June 25, 2019

Russia’s Military Capabilities in the Arctic

A Russian soldier on Kotelny Island with the Pantsir-S1 air-defence missile system in the background. Russia is increasing its military presence in the Arctic.
A Russian soldier on Kotelny Island with the Pantsir-S1 air-defence missile system in the background. Russia is increasing its military presence in the Arctic.

Moscow is deploying ever more military technology to the polar region.

The Russian government has recently developed rules for the passage of foreign warships on the Northern Sea Route (NSR). According to Izvestia, foreign military vessels should notify Russia of their plans 45 days in advance and take Russian pilots aboard. Passage may be denied, and in the case of unauthorised movement along the NSR Russia will be able to apply emergency measures, up to the arrest or destruction of the vessel. In the event of a worsening of the ice situation, according to the new rules, only Russian icebreakers will be authorised to provide service to foreign vessels.1

The government had been working on restricting the passage of foreign warships in the Arctic Ocean since 2018.2 Last year Russia’s vice premier stated that the government was also considering allowing transportation of hydrocarbons along the NSR only by Russian ships.3 Moreover, in recent months statements by Russian officials reiterating Russia’s rights in the Arctic have accelerated. All of this is taking place amidst Russia’s build-up and upgrading of its military infrastructure and strengthening of its military capabilities in its Arctic region.

Since the end of the 2000s Russia has been trying to reassert its military presence in the Arctic region and to secure its control over resources in the Arctic and access to a strategic northern shipping corridor between Asia and Europe, which takes about two weeks less to traverse than the Suez Canal route. The Arctic is also important to the country’s security.

Since the Soviet era, Moscow has viewed its Arctic territories mainly from two angles: security and economic value. Even before the establishment of the Soviet Union, in 1916 the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Empire sent a note to foreign governments in which it determined the status of territories located in Russia’s Arctic zone. The note proposed to recognise the territory of all the lands of Russia continuing to the north of the Siberian continental plateau. In 1921, Russia extended its sovereignty to territorial waters, which constituted a zone of 12 nautical miles. In 1924, the People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs of the USSR issued a memorandum confirming the theses of the 1916 note that all the land extending from the Siberian continental plateau belonged to Russia. The memorandum also referred to the Washington Convention, which was signed by the United States and Russia on 18 March 1867. On 15 April 1926, a decree was issued by the Presidium of the CEC of the USSR “On declaring lands and islands located in the Arctic Ocean as the territory of the USSR”. In 1990, Russia ratified the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, thus abandoning the sectorial principle. Based on the norms of the convention, Russia is permitted to explore and develop resources only within its exclusive economic zone, which should not exceed 200 nautical miles.4

The Arctic is known for its huge reserves of hydrocarbons and biological resources, and is extremely important for Russia, along with the existence of the NSR. Moscow is certain that Russia has exclusive rights to the NSR. In recent years, possibilities such as the successful realisation of economic projects centred on natural resources and the development of transportation using the NSR have increased due to the effects of climate change in the Arctic. Understanding these economic benefits pushes Russia to strengthen its military presence in the Arctic even more firmly.

The Soviet Legacy in the Russian Military Build-up in the Arctic

Russia’s presence in the Arctic was developed and strengthened by the Soviet Union. In the Cold War the USSR established airbases, radar stations and anti-aircraft batteries to defend its northern coastline. During that period, the American and Soviet navies considered the North Pole in terms of possible shorter routes for the passage of combat ships: destroyers, frigates and nuclear submarines. Moreover, the Arctic Ocean has unique water conditions that complicate both the detection and operation of submarines. Suzanne Holroyd gives three reasons for this: first, the differences in salinity resulting from several temperature layers cause acoustic refraction; second, the Arctic waters are much “nosier” than other oceans because of the shifting and breaking of ice, which can create acoustic cover to confuse listening devices; and third, the ice itself presents an obstacle to overhead or surface antisubmarine warfare.5 The Soviet Union took advantage of the environmental characteristics of the ocean and designed its submarines according to these conditions.6

There were also issues such as nuclear tests and the installation of strategic weapons. In the Arctic, a Soviet nuclear testing site (“Object 700”) was established on the Novaya Zemlya archipelago in 1955. Between then and 1990, 130 nuclear tests were carried out there: 88 atmospheric, three underwater and 39 underground. It is now called the Central Testing Site of the Russian Federation.7

From the strategic point of view, in terms of military advantage, missiles launched over the poles fly a shorter distance in order to reach their targets. During the Cold War, the Arctic came under intense scrutiny as it represented the shortest flight path for ICBMs and intercontinental bombers between the Soviet Union and North America.8 The Arctic Ocean also offers routes into the northern waters of both the Atlantic and the Pacific.9 During the Soviet era, there were two main SSBN bases in the Kola region, hosting the USSR’s entire fleet of Typhoon and Delta IV class nuclear submarines.10

The interception of Bear bombers was one of the most likely scenarios for military conflict in the Cold War. The ritual was played out thousands of times between 1961 and 1991 as US and Canadian air-defence fighters scrambled to engage long-range Soviet bombers and reconnaissance aircraft on the periphery of North American airspace. Most (but not all) of the challenges were in the far north, over the Bering Sea around Alaska or in the “GIUK gap,” the open sea areas between the landmasses of Greenland, Iceland and the United Kingdom. Navy pilots intercepted Soviet intelligence-gathering aircraft that overflew US carriers at sea, and Air Defense Command squadrons made intercepts as far south as Florida. In response to the increasing threat from Soviet bombers across the polar routes, in 1958 the US and Canada formed the North American Air Defense Command, with the mission of defending the continental US and Canada against air attack.11 Following a first incident in 1961, such activities continued regularly up to the end of the Cold War.

