Russia’s Expanding Military Strategies in the Arctic (and US Reactions)

Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Vostok-2018 military manoeuvres, Tsugol [Photo via Wikimedia Commons]
by Marc Lanteigne, OtC

Although the government of Vladimir Putin has been far from secretive in its ambitions to improve both the economic and the military status of the Russian Arctic, the last few months have brought a significant increase in strategic activities in the region. These policies have reinforced Moscow’s determination to better secure its Arctic lands, and have provided additional evidence that the overall Arctic Ocean region may be facing increased military activity in the near future. Moreover, this month the United States confirmed its long-debated defence budget for next year, with Russian (and Chinese) activities in the Arctic having factored significantly into evolving US global security concerns.

Despite Russia’s depressed economy, and limited soft power on an international scale, its influence is not receding in many surrounding regions, including the Arctic. This year has seen numerous developments in Russian military deployments in that region, including the establishment of the ‘Northern Clover’ (Северный клевер) base on Kotelny Island (Остров Котельный) in north-eastern Siberia, the opening of another northern base at Tiksi (Тиксии) in the Sakha Republic, the upgrading of other Arctic military facilities, and plans for an expanded icebreaker fleet. The nuclear powered, LK-60Ya-class icebreaking vessel Arktika (Арктика), for example, began sea trials near St Petersburg this month and will eventually be deployed within Russia’s Northern Sea Route (NSR), which is itself of growing importance to the Putin government for its shipping potential.

In addition to these events, the past few weeks have also seen an uptick in Russian transfers of military materiel and technology to its Arctic lands. A few weeks ago, Vice-Admiral Alexei Moiseyev of the Russian Navy confirmed that S-400 surface-to-air missile systems, (also known as Triumf / Триумф in Russian, and designated ‘SA-21 Growlers’ by NATO), were being moved to the Russian Arctic in order to establish a ‘air defence dome’ to repel any outside aerial attacks in the region.

Also in December, it was revealed by a representative of the Russian Armed Forces that a hypersonic air-launched missile system known as Kinzhal (Кинжал), which observers noted could significantly increase Russian military power in the European Arctic region, was also to be used in Siberian lands. According to a report by the Russian news agency TASS, a test of the Kinzhal missile took place near Murmansk in mid-November of this year.

S-400 Triumf launch vehicle [Photo via Wikimedia Commons]
Finally, this month saw Russia’s provocative floating nuclear power plant, the Akademik Lomonosov, (Академик Ломоносов), come online at the port of Pevek in the Chukotka region. The vessel, a prototype owned by the State Atomic Energy Corporation Rosatom (Росатом), has become the bane of many environmental groups, with Greenpeace referring to the ship as a ‘floating Chernobyl’ [In Russian].

Despite the ongoing ambiguous stance of the US President towards his counterpart in Moscow, Russian military advances in the Arctic have nonetheless been one of the major rationales behind a growing hard security stance Washington has been taking towards the far north over the past year. As US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated in a bellicose speech at the Arctic Council Ministerial meeting in Rovaniemi in May this year, Russia’s military build-up in the Arctic was a cause for regional concern, and that Moscow’s sovereignty claims over the NSR were ‘illegitimate’. A report [pdf] by the US Department of Defence (US DoD) the following month was also critical of Russia and China in the far north, citing both governments as ‘challenging the rules-based order in the Arctic,’ and representing significant regional security threats.

The latest iterations of these concerns could be read in the American defence budget for 2020 [pdf], which was signed into law this week and totalling US$738 billion in spending. For comparison, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute – SIPRI, Russian defence spending in 2018 was estimated at US$61.4 billion, (although there are differing views on that figure), and China at US$250 billion.

Among the provisions included in the budget report were calls for the US DoD, in consultation with other governmental departments, to provide updated reports on both Chinese and Russian military activities in the Arctic, including their potential effects on American security. (Similar reports were also requested on the subject of Chinese investments in the Arctic, including in comparison with those of other non-Arctic states).

As well, despite lingering antipathy between the US President and NATO, the budget document confirmed America’s commitment to the alliance and support for the European Deterrence Initiative (EDI), which had its origins in cross-Atlantic cooperation which had developed after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. Another sign of the importance the US has been placing on curtailing Russian expansionism in Northern Europe was the US$175 million earmarked to assist with the defence of the three Baltic nations.

The seaborne nuclear power plant, Akademik Lomonosov [Photo via Wikimedia Commons]
Among the questions about Arctic security which will appear in the coming year are whether the US will be able to follow through on its Arctic security plans, given other potential hotspots, (including North Korea), as well as domestic political turmoil generated by both the still-unresolved impeachment hearings and the November 2020 elections. There is also the uncertainty about the future trajectory of Russia’s Arctic strategies, including the role of China within them. This week, in another gesture of warming Sino-Russian relations, it was announced that construction had been completed on the Blagoveshchensk-Heihe Bridge connecting the two countries across the Amur River, with the span scheduled to open early next year.

Russia has sought to define its military activities in the Arctic as defensive in nature, as well as being reflective of the growing importance of the region to Russian economic interests. However, in light of recent American and European reactions to Moscow’s military activities in the Russian Arctic, a ‘security dilemma’ scenario, whereby actions by one state to increase its security provoke responses by others, may be well underway.