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Russia’s Territorial Ambition and Increased Military Presence in the Arctic

Russia’s Oil and Gas Activities in the Arctic (Malte Humpert/The Arctic Institute)

Russia’s Oil and Gas Activities in the Arctic (Malte Humpert/The Arctic Institute)

As the U.S. and E.U. keep a very close eye on the situation with Russia and Ukraine, Russia is also increasing its presence and influence elsewhere: the Arctic – a melting region that is opening up prime shipping lanes and real estate with an estimated $1 trillion in hydrocarbons.[1] With the opening of two major shipping routes, the North Sea route and the Northwest Passage, the potential for economic competition is fierce, especially among the eight members of the Arctic council: Canada, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Finland, Sweden, Russia, and the United States.[2]

President Putin made statements this week concerning Russia’s national interests in the Arctic region: chiefly, militarization and the preparation of support elements for commercial shipping routes.[3] The Russian President called for full government funding for “socio-economic development” from 2017-2020, including a system of Russian naval bases that would be home to ships and submarines allocated specifically for the defense of national interests that involve the protection of Russian oil and gas facilities in the Arctic.[4] Russia is also attempting to accelerate the construction of more icebreakers to take part in its Arctic strategy.[5]

The Russian Federation recently staked a territorial claim in the Sea of Okhotsk for 52,000 square kilometers,[6] and is currently preparing an Arctic water claim for 1.2 million square kilometers.[7] The energy giant owns 43 of the approximate 60 hydrocarbon deposits in the Arctic Circle.[8] With Russian energy companies already developing hydrocarbon deposits and expanding border patrols on its Arctic sea shelf (in place by July 1, 2014),[9] Putin is actively pursuing a strong approach to the Arctic region. Russian oil fields, which significantly contribute to the country’s revenue, are in decline – forcing Russian oil companies to actively explore the Arctic region.[10] While the U.S. Defense Secretary called for a peaceful and stable Arctic region with international cooperation, the Arctic has created increased militarization efforts, particularly by Russia.

Already the Arctic has seen powerful warships of Russia’s Northern Fleet, strategic bomber patrols, and airborne troop exercises.[11] In fact, Russian military forces have been permanently stationed in the Arctic since summer 2013.[12] According to a source in the Russian General Staff, a new military command titled Northern Fleet – Joint Strategic Command, will be created and tasked to protect Russian interests in its Arctic territories; a strategy that was approved in 2009.[13] Furthermore, weapons developers are being tasked with creating products that can face the harsh Arctic environment. According to an RT report, “Putin ordered the head of the Russian arms industry, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, to concentrate the efforts on creation of Arctic infrastructure for the soonest deployment of troops. Rogozin reported that all Russian weapons systems can be produced with special features needed in the extreme North and the weapons companies were ready to supply such arms to the Defense Ministry.”[14]

The “Arctic infrastructure” that Rogozin refers to will include Navy and Border Guard Service bases.[15] These bases are part of Putin’s aim to strengthen Russian energy companies and military positions in the Arctic region. In 2013, a formerly closed down base was reopened in the Novosibirsk Islands and is now home to 10 military ships and four icebreakers – a move that Reuters called “a demonstration of force.”[16] The Defense Ministry is also planning on bringing seven airstrips in the Arctic back to life.[17]

Russia’s militarization in the Arctic region is only a part of its increasing activity throughout the globe. Vice Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said, It’s crucially important for us to set goals for our national interests in this region. If we don’t do that, we will lose the battle for resources which means we’ll also lose in a big battle for the right to have sovereignty and independence.”[18] On the contrary, Aleksandr Gorban, a representative of the Russian Foreign Ministry is quoted saying that a “war for resources”[19] in the Arctic will never happen.