The northernmost ice airfield, on Graham Bell Island in the Franz Josef Land archipelago, was used for the Soviet strategic bombers. The distance from the airfield to the North Pole is 896 kilometres. In the late 1980s exercises involving the MiG-31 were held there. These could intercept US aircraft long before their possible approach to Russia’s central regions. In the late 1980s the number of such flights sometimes exceeded 500 a year.12 In 2007, for the first time since the collapse of the USSR, Russian strategic bombers flew from Engels airbase to the Arctic zone. The interceptions resumed in August 2007 and continue to this day. The aircraft intercepted by US fighters is still the Tu-95 Bear, which has been in operation for more than 60 years in various models and configurations.13 Over the last several months, US and Canadian fighter jets have been scrambled to intercept several Russian strategic bombers heading for the North American coastline.14

Claims over the NSR began even during the Cold War. In 1964, Moscow and Washington exchanged notes of protest because the Kremlin was against American ships proceeding without authority along the coast of the USSR. Moscow’s militarisation of the polar north is heavily influenced by economic, geographical and Cold War considerations.

Russia’s Military Build-up in Recent Years

Twenty thousand kilometres of the Russian border runs through the Arctic Ocean. There are bases for Russia’s Northern Fleet and its nuclear-powered icebreakers. Russia’s Arctic territories (in Russian parlance, the Russian Arctic zone or Far North) are of particular importance as the most open in terms of direct control of the state border and the front line of the country’s defence system. Russia’s recent maritime and military doctrines treat the Arctic as one of the priority geographical areas for the country’s economic development and security.15 Within its borders are stationed defence facilities for various purposes, border posts, and hydro-meteorological, geophysical and other research stations.16 The Kola Peninsula and the adjacent waters were and remain a zone of particular military importance for Russia. The peculiarities of this territory—access to the Arctic Ocean, the presence of large defence infrastructure assets—make it an ideal location for strategic, naval and air operations. The strategic importance of the Arctic is primarily associated with the sea-based nuclear forces deployed in the region.17 According to 2014 estimates, 81% of Russia’s sea-based nuclear weaponry is assigned to submarines attached to the Northern Fleet. Moreover, the Russian Arctic has also been an important test site for Russian nuclear and missile technology since the Soviet era. This is the area where Russia is developing and testing new long-range missiles and conducting training and exercises for nuclear forces.18 Russia can claim to be the Arctic military power. Russia has important economic, environmental and military-strategic potential concentrated here, and the Russian Federation at all levels declares its readiness to comprehensively protect its interests in the Arctic. In April 2019, the defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, stated that in the coming months the Northern Fleet would receive 368 of the latest weapons and military equipment, and that by the end of the year 59% of the country’s modern arsenal would be there.19

Strengthening the Northern Fleet: Reopening  Soviet-era Military Bases and Building New Ones

Russia’s military component in the Arctic has been strengthened in recent years. Since the end of the 2000s, the defence ministry has been working to reopen Soviet-era defensive installations in the Arctic and strengthen its armed presence there. Russian military engineers have launched large-scale construction in the Arctic, at facilities located along the entire coast of the mainland and on islands from the Murmansk region to the Far East. Since 2014, about 500 assets have been built, covering an area of over 710,000 square metres. Among them are 89 buildings and structures at the Nagurskoe military base on Alexandra Land in the Franz Josef Land archipelago, more than 250 buildings and structures of the key Temp base on Kotelny Island in the Novosibirsk Islands archipelago, and 85 structures on Wrangel Island and Cape Schmidt.20 According to Russian defence minister Shoigu, 475 facilities have been erected on Kotelny Island, Alexandra Land and Wrangel Island and at Cape Schmidt over six years.21

In 2014, president Vladimir Putin announced the creation of the Northern Fleet Joint Strategic Command, a Murmansk-based combined forces command to coordinate every military unit in the Arctic. It was based on the Northern Fleet and included several parts of the Western, Central and Eastern military districts. Moreover, according to Russian media, the Ministry of Defence is going to change the status of the Joint Strategic Command, which from December 2019 will be an independent military administrative unit, equal in status to a military district.22

Russia plans to re-establish 13 airbases and 10 radar stations and establish air, surface and underwater monitoring systems. The armed forces would also deploy anti-aircraft and anti-submarine defence forces on these bases. In addition, Russia plans to open 20 border outposts and ten integrated emergency rescue centres in the Arctic.23 Between 2015 and 2016 the deployment and arrangement of six military bases was completed in Russia’s polar region: on Alexandra Land, Novaya Zemlya, Sredny Island, Kotelny Island  and Wrangel Island, and at Cape Schmidt. Military bases, military airfields, and combat positions of units and subunits of the Air Defence and Aerospace Forces were built or reconstructed. During 2017, the reconstruction of the remaining infrastructure facilities and the improvement of the airfield network were planned in order to host self-sufficient mobile groups of troops by 2018.24 In 2015, two separate anti-aircraft missile regiments equipped with the Triumph S-400 were deployed on the Arctic coast. To protect military infrastructure from air attack, batteries of the Pantsir-S anti-aircraft missile system were deployed. Moreover, a coastal missile division equipped with the Bastion system was deployed on Novaya Zemlya. On other islands in the Arctic Ocean and in some continental areas, coastal rocket, anti-aircraft missile and rocket-artillery units and subunits are on round-the-clock combat duty. In permanent locations along the NSR, aviation control points, radio, radar and space reconnaissance positions are installed.25 The 61st Marine Brigade and a motorised rifle brigade are stationed in Pechenga, and the Arctic Brigade in Alakurtti. All three formations are subordinate to the Joint Strategic Command.26 The Northern Fleet is planning to complete the re-equipment of the separate motorised rifle brigade with T-80BVM tanks, the best adapted to the Arctic, in 2019.

