Arctic: the beginning of the militarization of the region?


We are all witnesses of the rapidly changing geopolitical situation around the Arctic region. Previously, territories dominated by cold, ice and polar night attracted only scientists and adventurers, but not politicians and the military. Today, the Arctic is being carefully studied by the general staffs of the armed forces, even of those states of the region that until recently had little interest in it, in particular, of Great Britain, Sweden and Finland.

London expressed its rough position regarding the fact that in December 2020, about a dozen warships and combat aircrafts from Russia’s Northern, Baltic and Black Sea fleets staged a show of force in waters of the British and Irish coasts. As Chief of Defence Staff General Sir Nick Carter commented, it is quite clear that Russia is flexing its muscles in the backyard of Great Britain. The general emphasized that ships of three fleets took part in the Russian exercises richly funded by Moscow in the northern latitudes of the Atlantic Ocean. He admitted that these were unprecedented exercises of the Russian Navy since the end of the Cold War.

The general made conclusions on the necessity of conventional hard power (warships and aviation) and less conventional possibilities like cyberops to send a clear message to Moscow that Britain would not be a silent observer of Kremlin’s attempts to escalate the situation. Nick Carter considers it necessary that London keeps Russia’s backyard under gun whether it is Far North, Barents Sea, Baltic Sea or Black Sea.

So, Brits used to be oblivious to Far North. But now amid renewed geopolitical tensions of West and Russia, Britain has promised to remain on guard regarding the Arctic region and maintain its presence there. In particular, it was decided that Royal Navy will keep constant presence above the Arctic Circle to counteract strategic advantage of Russia on trade routes.

Sweden and Finland, which are de jure non-member states of NATO, have in recent years become active participants of military exercises of NATO countries taking place in the northern latitudes. Moreover, measures to improve combat training, which the Alliance countries are practicing in the Arctic, have begun to be carried out on a regular basis. So, the USA, GB, Netherlands, Germany, France, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland took part in the Trident Juncture, Ice Exercise (IceX), and Cold Response exercises.

As Russia has also begun regular exercises in the Arctic region, the parties tell each other the following: «We are already here and our activities will only increase, we keep all under our control and closely follow you!»

In 2019, it got to the point that the Norwegian Ministry of Defense accused Russia of deliberately failing the GPS system during the Trident Juncture exercise. NATO military maneuvers took place in Norway, in the Baltic Sea and the North Atlantic, as well as in Swedish and Finnish airspace. It was argued that due to interference, NATO pilots received only a weak GPS signal during missions, and in some cases it was completely absent (although this did not lead to incidents). Later, the head of the Finnish Foreign Ministry said that the Russian side was presented with evidence of its interference in the work of the GPS, the fact denied by the Russian Federation.

The USA at D.Trump`s ruling have completely reviewed the US Arctic policy. Washington understands that Arctic is the last geopolitical battlefield on the planet for Russia, where it still has some advantages vis-à-vis USA and China. Deciding to change this state of affairs, D.Trump ordered to build a fleet of military icebreakers by 2029 and to choose at least two international bases for these ships. Also, D.Trump gave instructions to deploy in the state of Alaska as many fifth-generation fighters as possible in order to create an advantage vis-à-vis the threat from the Russian air defense systems.

For Washington, Arctic has become not only a key region in terms of national security, but a potential strategic corridor between Europe, USA, and Indo-Pacific region. According to experts, exploitation of this corridor may change the world navigation and transportation of most of cargoes, halving the road from Asia to Europe.

However, the Pentagon believes that Russian laws on transit along the Northern Sea Route contradict the norms of international law, since they imply obtaining permission from the Russian authorities before passing through the Arctic waters and the mandatory presence of a Russian pilot on board. Naturally, the United States will not silently put up with such claims of the Russian regime pursuing an aggressive foreign policy.

In turn, China has unexpectedly declared itself «a country close to Arctic» and has begun to consider plans for polar Silk Road connecting China and Europe. Beijing plans to construct nuclear-powered icebreakers capable to navigate through the Northern Sea Route without Russia’s assistance and any Russia’s permission.

In general, a significant increase of China’s navy has been observed for last five years. Beijing has put into operation 80 new ships and submarines, which seriously increases the PRC’s capabilities to work in the Arctic, at least during summer-autumn navigation.

No prizes for guessing that it is Moscow’s policy that has become the main factor of the Arctic militarisation. It was in 2014 when V.Putin ordered the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation to create in the Arctic a unified system for deploying surface ships and submarines of a new generation, to strengthen the border and to form a new state body to implement the policy of the Russian Federation in this region. In addition to the naval grouping, the new structure included units of naval aviation, ground forces, military space forces and air defense. On December 1, 2014, the Northern Fleet Joint Strategic Command was created to advance the interests of the Russian Federation in the Arctic.

In 2014-2015, Russia began to create/restore military camps and airfields in six regions of the Arctic: on Alexandra Land (Franz Josef Land archipelago); in the village of Rogachevo on Novaya Zemlya; on Sredny Island (Severnaya Zemlya); at SCHMIDT Cape; on Wrangel Island and Kotelny Island (Novosibirsk Islands). Moreover, the Arctic Shamrock military base on Alexandra Land has become the northernmost military base in the world!

In 2019, V.Putin ordered to modernize fleet of nuclear-powered submarines to protect the North of Russia and construct a new type of nuclear icebreakers. The military repaired airfields on the northern coast of the Russian Federation and deployed S-400 long-range air defense systems, as well as modern radars. On the New Siberian Islands and Franz Josef Land archipelagos, the military deployed the Bastion coastal missile systems. Leaving the permanent ports of Severomorsk and Murmansk in the Barents Sea, Russian warships annually make voyages across the Arctic Ocean.

At the beginning of 2021, intending to protect its interest in the Arctic region by, first of all, military means, Russia on the base of the Northern Fleet Joint Strategic Command created a new (fifth) Military District with its headquarters at Kola Inlet, not far from the Arctic city of Murmansk.

This very new military district received a fleet of MiG-31 military aircraft, Su-34, and strategic bombers. The repaired airbase in the village of Nagurskoye, located on an ice-covered archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, has transformed a once-abandoned foothold for Soviet aircraft into one of Russia’s most modern military outposts.

On the territories bordering with Finland and Norway, Russia has deployed more powerful and technologically advanced weapons systems. On its north and northwestern borders Russia has increased state of readiness of its armed forces and improved its possibilities of power projection (that is, the ability of a state to use military force, in particular, to quickly and efficiently deploy and maintain it outside its territory).

So, after Russia has increased its military presence in Arctic region other Arctic countries had no choice, but to follow the same way. Will the militarization of this region only grow, or will the countries of the West and Russia be able to agree on at least some demilitarized areas in the Arctic? Only time will tell.

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