Russian Military Strategies in the Arctic

Russia may be eager to develop strong armed forces in the Arctic, but its plans to modernize its strategic air force, to re-establish a strong navy, to modernize its fleet of strategic submarines, to build new icebreakers and replace old ones, to establish new FSS border control and SAR units, are a difficult task.

Russia's Arctic military strategy is a vexed question both in the media and in the expert community. Since the planting of a titanium Russian flag at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean on the North Pole in August 2007, resumption of strategic bomber patrols in the High North and the publication of the Russian Arctic strategy of 2008, Western experts have often described Russia’s Arctic policies as expansionist, aggressive and even jingoistic, or as return to “gunboat diplomacy.” According to some Western and East Asian analysts, because of its economic weakness and technological backwardness Russia tends to emphasize military-coercive instruments to protect its national interests in the Arctic, and this will inevitably lead to the arms race in the region, remilitarization and military conflicts in the High North.

On the other hand, there are authors, mostly Russian, who prefer to depict Russia’s intentions in the Arctic in a complimentary manner – as "non-aggressive," "peaceful," "purely defensive," oriented to "protection of its legitimate interests," etc. This group of experts emphasizes the fact that Moscow’s primary interest lies in the development of the Russian Arctic Zone (RAZ), which is rich in natural resources and, at the same time, is underdeveloped in terms of economy, infrastructure, communication systems, social institutions and culture. According to these people, Moscow does not pursue an aggressive/revisionist policy in the Arctic. On the contrary, it wants to solve all disputes in this region by peaceful means, with the help of international law and international organizations.

Finally, there are quite few works out there that try to make a balanced analysis of Russian military strategies in the Arctic, trying to assess in a temperate, not aggressive, manner the underlying motives behind Russian military strategies in the region, specific military modernization programs implemented in the Russian High North, and their implications for the regional military balance. Let’s continue our analysis along these same lines.

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 (the USSR and the USA) or two military blocs (the Warsaw Pact and NATO), the current Moscow military policies in the region are driven by completely different motives. As the threat of global nuclear war has disappeared, these strategies have three major goals: first, to demonstrate and ascertain Russia’s sovereignty over the region; 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.

The demonstration of Russia’ military power and its presence in the Arctic are mainly done through strategic bomber and naval patrols as well as land and naval exercises.

The air force is perceived by Moscow as a central element in its demonstration of power. Over-flights of Russian military aircraft over the Arctic fell from 500 per year during the Soviet period, to only half a dozen in the 1990s and at the start of the 2000s. In 2007, Russian strategic bombers flew over the Arctic for the first time since the end of the Cold War. Two Tu-95MS, based in the Saratov Region at the Engels aviation base, with mid-flight refueling capability, now regularly patrol the Arctic. These over-flights have been heavily criticized by Norway, Canada, the UK and the US, which have seen these patrols as evidence of Russia’s return to Soviet-like military practices and growing strategic ambitions in the Arctic. However, as most authoritative Western military experts point out, the resumption of Arctic strategic bomber patrols may be interpreted more in terms of a desire not to lose capabilities and, above all, as a political tool rather than a sign of a renewed aggressiveness in the region.

As for the air force potential available for operations in the Arctic, Russia has a fleet of aging long- and medium-range bombers. There are 63 turbo-propelled Tu-95MSs, which are very outdated (designed in the 1950s) but remain the backbone of Russian strategic aviation. The Russian air force also has 18 more modern, long-range Tu-160 Blackjack bombers, as well as 80 Tu-22M Backfire medium-range bombers that NATO especially feared in the Cold War period for their anti-ship capacities. It should be noted that these planes are not stealth and are easily detected when flying at high altitude, despite additional electronic devices recently added to the Tu-160 and Tu-22M. Moreover, the shortage of mid-air refueling tankers remains the most serious problem for the operational capabilities of Russian strategic aviation. Several Arctic air bases have been reactivated in Anadyr, Monchegorsk, Olenia, Tiksi, and Vorkuta, although with quite limited potential.