The Northern Fleet currently consists of a combination of nuclear submarines (the basis of Russia’s strategic nuclear forces), combined independent forces, the Air Force and Air Defence Force, the army corps of the Ground Forces, coastal troops and surface ships of various types and classes. The infrastructure created on all the archipelagos, from Franz Josef Land in the west to the Novosibirski Islands in the east, has a modern and highly efficient logistics system. Based on the Northern Fleet, the only Arctic units in the Russian Armed Forces have been created, with personnel regularly conducting exercises to protect the Russian Arctic and island territories and capable of landing on the coast and islands of the Arctic Ocean to carry out raid operations from sea and air. The complex of tasks handled by the Northern Fleet here is unique in Russia. Its naval strategic nuclear forces provide strategic stability, while the heterogeneous fleet forces provide reliable protection for Russia’s interests in the Arctic and in the ocean area, as well as ensuring the safety of civilian shipping. The Northern Fleet conducts extensive oceanographic and research work in the Arctic, opens up new, previously unknown geographical assets and conducts work related to military history.27 In recent years, 34 geographical discoveries have been made by the Fleet’s hydrographic survey ships during research trips to the Arctic.28

In December 2018, a Northern Fleet officer, Admiral Nikolai Yevmenov, who has recently been appointed commander-in-chief of the Russian Navy, stated that the Joint Strategic Command “significantly increased its combat potential over three years and repeatedly confirmed its readiness to successfully accomplish tasks in the Arctic zone and the world’s oceans”.29 These days the Northern Fleet is the largest, most powerful and most modern naval force in Russia. It protects the national border in the Arctic Ocean and ensures the safety of navigation in the coastal part of the Barents and White seas. Its ballistic-missile submarines are the most significant part of the entire Russian strategic nuclear forces.30 In 2015, the flagship of the submarine fleet, Yuri Dolgoruki, was deployed to the Arctic, and the strategic nuclear submarine Alexander Nevski completed a transarctic transit to a permanent base in Kamchatka. The entire Russian nuclear surface fleet is involved in the circumpolar latitudes: the battlecruiser Pyotr Velikiy, the large landing ships Kondopoga and Olenegorskiy Gornyak, and the icebreakers Yamal, Vaygach, 50 Let Pobedy and Taymyr.31

An active re-equipment of surface and submarine forces is also planned. Between 2018 and 2020, the composition of the Northern Fleet should be replenished with three Project 955A Borey II-class nuclear ballistic-missile submarines (Knyaz Vladimir, Knyaz Oleg and Knyaz Pozharskiy); three Project 885M Yasen II-class nuclear cruise-missile submarines (Kazan, Arkhangelsk and Ulyanovsk); and three Project 22350 Gorshkov-class frigates (Admiral Gorshkov, Admiral Flota Kasatonov and Admiral Golovko).32 It is planned that in 2019, the submarines Knyaz Vladimir and Kazan, which are being tested in the White Sea, will be deployed to the Northern Fleet. The border service of the FSB is already receiving new Polar Star-class icebreakers.33 However, the multipurpose nuclear submarine Kazan will not be handed over to the Russian Navy in 2019 because of the need to refine its auxiliary systems—which, according to a representative of the military-industrial complex speaking to TASS, do not meet the requirements of the Ministry of Defence—and may not even happen in 2021.34 The Northern Fleet continues to implement the Comprehensive Plan of the Ministry of Defence to develop the capabilities of groups of forces and troops in the Arctic for the period to 2020. In 2018, the logistic support vessel Elbrus, the frigate Admiral Flota Sovetskogo Soyuza Gorshkov and the large landing ship Ivan Gren were received by the Fleet, and testing of the tanker Akademik Pashin was completed.

The Largest Icebreaker Fleet

Russia has the world’s largest fleet of icebreakers, numbering some 40 ships spread across the Arctic Ocean.35 Moreover, several of these are nuclear-powered. Most of Russia’s nuclear icebreakers are now old—they were mostly built in the 1970s and 1980s—and the functionality of  many of them is questionable. The Russian government aims to replace them with new ships, and in recent years it launched new a state project to build them. Under Project 22220, three of the new-generation icebreakers (Arktika, Sibir and Ural) should be deployed to the fleet by 2021. According to the head of Rosatom, it is planning to build a flotilla of nuclear icebreakers by 2030 in order to keep the NSR navigable throughout the year.36 Russia deployed its first auxiliary icebreaker to the Fleet in 2018: Ilya Muromets, a diesel-electric vessel capable of breaking a fairway in ice up to a metre thick. This does not carry weapons, although theoretically naval artillery equipment can be installed. In addition, the Russian MOD has decided to bet on more militarised icebreakers: Admiralty Shipyards in St Petersburg has already received an order for universal ice-class patrol ships for the Arctic zone (Project 23550). These ships combine the qualities of a tugboat, an icebreaker and a patrol ship and will be armed with Klub-K missile systems and A-190 naval guns. It is believed that the first of these icebreakers, Ivan Papanin, will be deployed to the Fleet after 2020.37

