Kremlin and U.S. Circle Each Other in Warming Arctic

Photo: U.S. Navy

Bottom Line: The potential of economic development in the Arctic for a financially strapped Russia has increased the Kremlin’s attention to the security of its northern waters. The result is a push to bolster its military presence in the region. But against a backdrop of increasing geopolitical tensions between Russia and the West, Moscow’s objectives and tactics, portrayed as merely defensive, increasingly stir concern among the U.S. and its NATO allies. They worry that Russia is seeking to control what could soon become a prominent maritime trade route.

Background: Arctic warming and the melting of sea ice has increased shipping through the Northern Sea Route that runs along Russia’s Arctic coast. But fears of competition over resources, such as the region’s vast undiscovered hydrocarbon reserves, appears to be driving much of Russia’s push for control.

Adm. (ret.) Jonathan Greenert, former Chief of Naval Operations, U.S. Navy

“There has been physical evidence of change in the Arctic’s ice pack for decades now.  We are experiencing the creation of a new body of water – at the top of the world. The Arctic is ‘navigable’ in parts for some period of the year. Navigable here means that some ships can traverse certain parts of the Arctic sometimes. It does not mean that the Arctic is fully navigable for merchant or cruise ships. Estimates of when some parts of the Arctic will be ice-free – available for passage without hardened (expensive) hulls – vary. Consensus is mid 2020s.”

  • After transiting some 1.18 million tons of cargo in 2013, traffic dropped considerably following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and onset of Western economic sanctions, reaching a mere 39,000 tons in 2015, according to the Jamestown Foundation.
  • The Arctic is estimated to contain a third of the world’s undiscovered natural gas, 13 percent of its undiscovered oil reserves and large quantities of the planet’s rare earth metals that are largely under China’s control for the time being. Low oil prices and harsh environmental conditions have delayed the start of full-scale drilling, but this could be changing. In April last year, President Donald Trump signed an executive order aimed at lifting Obama-era restrictions on Arctic drilling, though the rule-making process is likely to take time.

Gen. (ret.) Philip Breedlove, former Supreme Allied Commander, NATO

“We ought to be talking about what’s happening in the Arctic as an opportunity, as opposed to a security problem. And I believe there is still time – I’m an optimist – to make it an opportunity and to try to, at least, slow down or curb the move towards militarization of the Arctic that we’re seeing in Russia right now. As this northern passage opens due to the changing ice density, ice amounts, etc., it cuts significant time off transit, as we all know, from the northern European ports to the Asian ports. I’ve heard various numbers as high as between 14-24 days … It really depends on the time of year and the type of ship, etc. But the bottom line, if you can think of cutting that amount of time off transit on these very expensive craft, you can increase the turnaround. It’s just a real economic opportunity. So we should continue to pursue it that way, and approach it with the Russians, to not make this a military race in the north.”

Issue: The Russian navy has modernized rapidly since 2007, particularly the Northern Fleet. That includes reopening bases within Russian territorial waters in the Arctic, establishing new Arctic military command centers, and conducting large-scale military exercises. Russia’s moves seem aimed in part at securing its sovereign waters and partly to control the emerging shipping routes. But it also may be eyeing its longer-term strategic positioning in what could be a spillover region for geopolitical tensions with the West.

Adm. (ret.) Jonathan Greenert, former Chief of Naval Operations, U.S. Navy

“Russia’s primary strategic interest is national and economic security. The Russian mainland borders a large part of the Arctic Ocean. It stands to reason – this transformation to a body of water is a security challenge for Russia. Accordingly, Russia has modernized some of its associated bases, including air and port facilities, sensors (radars and satellite coverage), weapons (coastal and air) defense missile systems and command and control (C2) networks.”