But what was once a more hands-off region of the world that provided international cooperation and stability is now turning into a race for sovereignty and resources claims – as evidenced not only by Russia’s increasing military presence, but also Canada and the United States. Canada is now allocating part of its defense budget towards armed ships that will patrol its part of the Arctic Circle,[20] while the United States has planned a strategy of its own. In addition to conducting military exercises with other Arctic nation members, the U.S. Navy has proposed a strategy titled The United States Navy Arctic Roadmap for 2014 to 2030 that was released in February 2014. The 2013 National Strategy for the Arctic Region, cited in the Arctic Roadmap, provides the Navy’s two specific objectives for the Arctic: 1) advance United States’ security interests; and 2) strengthen international cooperation.[21] According to the strategy, the Navy’s role will primarily be in support of search and rescue, law enforcement, and civil support operations.[22] However, this may grow to a more militarized strategy depending on the U.S. government’s view of Russia’s increased military activity in the Arctic region over the next few years. In either case, the U.S. is falling behind in Arctic preparation. It has very few operational icebreakers for the Arctic region where its only primary presence is seen through nuclear submarines and unmanned aerial vehicles, according to an RT article.[23] Until 2020, the Navy will primarily use its submarines and limited air assets in the Arctic, while its mid-term and far-term strategy emphasizes personnel, surface ships, submarines, and air assets that will be prepared for Arctic conditions and operations.[24] Despite its mid and long-term strategy, the U.S. will already be lagging in establishing a military presence to compete with Russia’s, who already has strategies in motion until 2020 and later.

Last month, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for a united Canadian-U.S. counterbalance to Russia’s Arctic presence, pointing out “they have been aggressively reopening military bases.”[25] While the U.S. cannot legitimately criticize Putin for opening military bases and simultaneously avoid blatant hypocrisy, it is worth noting that Russia is developing a strong military presence in a potentially competitive region. Russia’s plans to reopen bases and create an Arctic military command fosters the conclusion that Russia wants to be the first established dominant force in a new region that will host economic competition and primary shipping lanes, albeit in a harsh environment that makes it difficult to extract resources. Nicholas Cunningham aptly stated “both Russia and the West fear losing out to the other in the far north, despite what appears to be a small prize.”[26]

Although the Arctic holds a mass of the world’s oil and gas deposits, the extreme environment and remote location makes it difficult to produce energy quickly and efficiently. Despite this, the Russian Federation is focused on developing disputed hydrocarbon areas that it claims are part of the country’s continental shelf. In addition, Russia is allocating funds and forces to the Arctic to protect its interests. While the U.S. is currently lacking in natural resource development and exploitation in the Arctic Circle, it desires to display a show of strength in the cold region to compete with potential Russian domination and influence. But because the Defense Department faces constant budget cuts, preparing an Arctic naval force will be slow and difficult. For now, the United States can only show strength through nuclear submarines and drone technology.

Putin and the Russian Federation are laying disputed claims to territories both inside and outside the Arctic while creating the foundation for a potential military buildup in the Arctic – provided that the U.S. and Canada can even allocate sufficient budgets for Arctic military expansion. One thing is sure: if the Arctic region continues to melt and open up vital shipping lanes, there must be international cooperation to provide security and rescue elements for commercial shipping. Since Russia has significant territorial claims and the most coastlines in the Arctic Circle, it would be natural for the Russian Federation to have a wide security presence in the region, but this must be coupled with international cooperation in commercial shipping lanes and by providing support elements, such as search and rescue. The United States will not be able to fully compete with a country that is heavily investing in the Arctic region – particularly due to budget constraints and lack of Arctic-prepared vessels. If the U.S. desires to limit Russian influence and territorial claims, it must do so by partnering with other members of the Arctic council – not by entering into a military buildup simply to dominate Russia in the Arctic.

Correction: This article originally stated that there are five members of the Arctic Council. There are eight.

Notes

[1] “US Navy admits it needs massive investment to fight for Arctic seaways control,” RT, February 28, 2014, accessed April 22, 2014, http://rt.com/usa/us-navy-arctic-plans-146/.

[2] “Arctic Resources: The fight for the coldest place on Earth heats up,” RT, April 15, 2014, accessed April 22, 2014, http://rt.com/news/arctic-reclamation-resources-race-524/.

[3] “Russia to create united naval base system for ships, subs in Arctic – Putin,” RT, April 22, 2014, accessed April 22, 2014, http://rt.com/news/154028-arctic-russia-ships-subs/.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Tatyana Golovanova, “Russia to play leading role in development of Arctic oil and gas deposits,” Voice of Russia, April 20, 2014, accessed April 22, 2014, http://voiceofrussia.com/news/2014_04_20/Russia-to-play-leading-role-in-development-of-Arctic-oil-and-gas-deposits-7371/.