Air Forces and Air Defence Capabilities

In 2018, the construction of unique all-weather airfields on the islands of Alexandra Land and Kotelny continued,38 and Bastion and Bal coastal defence missile systems were deployed to the region (the former was delivered to a base on Kotelny Island to take part in exercises).39 “Rocket fire will be launched at a remote target simulating a group of enemy surface ships,” said the Northern Fleet spokesman. The Bastion system is a unified coastal defence complex employing the supersonic homing Onyx anti-ship missile designed to defend more than 600km of coastline against surface ships. One fully-loaded unit carries 36 Onyx missiles, which can engage targets beyond the visual horizon.40 The Russian defence ministry planned that Bastion would begin combat duty on Kotelny Island by the end of 2018.41 In 2018 the Northern Fleet commander stated that Russia planned to develop an anti-aircraft defence unit in Tiksi, which would become part of the 45th Army; the new base would join Arctic anti-aircraft systems on Kotelny Island and Franz Josef Land.42 According to local media, in 2019 a military camp will be deployed in Tiksi, the construction of which is almost complete.43 This will be the base for units of the Northern Fleet’s Air Forces and Air Defence Force.44 New units of the Northern Fleet’s Air Defence Force, which are designed to ensure the safety of the airspace above the NSR, will be deployed in Tiksi in 2019.45 Last year the defence ministry received Tor-M2DT surface-to-air missile systems designed for the Arctic region. The system is capable of detecting moving aerial targets at a range of 15km and altitudes of 12km and is able to work at minus 50° Celsius.46

After 30 years, the Ministry of Defence will resume patrolling the airspace in the North Pole area in 2019, with MiG-31BM interceptor fighters taking up combat duty. Two squadrons will control the Arctic region. The Arctic will be covered from the west by the 98th Independent Composite Air Regiment (OSAP) of the Northern Fleet’s Joint Strategic Command, which is stationed at Monchegorsk airbase in the Murmansk region. The 317th OSAP, based at Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky Yelizovo international airport in Kamchatka, will respond to threats to air security from the east.47 According to the Russian Navy’s aviation chief, Maj Gen Igor’ Kozhin, in the years to come many Russian airfields in the Arctic will become all-season operable and will be able to receive all types of aircraft, including missile carriers.48 Three aviation regiments of the Pacific and Northern fleets recently began patrolling there. Moreover, the NSR is patrolled daily by Il-38N Dolphin anti-submarine aircraft equipped with the powerful Novella optical-electronic and radio intelligence systems, which are intended to supply troops with relevant information collected in the region. Representatives of the Navy General Staff told Izvestia that aircraft control the activities of surface ships and submarines in the vicinity of the NSR and can be involved in pursuing submarines and laying minefields.49

Radio-Electronic Warfare Capabilities

Another issue is surveillance satellites, for whose operations the Arctic offers favourable technical conditions. The possibility of installing satellite monitoring stations in this zone is extremely important for Russia. Moreover, Russia is actively working on anti-satellite capabilities in the context of the development of US space capabilities. In August 2018, a contract was signed for the supply of latest-generation EW systems for jamming satellites (Tirada-2.3) to the Russian MOD, according to whom the delivery of the new systems would start the same year.50 Alongside the anti-satellite EW capability, Russia is strengthening its communications-jamming technologies. The Norwegian government recently cited “electronic harassment” of its critical communications systems and networks by the Russian government. Recent intelligence reports from the Norwegian national security agencies link the jamming of GPS signals—most recently during the NATO Trident Juncture 18 exercise in the High North in October–November 2018—to electronic interference by Russia. According to the Norwegian government, most jamming incidents since 2017 have coincided with such exercises. The region is close to heavily fortified Russian military installations on the Kola Peninsula. Although Moscow rejects the allegations, Finland has also protested to Russia over suspected jamming of both military and civilian communications systems by the Russian military near its northern border with Russia.51 However, MurmanskBN EW systems have recently been deployed in Severomorsk on the Kola Peninsula and in Kamchatka— locations making it possible for systems to cover the whole of the NSR. The range of the system is 5,000km, and up to 8,000km in good weather conditions. Moreover, the Krasukha-2 and Krasukha-4 systems have recently been deployed in new military bases in Novaya Zemlya, Severnaya Zemlya, Novosibirskiye Ostrova and Chukotka. According to military expert Dmitry Boltenkov, Murmansk-BN on the Kola Peninsula and in Kamchatka will be able to block short-wave communications all along the NSR, and systems such as Krasukha-4 can jam satellite communications, GPS navigation and communication channels using UAVs. The new Divnomorye mobile system can close important assets within a radius of several hundred kilometres from an adversary’s radar detection. According to Russian experts, this system “hits” with powerful jamming the equipment on E-3, E-2 Hawkeye and E-8 JSTAR AWACS radar aircraft, helicopters and UAVs, cruise missiles and satellite radar systems, which also allows it to deprive ships and aircraft of navigational aids. All these systems are part of the Northern Fleet’s recently completed Centre for Radio-Electronic Warfare, which consists of several battalions and independent companies. According to military expert Viktor Murakhovski, the radio-electronic warfare units in the Arctic are designed to deal with two tasks: ensuring the safety of navigation on the NSR and controlling the radio-electronic sphere in the region.52 In addition, Russia is creating a new A2AD environment in Kamchatka, which will cover its military bases, including the home of nuclear submarines in Vilyuchinsk. Besides the operational Murmansk-BN REW system, it is planned to deploy Bastion and Bal missile systems there by 2021. By using the A2AD environment in Kamchatka, Russia can also control the entrance to the NSR from the Barents Sea.53