  • Most of Russia’s military is stationed out of the country’s northwestern-most corners – the Kola Peninsula jutting into the Barents Sea. The position is convenient for strategic nuclear assets left over from the Cold War, as well as increasing numbers of Russian-deployed nuclear warheads, including submarine-launched ballistic missiles, intercontinental ballistic missiles and heavy bombers. Russia increased the number of its nuclear warheads from 1,400 deployed on intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and heavy bombers in January 2014 to 1,796 deployed in January 2017, according to U.S. State Department data. Most of these deployed nuclear warheads seem to be concentrated near the Kola Peninsula, according to a 2015 report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
  • In November 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the establishment of a new strategic command dedicated to the Arctic. The Northern Fleet-United Strategic Command directs the Northern Fleet and various units from other military branches further east along Russia’s Siberian coasts, establishing smaller bases along the Northern Sea Route.
  • Russia’s first Borei-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine, the Yury Dolgorukiy, is part of the Northern Fleet, with another two due to accompany it by 2020. Submarine and anti-submarine operations are a prominent feature of the military activity within the Arctic, and they are concentrated largely within Russia’s Northern Fleet, which hosts some 41 submarines, eight of which are ballistic missile capable, and another 38 surface ships. Such maritime capabilities are central to Moscow’s strategy for protecting sovereign waters and projecting power beneath the thick sheaths of ice that inhibit surface operations.
  • Russia has also invested in mobility and unmanned aerial reconnaissance systems to monitor activity to secure the vast territory that make up its northern borders. In November 2014, Russia also announced plans to build a drone base for military reconnaissance located in the Chukotka region, just 420 miles from mainland Alaska.
  • The Kremlin has organized a number of large-scale military exercises to hone its capabilities in the Arctic since 2014, including one in March 2015 that involved over 38,000 Russian troops, 110 aircraft, 41 warships and 15 submarines, according to a 2017 report by the Henry Jackson Society.

Gen. (ret.) Philip Breedlove, former Supreme Allied Commander, NATO

“Russia wants to be the hegemonic controller of that northern passage. The Chinese recently made a trip at a distance away from the shore that would have been “an international waters trip,” but clearly a lot of this opening northern passage lies in Russian waters and nearby international waters. Russia very much wants to be able to control and explore those waters. Their pattern of improving military airfields and military ports and improving their military sensor capabilities along this route all lead to that conclusion.”

Response: The area’s economic potential – both as a maritime trade route and a rich resource of minerals and hydrocarbons – could suggest potential geopolitical tensions, but the U.S. and most other countries are likely to respect Russia’s territorial waters, unless Moscow begins directing malicious operations outside its zone. That might be particularly tempting for the Russians as the melting ice opens the passage wider beyond its territorial waters. Due to the uncertainty surrounding the intentions of Russia’s military build-up in the Arctic, the U.S. and its allies in NATO have not taken major steps in establishing a military presence in the region.

Gen. (ret.) Philip Breedlove, former Supreme Allied Commander, NATO

“My external view is that NATO hasn’t really taken much action as it relates to this. They are still trying to decide how to work it and what should be the appropriate response, and they really haven’t made one.”

  • S. and European sanctions following Russia’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy in Eastern Europe have specifically targeted energy development in the Russian Arctic. That has slowed the ambitions of military deployments in recent years, and forced Russia to look to non-Arctic countries – primarily China – to bankroll its infrastructure projects in the icy waters and on its frosted shores.
  • Russia’s increase in Arctic military activity has prompted some response from its fellow Arctic littoral states. The U.S. and NATO allies in northern Europe are keeping a watchful eye on the Kremlin’s submarine activity, deploying P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft, as well as a bolstered submarine presence of their own.
  • NATO is also increasing its ground and air presence. In 2016, U.S. Marines were deployed to Norway to participate in the military exercise “Cold Response.” In May 2017, 12 NATO air forces engaged in the “Arctic Challenge” exercise spanning Finland, Norway and Sweden.
  • For economic reasons, Russia has an interest in limiting the political backlash of its militarization of the Arctic, and has sought to do so in multilateral forums such as the Arctic Council. Established in 1996 by the five nations with Arctic Ocean coastlines – Canada, Denmark through Greenland, Norway, Russia and the U.S. – as well as the Nordic states of Finland, Iceland and Sweden, the Arctic Council is a forum to promote cooperation and coordination in scientific, environmental, social and economic aspects. The council has since granted observer status to 13 more non-Arctic states, including China, India and Japan. But even its limited remit for military cooperation has largely stalled since Russia reared its head in Ukraine.