No credible plans to modernize the above fleet are known. In 2009, the Russian government granted a contract to the Tupolev company to develop a new stealth bomber, the PAK-DA, that would replace the Tu-22M, the Tu-160 and the Tu-95MS. The prototype is scheduled to fly in 2020 and the aircraft is expected to enter service only in 2025–2030. However, these plans can be changed if other programs (for example, the 5th generation Sukhoi T-50/PAK-FA fighter) become a more important priority for the Russian air force. Because of the long time frame for the development of the PAK-DA, the decision was made to upgrade the Tu-22M and produce 10 more Tu-160s before 2020. Some experts suggest that probably many current Russian strategic and medium-range bombers will no longer be operational by 2025-2030 and the air force will then have only its aging Tu-160s and Tu-95s.

As far as the naval patrolling is concerned, since 2007 Russia has resumed long-range patrols in different parts of the world. This was symbolized by the patrols carried out by the nuclear-powered Peter the Great guided-missile cruiser in the Mediterranean and Caribbean seas, and the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans. In 2008, Russia confirmed that it was intensifying its operations in the Arctic. The navy resumed its presence in the Arctic Ocean with military ships patrolling near Norwegian and Danish defense zones. It also increased the operational radius of the Northern Fleet’s submarines, and under-ice training for submarines’ personnel has become a priority task.

Russia has ambitious plans to modernize its navy deployed in the High North. For example, after the Peter the Great ’s successful trip around the world in 2007, the Ministry of Defense announced that it would upgrade three other heavy nuclear-powered missile cruisers: the Admiral Lazarev , the Admiral Nakhimov , and the Admiral Ushakov . Currently, the Admiral Kuznetsov , the only Russia’s aircraft carrier, operates in the Northern Fleet, having twenty fighters and ten anti-submarine helicopters on board. The destroyer Vice-Admiral Kulakov , recently repaired, was integrated into the Northern Fleet in 2011. The naval aviation includes 200 combat aircraft and 50 helicopters.

Looking at the problems that the Northern Fleet currently faces, it needs coastal ships and frigates that are able to conduct rapid intervention operations. Several are currently under construction, but their coming into service has already been several times delayed. The purchase of two Mistral helicopter carriers from France and the project, routinely delayed, to build eight Admiral Gorshkov class and six Krivak class frigates, will not be enough to renew Russia’s ocean-going surface ships. Maintaining nuclear deterrence capabilities is crucial for the future of the Northern Fleet. The older sea-based nuclear deterrent is in the process of deep modernization. Presently, Russia has six operational Delta III and six Delta IV strategic submarines. According to the Russian Defense Ministry, there are no plans to modernize the older Delta III class submarines. They were built in the 1980s and will be decommissioned in the near future. Only the Delta IV submarines are undergoing modernization. They will be provided with a new sonar system and the new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) Sineva (Skiff SSN-23), which entered service in 2007. Sineva is a third-generation liquid-propelled ICBM which is able to cover a distance up to 8,300 km and can carry either four or ten nuclear warheads . Russia is planning to equip its Delta IV class submarines with at least 100 Sineva missiles, which are to stay on alert until 2030. The Sineva missiles can be launched from under the ice while remaining invisible to enemy satellites until the last moment.

Another class of Russian strategic submarines, the Typhoons , which are considered to be the world’s largest, will be re-equipped with long-range cruise missiles. For the time-being, only one Typhoon -class strategic submarine, the Dmitri Donskoy , has been modernized and deployed in the Northern Fleet. It is used for test firing in the Bulava system, a new generation solid-fuel SLBM, designed to avoid possible future U.S. anti-ballistic missiles, and which can cover a distance of more than 9,000 kilometers .

