Russia’s Arctic opportunity

Russia is already militarily securing the new economic opportunities that melting ice in the Arctic

The Arctic region is an area of low conflict, and it is in everyone's interest to keep it that way, writes Coffey [Getty Images]

In 1904, Russia and Japan went to war over control of the Liaodong Peninsula in modern day China. Russia needed a year-round ice-free port for its naval fleet and Imperial Japan saw this encroachment as a threat. After early setbacks in the war, Russia needed to quickly reinforce its naval fleet in the Pacific Ocean with its Baltic Fleet.

With its Baltic Fleet literally on the other side of the world, Russia’s options were limited. Ice blocked the route along Russia’s northern coastline – known today as the Northern Sea Route. The British blocked access to the Suez Canal. It finally took the Baltic Fleet seven months to get to the Sea of Japan via the Cape of Good Hope. The fleet arrived knackered and ill-prepared for battle.

On May 28, 1905, nearly the entire Russian fleet was destroyed during the Battle of Tsushima – Russia had no choice but to sue for peace.

If Arctic ice continues to decrease at its current rate it is possible Russia will not have this problem in the future. Each year more ships are making the journey through the Northern Sea Route. In some cases this reduces the distance between European and north Asian ports by 30 percent.

Using Northern Sea routes

While the economic advantages are obvious, the use of the Northern Sea Route offers military advantages as well.

Russia’s interests in the Arctic go beyond the economic and military advantages offered by the Northern Sea Route. The region is rich in minerals, wildlife, fish, and other natural resources. Some estimates claim that 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil reserves and almost one-third of the world’s undiscovered natural gas reserves are located in the Arctic region.

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The majority of these untapped resources are also in areas to which Russia lays claim.

For now, the Arctic region is an area of low conflict, and it is in everyone’s interest to keep it that way. Although the security challenges currently faced in the Arctic are not military in nature, there is still a requirement for military capability in the region that can support civilian authorities.

For example, civilian search and rescue and natural disaster response – in such an unforgiving environment as the Arctic – can be augmented by the military.

So it should be no surprise that like Russia, other Arctic countries deploy military assets into the region. Even so, Russia has taken steps to increase military capability in the region that seems to be beyond the scope of supporting civilian operations.

One must consider the implications of Russia’s increased military presence in the region in light of Moscow’s recent aggression against Ukraine.

This month, Russia activated its new Arctic command to better coordinate all Russian military activities in the Arctic. The ultimate goal for Russia to deploy a combined arms force in the Arctic by 2020, appears to be on track. Russia’s primary military focus in the Arctic is in the maritime sphere.

A cause for concern

New Russian naval doctrine calls for Russia to increase its maritime presence in the Arctic. Already, Russia’s Northern Fleet, which is based in the Arctic, counts for two-thirds of the Russian navy.

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There will be a significant increase of Russian ground troops based in the region too. Over the next few years two new so-called Arctic brigades will be permanently based above the Arctic Circle, and the current regiment of marines assigned to the Northern Fleet will increase by one-third.

Russia has plans to build 13 airfields as well as 10 radar posts along the course of the Northern Sea Route. Most of these airfields will be refurbished Soviet era bases, but others will be new.

For Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Arctic is an area that allows Russia to flex its muscles without incurring any significant geopolitical risk.

Because nationalism is on the rise in Russia, Putin’s Arctic strategy is popular among the population.

Russian activity in the Arctic, whether military, economic or scientific, harks back to images of Peter the Great and the Great Northern Expedition in the 18th century. This helps Putin with his dream of bringing Russia back to its former imperial glory.

It is Russia’s prerogative to place military assets inside its national territory, however, these actions should be of concern to others in the region because Moscow has shown its willingness to use military force to achieve its national objectives outside its national borders.

One must assume the Arctic region would be no different. 

Luke Coffey is a research fellow specialising in transatlantic and Eurasian security at a Washington DC based think tank. He previously served as a special adviser to the British defence secretary and was a commissioned officer in the United States army.