The USSR and Russia have always looked at the Arctic as a strategic and pristine “backyard”, but has the war in Ukraine changed anything?
By Martina Maddaluno and Andrea Minervini
Introduction. “Red” ice.
The great “chess game” during the Cold war brought the two blocks (Soviet Union and United States of America) to be engaged in multiple political and military theatres in the world; from the African and middle eastern sands to the tropical forests of southern-east Asia and southern America, and from the space to the Arctic Polar Circle. Among so many scenarios, precisely the latter was always considered of vital importance to the USSR first and Russia later. Keeping all of the reasons in mind, there is one that trumps all the others and it is geostrategic, even before geopolitical. Russia is the largest “land” nation on the planet and as such, in the words of the scholar and geographer Kaplan, has always lived with a strong insecurity regarding the defense of its territory and with a latent fear of isolation. Despite being the largest land power in the world, its primary outlet to the sea is to the north, and it is only accessible for a few months of the year when it is not blocked by Arctic ice.
Land powers are perpetually insecure, as Mahan implied. Without seas to protect them, they are always dissatisfied and must continue to expand or be conquered in turn. This is especially true for the Russians, whose flat expanse has almost no natural boundaries and offers little protection. Russia’s fear of land enemies is one of Mackinder’s main themes.
This was amply demonstrated by the imperial, Soviet and even federal Russia’s ubiquitous quest for an outlet to the warm seas (mainly the Mediterranean). Despite the huge number of opponents that history has placed on the path to achieve this goal, Moscow finds itself having to contend with NATO. One of the main tasks of the Atlantic Alliance is precisely to prevent the Russian presence and interference especially in the Mediterranean. So, in this framework of “land encirclement,” better defined, later, as containment (a strategy “theorized” by diplomat Kennan in the 1940s), the only vital maritime outlet has always been the impervious Arctic Sea, which Russia, in all its political meanings, learned to exploit and defend strenuously.
The sea route across the Arctic Sea, known as the Northern Sea Route, was of crucial and vital importance to Russia. Accessible (until the advent of large icebreakers and the effects of global warming) for only two months during the year, it was faster than other long sea routes and an extremely valuable direct sea link to the “old continent”.
The Arctic Circle, however, given its proximity to the Russian territory and due to its impervious nature, that makes it, even today, a “virgin” land, quickly acquired strong geopolitical and military importance for the country. Especially during the Soviet period, many military bases were built in the (then perennial) snows, and the images of Northern Fleet nuclear submarines among the great Arctic ice floes are perhaps seen as the most iconic in the common imagination, so much so that they even became Soviet propaganda stamps.
This was especially true during the Cold War period as well as in the present day, and it manifested, between the lines of the Russian power policy in the Arctic, the fact that for the Kremlin that space is not only an important strategic hub, but also a vital junction, perhaps even more than others.
“The difference between the days of the Cold War and our own is that then, in the 1970s, the Arctic was the place of contention, today it is the object of contention, thus more dangerous. Russian militarization is not only in anti-NATO terms, but it is in defense of wealth. The Arctic for Russia is a life insurance policy.”
The drivers of Russian policy in the Arctic.
Energy security and military competition. These are the two key words that help to understand the motive behind Russia’s geostrategic interest in the High North, a strip of land that one is used to thinking as «an uninhabited, romanticized land of outside adventurers and ice». The truth, however, is that this immense expanse of snow that leaps to mind thinking of the Arctic is only a part of the entire region – which is made up of eight obviously inhabited states, some of which are part of the European Union, some part of NATO, and some part of both organizations – and hides a treasure whose value Russia and other regional and international powers know accurately.
«In many ways the Arctic is the latest emerging market in the world», argues professor and director of the maritime studies program at Tufts University’s Fletcher School, Rockford Weitz. Interest in the region increased about 15 years ago when the sea ice began to melt. These have been two inversely proportional factors; one was increasing while the other was decreasing as a result of global warming and new accesses to the hydrocarbon reserves that the region retains. In fact, according to the U.S. Geological Service (USGS), more than 30 percent of the world’s remaining underground natural gas resources and more than 13 percent of the remaining known oil resources reside in the Arctic. Of these, it seems that 60-90% (taking into account U.S. and Russian sources respectively) are under Russian jurisdiction. The percentage would increase if we move 350 nautical miles from the Russian coast, where the deposits become more than substantial. However, we have to remember that the maritime boundary is 200 nautical miles. If Russia succeeds in convincing the United Nations Committee on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) that the Lomonosov and Mendeleev ridges are an extension of the Siberian continental shelf, then it could claim them, based on the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
But what is Russia’s specific reason which drives her to even open the doors to foreigner investments in order to take possession of this immensity of hydrocarbon reserves? It is certainly not just “hunger” for energy. Certainly, the importance of oil and gas in Arctic ambitions has been highlighted since 2006 as part of the Kremlin’s agenda to achieve the role of an energy superpower, of those capable of making friends but especially international enemies dependent on it in order to ensure prosperity and internal stability for the country.