Adm. (ret.) Jonathan Greenert, former Chief of Naval Operations, U.S. Navy

“The Arctic Council is the predominant international organization providing governance and resolution of disputes. All relevant nations – bordering the Arctic and “with interest” – are members. There is a rotating chair. The U.S. recently relinquished the chair. It has been effective thus far in resolving issues; however, there will be more far-reaching issues in the future when the Arctic is navigable and sovereignty disputes become more complex.”

Gen. (ret.) Philip Breedlove, former Supreme Allied Commander, NATO

“Our relationship with Russia is not improving right now, and we need to fix that. I would offer that maybe this Arctic discussion is a good place to start. But the bottom line is [that] the confrontational approach in the Arctic will continue until we can sort out our larger problem of where is our relationship with Russia is headed.”

Anticipation: Geopolitical conflicts – the tensions fanned by Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, its bolstering of the Assad regime in Syria and its interference in Western elections – could spillover into the Arctic. This risks leading to underwater conflict, probing of undersea fiber-optic cables, as well as the closing of strategic chokepoints such as the Greenland-Iceland-U.K. (GIUK) gap in a time of crisis.

  • The growing strategic prominence of the GIUK gap aligns with Russia’s attempts to establish an anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) strategy intended to limit NATO’s freedom of navigation. New capabilities such as the testing of a submarine-based Kalibr missile system capable of engaging targets both on land and at sea, suggest a bolstering of this strategy.
  • While many of the shipping routes where cargo vessels are able to transit the ice-ridden waters are within Russia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), this could change as the ice melts further during the summer months. That might enable vessels to navigate international waters closer to the North Pole. China, in particular, has shown interest in trying Arctic maritime routes for trade and natural resource extraction. Beijing has identified the Arctic has an integral part of its “One Belt, One Road” initiative spanning Asia, Europe and Africa and has engaged with Russia diplomatically and in terms of investment for building ports.
  • The largest near-term increases in shipping likely will be in bulk shipping of critical natural resources such as minerals and hydrocarbons from the Russian Arctic to non-Arctic destinations. Trans-Arctic shipping – particularly larger container vessels transiting from Asia to Europe across the Northern Sea Route, for example – will likely increase more slowly, but will have a significant impact on the flow of goods globally, cutting costs and time for delivery considerably. Since 2013, however, the number of vessels that have transited the Northern Sea Route a year has dropped from 71 to 19 in 2016.

Gen. (ret.) Philip Breedlove, former Supreme Allied Commander, NATO

“It is not very hard to find out what China has done to expand their capabilities, such as their purchasing of ice breakers. Look at the passage they did last year through international waters to stay out of any Russian area of concern or control. So China is very interested.”

Adm. (ret.) Jonathan Greenert, former Chief of Naval Operations, U.S. Navy

“The military and security situation will be more tense and complex, particularly when the following issues clarify: the Arctic is consistently safely navigable for large, deep-draft, modern merchant and cruise ships; threats to freedom of navigation manifest (smuggling, piracy, weather, sovereignty disputes); understanding (intelligence, charts, topography and weather) of the maritime domain improves; international shipping companies determine the enduring (versus episodic) economic viability of using the Arctic as a “shortcut” for passage (shipping lanes); weather, communication, maritime mechanical systems and navigation systems operate reliably throughout the Arctic.”

Levi Maxey is a cyber and technology analyst at The Cipher Brief. Follow him on Twitter @lemax13.


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One Reply to “Kremlin and U.S. Circle Each Other in Warming Arctic”
  1. All well and good, if one is sitting on one side of the fence, the side that is making the comment that the other side is pushing a hegemonic view of things. The truth of the matter being, in today’s atmosphere of finger pointing, there is no right one, that both sides are just as guilty of the others point of view. The sorry point as stated, that it’s O.K. for the U.S. to hide behind such hegemonic behavior in the interest of international right of way, especially due to the limited exposure to the Arctic Ocean vs other countries who also have such, not to mention the lack of Ice Breakers I might add, unless one uses the Nuclear Subs to blast through the ice. It’s apparent that the U.S. is – overstretched – due to being the cop on the beat.