Analysts Downplay Russia's Military Presence in the Arctic
The U.S. national security community is sounding the alarm about Russian military activities in the Arctic. But some experts in international relations said those concerns are overblown.
It is common for observers to misinterpret Russia's military presence in the region as a sign that the nation is preparing for war, said Marlene Laruelle, a research professor at the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian studies at George Washington University. But much of Russia's military modernization is geared toward boosting its economy, she said Sept. 12 during a conference hosted by the Stimson Center, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
"When you look on the Russian side, it’s much more of the industrial policy of not letting all these big industries [decline],” she said.
Moscow's military buildup comes as melting sea ice opens up passageways once inaccessible, fueling increased activity in the Arctic, which is rich in oil, natural gas and minerals. This has become a major concern for the United States as it has strategic interests there.
However, Washington is lagging behind when it comes to the procurement of icebreaking vessels able to traverse the region. It only has one operational heavy-duty icebreaker, the Polar Star, which is rapidly reaching the end of its service life. A medium-duty vessel, the Healy, is used primarily for research purposes. While the Coast Guard, which oversees the operations of the nation’s icebreakers, is working to grow the fleet, Russia is far ahead of the United States in this regard.
Moscow already boasts a large inventory of these types of ships, and the Kremlin is aggressively projecting power in the Arctic, said U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl L. Schultz during an exclusive interview with National Defense in July.
“A large chunk of their economy derives from activities in the Arctic,” he said. “The Russians … [have] somewhere between 40 and 50 icebreakers. They’re building a nuclear icebreaker right now, with plans to build more nuclear icebreakers.”
Laruelle said Russia’s large military presence in the Arctic could be due to a “territorial and infrastructure issue” that the nation is dealing with.
“The only functional and reliable administrative entity that can manage that [area] are the army and the security services,” she said.
Elana Wilson Rowe, author of Arctic Governance: Power in Cross-Border Cooperation, said Russia and other “Arctic states” are looking to avoid “militarization” of the region.
“Russia’s military is in the Arctic, but not necessarily about the Arctic,” she said during the panel discussion.
Russia is not the only U.S. competitor in the region. China, while not an Arctic nation, considers itself a “near-Arctic” nation and is building its second icebreaker, the Xue Long.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Coast Guard plans to acquire six new icebreakers, which will be a mix of heavy- and medium-duty vessels. Five companies are expected to compete for the lucrative contact, and the service— working alongside the Navy — intends to downselect to a single vendor by 2019, Schultz said.
The first ship is scheduled to be fielded by the end of 2023. However, the Government Accountability Office has warned that the program might not achieve that goal.