Nevertheless, Moscow’s desire goes far beyond that. It aims to maintain a position of world leadership even, and especially, at the military level. Doing so is no small task, and as Russia’s main sources of income, namely the hitherto abundant oil and gas fields in Siberia, according to the Ministry of Energy, are slowly but inevitably being depleted, the Russian government has turned its gaze northward to continue funding the military upgrading undertaken post-2008 under the leadership of Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov.
Such a modernization process also affects the Northern Fleet present in the Arctic region, particularly near the Kola Peninsula. It is composed by missile and anti-submarine transport aircraft, missile, aircraft carrier and anti-submarine ships, and most importantly, nuclear-powered missile and torpedo submarines that provide the Russian Navy with second-strike capabilities. What just has been said leads us to dwell on goal number two that Russia achieves in the High North. It’s a more strategic goal rather than purely military one. Moscow wants to preserve its credibility in nuclear deterrence. Yes, once again the desire of balancing U.S./NATO forces would seem to be a mere motive. Especially since Finland and Sweden – Arctic countries – have formalized their application for membership in the Atlantic Alliance. Finally, related to this last matter, there is another one; protecting its ability to operate in the Barents Sea, the Norwegian Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. Just in case Moscow finds itself in a conflict with NATO, the Northern Fleet’s access to these areas could be decisive in tilting the final outcome in its favor.
The above corresponds to the Russian militarization of the west-central part of the Arctic. However, the Kremlin has also acted similarly in the region’s eastern military district; near the Bering Strait it has – of course – installed numerous radar and monitoring stations so as to provide the Russian government with close and permanent surveillance of air-sea movements in that area, along with air and rescue bases. However, this exaggerated militarization in the Arctic – there are more than 50 military posts reopened since the Soviet era – has also become a militarization for the Arctic; in fact, at least part of Russian exercises in the area have focused on protecting the Northern Sea Route. The Russian government hopes that the international shipping industry may increasingly see the benefit of saving up to nearly 4,000 nautical miles and two weeks of life on a voyage from Ulsan, Korea, to Rotterdam, Holland. Not only because of the growing revenue from taxation, but also because this route would take on great significance in energy cooperation with its trading partners.
Ukraine’s war echoes come to the Arctic.
The war in Ukraine has, no doubt, shaken the entire international arena, and as in a kind of domino effect, very few aspects of international relations have remained unchanged since February 24, 2022. The various condemnations of the Russian Federation by the international community, both in the United Nations, with historic resolutions such as “ES-11/1. Aggression against Ukraine” and by regional organizations such as the European Union (materialized in the various economic-political sanctions packages now in their tenth “package”) have affected, more or less noticeably, Russia and, by extension, Russia’s external projections as well. The Arctic, although a remote area, almost far from the spotlight of the global international scene, has suffered some of the echoes of the disastrous war in Ukraine. To add further layers of complexity to this vast topic, it is good to analyze these echoes under two distinct lenses, that framing the Arctic political and governance situation and that of Russian military projection.
That the latter was generally influenced by the drain of economic-strategic forces for the war in Ukraine is a fairly widespread fact. Technical-strategic errors made the Ukrainian campaign extremely bloody and costly in terms of men and means for the Kremlin. The image of the “warrior” nation, which has always been sustained by a national narrative still strongly anchored in the past, has also been damaged; this seems to have been greatly diminished. Turning our gaze to the Arctic, however, it will be the Northern Fleet’s modernization projects and military presence there that, for strategic and economic reasons, will suffer the backlash from the invasion that Russia began just over a year ago.
Indeed, from a strategic perspective, the war in Ukraine and the actual “baptism of fire” of Russian military technologies, especially with direct confrontation with “Western” technologies donated to Kiev, have shown that they have not always lived up to expectations. Moscow’s anti-aircraft defenses have proven to be far from impenetrable especially when compared to attacks by new technologies such as drones, widely used by Kiev. A number of examples of Ukrainian attacks on military airfields inside Russian borders, of varying degrees of magnitude, have precisely pointed out some flaws in Russia’s anti-aircraft defense, which is the same as that installed in nerve centers such as the Arctic region.
A similar argument can be traced to the naval capabilities of the Russian Federation, which to this day, still rests mainly on modernized late Soviet-made vessels. As with the airfields, the warships of the Black Sea Fleet have also suffered losses, both during wartime operations (an example of this is the controversial sinking of the “flag” ship Moskva) and in their home ports, as occurred at Sevastopol in Crimea. It should be specified that in the case of wars and conflicts it is history itself that teaches us that losses from a military point of view are inevitable and that invulnerability of military assets a mere utopia. That said, that the Ukrainian battlefields can be considered a far different test bed than the Syrian one for Moscow’s armed forces (and others) is a fact, however costly this may be for the Kremlin. And it is precisely this point that is the source of the second echo, from a military perspective, that the war in Ukraine may reflect on Moscow’s Arctic projection. The Russian government as early as 2010, under President Medvedev, had initiated an expensive modernization program for its armed forces, known as GPV-20, but it came to an abrupt halt due to the drop in oil prices between 2014 and 2015. This negatively impacted the Kremlin’s plans, consequently scaling back the amount of funds allocated for rearmament, and several “historical” issues within the Federation such as corruption and technological backwardness in some areas contributed to slowdowns and braking.