Moreover, the first Russian satellite for weather forecasting and monitoring climate and environment in the Arctic region, Arktika-M, is planned to be sent into near-earth orbit in June 2019, a source in the Russian space industry told Sputnik in January.54 This satellite may be also used for surveillance. Russia aims to increase its surveillance capabilities in the region and is actively developing and acquiring drone technology. Russian vessels are especially adapted to navigating without the use of global satellite-based navigation systems, which are often unreliable in polar regions. For that purpose the drones use a newly developed system, GIRSAM, when GPS and GLONASS are not available.55 According to Vladimir Dmitriev, CEO of Kalashnikov Group, which makes Russia’s ZALA Arctic series UAVs, these new drones are capable of successfully delivering civil and military tasks in conducting research in the Arctic, ensuring the safety of maritime navigation and round-the-clock protection of borders, and organising a complete system for tracking the Arctic coastline and territorial waters. The drones are capable of identifying and gathering information about ships up to 100km away.56

Russian newspapers recently reported that several fibre-optic cables will be built to support the new Multi-service Transport Network System (MTSS), under which all important information will be stored only on the servers of the Russian MOD. This includes one major cable laid across the country’s Arctic coast from Vladivostok in the east to Murmansk and Severomorsk in the west. According to Izvestia, the ministry has already started preparing for the laying of a trans-Arctic cable for all domestic internet traffic.57


Yuri Borisov, the Russian deputy prime minister responsible for the military industry, recently stated that the Arctic was part of the Russian zone of interest and Moscow was not going to give up its influence on that territory.58 Russia’s military build-up there confirms that Moscow is firm in securing its interests in the Arctic. It should be noted that Russia maintains as strong a military presence as it does maritime power. In addition to its military capabilities, it also has the fleet of icebreakers, bigger and stronger than those of other Arctic and non-Arctic powers. Moscow is trying to carry out a whole range of activities under its Arctic Infrastructure Development Plan in the interest of ensuring Russia’s security up to 2020. Stressing the Arctic’s strategic importance, in February 2019 president Vladimir Putin renamed the Ministry for the Development of the Russian Far East by adding “and Arctic” to its name.59

The need to maintain and develop the military component of the Russian Federation in the Arctic is dictated by its security and economic interests in the region. Russia considers the growing presence of other Arctic powers and the plans of non-Arctic countries to gain access to the circumpolar seas as potential threats to its interests. Russia supports economic cooperation in its Arctic zone, but only by securing its hegemony there. However, the key to the successful implementation of Arctic natural resources projects and the sea route will be mainly based on financing for economic projects and commercial and military maritime activities. Implementation of these projects will need huge financial and technological resources, which Russia on its own may not be able to provide, given its economic capabilities. Russia’s political elite probably understands these realities. Deputy foreign minister Alexander Grushko recently emphasised that extracting resources required international collaboration because it was a very expensive undertaking. “And this is a unique platform for searching for new interaction algorithms,” Grushko explained.60

However, the threats and challenges associated with competition for control over the Arctic region will probably increase in the years to come. These days not only circumpolar countries are involved in this competition; the regional interests of non-Arctic powers such as China are also increasing. There are claims by both Western and Russian officials that security in the Arctic is being threatened by each other’s increasing military presence.61 Although climate change and the strategic and economic interests of several countries create the possibility of militarisation of the Arctic, the likelihood of large-scale conflict there is low; individual confrontations, such as the recent incident in the Black Sea’s Kerch Strait, are more likely. Moreover, cooperation has continued between Russia and other Arctic countries in recent years. There are several cases of Russia and the US working together in the framework of the International Maritime Organization and the Arctic Council in recent years.62 The Arctic is a region where dividing lines between adversaries and allies may be blurred. For instance, US and Canadian interests do not always coincide, but Canada’s disagreement over the Northwest Passage mirrors a similar one with Moscow’s claim that the NSR is part of its domestic waters. Similarly, in several matters the position of Russia’s strategic ally China on the Arctic is closer to that of the US than it is to Russia’s.63

However, Russia and NATO still have significant military strength, albeit much reduced since the Cold War. The US also plans to improve its military presence in the Arctic in the future.64 According to Russian experts, the constant presence of the US nuclear submarine fleet and deploying sea-based missile defence systems that are being actively developed by the Americans will create opportunities in the Arctic to intercept Russian ballistic missiles and deliver a pre-emptive strike.65 But, as Stephanie Pezard puts it, “Russia is deploying capabilities that can defend a region it deems highly strategic, but could also, in theory, be employed for other purposes—for instance, locking Norway (a NATO member) behind an anti-access/area denial ‘bubble’”.66

Understanding Russia’s economic weaknesses, Moscow is concerned that the West (mainly) and other powers plan to deprive Russia of the Northern Sea Route and the economic resources of the Arctic. And to prevent such an outcome, Russia is strengthening its military presence in the region as a tool of deterrence.


