Cold Games? The US Navy (Re-)Enters the Barents Sea

Robinson Kent
USS Donald Cook (right), ahead of the British vessel HMS Kent (left) and USNS Supply (middle left) in the Baltic Sea [Photo by Dan Rosenbaum, HMS Kent]
by Marc Lanteigne

Since the beginning on 2019, the government of the United States has begun to consider the Arctic as an emerging region of insecurity, one not created by climate change, (which the current administration continues to maintain does not exist), but rather by great power pressures being applied in the region by Russia and China. As the Russian government of Vladimir Putin has continued to develop its Arctic lands and resources, most recently confirming that Siberia and the Russian Far East (RFE) would be an economic priority for Moscow in the coming decades, military facilities in these regions would be reopened and modernised.

Land, air and sea activities by the Russian armed forces in the country’s Arctic lands have also grown in intensity, including via a large-scale military exercise, Vostok (Восток)-2018, and ambitious plans to open up maritime trade in the Arctic. Washington has become increasingly critical of these actions, reflecting a security dilemma of sorts. While the US has painted emerging Russian militarisation of its Arctic areas as assertive in nature, Moscow has framed these policies as defensive, reflecting the opening up of the Arctic Ocean amid concerns about protection of its various economic assets there.

The US has also expressed wariness about increasing instances of Russian submarine activity in the Arctic, including near American allies in Europe. In addition, Russia has been testing various weapons and communications systems in the Arctic, including during the Grom (Гром)-2019 exercises in October last year which included submarine exercises and the testing of ballistic missiles. As a recent synopsis by the Centre for Security and International Studies (CSIS) explained, Moscow is not only seeking to better defend its long Arctic Ocean frontier, but also aspires to use the Arctic as a platform for power projection, especially in the North Atlantic region.

The Barents Sea region had previously been viewed as a potential flashpoint between Russia and the West due to the then-disputed maritime border between Norway and Russia. The erosion of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean, coupled with the region’s oil and gas potential, contributed to speculation that a scramble for Arctic resources could lead to a military escalation. Those fears were assuaged, however, when Moscow and Oslo agreed [pdf] to a maritime boundary in 2010. However, Norway, along with other fellow European NATO members, is also growing concerned [pdf] about Russian military capabilities in the Arctic, as well as perpetually differing views between Oslo and the Russian government of Vladimir Putin on the legal status of Svalbard.

The US has also begun to loop China into its stated concerns about Arctic security, despite negligible activities of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) naval forces in the region. American policymakers have increased scrutiny on Beijing’s description of China being a ‘near-Arctic state’ (jin beiji guojia 近北极国家), a concept which, while circulating in Chinese academic and policy circles for almost a decade, has only recently been subject to formal US government scrutiny.

Thus, the American government has sought to respond to these events by reasserting US power in the Arctic, ostensibly in the name of ‘freedom of navigation’. These steps involve plans to build new icebreakers and to encourage its allies in Europe to take a stronger stance on countering Russian Arctic military activities, as well as stronger criticism of Russian sovereignty over the Northern Sea Route, planned Sino-Russian cooperation to develop a Polar Silk Road and authorising the construction of three new US icebreaking vessels, (formally referred to as ‘Polar Security Cutters’) to replace the two aging icebreakers the country currently maintains.

Russia currently operates more than forty icebreakers with more on the drawing board, and in April this year Moscow confirmed the immanent construction in Vladivostok of the nuclear icebreaking vessel Leader (Лидер), touted as being structurally and technologically superior to existing ships of its type, for launch in 2027 as part of the country’s Project 10510 icebreaker series. US officials have also pointed to another Russian icebreaking vessel, launched last October, the Ivan Papinin (Иван Папанин), which has the capability of carrying Kalibr (Калибр)-type cruise missiles.

In addition to the promised new American icebreakers, the US has promised to develop a higher security profile in the Arctic by means of its current military assets, a point illustrated by a high-profile joint US-British naval exercise in the Barents Sea close to Russian waters. The manoeuvres could be considered a ‘freedom of navigation operation’ (FONOP) of sorts, given the emerging strategic situation in the region. FONOPs have been most visibly undertaken by the American military in the South China Sea over the past few years, and such an operation in the Arctic further underscores the developing hard power shift in US policies in the far north.

