The Russian Navy intends to establish a group of icebreaking and ice-class combat ships to protect the Arctic coast and the polar islands, Russian newspaper Izvestia reported on July 29.
Russia is also revitalizing its Arctic military presence and boosting its military activities in the region. Conventional icebreakers, which are already under construction, will be complemented by icebreaking ships with military capabilities.
Russia is building six new military bases, adding troops and holding exercises.
Russia’s Defense Ministry plans to complete the construction of military facilities in the Arctic islands this year.
The Russian Aerospace Forces plan to base the Mig-31 (Foxhound) supersonic interceptor aircraft at Tiksi airfield, located on Russia’s Arctic Ocean coast. They will also be based at Anadyr, an airbase on Russia’s northeastern coast facing Alaska. The Foxhounds have already operated at the 82nd parallel north, showing the capability to intercept targets around the North Pole. The plans include construction of airfields large enough for Tu-95 MS and Tu-160 strategic bombers to land. No deployment of armor and artillery units is envisaged. These weapons systems are useless in deep snow. If 150-200 men strong garrisons need reinforcements, airborne forces will do the job. Russian paratroopers held drills in the extreme conditions of the Arctic region in April.
There are a number of reasons to explain the need for such military activities in the region.
The Arctic is rich in resources, including gold, platinum, nickel and zinc. It contains 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered natural gas and 15 percent of the oil. Experts now say, the Arctic waters could see largely ice-free in summers as early as 2030, and there could be ice-free conditions for as long as a month by the mid-2020s. Ice-free means that only about 10 percent of the water is ice-covered. The dominant portion of these resources is hidden beneath ice that is disputed by the five nations bordering the Arctic (the United States, Russia, Canada, Norway and Denmark).
The Northern Sea Route (NSR) is several thousand miles shorter that any of the traditional shipping lanes. It could one day rival the Suez Canal in terms of ship traffic. Compared to the current routes via the Panama and Suez Canals, commercial shipping transits from the Pacific to the Atlantic through the Northwest Passage could save two weeks of travel time. In its turn, it translates into lower fuel costs, less ship steaming time and a reduction in labor costs for the commercial shipping industry. In the recent years some countries have suggested that the Russian Federation should renounce its jurisdiction over the Route which is considered its national seaway. Quite naturally such suggestions cause deep concern in Russia.
The region is of crucial importance for Russia’s national security. US submarines with ballistic and long-range cruise missiles (Tomahawks) on board are frequent visitors to the region.
US submarine-launched ballistic missiles can reach Moscow from the Barents Sea in 15 to 16 minutes.
In March, the United States Navy held the exercise ICEX-2016 – a five-week training event designed to assess the operational readiness of the submarine force and its readiness to operate in the region. US submarines have conducted under-ice operations in the Arctic region for more than 50 years. They have completed 26 ICEX exercises. The Arctic is the only location to enable a submarine-launched Tomahawks to strike the Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) bases in the Orenburg and Krasnoyarsk regions, as well as the Urals.
The recent NATO summit in Warsaw mentioned the region as an area of tensions in the final communique.
This was the first time when NATO’s role in the Arctic was officially acknowledged. The Alliance included the issue into the agenda to stress that it agrees on a common policy concerning the region’s security. This is a game changing event. The Wales Summit Declaration did not even mention the word Arctic, and neither does the alliance’s most recent Strategic Concept published in 2010. Norway – a NATO member – has permanent military headquarters above the Arctic Circle and has invested extensively in Arctic defense capabilities the same way Canada did.
Last May, NATO, Switzerland, Sweden and Finland held a large scale military drill in the region – the Arctic Challenge 2015. 14 NATO members held Cold Response military exercise in the Arctic this March. This Norway-led large scale event included approximately 15 000 soldiers.
Russia insists on maintaining the internal status of the NSR and recognition of the part of the continental shelf of the Arctic Ocean as its territory according to the evidence provided to the UN. It considers the narrowest parts of the Northern Sea Route to be its internal waters. The US does not recognize the claims and seeks to internationalize the area. The United States refuses to join international law and sign United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 10 December 1982 (UNCLOS). Its refusal to join international law and sign UNCLOS cannot be construed otherwise but as a demonstration of its willingness to operate in a unilateral rather than cooperative manner on the international arena.
The Lomonosov Ridge is the main object of territorial dispute between Russia and another NATO country – Canada. It stretches 1800 km from the New Siberian Islands cross the Arctic Ocean to the Canadian Ellesmere Island. Canada conducts military exercises in the area. The Murmansk Treaty between Russia and Norway has failed to live up to expectations. Incidents in the Barents Sea occur from time to time. Norway does not recognize Russia’s rights over the NSR. Finland and Sweden have serious claims against Russia.
The UN convention says, no one can claim jurisdiction over the Arctic seabed because the geological structure does not match the surrounding continental shelves. Russian scientists claim that the underwater Lomonosov Ridge is geologically linked to the Siberian continental platform – and similar in structure. Experts believe that Russia’s rights to these areas of the continental shelf are unconditional from a scientific point of view, but once again politics could interfere due to US influence on international organizations.
There is no full-fledged dialogue held to address security issues related to the Arctic.
The Nordic Summit that took place in Washington, D.C., in May, included delegations from Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Iceland. Russia – the largest Arctic country – was not invited to the forum discussing the issues related to the region.
Five of the Arctic Council’s eight members are part of NATO with Sweden and Finland being the privileged partners of the Alliance. That’s the gist of the problem. Russia’s military activities in the region have nothing to do with sabre rattling. The Arctic is increasingly becoming a bone of contention between Russia and NATO. That’s what is really dangerous. Moscow has to protect its interests at the time the acute problems related to the region are not discussed internationally.
High-level discussions are needed to address Arctic military security issues, perhaps as a result the reorganization of the Arctic Council, as some security experts suggest, or the creation of a new security-focused forum.
The EU continues to push for sound stewardship of Arctic waters. The last meeting took place between 6 and 8 July in Iqaluit, Province of Nunavut, Canada. Delegations from Canada, the People’s Republic of China, the Kingdom of Denmark (in respect of the Faroe Islands and Greenland), Japan, the Republic of Korea, the Kingdom of Norway, the Russian Federation and the United States attended the event. Another round of talks will take place in November. It is a dialogue, but this forum is limited to economic issues, it does not include security agenda. Perhaps, it should.
The only way the Arctic nations can effectively maintain safety and regional order is to cooperate with one another. A closely coordinated regional approach to Arctic governance under the framework of the Law of the Sea Convention will build confidence and deepen regional stability. Multilateral security cooperation is the only way to reduce the risk of conflict.