Analysts Downplay Russia's Military Presence in the Arctic

By Mandy Mayfield

Photo: iStock

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.


Topics: Internation Cooperation, Defense Department, International

Comments (2)

Re: Analysts Downplay Russia's Military Presence in the Arctic

How about total hysteria.

The arctic is Russia's Gulf of Mexico. Their northern border occupies 45% of the arctic circle vs. 8% for us, they have legitimate commercial interests. I know, it is our God given right to have military superiority beyond 13 nautical miles off of every coastline and we have money to burn. It's not like we can spend money anywhere else like having 911 able to locate the origin of cell phone calls nationally, nope, people are still going to die in the U.S. because of that.

Chris Chuba at 8:50 AM
Re: Analysts Downplay Russia's Military Presence in the Arctic

The Space Race, the Arms Race, the Cyber Race, the AI Race, the Electronic Warfare Race, The Robotics Race, the Espionage Race, the Arctic Race…in the race to be #1 and as a world “Superpower,” these are important theaters of operations. They matter…they’re closer to us than space and the moon and are all vital to America’s interests and National Security.

The Arctic (and Antarctic) is more than just military assets, obviously. The US need to access them for Freedom of Navigation and for ground and naval forces to be able to mobilize and deploy. Just having a few Stryker vehicles and paratroopers with light arms isn’t so much a stabilizing or repelling force against a determined foe that comes in mass. Submarines can only bring so much men and material to the Arctic as one would need surface ships to be able to deploy and set up camp and substantial ground forces---that is “Boots on the ground.” A surfaced submarine can’t deploy enough soldiers, period, and no armor at all.

New icebreakers are vitally important for search and rescue, law enforcement, inspections, and navigation. While both Russia and the USA remain cordial in helping each other in the Arctic, we can’t always count on our Russian friends to loan icebreakers if say whales get trapped by ice for example. America needs its own assets and resources.

Usually when there are ships of interest transiting near our borders, we provide armed and monitoring escort. To not do so, to not pay attention to them, to not announce our presence seems too insensitive and uncaring to our northern neighbors and to Alaska.

It is vitally important for the USA to maintain an Arctic presence, in the form of building and buying new icebreakers, in order for the appropriate US ground and naval forces to deploy to protect Alaska and our Arctic interests.

Peter at 11:35 AM
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