Russia and the U.S. in the Arctic: A New Confrontation or Damage Limitation?

Serious international experts do not see any particular alarming trends in Russia’s military behavior in the Arctic in the aftermath of the Ukrainian crisis. There was no any substantial paradigmatic shift regarding the Kremlin’s vision of the military power’s role in the Arctic.

With the start of the Ukrainian crisis the U.S. policy-making and academic communities with a vengeance began to accuse Russia of militarism and expansionism not only in East Europe but also in the Arctic. These accusations revived old charges related to the planting of the Russian titanium flag on the North Pole in 2007, resumption of naval and air patrols in the region and military modernization programs of the Russian conventional and nuclear forces deployed in the Far North.

On the other hand, the U.S. right-wing politicians and military experts resumed their favorite discourse on the ‘Arctic window of vulnerability’ and the U.S. inferiority in the High North. Pseudo-arguments, such as the lack of deep-water ports on the U.S. Arctic coastline or a proper icebreaker fleet (the U.S. has only one heavy diesel icebreaker while Russia has a fleet of nuclear-powered and diesel icebreakers and it is building new ones) were again floated.

Some U.S. analysts expected that in the wake of the Ukrainian crisis Moscow would dramatically increase its military activities and presence in the Arctic as well as accelerate its military modernization programs in the region. For example, American experts paid attention to the fact that, for the first time, the new version of the Russian military doctrine (December 2014) has assigned to the Russian armed forces the protection of Russia’s national interests in the Arctic in peacetime. Moreover, Russia’s new maritime doctrine (July 2015) has identified the Arctic (along with the North Atlantic) as a priority area for the Russian navy.

However, these alarmist expectations were not fulfilled. First of all, there was no any substantial paradigmatic shift regarding the Kremlin’s vision of the military power’s role in the Arctic. As before, Moscow’s military strategies aimed at three major goals: first, to demonstrate and ascertain Russia’s sovereignty over the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation (AZRF), including the exclusive economic zone and continental shelf; second, to protect its economic interests in the High North; and third, to demonstrate that Russia retains its great power status and has world-class military capabilities. In a sense, Russian military strategies are comparable with those of other coastal states (especially the U.S. and Canadian ones).

Still, some impact of the Ukrainian crisis could be seen in the increasing number and scale of the Russian military exercises in the Arctic. For example, in March 2015 President Putin ordered to inspect the Northern Fleet for combat readiness. 38,000 soldiers, 3,360 vehicles, 41 naval vessels, 15 submarines and 110 aircrafts were involved in the inspection. In August more than 1,000 soldiers, 14 aircraft and 34 special military units took part in drills on the Taymyr Peninsula (northern Siberia).

However, it should be noted that March combat readiness inspection was a response to the NATO’s preceding drill in Norway which involved 5,000 troops, the largest military exercise on the NATO northern flank since 1967. As for the August exercise, according to the Northern Fleet Commander Admiral Vladimir Korolev, this exercise was purely defensive as it was done more than 3,000 km away from the Norwegian border and directed to protect economic security of the AZRF (to prevent poaching, smuggling, illegal migration as well as to conduct search and rescue operations) rather than to plan any offensive moves.

According to Andreas Østhagen, an Arctic policy expert with the Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies, so far, Russia has responded to NATO’s moves with more rhetoric than action in the Arctic.

In contrast with the Baltic Sea region where the NATO-Russian tensions have obviously increased over the last year, “the situation in the High North is close to normal compared to the activity the last years,” the head of the Norwegian Joint Command Headquarters, Lt. Gen. Morten Haga Lunde believes. “This is in spite of the tense situation that has evolved between Russia and NATO.”

According to official numbers from the Norwegian Joint Command Headquarters, there had been 43 scrambles and 69 identifications in international air space outside the coast of Norway in 2014. In 2013 there were 41 scrambles and 58 identifications, and in 2012 there were 41 scrambles and 71 identifications. The numbers are considerable lower than during the 1980s, when there could be as many as 500 to 600 identifications per year.

There was no dramatic increase in Russia’s naval and air patrolling the North Atlantic and Arctic in 2014-2015. Moreover, after two catastrophes with the Tu-95 strategic bombers (summer 2015) their flights were suspended for a while.

