSR for the first time since the Soviet era.

Arctic Seaports. Credit Graphic: Second Line of Defense
Arctic Seaports. Credit Graphic: Second Line of Defense 

Russia is also expanding its military presence in the Arctic region. The Russian Presidential Security Council has called for establishing a military force and several new bases in the Arctic, while the Federal Security Service will use its coast guard ships to collect maritime intelligence in the region.

The Russian government is moving swiftly to expand its sea, ground, and air presence in the Arctic.

Russia has resumed air patrols over the Arctic, and in June 2008, the Russian Defense Ministry stated that it would increase submarine operations if Russian national interests in the Arctic were ever threatened.

In October 2010, Navy Commander Adm. Vladimir Vysotsky said that Russian naval ships and submarines had already conducted about a dozen military patrols in the Arctic during the first three quarters of that year. Vysotsky explained that “in accordance with the Russian Armed Forces’ plan of strategic deterrence we take measures aimed to demonstrate military presence in the Arctic.”

Russia’s strategic ballistic missile launching submarines use the North Pole region because the ice helps shield them from U.S. space satellites and other overhead sensors. In addition, launching a missile from the Arctic can reduce the flight time to U.S. targets. In July 2009, the Russian navy boasted that it had succeeded in launching two long-range ballistic missiles from under the Arctic Ocean without the Pentagon detecting their preparations.

Supposedly, Russian attack submarines prevented U.S. surveillance ships from learning of the arrival of two Russian strategic submarines before the missile launches. The state-run RIA Novosti news agency quoted a high-ranking navy source as saying that the successful drill disproved skeptics in Russia and elsewhere that the Russian navy had lost its combat effectiveness: “We slapped these skeptics in the face, proving that Russian submarines are not only capable of moving stealthily under ice, but can also break it to accomplish combat tasks.”

Russian officials have sought to downplay the prospects of military conflict in the Arctic region. In late 2010, the special representative of President Medvedev, Anton Vasilyev, stated that “Russia does not plan to create ‘special Arctic forces’ or take any steps that would lead to the militarization of the Arctic,” which contradicts provisions stated in Moscow’s security doctrine.[ref] “Russia: The Non-Reluctant Arctic Power,” Expedition2012. org, February 13, 2011, http:// 2011/ 02/ russia-non-reluctant-arctic-power.html.[/ref]

In his year-in-review press conference, Foreign Minister Lavrov said that all Arctic border disputes could be settled through negotiations and that “ rumors that a war will break out over the resources in the North are a provocation.” In 2012, after 40 years of negotiations, Russia and Norway signed a deal to delimitate their maritime border. The two countries have been disputing the 175,000 square kilometer area in the Barents Sea and Arctic Ocean since 1970. The disputed maritime border has resulted in both parties seizing fishing vessels in the area.

Then President Medvedev and Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg signed an agreement dividing the contested area into two equal parts. Meanwhile, while Russia still contests ownership of the Lomonosov Ridge with Canada, both countries have agreed that the United Nations would be the final arbiter of who owns title to the ridge.

And as part of improving Norwegian-Russian cooperation in the Arctic, the Russians have moved two motorized infantry brigades to the region. Moving a Polar Spetsnaz to the Norwegian border is apparently in the Russian perspective part of a broader cooperative Arctic strategy:

By 2020, Russia will have increased the number of brigades from today’s 70 to 109, said General Colonel Aleksander Postnikov at a meeting in the Federation Council’s Committee for Defense and Security yesterday.

One of the new brigades is to be located in the settlement of Pechenga, some 10 kilometers from the Russian-Norwegian border and 50 kilometers from the Norwegian town of Kirkenes, Nezavisimaya Gazeta writes.

This brigade will be specially equipped for military warfare in Arctic conditions. It will be set up with DT-30P Vityaz tracked vehicles, in addition to multi-service army equipment, other armored vehicles and tanks.[ref]Trude Pettersen, “Russia to Establish Polar Spetsnaz on Border to Norway,” Barents Observer, March 16, 2011, http:// en/ sections/ topics/ russia-establish-polar-spetsnaz-border-norway.[/ref]

One analyst has underscored that the Arctic opening could well see the emergence of an anomaly in Russian history— Russia as a maritime power. According to a perceptive article by Caitlyn Antrim:

Russian geopolitics of the 21st century will be different from the days of empire and conflict of the nineteenth and twentieth. The increased accessibility of the Arctic, with its energy and mineral resources, new fisheries, shortened sea routes and shipping along the rivers between the Arctic coast and the Eurasian heartland, is both enabling and propelling Russia to become a major maritime state. [ref]Catilyn Antrim, “The New Maritime Arctic,” Russia in Global Affairs, October 15, 2010, http:// number/ The-New-Maritime-Arctic-15000.[/ref]

This means as well augmenting the role of the Russian navy, coast guard, and various air assets over time. The augmentation of the maritime reach of Russia— through ships, submarines, C2, ISR, and air means— can be anticipated.

This article has been adapted from a section in The Rebuilding of American Military Power in the Pacific: A 21st Century Strategy.