1 Aleksey Kozachenko, Bogdan Stepovoy and El’nar Baynazarov, “Kholodnaya volna: inostrantsam sozdali pravila prokhoda Sevmorputi”, 6 March 2019. https://iz.ru/852943/aleksei-kozachenko-bogdan-stepovoi-elnar-bainazarov/kholodnaia-volna-inostrantcam-sozdali-pravila-prokhoda-sevmorputi.

2 Interfax, “S 2019 goda voyennye korabli smogut khodit’ po Sevmorputi tol’ko uvedomiv RF”, 30 November 2018. https://www.interfax.ru/russia/640154.

3 Yurii Borisov, “Perevozit’ uglevodorody po Severnomu morskomu puti razreshat tol’ko sudam pod flagom RF”, 27 July 2018. https://www.interfax.ru/russia/622752.

4 Russian International Affairs Council, “Арктическая политика-Российская Арктика: от истории к современности”, 10 December 2012. http://russiancouncil.ru/blogs/arctic/256/

5 Suzanne M. Holroyd, “U.S. and Canadian Cooperative Approaches to Arctic Security”. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, June 1990, pp. vi–vii. https://www.rand.org/pubs/notes/N3111.html.

6 Ibid.

7 Sergey Brezkun, “Novaya Zemlya – ob’yekt osoboy sekretnosti”, 12 September 2014.  http://nvo.ng.ru/nvo/2014-09-12/1_nov_zemlia.html.

8 Holroyd, op. cit., p. vi.

9 Ibid.

10 Holroyd, op. cit., p. v.

11 John T. Correll, “Intercepting the Bear”, Air Force Magazine 101(4), April/May 2018, pp. 52–7. http://www.airforcemag.com/MagazineArchive/Pages/2018/April%202018/Intercepting-the-Bear.aspx.

12 Vladimir Mukhin, “Rossiya gotovit voyennyye bazy dlya zashchity Arktiki”, 17 October 2013. http://www.ng.ru/armies/2013-10-17/1_arctica.html.

13 Ibid.

14 Zamira Rahim, “US and Canadian jet fighters scrambled to escort Russian bombers off American coast”, The Independent, 27 January 2019. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-canada-fighter-jets-norad-russia-airspace-bombers-satellite-navy-air-force-a8749206.html.

15 President of the Russian Federation, “Morskaya doktrina Rossiyskoy Federatsii, utv”, 26 July 2015. http://static.kremlin.ru/media/events/files/ru/uAFi5nvux2twaqjftS5yrIZUVTJan77L.pdf; “Voennaya doktrina Rossiiskoi Federatsii”, Rossiyskaya gazeta – Federal’nyi vypusk 298(6570), 30 December 2014. https://rg.ru/2014/12/30/doktrina-dok.html.

16 V. N. Konyshev and A. A. Sergunin, “Arktika v mezhdunarodnoy politike: sotrudnichestvo ili sopernichestvo?”. Moscow: RISI, 2011, p. 15.

17 V.Yu. Mishin and V.E. Boldyrev, “Voyenno-strategicheskaya sostavlyayushchaya rossiyskoy politiki v Arktike:sostoyaniye, problemy, perspektivy”, Oykumena 2 (2016), p. 148.

18 Kristian Søby Kristensen and Casper Sakstrup, “Russian Policy in the Arctic after the Ukraine Crisis”. Centre for Military Studies, University of Copenhagen, September 2016, p. 19.

19 Yuriy Gavrilov, “Rakety v snegakh”, Rossiyskaya gazeta – Federal’nyy vypusk 94(7852), 26 April 2019. https://rg.ru/2019/04/26/shojgu-na-severnyj-flot-postupit-368-novejshih-obrazcov-vooruzheniia.html

20 Марина Щербакова, “Амбициозные задачи нужно ставить перед собой всегда”. Krasnaya Zvezda, 06 November 2018. http://redstar.ru/ambitsioznye-zadachi-nuzhno-stavit-pered-soboj-vsegda/?attempt=1#content.

21 TASS, “Minoborony postroilo v Arktike uzhe 475 ob’yektov voyennoy infrastruktury”, 11 March 2019. https://tass.ru/armiya-i-opk/6204831.

22 Aleksey Ramm, Aleksey Kozachenko and Bogdan Stepovoy, “Polyarnoe vliyanie: Severnyi flot poluchit status voennogo okruga”. Izvestia, 19 April 2019. https://iz.ru/869512/aleksei-ramm-aleksei-kozachenko-bogdan-stepovoi/poliarnoe-vliianie-severnyi-flot-poluchit-status-voennogo-okruga.

23 Matthew Kupfer and Matthew Bodner, “Hot Air, Cold War: How Russia Spooks Its Arctic Neighbors”. The Moscow Times, 19 May 2017. https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2017/05/19/hot-air-cold-war-how-russia-spooks-its-arctic-neighbors-a58040.

24 Mishin and Boldyrev, op. cit., p.149.

25 Ministerstvo oborony Rossiyskoy Federatsii, Severnyy flot, https://structure.mil.ru/structure/okruga/north/history.htm.