Russia’s military modernization programs in the Far North were implemented according to schedule. However, some Western military analysts tried to represent the deployment of the Pantsir S-1 short-range air defense system on the Kola Peninsula, plans to replace S-300 long-range air defense system by a more advanced S-400 «Growler» system, tactical training for fighter jet pilots in Arctic conditions, sea trials of nuclear submarines (most of which are designed for the deployment to the Pacific Fleet), plans to establish 16 deepwater ports, 10 search and rescue stations, 10 air defense radar stations, and 13 airfields along its Arctic periphery as an evidence of Russia’s growing military ambitions in the High North.

These experts tend to ignore the fact that the Soviet-time military machine in the Far North has significantly degenerated in the 1990s and early 2000s and the Russian conventional and nuclear forces badly needed modernization to effectively meet new challenges and threats.

To reorganize in a more efficient way the Russian land forces in the Western part of the AZRF there were plans to transform the motorized infantry and marine brigades located near Pechenga (Murmansk region) to the Arctic special force unit, with soldiers trained in a special program and equipped with modern personal equipment for military operations in the Arctic. The Arctic brigade should be operational by 2016. There were also plans to create another Arctic brigade somewhere in the Arkhangelsk region. All conventional forces in the AZRF should form an Arctic Group of Forces (AGF) to be led by the joint Arctic command (which should be initially established in 2017).

However, the Ukrainian crisis as well the U.S. military plans for the Arctic have made adjustments to Russia’s military planning. Moscow was especially concerned about the U.S. plans that were described in the U.S. Department of Defense Arctic Strategy (2013) and the U.S. Navy Arctic Roadmap for 2014 to 2030 (2014). According to these documents, Washington plans to increase its readiness to conduct maritime and air patrol and interception operations; to exercise and assert its navigation and overflight rights and freedoms in the region; to ensure its access to global commons in the Arctic; to expand its power projection capabilities, etc.

As far as the configuration of the Russian land forces in the AZRF are concerned two Pechenga-based brigades were left in place, while the Arctic brigade was surprisingly created ahead of the schedule (in January 2015) and deployed in an unexpected location - Alakurtti which is close to the Finnish-Russian border. Another surprise was that given an ‘increased NATO military threat’ in the North, President Putin has decided to accelerate the creation of a new strategic command ‘North’ which was established in December 2014 (three years ahead of the schedule). It was also announced that the second Arctic brigade will be formed in 2016 and will be stationed in the Yamal-Nenets autonomous district (east of the Ural Mountains in the Arctic Circle).

Another interesting structural change is an ongoing reorganization of the Russian Coast Guard - part of the Federal Security Service (FSS). Now the Coast Guard has a wide focus the Arctic: in addition to the traditional protection of biological resources in the Arctic Ocean, oil and gas installations and shipping along the Northern Sea Route are among the agency’s new top priorities. For this purpose, the FSS has established two new border guard commands: one in Murmansk for the western AZRF regions, and one in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky for the eastern Arctic regions.

There are plans to equip the Coast Guard in the AZRF with the brand new vessels of project 22100. This the Okean-class ice-going patrol ship, the Polyarnaya Zvezda (Polar Star), is currently undergoing sea trials in the Baltic Sea. Vessels of this class can break up to 31.4 inch-thick ice. They have an endurance of 60 days and a range of 12,000 nautical miles at 20 knots. They are equipped with a Ka27 helicopter and can be supplied with Gorizont UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles).

The attention which Russia pays now to the Coast Guard and its new missions is in line with what other coastal states do (especially Norway and Denmark).

To conclude, serious international experts do not see any particular alarming trends in Russia’s military behavior in the Arctic in the aftermath of the Ukrainian crisis. According to ex-Commander of the U.S. Coast Guard and current U.S. Arctic Ambassador admiral Robert Papp, “Everything we have seen them doing so far is lawful, considered and deliberative. So we’ll just continue monitoring it and not overreact to it”. Papp noted that all countries have a responsibility to be able to provide search and rescue (SAR) capabilities and navigation assistance in the area and Russia seems to be investing in that.

Moreover, as the recent international Conference on Global Leadership in the Arctic: Cooperation, Innovation, Engagement and Resilience, otherwise known as GLACIER (August 30-31, Anchorage, Alaska), demonstrated, the Obama administration is keen on cooperation with Moscow on ‘soft security’ issues in the Arctic. Being a chair of the Arctic Council for 2015-2017, the U.S. needs support from other Arctic nations to successfully implement its presidential program that focuses on environmental issues, SAR and indigenous peoples’ well-being. In other words, military confrontation is not on the agenda; other, more cooperative content, is in the focus of Arctic politics now.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.