Is The Bear Going White? The Russian Approach To Arti Geopolitics

The effects of climate change are opening up new spaces for geopolitical and geoeconomic competition. While Russia has implemented an aggressive strategy in the Arctic since 2008, the other Arctic states have only in recent years rethought their military strategies in the region. Their view is to balance the Kremlin’s military presence. NATO, in its current strategic document dating back to 2010, identifies climate change as a security threat, but completely excludes the arctic region from the strategic areas for the Alliance. This thereby explains why it has only enjoyed restricted maneuvering room and had so far limited leverage on the direction of events in the arctic sea over the last decade.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg convened a group of experts that created a policy document called “NATO 2023.” Published in November 2020, it mentions that the next strategic document of the Atlantic alliance can not help but mention the Arctic among the strategically relevant areas of the years to come. It takes into consideration the Russian military posture and challenges that this poses to the Arctic member states of NATO. The Russian strategic posture in the Arctic, torn between encirclement and trade routes, can be understood by normalizing the region and placing it in the broader Russian geostrategic framework. The Kremlin considers the Arctic not only at the same level as other theaters in military-operational term. It also regards the Arctic zone of the Russian Federation (AZRF) as an area connected with the Baltic in the West and the Pacific in the east, from a geostrategic and geoeconomic point of view.

Not surprisingly, the renewal and enhancement of Moscow’s military assets began between 2008 and 2010, when Russia’s foreign policy changed abruptly. It becoming much more aggressive and hostile towards the Euro-Atlantic bloc. The latter, in a process that lasted almost twenty years of expansion from the ’90s, built within the institutions of NATO, or the European Union, or both, has cut out many parts of the former Soviet bloc. It reduced both the residual economic and political influence that Russia exercised through the Warsaw Pact, and simultaneously getting closer to its borders.

For Russia, a regional power, this move was perceived as a threat and the country intervened not as a revisionist power, but to try and maintain the status quo. Therefore, Moscow, inside the theatre to the arctic, has determined climate change, not political issues, as the true danger that’s gradually bringing exposing its northern border to the threat of expansion from other States belonging to the Euro-Atlantic block. Among the Five states with a coastline on the Arctic Ocean, only Russia is not a member of NATO. Accordingly, Moscow has expanded its military capabilities in a markedly defensive view, deploying forces in the AZRF to achieve two priority objective. One is safeguarding the defense perimeter of the Kola Peninsula. The other is exerting control over the disputed Northern Sea Route (NSR), a trade route with enormous economic potential.

The deployment of Russian forces developed consistently with the aforementioned strategic goals. Conventional forces were strengthened and transport infrastructure and military bases erected. Particularly, in 2015, two Arctic brigades were formed, consisting of motorized infantry of the Russian army trained and equipped to carry out operations in the Arctic theater, supplemented by Special Forces units. The brigades were entrusted with the tasks of protecting the Russian Arctic coast, the structures, and the infrastructure of the AZRF. The Northern Fleet began to modernize the few and obsolete units inherited from the Cold War in the late 2000s. This mainly added new icebreakers and modernized pre-existing units by supplying Orlan-10, Russian-made UAVs tested to withstand extreme weather conditions.

The Northern Fleet has resumed a greater operational presence since 2015, the year of the publication of the new Maritime Doctrine of Russia. From January 2021, the Northern Fleet has assumed the status of a Military District, with the establishment of the Strategic Command, which joins the units and structures of the Northern Military District and those of the Fleet, and is subject only to the authority of the State of Greater Moscow. Thus, the Kremlin has increased its military presence in the Arctic but within the limits of an extensive area and with units technologically and operationally framed as defensive. In addition, the geographical proximity of the deployed forces and the number of bases in the Kola Peninsula are consistent with the defensive orientation of Moscow towards the other Arctic States.

From the analysis of Russian military forces in the Arctic, some geostrategic and geopolitical goals of the Kremlin in the area clearly emerge. First, the Arctic is a full-fledged part of the Kremlin’s Grand Strategy and not a theater in its own right. Secondly, the clearly defensive posture and deployment of Russian military forces make the Arctic a theater at the same time far from easy escalation, and close to Moscow’s geostrategic targets. These are generally the defenses of a northern border in which Russian coasts are in contrast with NATO member states’ access.

In particular, there is the Kola Peninsula, a priority because of the nuclear arsenal stationed there. Thirdly, the economic potential of the NSR and the increasing access to this route for sino-European trade makes Moscow’s full control over it geoeconomically relevant. Therefore, the arctic States should bear in mind the role and the geopolitical interests of Russia in the region during the process of the implementing their strategies. It will prevent Russia from aggressively defending their northern borders, especially in view of a future where the Arctic will be more navigable. The presence of major players in the region will increase economic interests and reasons to conflict. Still, although episodes of tension may be more frequent in the short to medium term, the triggering of armed conflict in the Arctic remains highly unlikely.

Luca Giulini


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