Russia and the Arctic

By Stephen Blank

Most scholars writing about the Arctic’s place in world politics have contended that despite the mounting tensions with Russia on balance Russia and the West are primarily interested in preserving the Arctic as a zone of peace.

After all, Arctic sea ice cover is declining, temperatures are rising and the effects of climate change are so pervasive and dangerous that everyone understands what is at stake in failing to cooperate in regulating Arctic affairs.

Indeed, this past winter was the warmest on record in the Arctic.

Would that this was true.

Instead and despite the fact that Moscow continues to proclaim that its policy is to preserve the Arctic as a zone of peace and of international cooperation, it continues to militarize the Arctic, make threats against neighboring Arctic states, and thereby provokes the West into counter-moves.

Moreover, Russian and Western moves clearly involve nuclear contingencies.

Thus the Norwegian Intelligence Service (NIS) recently revealed that in 2017 alone Moscow mounted three aerial probes against its installations in Northern Norway.  The targets included a radar station at Vardo, a flotilla of NATO ships in the Norwegian Sea and various facilities near the northern Norwegian city of Bodo.

This was on top of the Russian efforts during the Zapad-2017 exercises to jam phones and GPS facilities across Northern Europe.  The radar at Vardo attracted Moscow’s attention since it apparently can be used to monitor Russian submarine traffic in and out of the Arctic form Murmansk and Arkhangel’sk, home ports of the Russian Northern Fleet.

Adding to such probes in mid-March Russia drilled its strategic bomber and nuclear forces along the coast of Norway.

Not surprisingly the UK deployed a nuclear sub to the Arctic for the first time in a decade.

Clearly Russian probes are growing in number and scope. 

Indeed, Russian activity has grown to the point that the NIS, in its annual public report has now labeled Russia a threat, warned, “we might be heading for different normal situation in the north.”

Lt General Morten Haga Linde, head of the NIS also warned that there will be greater Russian military activity in the North. At the same time the Russian digital threat of information warfare and of efforts to recruit Norwegians as spies is also increasing.

This assessment, in turn forces Norway to move forces back to the north and devote more attention to its cyber as well as kinetic defenses.

But beyond further Norwegian and NATO updating of defenses in the high north, developments that have been amply covered in this journal previously by Robbin Laird, the conclusions to be drawn from these episodes, taken together, are numerous and sobering.

First the threat posed by the “eruption” or dispatch of Russian submarines into the Norwegian Sea and North Atlantic is a serious one and one that Moscow is concerned to keep as an effective threat requiring an aerial attack on Norwegian and NATO radars to allow those subs unimpeded entry into those waters.

Second, it is pretty much accepted now that any Russian attack in the Baltic will necessarily spill over to and entail action in the Arctic and high North Theater as well.

Third, any such attacks clearly involve large-scale Soviet cyber and electronic warfare attacks on Scandinavian states and especially Norway and Denmark as NATO members.

Fourth, such attacks will clearly be combined arms attacks involving land forces, air and naval probes as well as these electronic attacks.

Moreover, Russia is clearly intimating that it will use or at least threaten to use nuclear weapons in either or both the Baltic and Arctic theaters, and potentially against Norway.  Furthermore, it is likely to use these weapons in a first-strike mode.

At the very least the threat of a nuclear first-strike will be prominently brandished in order to intimidate Northern European states into quiescence with Russian actions and non-resistance to them.

Obviously these Russian actions and NATO counter-actions strongly suggest that the claim of the Arctic being primarily zone of peaceful interaction between Russia and the West Is dubious at best. 

While it is true that the Arctic is not yet an area of direct confrontation unlike the Baltic and Black Sea zones, and that a conflict would probably not break out there between Moscow and the West, the fact is that Russia clearly insists on militarizing it.

Indeed, since 2016 scientific studies have shown that melting permafrost in Russia’s Arctic zone is undermining the infrastructure three and could lead to the collapse of many buildings and pipelines over the next several decades.  This forecast was followed by still other reports indicating that melting glaciers could inundate Russia’s far north and Siberia.

Yet Moscow clearly cannot afford to do much about these threats even as it is pouring money into military construction and deployments in the Arctic.  For example, in 2017 Russia’s precarious economic situation and stress on the budget has thus forced what amounts to an almost 90% cut in state funding for Arctic infrastructure that was originally envisaged to be built by 2020.

Thus the government is asking private transport and energy firms to bail it out to make up the investment needed to bring the entire government program for transportation to and through the Arctic to fruition.

Russia’s behavior may be inexplicable to Western analysts given these facts.

Nevertheless we must see things from Moscow’s standpoint.  It has declared the West to be at war against it and this happened long ago, even before the invasion of Ukraine.

Moreover, it has therefore reacted to place itself in a state preparatory for war with calls for mobilization and major defense.

We might prefer to think otherwise but it is clear that the West must now include the Arctic as a theater in this conflict where its defenses need strengthening.

Stephen Blank is a Senior Fellow with the American Foreign Policy Council.

This article was first published March 30, 2018.

The featured photo shows a Russian exercise in the Arctic in 2015 and is credited to the Russian Ministry Defence.