Barents Sea region [Map via Wikipedia]
This was the first US-led exercise of this type to take place in the Barents region since the end of the cold war, and involved naval anti-submarine warfare (ASW) drills, designed to demonstrate bilateral cooperation in such operations. The ships involved in the manoeuvres were the American Arleigh Burke-class Aegis destroyers USS Donald Cook (DDG 75), USS Porter (DDG 78) and USS Roosevelt (DDG 80) which were joined by the fast combat support ship USNS Supply (T-AOE 6), and the British Royal Naval frigate HMS Kent (F 78). In a statement by the Royal Navy, the operation, which reportedly involved more than 1200 personnel from both countries, was also a test of the two navies’ abilities to operate in sub-zero conditions.

Despite the proximity of the operation to the northern Norwegian coast, no vessel’s from Norway’s navy took part, and as one Tromsø-based specialist noted, that was likely to Oslo’s advantage, given the ambiguous goals of this particular operation, as well as the sensitive nature of Norway-Russia relations. Reportedly, hopes were expressed in Washington that other NATO members, including Norway and Canada, would participate, but ultimately only the United Kingdom agreed to send a vessel. According to one Norwegian report covering the operation, while Oslo had recently expressed interest in improving Norway’s military capabilities in the Arctic, Norwegian Defence Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen stated that participation in this specific operation was ‘not prioritised’ [in Norwegian] .

The US-British operation was also monitored by Russian authorities, including by the country’s Northern Fleet (Северный флот), based out of the nearby facilities at Severomorsk near Murmansk. The Russian Defence Ministry was given prior notice of the operation to avoid any misunderstanding, and as the US-UK operations concluded, the Northern Fleet engaged in its own anti-submarine exercises in the Barents region.

In an article published by the US Department of Defence covering the joint exercise, there were comments which suggested that the operation was also meant as a signal to China as well as Russia, including allusions to the South China Sea, an area in which the US Navy has also attempted to step up activity in response to ongoing Chinese activities there, including the recent official naming of disputed features in the sea.

However, despite ongoing attempts by the US to link Chinese activities in the South China Sea with the Arctic Ocean, the connection remains spurious, given the widely differing historical, legal and political differences between the two cases, especially since Beijing claims no sovereignty in the Arctic. In an interview last week regarding regional security issues, US Ambassador to Norway Kenneth Braithwaite, who has been nominated to be the next Secretary of the Navy, made some dubious comments about recent Sino-Norwegian relations and pointed to ‘alarming’ Chinese activities off the northern Norwegian coast, while giving no details.

Photo Exercise
A photo exercise (PHOTOEX), conducted during the joint US-UK operation in the Barents Sea [Photo By LPhot Dan Rosenbaum]
The Barents Sea naval manoeuvres have been cited as the latest in a number of US and NATO-led operations in the Arctic, with the likely possibility of more to follow, given the ongoing concerns about developing Russian, and conceivably Chinese, security activities in the region.

In a statement by the US Naval Forces Europe-Africa headquarters, it was noted that American Naval vessels with the USS Harry S Truman Carrier Strike Group and the USS Iwo Jima Expeditionary Strike Group participated in the Trident Juncture NATO exercises in the Arctic in October-November 2018, and US naval vessels also periodically operated in the Arctic Ocean last year. The Cold Response NATO exercises scheduled for March this year in northern Norway were also meant to signify emerging US strength north of the Arctic Circle, but they were curtailed as the global coronavirus crisis began to intensify. Last week, it was also reported that plans were circulating [in Icelandic] to open up Iceland’s port of Helguvík to NATO vessels.

While it remains to be seen whether the Barents exercise, and future operations, will influence future Russian strategic interests in the Arctic, the manoeuvres were successful in calling attention to renewed American interests in the region. However, a looming question is whether future such Arctic operations might take place, given the stated disagreements between the US and Russia over navigation rights in the NSR, (as well as differences between Ottawa and Washington over the legal status of the Northwest Passage in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago).

Any potential freedom of navigation missions in either passage, however, would be highly risky both due to the considerable restraints on the American icebreaker fleet but also the much stronger diplomatic fallout such operations would generate. Nonetheless, given the strong shift in Washington’s Arctic policy towards enhancing US power projection capabilities in the region, exercises similar to that in the Barents last week may become more commonplace in the near future.

Addendum (14/05/20): It was reported today that the Left Green Movement, which governs Iceland in cooperation with the Independence and Progressive Parties, had rejected the proposal to develop a harbour and infrastructure for NATO vessels at Helguvík. The other two governing parties had supported the project.