Escalating tensions between NATO and Russia in Europe are leading to increased concerns about the militarization of another region: the Arctic. But those concerns appear to be largely overstated.
The icebreaker "Murmansk" leading the ship "Pushlakhta" through ice in the Yenisei Bay of the Arctic Ocean. Event date - 1973. Photo: RIA Novosti
In the context of the current face-off between Russia and NATO over Ukraine and the escalating risks of Russia-NATO confrontation elsewhere in Europe, the Kremlin’s aggressive ambitions to develop the Arctic are often overstated in the West. In some cases, Western analysts even claim that Russia is attempting to militarize the Arctic by achieving many of its economic development goals for the region by military means.
As a result, when we deal with Russia’s military policy in the High North we have to face numerous stereotypes and myths about Russia’s true intentions. With that in mind, here are the four most popular myths about Russia’s future plans for the Arctic, together with an explanation of Russia’s intentions for the region.
Myth #1: Since Russia is economically and technologically rather weak in the High North, the Kremlin puts an emphasis on Russia’s military strength to protect its interests in the region.
This is untrue because, conceptually, the Russian leadership now realizes that most of the threats and challenges to the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation (AZRF) originate from inside rather than outside of the country. These problems are caused by a confluence of factors such as the degradation the Soviet-made economic, transport and social infrastructures in the region, the current resource-oriented model of the Russian economy, and the lack of funds and managerial skills to develop the AZRF.
For this reason, Russia’s current Arctic strategy is of an inward rather than outward-looking character and aims at solving existing domestic problems rather than focusing on external expansion. Moreover, in developing the AZRF, Moscow demonstrates that it is open for international cooperation and welcomes foreign investment and know-how. As far as existing territorial disputes with other coastal states are concerned, the Kremlin has repeatedly underlined that all these disputes should be solved in a peaceful way and on the basis of international law (e.g. 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and 2008 Ilulissat Declaration).
Myth #2: We are seeing a militarization of the Arctic and increased risk of military conflict in the region.
According to the alarmist-pessimist school, there is growing competition among the regional players for the Arctic’s natural resources and sea routes. Such a competition inevitably leads to the remilitarization of the High North and future military conflicts. Naturally, Russia is viewed as both a driver and part of this dangerous process.
This is a completely inaccurate interpretation of present-day Arctic politics. Military conflicts for the Arctic’s division (or re-division) are unlikely. The important interests of various states – including those with significant military potential - are at play in the region. However, most of these interests (including 75 to 80 percent of unproven hydrocarbon reserves) lay within undisputed Arctic territories, such as the coastal states’ exclusive economic zones (EEZs).
As far as the maritime spaces and continental shelf beyond the EEZs are concerned, a clash of the above-mentioned interests will not necessarily degenerate into armed conflict. Conflicts are more easily settled by peaceful means. Evidently, if the U.S., Canada, Denmark or Norway - NATO countries bound by mutual defense obligations – or Russia and China with their own mutual defense commitments - resort to localized military actions, this may escalate a conflict into a large-scale armed one or even a war. The same holds true in case such actions are taken against any of the above actors. And this is in nobody’s interest.
Moreover, engagement in military activities in the Arctic (especially onshore and on the sea surface) poses great challenges due to the remoteness of the Arctic military theater from the main territories of the potential adversaries, poorly developed civil and military infrastructures and the harsh climatic conditions. Needless to say, the outcomes of such conflicts are hard to predict. And finally, the hypothetical clashes’ impact on the Arctic fragile nature may be altogether disastrous.
Therefore, one cannot rule out that the Arctic states will continue their military preparations in the region with a view to modernizing their navies, air and ground forces (mainly the border and ranger units), to protect their economic interests as well as to exercise their sovereignty over “their” sectors of the Arctic, should bilateral or multilateral tensions in the Arctic be aggravated. However, military force is unlikely to be used, for even a most insignificant armed conflict may lead to dangerous and unpredictable outcomes.
It should be also noted that, in contrast with the Cold War period when Russian military strategies in the Arctic were dictated by the logic of global political and military confrontation between two superpowers or two military blocs (Warsaw Pact and NATO), Moscow’s current military policies in the region are driven by completely different motives. As the threat of a global nuclear war has disappeared, these strategies aim at three major goals: first, to demonstrate and ascertain Russia’s sovereignty over the AZRF (including the EEZ and continental shelf); second, to protect Russia’s economic interests in the High North; and third, to demonstrate that Russia retains its great power status and has world-class military capabilities.