26 Yekaterina Postnikova, “«Mirnaya Arktika» v boyegotovnosti: SSHA zashli v storonu Rossii s severa”. Izvestia, 22 August 2018. https://iz.ru/778971/ekaterina-postnikova/mirnaia-arktika-v-boegotovnosti-ssha-zashli-v-storonu-rossii-s-severa

27 TV Zvezda, “Obedinennoe strategicheskoe komandovaniye Severnogo flota otmechayet chetvertuyu godovshchinu so dnya obrazovaniya”, 15 December 2018. https://tvzvezda.ru/news/forces/content/201812151538-mil-ru-sw5kt.html.

28 Pavel Nastin, “Severnyy flot sovershil boleye 30 geograficheskikh otkrytiy za neskol’ko let”. TV Zvezda, 13 March 2019. https://tvzvezda.ru/news/forces/content/20193131143-R9i6y.html; TV Zvezda, “Severnyy flot peredal Russkomu geograficheskomu obshchestvu otchot po gidrograficheskim issledovaniyam v Arktike”,

26 November 2018. https://tvzvezda.ru/news/forces/content/201811260014-mil-ru-ryrff.html

29> TV Zvezda, “Obedinennoe strategicheskoe komandovaniye”.

30 Mishin and Boldyrev, op. cit., p.149.

31 Ibid., p. 150.

32 Vladimir Demchenko, “Krepost’ po imeni Arktika”. Zvezda Weekly, 26 June 2018. https://zvezdaweekly.ru/news/t/20186251010-nwatl.html.

33 Aleksandr Karpov, “Strategiya SSHA v Arktike: ne den’gami, tak oruzhiyem”. Regnum News Agency, 1 March 2019. https://regnum.ru/news/2583549.html

34 TASS, “Istochnik: atomnaya podlodka ‘Kazan’ ne budet sdana flotu v 2019 godu”. 17 May 2019. https://tass.ru/armiya-i-opk/6441111?keepThis=true&TB_iframe=true&height=500&width=1100&caption=%D0%A2%D0%90%D0%A1%D0%A1.

35 Kupfer and Bodner, op. cit.

36 RIA-Novosti, “Rosatom planiruyet k 2030 godu sformirovat’ flotiliyu atomnykh ledokolov”, 9 April 2019. https://ria.ru/20190409/1552504418.html?in=t.

37 Demchenko, op. cit.

38 Ibid.; Marina Shcherbakova, “‘Ivan Gren’ proydot proverku v Arktike”. Krasnaya Zvezda, 29 October 2018. http://redstar.ru/ivan-gren-projdyot-proverku-v-arkticheskom-regione/.

39 Russian MOD, “Arkticheskaya gruppirovka Severnogo flota pribyla k ostrovu Kotel’nyy v more Laptevykh”, 24 September 2018. https://structure.mil.ru/structure/okruga/north/news/more.htm?id=12196676@egNews.

40 Interfax, “Rossiyskiye voyennye razvernuli raketnyi kompleks ‘Bastion’ v Arktike”, 25 September 2018. https://www.interfax.ru/russia/630562.

41 Roman Kretsul, Aleksey Ramm and Yevgeniy Dmitriyev, “«Bastiony» prikroyut «Rubezhi» v Arktike”. Izvestia, 11 September 2018. https://iz.ru/785340/roman-kretcul-aleksei-ramm/bastiony-prikroiut-rubezhi-v-arktike.

42 The Moscow Times, “Russia Plans New Anti-Aircraft Base in the Arctic”, 30 August 2018. https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2018/08/30/russia-plans-new-anti-aircraft-base-in-the-artctic-a62712; Russian MOD, “Komanduyushchiy Severnym flotom proveril gotovnost’ sil k provedeniyu ucheniya v Yakutii”, 27 August 2018. https://structure.mil.ru/structure/okruga/north/news/more.htm?id=12192964@egNews.

43 Russian MOD, “Stroitel’stvo voyennogo gorodka Severnogo flota v Yakutii blizitsya k zaversheniyu”, 29 January 2019. https://structure.mil.ru/structure/okruga/north/news/more.htm?id=12215015@egNews.

44 Aleksey Rudykh, “V Tiksi razmestyatsya podrazdeleniya VVS i PVO Severnogo flota”, 23 February 2019. http://ysia.ru/v-tiksi-razmestyatsya-podrazdeleniya-vvs-i-pvo-severnogo-flota/.

45 Yuliya Kozak, “Bezopasnost’ v Arktike – nasha prioritetnaya zadacha”, Krasnaya zvezda, 13 March 2019. http://redstar.ru/bezopasnost-v-arktike-nasha-prioritetnaya-zadacha/.

46 TASS, “Pervye 12 seriynykh ZRK ‘Tor-M2DT’ proshli ispytaniya i prinyaty Minoborony”, 25 November 2018. https://tass.ru/armiya-i-opk/5832971.

47 Aleksey Ramm, Aleksey Kozachenko, and Yevgeniy Dmitriyev, “Polchasa do polyusa: skorostnyye istrebiteli vzyali Arktiku pod control”. Izvestia, 30 January 2019. https://iz.ru/838095/aleksei-ramm-aleksei-kozachenko/polchasa-do-poliusa-skorostnye-istrebiteli-vziali-arktiku-pod-kontrol.