[9] “Arctic Resources: The fight for the coldest place on Earth heats up,” RT, April 15, 2014, accessed April 22, 2014, http://rt.com/news/arctic-reclamation-resources-race-524/.

[10] Nicholas Cunningham, “Russia ships its first Arctic oil. Is a boom coming?” The Christian Science Monitor, April 21, 2014, accessed April 22, 2014, http://www.csmonitor.com/Environment/Energy-Voices/2014/0421/Russia-ships-its-first-Arctic-oil.-Is-a-boom-coming.

[11] “Arctic Resources: The fight for the coldest place on Earth heats up,” RT, April 15, 2014, accessed April 22, 2014, http://rt.com/news/arctic-reclamation-resources-race-524/.

[12] “US Navy admits it needs massive investment to fight for Arctic seaways control,” RT, February 28, 2014, accessed April 22, 2014, http://rt.com/usa/us-navy-arctic-plans-146/.

[13] “Russian military to have special command for Arctic operations,” RT, February 17, 2014, accessed April 22, 2014, http://rt.com/politics/russian-arctic-military-command-397/.

[14] Ibid.

[15] “Russia to build new naval bases in the Arctic,” RT, August 6, 2012, accessed April 22, 2014, http://rt.com/politics/arctic-ship-marine-base-969/.

[16] Alexei Anishchuk, “Russia’s Putin wants beefed-up presence in Arctic,” Reuters, April 22, 2014, accessed April 22, 2014, http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/04/22/us-russia-putin-arctic-idUSBREA3L1BN20140422.

[17] “Russia to Build Network of Modern Naval Bases in Arctic – Putin,” RIA Novosti, April 22, 2014, accessed April 22, 2014, http://en.ria.ru/military_news/20140422/189313169/Russia-to-Build-Network-of-Modern-Naval-Bases-in-Arctic—Putin.html.

[18] “Arctic Resources: The fight for the coldest place on Earth heats up,” RT, April 15, 2014, accessed April 22, 2014, http://rt.com/news/arctic-reclamation-resources-race-524/.

[19] “Russian military to have special command for Arctic operations,” RT, February 17, 2014, accessed April 22, 2014, http://rt.com/politics/russian-arctic-military-command-397/.

[20] “$3B for arctic ships: PM,” National Post, accessed April 22, 2014, http://www.nationalpost.com/news/story.html?id=d3c8a287-e4f5-4e5a-94aa-bed1c6b12eba.

[21] The United States Navy Arctic Roadmap for 2014 to 2030, U.S. Navy, February 2014, pg. 9, accessed April 22, 2014, http://www.navy.mil/docs/USN_arctic_roadmap.pdf.

[22] Ibid, 13.

[23] “US Navy admits it needs massive investment to fight for Arctic seaways control,” RT, February 28, 2014, accessed April 22, 2014, http://rt.com/usa/us-navy-arctic-plans-146/.

[24] The United States Navy Arctic Roadmap for 2014 to 2030, U.S. Navy, February 2014, pg. 18-19, accessed April 22, 2014, http://www.navy.mil/docs/USN_arctic_roadmap.pdf.

[25] Ingrid Peritz, “Hillary Clinton warns Montreal crowd of Russia’s increased activity in Arctic,” The Globe and Mail, March 18, 2014, accessed April 22, 2014, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/clinton-warns-montreal-crowd-of-russias-increased-activity-in-arctic/article17560676/.

[26] Nicholas Cunningham, “Russia ships its first Arctic oil. Is a boom coming?” The Christian Science Monitor, April 21, 2014, accessed April 22, 2014, http://www.csmonitor.com/Environment/Energy-Voices/2014/0421/Russia-ships-its-first-Arctic-oil.-Is-a-boom-coming.


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About the Author

Jon Mitchell

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Jon Mitchell
Jon Mitchell is an independent writer working to cultivate experience in foreign policy and political-military analysis. He is pursuing his Masters degree in public policy, with a concentration in international affairs. Areas of interest and study include Russia, Africa and international conflict resolution. 
  • Jon Mitchell

    Thank you Brian! It was very enjoyable to research and write about.