Lately, hardly a day passes without another announcement of a new Russian military deployment in the Arctic. Yet, the Arctic’s fundamental strategic importance to Russia is economic: namely, the potential for extracting immense amounts of energy and other raw materials.
© AFP/Scanpix

Undeniably, climate change and the formerly high price of energy facilitated such exploration initially. But the combination of Western sanctions and falling energy prices makes Arctic exploration seem much less certain for Moscow since the costs of exploring the High North are substantially higher than in other markets.

Sanctions are also obliging Western firms to fold up their tents, so to speak. Whereas, Russian state-owned oil giant Rosneft, with characteristic bravado, says it will keep exploring. At the same time, the Western withdrawal has led Gazprom advisor Alexander Mandel to call for a Russian takeover of most of the Arctic production process and a diminished reliance upon Western technology. This bravado, however, cannot defy economic realities. Rosneft is already beseeching the government for $50 billion to bail it out of its commitments. And if energy prices fall further, the rationale for Arctic energy exploration will fade away along with the prices.

Nevertheless, Russia’s outward optimism remains undented, at least in public. The Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment jointly claim that there are no new signs of pollution in the Arctic, a remarkable assertion given the intense Russian activity there. These ministries also claim that there is considerable evidence of East Arctic hydrocarbon potential, a fact that further explains the intense amount of military construction there and throughout the Russian High North, as well as Moscow’s submerged, but nevertheless discernible, anxieties concerning China’s future policies in the Arctic.

Consequently Sergei Donskoi, the minister of natural resources and the environment announced that Russia has big plans for its High North and added that Moscow will file a request with the United Nations in the spring to extend its Arctic boundary. Specifically, this request, if approved (which currently looks quite unlikely given the unresolved Ukraine crisis), would allow Moscow to enforce its rights to add an additional 1.2 million square kilometers to its territory and increase its resource reserves by an equivalent of five billion tons of oil. More assertively, “this will broaden the foothold to secure [Russia’s] geopolitical interests in the Arctic by establishing jurisdiction and control over the [country’s] activities on the seabed and covered waters,” Minister Donskoi said. Thus the Russian Federation’s energy, economic, and geopolitical interests ultimately overlap, if not mesh together.

And therein lies the rub for Moscow’s efforts to assert its control over the Arctic and make it the future treasure house of Russian energy: such a goal requires the creation of a new strategic military direction. Russia’s Armed Forces are currently positioned in four separate strategic directions—West, South, Far East and Central (Russia). In each of these force concentrations, the Russian military is organized for combined arms operations, bringing together land, sea and air forces under a single district command. This structure is the result of the military reforms that Russia has been implementing since 2008 and constantly rehearsing and exercising. Both the Zapad-2013 and Vostok-2014 exercises included the Arctic even though their designated or primary purpose was to train forces facing westward and eastward, respectively. That fact illustrates the centrality of the Arctic in Russian military planning as do President Vladimir Putin’s repeated Dr. Strangelovian invocations of a Western threat to Russia’s precious raw materials and hydrocarbons

Thus, to select only a few instances of recent Russian military headlines, the government announced that the new military command Sever (North) will be created by 2017. Reportedly, this will be a multi-service or (to use US terminology) combined arms command comprising an integrated air and air defense network across the entire length and breadth of the Arctic, also including land, naval, air and, of course, strategic nuclear forces. The latter will, as before, be concentrated in the Northern Fleet’s submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM), a fact that further enhances the criticality of this theater for Moscow. As part of this program, Russia has already formed one brigade of Arctic land forces and will stand up a second one by 2016. According to Colonel-General Oleg Salyukov, commander-in-chief of the Russian ground forces, these brigades and other forces will “patrol Russia’s Arctic coastline, protect current and future military installations along the shore and in the Russian Arctic, ensure free passage of the Northern Sea Route, and—perhaps most important of all—demonstrate to other Arctic nations Russia’s military presence in the increasingly contested region”.

Yet, Moscow’s efforts to use the Arctic to swell Russia’s claims to great power status, its insistence on militarizing the area, as well as Russian attempts to intimidate the West via coordinated air probes over the region further negate the likelihood that profitable economic development will dominate the Russian High North’s strategic emergence. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and the Norwegian chief of the Barents Secretariat, Stein Ovesen, both claim that Russo-Norwegian relations are defined by partnership; but Norway (and other Western governments) must continue to keep Russian behavior in mind. Norway’s Defense Minister Ine Marie Eriksen Soreide has ordered a thorough evaluation of her country’s military capabilities, clearly due to Russian probes in Ukraine, the Baltic and the High North. Moreover, Oslo’s reluctance to send F-16s to Iraq as part of the Washington-led international coalition to combat the Islamic State is due, in part, to the rise in Russian activity.

Although most analysts have long concluded that the Arctic’s future would be dominated by economic development and international cooperation, thanks to Russia’s more recent behavior in the region, such a conclusion is no longer so certain. Moscow may have gained Crimea and eastern Ukraine, at least temporarily, but Russia’s government must now decide whether the loss of the future potential of the Russian High North was worth the gamble.

The Jamestown Foundation

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