Myth #3: The Russian military’s modernization programs in the Arctic are massive in scope, thereby provoking military counter-measures from neighbors and destabilizing the regional military balance.
Similar to a Russian “matryoshka” nesting doll, there is one additional, smaller myth embedded within a bigger myth. Many foreign analysts tend to confuse the extent of Russian strategic and conventional forces deployed in the Arctic as well as the scale of their modernization programs. Russia has inherited the existing nuclear strategic forces structure from the Soviet era. For this reason, the naval bases on the Kola Peninsula [located in the far northwest of Russia,to the north of the Arctic Circle and constituting the bulk of the territory of Murmansk Oblast] are still a home for the two-thirds of Russia’s strategic nuclear submarines.
However, this military potential is designed for providing a strategic deterrence on a global scale rather than for ensuring Moscow’s military preponderance in the Arctic region. The largest part of the Northern Fleet’s surface vessels, such as the cruiser Peter the Great or aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, are also designed for the projection of Russia’s sea power beyond the Arctic military theater. In short, the strategic component of the Russian forces in the High North has a little to do with the geopolitical rivalry in the Arctic.
The strategic forces’ modernization programs are of limited nature and aim at replacing decommissioned submarines and surface vessels rather than increasing these forces in terms of quantity and offensive potential. In fact, the total number of strategic submarines and large surface ships continues to decrease from earlier levels in the 1980s.
As far as the Russian conventional forces in the High North are concerned, their modernization programs are also rather modest and simply aim to upgrade these forces rather than provide them with additional offensive capabilities or restore the huge military potential of the Soviet era. The numbers of surface vessels, tactical submarines, aircraft and helicopters are decreasing. The plans to create an Arctic brigade by 2015 do not mean a creation of a new, additional, military structure. Such a unit is being created on the basis of the existing 200th motorized infantry brigade in Pechenga. It will be better armed, equipped and trained for combat in the Arctic conditions. It should be noted that the U.S., Canada and Norway already are establishing similar units. The Russian Defense Ministry has also a plan to establish a second Arctic brigade but it is indefinite both about the location for this unit (Arkhangelsk or Yamal-Nenets District) or time of creation (2016 or 2017).
Given Russia’s financial constraints, these programs have recently become less ambitious and more realistic. Now they are comparable with the military modernization programs of other Arctic players. As mentioned above, the Russian military increasingly aims at defending the country’s economic interests in the region and control over the huge AZRF territory rather than expanding its “sphere of influence.” Accordingly, the plans to establish a unified command “North” by 2017 should be considered as an effort to better coordinate the Russian land and air forces deployed in the AZRF rather than an intention to expand Moscow’s military activities in the entire region.
Myth #4: Moscow’s recent efforts to reopen and modernize Soviet-era airfields and naval bases, as well as its plans to develop a network of radar stations, are part and parcel of Russia’s military build-up in the Arctic.
In reality, the purpose of these projects is two-fold: On the one hand, they aim at providing the Russian forces undergoing the process of modernization with better infrastructure which, in turn, should be adequate to modern requirements. On the other hand, this renovated and newly created infrastructure will serve civilian needs: It should provide Russia with capabilities to implement the international agreements on search and rescue operations (SAR) (2011) and preparedness for fighting potential oil spills in the Arctic (2013). The new radar stations, airfields, and SAR centers along the Arctic Ocean’s coastline will be also helpful in terms of further development of the Northern Sea Route and cross-polar flights.
To conclude, we believe that Moscow will continue to pursue a double-faceted strategy in the High North. On the one hand, such a strategy aims at defending Russia’s legitimate economic and political interests in the region. On the other hand, Moscow is open to cooperation with foreign partners who are willing to partake in exploiting the Arctic natural resources, developing sea routes and solving numerous socioeconomic and environmental problems of the AZRF. In doing so, Russia will prefer to use non-violent, diplomatic, economic and cultural methods as well as to act via international organizations and multilateral institutions rather than on a unilateral basis.
The opinion of the authors may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.
The Russian polar explorers, who traveled to the Arctic to set up a new drifting station SP-40. Photo: RIA Novosti