48 Oleg Pochiniuk, “Arkticheskiy rakurs morskoy aviatsii”. Interview with Igor’ Kozhin. Krasnaya zvezda, 11 March 2019. http://redstar.ru/arkticheskij-rakurs-morskoj-aviatsii/.

49 Aleksey Ramm and Aleksey Kozachenko, “Razvedka morem: Il-38N zastupili na boyevoye dezhurstvo v Arktike”. Izvestia, 27 May 2019. https://iz.ru/880521/aleksei-ramm-aleksei-kozachenko/razvedka-morem-il-38n-zastupili-na-boevoe-dezhurstvo-v-arktike.

50 Interfax, “Rossiya ispytala sistemy dlya podavleniya sputnikov”, 27 October 2018. https://www.interfax.ru/russia/635313

51 Gerard O’Dwyer, “Norway accuses Russia of jamming of its military systems”. Defense News, 9 March 2019. https://www.defensenews.com/global/europe/2019/03/08/norway-alleges-signals-jamming-of-its-military-systems-by-russia/

52 Aleksey Ramm, Bogdan Stepovoy and Roman Kretsul, “Shchit i put’: russkuyu Arktiku prikroyet radioelektronnyy kupol-Kompleksy «Murmansk-BN» stanut neletal’nym oruzhiyem dlya narushiteley”. Izvestia, 7 May 2019. https://iz.ru/875561/aleksei-ramm-bogdan-stepovoi-roman-kretcul/shchit-i-put-russkuiu-arktiku-prikroet-radioelektronnyi-kupol.

53 Aleksey Ramm and Bogdan Stepovoy, “Kamchatskiy kapkan: na poluostrove ustanovyat novyye razvedsistemy”. Izvestia, 29 May 2019. https://iz.ru/881500/aleksei-ramm-bogdan-stepovoi/kamchatskii-kapkan-na-poluostrove-ustanoviat-novye-razvedsistemy.

54 Sputniknews.com, “Russia to Launch First-Ever Arctic Weather Satellite – Source”, 21 January 2019. https://sputniknews.com/science/201901201071644441-russia-weather-forecast-satellite-launch/.

55 Malte Humpert, “Canada and Russia Looking to Deploy Surveillance Drones in the Arctic” . High North News, 22 February 2019. https://www.highnorthnews.com/en/canada-and-russia-looking-deploy-surveillance-drones-arctic.

56 Lana Samarina, “Glava ‘Kalashnikova’: kontsernu yest’ chto predlozhit’ dlya natsproyektov”. Interview with Vladimir Dmitriyev. TASS, 27 February 2019. https://tass.ru/interviews/6160957.

57 Aleksey Ramm, Aleksey Kozachenko and Bogdan Stepovoy, “Voyennyy, krasivyy, suverennyy: armiya RF sozdayet zakrytyy internet”. Izvestia, 12 March 2019. https://iz.ru/854961/aleksei-ramm-aleksei-kozachenko-bogdan-stepovoi/voennyi-krasivyi-suverennyi-armiia-rf-sozdaet-zakrytyi-internet.

58 TASS, “Борисов: Россия в Арктике ‘своего не упустит’”. 3 March 2019. https://tass.ru/politika/6180313.

59 Ministerstvo Rossiiskoi Federatsii po razvitiyu Dal’nego Vostoka i Arktiki (Russian Federation Ministry for the Development of the Russian Far East and Arctic), “Polnomochiya Minvostokrazvitiya Rossii rasshireny na Arkticheskuyu zonu Rossiyskoy Federatsii”, 26 February 2019. https://minvr.ru/press-center/news/21131/.

60 Armen Oganesyan, “Antirossiyskiye kampanii postoyanno trebuyut vbrosa novykh tem”. Interview with Alexandr Grushko. Mezhdunarodnaya zhizn’, 16 March 2019. https://interaffairs.ru/news/show/21931.

61 Dominic Nicholls, “British forces to step up Arctic deployment to protect Nato’s northern flank from Russia”. The Telegraph, 17 February 2019. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2019/02/17/british-forces-step-arctic-deployment-protect-natos-northern/. See also Rbc.ru, “Lavrov nazval glavu Minoborony Britanii ‘ministrom voyny’, 16 February 2019. https://www.rbc.ru/politics/16/02/2019/5c681ff89a7947fdea7abc8c.

62 The Maritime Executive, “IMO Authorizes New Bering Sea Routing”, 26 May 2018. https://www.maritime-executive.com/article/imo-authorizes-new-bering-sea-routing. See also International Maritime Organization, “Adoption of an international code of safety for ships operating in polar waters (Polar Code)”. http://www.imo.org/en/mediacentre/hottopics/polar/pages/default.aspx.

63 Stephanie Pezard, “How Not to Compete in the Arctic: The Blurry Lines Between Friend and Foe”. War On The Rocks, 27 February 2019. https://warontherocks.com/2019/02/how-not-to-compete-in-the-arctic-the-blurry-lines-between-friend-and-foe/.

64 Megan Eckstein, “Navy May Deploy Surface Ships to Arctic This Summer as Shipping Lanes Open Up”. USNI News, 8 January 2019. https://news.usni.org/2019/01/08/navy-may-deploy-surface-ships-arctic-summer-shipping-lanes-open.

65 Konyshev and Sergunin, op. cit., p. 39.

66 Pezard, op. cit.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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