Encirclement of the Arctic Circle: The Russian Military Buildup

23 Sep, 2016    ·   5135

Adarsh Vijay assesses Russia’s growing ambitions in the Arctic Circle and how these will play out in the current geopolitical scenario 

The equations of geopolitical rivalry in the Arctic region are undergoing a paradigm shift with the ongoing military buildup by Russia. The Arctic has been accorded due importance as per the revised doctrine of the Russian Navy and Moscow is eyeing a permanent presence in the region to reclaim its historical dominance in the Arctic.  Russia’s ongoing attempts in this direction have become a cause for friction among the other stakeholders in the North Pole. The pressing issues that need to be addressed are: Why is Russia heading to the Arctic? How do the other players view the Kremlin’s move? Is the strategy restricted to regional implications or does it go beyond them? 

What’s in the Arctic?
Russia is one of the eight countries, along with the US, Canada, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Iceland, to have territory in the Arctic Circle. They are also the members of the Arctic Council, which was formed in 1996 as per the Ottawa Declaration. The oil and mineral resources under the seabed and the strategic importance of the region has so far guided the Kremlin’s policy in the Arctic. The race for the control of oceanic resources necessitates a strong military backing to guard the maritime interests in the northern waters. Moscow had already established the 45th Air Force and Air Defense Army for its Northern Fleet by the end of 2015. However, the present military outreach that gained momentum in the far north is a response to the increasing defense modernisation by the US and the Scandinavian countries in the recent past. The Kremlin seeks to have a strong foothold in the North Pole with a permanent military base name Arktichesky Trilistnik (Arctic Trefoil), which was set up in 2015. The base, which can house approximately 150 military personnel, is situated at the 80th parallel. They have also built another base named Northern Shamrock on the Kotelny Island in the East Siberian Sea at the 75th parallel. Besides the construction of new military infrastructures, the reopening of the various abandoned air strips and bases across the Franz Josef Land, New Siberian Islands, Novaya Zemlya and Severnaya Zemlya archipelagos is also underway.
Arctic: A Grand Strategy
What makes the Arctic region strategically important for Russia is primarily its geographical proximity to the North American continent. It ensures Moscow within a short-distance and an early strike capacity against the West and this strengthens its nuclear deterrence at large. The Kremlin is also enjoying better operational autonomy in the High North as compared to the fleets stationed at the Black and Baltic Seas as the maneuver of the Northern Fleet is undisturbed by the NATO members. Russia is currently focusing on the deployment of nuclear-powered icebreakers, additional submarines, patrol vessels, military aircrafts, anti-aircraft systems and intends to conduct unannounced military exercises in the Arctic Ocean. The secondary factor that pushes the Russians to the Arctic waters is the promising oil and mineral resources. Due to climate change there is expected to be a continuing retreat of ice from the ocean, which would make the seabed mining viable and cost-effective in due course.
Norway, a NATO member and a neighbor of Russia in the north-western border, is cautious of Russian advancements in the Arctic sphere. Besides Norway, other members of the Arctic Council also perceive Russia’s activities in the North Pole as a threat. Washington's reaction was predominantly naval oriented in terms of the dispatch of submarines and icebreakers across the Arctic. An exclusive stealth-aircraft fleet is also under process for the High North in order to meet the challenges of the prevailing geopolitical conundrum.
The Road Ahead
The Kremlin intends to take the Arctic policy forward as a global strategy. The regional repercussions, as projected by Russia, are just a cover to hide the grand reverberations that are yet to unfold. Hence, an analysis of Moscow’s actions in the Arctic is just the tip of the iceberg. The High North is a significant element of Russia’s foreign and security complex, which is being built upon the Cold War legacy. Russia’s traditional need for superiority in the international system with immense control over natural resources, supported by an unparalleled military supremacy, lies behind the whole game. Thus, the Arctic Circle is a great catalyst for Moscow to alter and tilt the balance of power in its favor. Nevertheless, the escalating US presence in the Arctic acts as a deterrent against the Russian aggressions and neither does Russia seem interested in engaging in a direct confrontation in the near future. Though cooperation in place of competition is an option that can be explored, however, pragmatism is far more distant than dreams. The emerging trends in the Arctic are highly unpredictable which make a strategic forecast difficult, if not impossible. However, the only optimism that remains at the core of the dynamics in the region is the sustaining self-restraint in terms of abstinence from an armed rivalry at present.