By Swapnil Ghose
As melting ice caps make the Arctic ever more accessible to human settlement and inhabitation, the region is becoming a significant arena of geopolitical competition. This article examines the importance of the Arctic to the international economic and security framework and recent trends in militarisation in the region.
The Historical Militarisation of the Arctic
The USA has operated a major Air Force base at Thule in Greenland since 1943.
The militarisation of the Arctic is hardly an unprecedented phenomenon. The shortest route from Russia to North America passes over the North Pole, making the region vitally important to the security of both Cold War superpowers. The USA has long operated a substantial Air Force base at Thule in Greenland. During the Cold War, Thule housed a fleet of strategic bombers capable of executing nuclear strikes on Russia if the Cold War ever turned hot. Even today, the base hosts an extensive
network of sensors and radar systems intended to track Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile Launches against America.
Russia did not lag far behind in developing its polar military capabilities. The Barents Sea played home to the USSR’s fleet of nuclear-capable submarines, which were intended to strike back at the USA in the event of an American nuclear first-strike. If war broke out, conventional attack submarines would also sail from these bases into the Atlantic Ocean to devastate shipping routes between the USA and Europe. To protect its Northern Fleet, Russia built a number of military bases on the Kola Peninsula, which guards the mouth of the Barents Sea, and across a number of other archipelagos in the region. These Cold-War era installations today form the core of Russia’s resurgent presence in the region.
The Northern Sea Route and the Economic Importance of the Arctic
Melting sea ice is making the Northern Sea Route an ever-more viable option for maritime commerce.
Beyond its geographic significance as the juncture between Russia and North America, the Arctic is today a region of prime importance to the global economy. This stems in large part from its vast reserves of natural resources: it is estimated to contain about 22% of the world’s undiscovered reserves of oil and natural gas. Another lucrative revenue source is the mining of rare earth minerals, such as neodymium, which is used in capacitors, and cerium, used in catalysts and oxidising agents. The estimated value of the store of such minerals across the Arctic is at least one trillion dollars.
The melting of Arctic ice as a consequence of global warming has opened up these previously inaccessible mineral reserves for economic exploitation. But the melting of Arctic ice has had another, equally important economic consequence: the Northern Sea Route is now becoming a viable pathway for commercial shipping. The NSR extends along the Arctic coast of Russia, connecting the Atlantic in the south to the Pacific in the North via the Bering Strait.
The Northern Sea Route extends from Iceland to the Pacific Ocean, along Russia’s Arctic coast.
The NSR is considerably shorter than the existing sea routes from Asia to Europe; the distance from Vladivostok in Russia to Yokohama in Japan via the NSR is 5,770 nautical miles, as opposed to more than 12,000 nautical miles if one was to take the traditional route along the Suez Canal. Historically, Arctic ice caps made the NSR inaccessible to commercial shipping, but climate change ensures that this is no longer the case: traffic along the route saw a staggering fifteen-fold increase in the past decade, from 2 million tons to 35 million tons annually. This figure is only expected to grow; a presidential decree in 2018 set out the ambitious objective of 110 million tons of shipping passing through the NSR by 2030.
Russian energy companies – both state-owned ones like Gazprom, and private entities like Rosneft and Novatek have invested heavily in hydrocarbon projects in and around the NSR. According to the head of the state nuclear corporation Rosatom, whose nuclear-powered icebreakers are integral to keeping the NSR navigable, Russia foresees an investment of 735 billion roubles in the NSR, with the state bank providing a third of this sum, and the rest coming from energy corporations and other industrial entities like Rosatom and the nickel producer Nornickel. It is not unreasonable to think that Russia’s resolute military posturing in the Arctic (detailed below) is motivated by a desire to ensure an uninhibited hold over these substantial economic activities.
Present Trends in Militarisation
The Arctic is fast becoming a major arena for great-power rivalry.
Strengthening Russia’s presence in the Arctic has been a key part of Vladimir Putin’s muscular foreign policy. Even in 2018, satellite imagery confirmed that Russia had either re-opened or built from scratch a total of six new military bases in the Arctic since 2008 when Putin had initiated an across-the-board overhaul of the Russian Armed Forces. In 2018, both Russia and NATO staged major military exercises in the region. Russia’s manoeuvres in Eastern Siberia were its largest since the Cold War, while NATO’s Operation Trident Juncture were its biggest exercises since 2002, involving 40,000 troops from 30 countries deploying across the Baltic Sea, from Finland in the East to Iceland in the West.