It is planned that in the future, the Typhoon-class submarines should be replaced with the new Borey -class fourth generation nuclear-powered strategic submarines. The first Borey-class submarine, the Yuri Dolgoruky – the first strategic submarine to be built in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union – has been in operation in the Northern Fleet since January 2013. Two other Borey -class submarines, the Alexander Nevsky and the Vladimir Monomakh , are undergoing tests and the fourth one, Prince Vladimir , is under construction at the Severodvinsk shipyards . These three submarines will be deployed in the Pacific Fleet. The Borey-class submarines, which are to be deployed in the Northern Fleet, will be based at the Gadzhievo naval base (about 100 kilometers from the Norwegian border), where new infrastructure is being built to accommodate them. This new generation of Russian strategic submarines is almost invisible at deep ocean depths and, having several types of cruise missiles and torpedoes, it will be able to carry out multi-purpose missions, including attacks on enemy aircraft-carriers and missile strikes at coastal targets. According to the Defense Ministry’s plans, the building of eight Borey-class submarines (four for the Northern Fleet and four for the Pacific Fleet) should be completed by 2020, which once again seems over ambitious and unlikely.

To provide logistic and administrative support to the Northern Fleet, a new Arctic Center for Material and Technical Support with a staff of more than 15,000 was created in 2012.

As far as the land forces are concerned, the 200th independent motorized infantry brigade, with soldiers trained under a special program and equipped with modern personal equipment for military operations in the Arctic, will be based at Pechenga close to the Norwegian border-town of Kirkenes, and will be operational by 2016.

Along with the army, air force and navy, efforts were made to strengthen control of the Border Guards Service (which is subordinated to the Federal Security Service – FSS) over the region. An Arctic border guards unit was created as early as 1994. Its aim was to monitor the circulation of ships and poaching at sea. The unit was reorganized in 2004–2005. In 2009, it was announced that new Arctic units had been established in border guard stations in Arkhangelsk and Murmansk. They started to patrol the Northern Sea Route (NSR) – for the first time since Soviet times. Now the border guards are assigned with the task of dealing with the new, soft security, threats and challenges, such as the establishment of reliable border control systems, the introduction of special visa regulations to certain regions, and the implementation of technological control over fluvial zones and sites along the NSR. It is currently controlled from the air by border guard aircraft and on land and sea by the North-Eastern Border Guard Agency; Russian border guards further plan to establish a global monitoring network from Murmansk to Wrangel Island.

All the power structures (the army, navy, border guards and the Ministry of Emergencies) are obliged to implement the Arctic Council’s agreement of 2011 on the creation of a Maritime and Aeronautical Sea and Rescue System (SAR). Each country is responsible for its sector of the Arctic and Russia has the largest one. The parties to the SAR agreement undertake joint exercises on a regular basis. As many experts believe, the SAR activities are a clear sign of a shift from the armed forces’ purely military functions to soft security missions.

As many military analysts believe, Russian modernization programs do not affect the regional military balance. Other coastal states (of the Arctic Ocean) have also begun to upgrade their military equipment and military doctrines with a view to better control of the Arctic, but this has nothing to do with the arms race. For example, as the Canadian Standing Committee on National Defense concluded in its 2010 report , “there is no immediate military threat to Canadian territories. […] The challenges facing the Arctic are not of the traditional military type. […] Rather than sovereignty threats we face what might best be termed policing threat. These do not require combat capability.”

As for the overall assessment of Moscow’s military strategies in the region, it is safe to assume that Russian ambitions in the Arctic region may be high, but they are still far from being realized, and they do not necessarily imply intentions and proper capabilities of confronting other regional players by military means. Russia may be eager to develop strong armed forces in the Arctic, but its plans to modernize its strategic air force, to re-establish a strong navy, to modernize its fleet of strategic submarines, to build new icebreakers and replace old ones, to establish new FSS border control and SAR units, are a difficult task. It is hard to imagine that Russia has the financial and technical capabilities, as well as the managerial skills, to meet these objectives in the foreseeable future.

Lassi Heininen is a University Lecturer and Adjunct Professor (Docent) at Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Lapland, Finland.

Alexander Sergunin is a Professor, Department of International Relations, School of International Relations, St. Petersburg State University.

Gleb Yarovoi is an Associate professor at the department of international relations, Petrozavodsk State University.

The authors are laureates of the Valdai Club Foundation Grant Program .

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.