Russia Expands Military Presence in Arctic

By Yasmin Tadjdeh
Russia is increasing its military presence along its northern border in the Arctic as sea ice melts and opens new water routes.

The icy region is an economic boon for the nation. Russia relies on the Arctic’s oil and minerals for revenue. Additionally, climate change is opening new passageways, allowing the country to one day charge fees to vessels traversing its waters, experts said.

Evelyn Farkas, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, said the United States, as an Arctic nation, must be vigilant as Russia beefs up its forces in the region.

“Obviously Russia does have a legitimate interest, as do we, in the free flow of commerce and navigation through the region,” she told defense reporters in November. “Of course, they’re worried about their security, but I would say that we do need to keep a very sharp eye on what they’re doing.”

Farkas, who retired from her post at the Pentagon in late October, said the real issue is what the Russians are putting on their military bases. “What kinds of capabilities [do they have] and how might they affect us if their intent was to be negative toward the United States and our allies?”

The military and the intelligence community are closely monitoring the situation and have a “good sense” of it, she noted. Additionally, “the Russians themselves are trumpeting quite proudly what they’re doing in the Arctic.”

In October, the Russian Ministry of Defence announced it was nearing completion of a base located on an island called Alexandra Land, on the 80th parallel north, where 150 soldiers could live for 18 months without support.

The Russians currently have built or are building 19 military bases in the region, according to the Heritage Foundation’s “2016 Index of U.S. Military Strength” report that was released in October.

“Russia’s northern fleet, which is based in the Arctic, counts for two-thirds of the Russian navy. A new Arctic command was established in 2015 to coordinate all Russian military activities in the Arctic region,” the report said. “The ultimate goal is to deploy a combined Russian [armed] force in the Arctic by 2020, and it appears that Russia is on track to accomplish this.”

Daniel Kochis, a research associate who focuses on national security and foreign policy at Heritage, said the situation is precarious but a war was unlikely.

“I don’t think I foresee any sort of hot war going on there but I think what you do see is Russia really wanting to … secure its place there,” he said. “They’ve been willing to … use military assets to secure territory in other parts of the world, and so I think that this makes a pretty strong statement, their willingness to put such a large part of their force above the Arctic Circle.”

Because of this build up, Russia is in a better position to exert influence than the United States, he said. It has much more capability in the region, he noted. For example, Russia has dozens of operational polar icebreakers, while the United States only has two — the Polar Star and Healy. The Coast Guard operates the nation’s polar icebreakers.

There needs to be more advocates for Arctic issues, he said.

“I think in general, the [U.S.] public doesn’t view us as an Arctic nation,” he said. “I don’t think your everyday American if you walked down the street would think of the U.S. as an Arctic nation, as opposed to a country like Russia or like Canada that I think has a much stronger sort of public attachment to the Arctic.”

Over the past several decades, the region has not been a priority for the United States or the military, he noted. He suggested that the armed services consider hosting NATO exercises in coordination with Arctic allies such as Canada.

Retired Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Stephen Cheney, CEO of the American Security Project, a Washington, D.C. think tank, said Russia’s actions in the Arctic are more defensive than offensive.

“They’re not even close to where they were in the ‘70s and early ‘80s … in terms of military strength there,” he said. After the Cold War, the Russian military was in extremely poor shape but Russian President Vladimir Putin has built it back up.

“Putin has revitalized that in spades … and he’s put a lot of punch back into it. So it’s not a case of them building up to counter us or anybody else right now, it’s to build up their forces to where they used to be,” he said.

Cheney said Russia’s investment is not a power grab and doubted the country was trying to expand an “Iron Curtain” into the region. “I just don’t see that up there. I see them as rightfully claiming the economic parts that are theirs and defending those interests.”

The Russian Arctic is a large source of energy resources and revenue for Russia, “with the Arctic accounting for two-thirds of Russian oil and gas,” said a Center for Strategic and International Studies report titled, “The New Ice Curtain: Russia’s Strategic Reach to the Arctic.”

Russia has the world’s largest natural gas reserves, second largest coal resources and the ninth largest crude oil reserves, the August report said.

However, there are indications that this boon maybe not be sustainable. Russia has experienced declines in outputs from some of its oil fields in recent years. “Due to the highly uncertain energy future of the Russian Arctic, former senior Russian officials have begun a public rationale for what is, in effect, a current slowdown in Russian Arctic energy development,” the report said.

Despite this, Russia is unlikely to stop developing the area, said Heather Conley, senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia and the Arctic at CSIS and co-author of the report.

“Certainly the Arctic is feeling the pain right now but I think in many ways you’re not going to see the Russian government slow down in its desire to develop it,” she said. Twenty percent of Russian GDP comes from the Arctic, as well as 22 percent of its exports, she added.

Russian policy has shifted dramatically in the last two years into a much more security-focused posture as the economics in the Arctic have waned due to lower global energy prices and Western sanctions, Conley said. She sees an emerging anti-access/area denial presence in the region. While there are currently 19 bases in the Arctic, Moscow hopes to build 50.

“We need to have a greater understanding of Russia’s military posture in the Arctic,” she said. “The Russian military has a very ambitious vision for the Arctic, and it’s basically to reestablish the presence that they had before the end of the Cold War. It’s aspirational. I don’t know if they will be able to accomplish it but they have a plan and they are putting it into motion.”

In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in October, Conley said over the past 24 months Russia has participated in three exercises in the region.

The first took place around the Zola Peninsula, which demonstrated “a streamlined command structure, more efficient tactical units and the ability to deploy a large-scale, complex military operation that is coordinated with other areas of operation.”

The next took place in September 2014 and included more than 100,000 servicemen as well as air, maritime and land assets. It took place on a new base in the New Siberian Islands and Wrangel Islands, she said.

“This exercise focused on rapid mobilization, combined operations and demonstrated use of both conventional and unconventional forces,” she said. Additionally, some believe Russian forces may have been simulating pushing back U.S. and NATO forces, she noted.

In March 2015, a third “snap” exercise occurred, which included 45,000 troops, 15 submarines and 41 warships at full combat readiness, she said.

“The conclusions that we draw from Russia’s military behavior in the Arctic over the past 24 months are that Russia is increasingly able to project significant anti-access/area denial capabilities in the Arctic, the North Atlantic and increasingly in the North Pacific while demonstrating the ability to rapidly deploy both conventional and nonconventional forces throughout the theater,” she said.

Russia has consistently said that the Arctic is a place for peace, but “if it’s so peaceful why are they adding so much military focus on it?” Conley asked.

While Russia may not be a threat to the United States in the region today, U.S. officials must seek to better understand Russia’s intentions because there is a possibility that the United States could be denied the ability to operate over or under the Arctic.

“I think that’s what we have to be mindful of,” she said.

Sharon Burke, senior advisor with the New America Foundation’s international security program, said the United States must take what Russia is doing in the Arctic with a grain of salt.

“Russian statements about their resurgence and about their military intentions, we have to take very seriously. They are a serious country with a large military and an advanced defense infrastructure,” she said. “However, just because President Putin says ‘jump’ doesn’t mean we should jump. The Arctic remains a very challenging environment, a very difficult place to operate in and a very difficult place to have troops and equipment stationed, and that’s going to be true for a long time.”

There is a case for increased surveillance and border security on the United States’ part, but the nation should “wait and see” before it makes significant investments in the region, Burke said.

Topics: International

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