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Russia’s Military Buildup in the Arctic: Political Rhetoric vs. Reality

The World Policy Institute, in partnership with Ecologic Institute's Arctic Summer College, is proud to highlight the excellent work of 2015 Arctic Summer College Fellow Ekaterina Klimenko while promoting further valuable exchange in the Arctic region.

By Ekaterina Klimenko

Although over the last decade there has been concern regarding the possible emergence of territorial conflicts or a ‘resource race’ in the Arctic, in reality the Arctic has enjoyed a high level of cooperation. Even though Russia has been strengthening its military and civil emergency forces in the Arctic as a part of a wider program of military modernization, the Arctic has still been regarded by experts and policymakers in the region as a benign security environment. However, against the background of the conflict in Ukraine and Russia’s tensions with the West, Russian military build-up in the Arctic has renewed concerns regarding the potential militarization of the region.

Russia's Increasing Security Rhetoric

For much of the past decade, the Kremlin has worked actively on developing energy resources and shipping in the Arctic region. It has built partnerships with foreign companies and created a favorable investment environment through tax breaks and mechanisms for partnership between the public and private sectors. In this context, most Russian officials distanced themselves from security-based rhetoric on the Arctic and instead underlined that Moscow views the Arctic as a special zone of international relations where peace and cooperation prevail over tensions.

However, since the deterioration of relations with the West, Russia’s rhetoric regarding the Arctic has significantly changed, pointing to increasing threats to Russia’s national security and interests in the region. This has been reflected in Russia’s security documents. The task of “protecting Russian interests in the Arctic” for the first time appeared in the Russian Military Doctrine adopted in 2014. The Doctrine names expansion of NATO power capacity, which endows the organization with global functions realized through violation of the international legal norms and moves the military infrastructure of NATO member states closer to the borders of the Russian Federation, as number one external military danger to Russia.

New amendments to Russia’s Maritime Doctrine, which were adopted in July 2015, have focused on the Arctic and Atlantic. NATO’s global activities are seen as the major security concern in the Atlantic, while Arctic’s importance is determined by its provision of limitless access to the Atlantic Ocean and by the Northern Fleet’s defense capabilities. Additionally, the Maritime Doctrine has underlined “lowering the threats in the Arctic region” as its main goal for Arctic policy, to be achieved through strengthening the Northern Fleet, among other means.

Nevertheless, it should be mentioned that Russian officials are not expecting conflict over resources or territories in the Arctic. Despite the current tensions between Russia and the West, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov underlined that “the current complicated international situation does not bring any cardinal changes to the established order.”

On the Ground

The Foundations of the Russian Policy in the Arctic (2009) and the Strategy for the Development of the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation and National Security (2013) set goals to establish the border guard, coast guard, and civil emergency response forces in the Arctic region. They would particularly improve the border control system, develop border infrastructure, and create a system of emergency preparedness. For example, the Border Guard Service of Russia’s Federal Security Service has established new Border Guard departments for Western and Eastern Arctic regions in Murmansk and Petropavlovsk Kamchatsk, respectively.

In 2009, border control complex Nugurskaya was established, functioning on Franz Josef Land, an archipelago above the Arctic Circle. There are plans to create similar centers further to the east on Wrangel Island, as well as seven monitoring stations along the Arctic coastline. In 2009, Russia allocated 910 million rubles for construction of ten search and rescue centers along the Northern Sea Route. The first three centers have been opened in Naryan-Mar, Dudinka, and Arkhangels.

Historically, Russia’s Arctic military capabilities and infrastructure have been a significant part of the strategic nuclear forces and air defense systems that provide Russia with strategic balance relative to the U.S. and NATO. In recent years, nuclear deterrence has also gained increased significance in Russia’s strategic planning, notably since NATO’s enlargement into Eastern Europe.

Modernization of Russia’s strategic nuclear forces and the Northern Fleet, as well as the revitalization of infrastructure needed to operate such capabilities, is another focus of Russia’s military buildup in the region. With the State Armaments Program 2020 (GPV 2020) adopted in 2010, Russia is upgrading the strategic submarine fleet to replace the Soviet-era ballistic missile submarines with the new Borei-class model. The first submarine, Yuriy Dolgoruky, was added to the Northern Fleet in 2013.

Russia is also re-opening airfields and radar sites in the Arctic to restore the air defense forces demolished after the end of the Cold War. Groupings of air defense forces have already been formed in Russia’s island territories in the Arctic, including the Novaya Zemlya, the New Siberian Islands, and Wrangel Island, as well as at Cape Schmidt. In December 2014, Joint Strategic Command North was established to coordinate the different military branches located in the Arctic.

Starting in 2012, Russia has increased its number of military exercises in the region. The largest Arctic exercises took place in March 2015, involving 38,000 soldiers, 3,360 vehicles, 41 naval vessels, 15 submarines, and 110 aircraft. They started as snap exercises aimed at inspecting combat readiness of the Northern Fleet, but later expanded to include units from four other Russian military districts.  Among the most recent exercises is one on Taimyr Peninsula in August 2015 involving more than 1,000 military personnel and 12 aircraft. The exercises focused on training to defend an important industrial object and respond to a potential terrorist attack as well as man-made and technological emergency situations.

The exercise scenarios show that the military forces in the Arctic focus on a variety of tasks ranging from traditional scenarios of large-scale military conflict to relatively new ones related to shipping security and the defense of expansive resource extraction projects.

Exaggeration of the Military Buildup

Though Arctic security rhetoric has significantly increased over the last two years, the existing and planned military and paramilitary capabilities in Russia’s Arctic indicate that the goals of Russian security policy and military forces remain the same. These goals particularly include ensuring sovereign rights, protecting borders and maritime areas, and providing strategic deterrence against NATO and the U.S.

Although the recent increase in military activities in Russia’s Arctic region has been happening since the beginning of the crisis in Ukraine, it would be a mistake to perceive it as Russia’s reaction to the crisis. Most of the plans the Kremlin is implementing were announced long before the Ukraine crisis in the Arctic Strategies and GPV 2020. Significant increases in military activities in 2014-2015 are a result of the long-term policy of modernization and restructuring of the Russian armed forces, which has finally started to produce some tangible outcomes. The scale of military activities in the Arctic, though, is still very modest compared to the Soviet era.

It is expected that most of Russia’s future military expenses and acquisitions will not be concentrated in the Arctic region. Since the crisis in Ukraine, significant focus has been on upgrading the Black Sea Fleet and forces located in Crimea. Moreover, the economic crisis Russia is facing will likely result in delays in the current pace of implementation of the plans for military buildup in the region.

Russia’s recent military buildup in the Arctic should not be exaggerated. Rather, it should be considered within the context of its plans of military modernization and broader security policy goals.

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Ekaterina Klimenko works at Stockholm International Peace Research Institute as a Researcher for the 'Managing competition and promoting cooperation in the Arctic' and ‘Conflict and Security in the Caucasus’ projects. She conducts research on Russian policies in the Arctic and North Caucasus.

[Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and NOAA Photo Library]

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