Under Putin, the Russian Northern Fleet was re-organised and substantially strengthened; in 2021 it became a separate Military District, Russia’s fifth. As Rob Huepert, a senior research fellow with the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies explained, “The Northern fleet is the Russian nuclear deterrent… [the] offensive and defensive capabilities of the Northern Fleet represent one of the most important elements of the Russian military.”
In August 2022, Russia released a new naval doctrine which lay heavy emphasis on the Northern Fleet – 22 of its 55 pages mentioned the Arctic. The document identified NATO maritime activities in the Arctic as a major threat to Russian security. It further states Russia’s intent to exercise complete control over its internal waters and the Northern Sea Route.
The unambiguous policy statements of the doctrine are backed by on-the-ground operations. In the past decade, Russia has expanded and modernised around a dozen pre-existing military installations in the Arctic and built at least three entirely new ones. The modernisation process includes extending runways to accommodate modern
combat aircraft and installing radar systems which can track stealth fighters like the American-designed F-35, which is currently operated by Norway and will soon enter service with Finland. Apart from military initiatives, Russia has created a new Main Directorate of the Northern Sea Route to monitor and organise shipping along this route.
Rogachevo, Ushavskoye and Nagurskoye are the three brand-new military bases Russia has built in the Arctic.
Recent satellite imagery has revealed that the process of base-building in the Arctic has continued unabated despite the immense strains imposed on the Russian military by the war in Ukraine. The demands of the Ukraine war have led to a major reduction of Russian ground forces in the region; according to a Western intelligence official quoted by CNN, these forces have shrunk to between 20-25% of their pre-war strength. The Washington Post even identified specific formations of the Russian Army which were redeployed from the Kola Peninsula to Ukraine and subsequently decimated. However, according to the same intelligence official quoted above, the naval component of Russia’s Arctic presence, which is of the greatest importance in controlling the mostly maritime region, is “totally untouched” by the war.
Russia’s Arctic sabre-rattling has not gone unnoticed at the highest levels of NATO; in December 2022, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg declared that there is a “significant Russian military build-up in the High North” and that Russia is “testing novel weapons” in the region – a reference possibly to Russia’s intention, as outlined in the 2021 naval doctrine, to equip its Northern Fleet with the latest hypersonic missile systems. Reiterating the Cold War-era maxim that “the shortest way from Russia to North America is over the Arctic North Pole ”, he stated that NATO would “double its presence” to counter Russian expansionism. Already in June, NATO
staged its largest-ever Cold Response military exercises in Norway. Amongst the 35,000 participating soldiers were contingents from Finland and Sweden – NATO’s newest members and key Arctic stakeholders, who were prompted to join the alliance largely by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The first publicised images of Norwegian, Swedish and US combat aircraft over Norway; this image was released by Norway’s Armed Forces in August 2020.
Stoltenberg also highlighted the possibility of Russia sabotaging Norway’s oil and gas industries; since the imposition of sanctions on Russian energy, more than 20% of Europe’s energy is obtained from Norwegian oil and gas. Referring to the explosions which damaged the Nord-Stream gas pipelines from Russia to Europe in September, the Secretary-General stated that NATO had increased its presence with ships, submarines and aircraft in the Baltic and North Seas to “send a message of deterrence and readiness.”
The literal rise in global temperatures, combined with the traditionally strategic location of the Arctic has led to an increasingly heated geopolitical confrontation in the High North. Battle lines have been clearly drawn; with Finland and Sweden’s accession to NATO, seven of the eight Arctic countries are members of the trans-Atlantic alliance, with Russia being the sole exception. The Arctic Council, which was established in 1996 as a forum for discussion of Arctic issues, is similarly riven: in March 2022, all members of the Council apart from Russia began boycotting meetings to protest the invasion of Ukraine, and the limited resumption of functioning in June occurred only with the exclusion of Russia.
In the absence of any effective moderating mechanism to reduce tensions, and in light of the significant economic and security issues at stake, it seems unlikely that the militarisation of the Arctic will cease in the near future.
About the Author
Swapnil Ghose is a first-year student at Ashoka University. As a prospective Political Science major and IR minor, his interests lie in military history and conflict studies, particularly that of the Middle East.
Image Source: https://www.nti.org/analysis/articles/russia-submarine-capabilities/