In particular, funds allocated for the navy (which enjoyed the largest investments in the GPV-20 prospectus) underwent major downsizing, especially with the 2014 annexation of Crimea that saw a sharp cutback with Ukrainian partnerships vital to the construction of some components of Russian warships. This led to a rapid change of pace that slid from building new vessels to modernizing those already existing and in service with the various fleets. This immediately went against what was instead supposed to be the Russian Federation’s maritime turnaround (re)announced by the new Naval Doctrine 2030 announced in 2019, which in a sense reaffirmed the goals of the same 2015 doctrine.
- Artico, ultima frontiera!
- La Finlandia all’Arctic Spirit: il difficile ruolo di mediazione tra UE e Russia
- Consiglio di Barents: La Russia incontra i paesi scandinavi ma la Svezia dà forfait
The list of highlighted problems is acknowledged and well documented elsewhere and includes; non-delivery of naval ships due to continuing problems in replacing important components, such as thrusters, previously supplied by Ukraine and Germany, among others; the low share of Russian shipyards in the total volume of orders placed by civilian users; the high cost of production; and the poor quality of human capital and the poor state of plans to improve it.
Delving into this issue turns out to be functional because of the consequences that the far more extensive sanctions that followed the invasion of Ukraine have brought. Although Russia is not “alone” at this moment in history, and although the aid and its extent that Moscow’s neighboring nations are providing is as foggy as ever, one certain fact is that almost all of the technology that the Kremlin was purchasing from Western countries fell within the sanctions packages and thus precluded. This in the long run could severely affect Moscow’s military capabilities and, by extension, its external projections as well, including the Arctic theater.
As mentioned, however, the echoes of the Ukrainian war have spilled over into something else; they have disrupted the already precarious Arctic governance. In an effort to bring the eight regional states together so that a forum could be established to promote dialogue and cooperation among them, the Arctic Council was established in 1996. This body has no binding power vis-à-vis the member states, or rather, no institutional power at all because it does not make or implement laws; however, it does have strong political power in that it is a «facilitator of regional diplomacy» that allows discussions on common issues that, in turn, guide the states to draft legally binding agreements with shared responsibilities. Past agreements have focused on search and rescue missions, marine oil pollution preparedness, and increased scientific cooperation. Collaboration on environmental and scientific issues also led to the 2010 Barents Sea delimitation agreement.
That the turbulent issues for the Arctic go beyond this is clear for all to see; the region is warming nearly three times faster than the global average, causing sea ice to melt, sea level rise, increased severe weather events, reduced wildlife populations, increased navigational accessibility, and consequent pollution. Putting this organism on pause just is unthinkable because it is not possible to stop the flow of these catastrophic events that are being hurled at the Arctic. The resulting problems become more difficult to solve with each passing year. Yet the region, which had long been identified by many as a highly cooperative and unusually peaceful part of international affairs, lost this name after Russia’s Ukrainian invasion.
In fact, the Arctic Council ceased to function when the remaining seven members suspended participation in official meetings. This left the region without its main intergovernmental forum. Even earlier there had been diplomatic disagreements among member states, including the Iraq war in 2003, the Georgian war in 2008, and the annexation of Crimea in 2014, but the invasion of Ukraine was seen as a shot in the arm. Moscow has held (and will hold at least until May of this year) the role of Arctic Council chair since 2021. The initial report drawn up about the priorities of Moscow’s chairmanship had mentioned “cooperation” thirty times, and yet, what we all know happened after that.
So, it is clear that first of all there will be a lack of mutual trust, an essential element according to liberals for the success of international institutions. Second, and precisely on the basis of what has just been stated, the representatives of the Arctic Council will probably avoid discussions at the ministerial level. Foreign Minister Lavrov is personally sanctioned by the United States, Canada, the European Union and the United Kingdom and is unlikely to ever set foot in an Arctic Council meeting. This means that the Ad Hoc Group of the Arctic Five, which includes the five Arctic coastal states of the United States, Canada, Denmark, Norway, and Russia and works almost exclusively at the ministerial level, will become defunct. The Arctic Council’s working groups and scientific research operations will continue; however, it is a politically isolated area, irrelevant without dialogue among countries. Finally, even if the Council decides to meet, high tensions among members will likely lead them to address only the least controversial Arctic issues. Recent progress in imposing international legal frameworks on more sensitive issues such as fisheries disputes, energy production, continental shelf claims, and freedom of navigation will come to a halt.
In conclusion, the hope of all scientific and environmental experts is that the other seven Arctic states will put aside their resentment and come together with Russia as soon as Norway assumes the presidency in May 2023. They owe it to the international community to revive and accomplish the core missions of sustainable development and environmental management as soon as possible. However, if this does not happen, it is likely that the much-touted race for the Arctic will accelerate into a dangerous governance vacuum, within which someone-for security reasons-is strengthening political alliances that may have «serious political and psychological consequences for Moscow». Such is the case with Finland and Sweden’s application for NATO membership.
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Foto copertina: Arctic