Russia has been increasingly accumulating its military might in the Arctic over the past five years, with a particular increase in the last few months. Satellite images have shown a build-up of Russian military bases and hardware along its Arctic coastline, including underground storage facilities believed to be intended to house new high-tech weaponry. In addition to building new facilities, Russia has also revamped some of its bases from the Cold War, strengthened airfields and has included new radar systems in its regions close to Alaska. This long-term buildup has become more apparent in recent months with military flights coming near Alaskan airspace and with increased Arctic submarine activity. In a military drill in March, three Russian nuclear ballistic missile submarines broke through the Arctic ice simultaneously. This military development has been a slow and methodical process occurring over several years but the particular ramping up of its Arctic military presence and weapons testing in the last few months has drawn the attention of the United States (U.S.) and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies.
American and NATO officials have voiced increased concerns over Russia’s military ramp up. According to CNN, a U.S. State Department official said “there’s clearly a military challenge from Russians in the Arctic” which he also stated, “has implications for the United States and its allies” because it gives Russia greater capacity to expand its power in the North Atlantic. U.S. officials have also spoken of concerns that Russia may utilize this military presence to establish control over the broader Arctic region. Arctic borders have been repeatedly contested by the eight members of the Arctic Council: Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States, who also constitute the eight nations that have sovereignty over lands within the Arctic Circle. Russia’s recent military actions have caused concern for the other seven countries, most of whom are also NATO allies and who would likely act in a coordinated manner against Russia. Thus, Russia’s actions are seen partly as a demonstration by its leadership that they won’t let this Western bloc dictate their Arctic borders. In response, the U.S. and NATO have also enacted troop and equipment movement. In the past year, the U.S. Seawolf stealth submarine has moved into the area as well as B-1 Lancer bombers that have recently completed Arctic missions.
In addition to military and territorial concerns, U.S. officials are also worried about Russia’s economic motivations. There are concerns that Moscow will attempt to influence the Northern Sea Route (NSR), which is a shipping lane along Russia’s northern coast in the North Atlantic that runs between Norway and Alaska. U.S. officials have expressed concern over Russia’s potential exploitation of the NSR by imposing its own rules on international vessels. This could shift the balance in global trading as the NSR can halve the time that it takes for shipping containers to get to Europe from Asia through the Suez Canal.
A major concern over Russia’s military buildup, from a standpoint of peace, is the nature of their new weapons as well as the threat they post to disarmament and conflict prevention. In 2018, Putin announced that Russia was developing and testing a new line of nuclear-capable weapons. Putin emphasized the claim that these could outmaneuver U.S. defences and portrayed this new weapons arsenal as a response to U.S. policy. Among these new weapons is the Poseidon 2M39 torpedo, which is an unmanned stealth torpedo powered by a nuclear reactor and is a so-called super-weapon. The Poseidon is intended to move along the sea floor, undetectable by coastal defences, and deliver a massive warhead that would create radioactive tidal waves upon detonation. Development of the Poseidon torpedo is said to be moving quickly with further tests to come. Russia also claims that they have successfully tested the Tsirkon anti-ship hypersonic cruise missile, with more advanced testing planned for May or June. In addition to this new generation of weaponry, satellite imagery from March identified MiG31BM jets at one of Russia’s arctic bases. This is believed to be the first presence of these aircraft in the Arctic, bringing an increased capability to Russia’s stealth power in its far northern regions.
In 2018, at the time of Putin’s announcement, many U.S. officials discounted these new weapons as improbable and doubted Russia’s ability to produce such an arsenal. But recent developments have led analysts to take these projects seriously and consider them to be both probable and in active development.
The development of Russia’s military arsenal is concerning for a number of reasons. The high-tech and destructive nature of their new weapons is worrying for efforts of disarmament. Russia’s military modernization could lead to a new arms race in which the U.S. and potentially other Western and non-Western powers compete for military superiority in entirely new classes of weapons. Putin himself has alluded to such an arms race, repeatedly emphasizing the might and ability of Russia’s weapons compared to U.S. defence systems. Such militarization would severely challenge disarmament efforts and pose a serious threat to the work of achieving non-combative and non-violent solutions in the future.
The new generation of weapons also pose environmental concerns, in addition to the threat they pose to global peace. If used, the Poseidon torpedo would cause radioactive ocean waves that could render huge areas of its target coastline uninhabitable for decades. According to CNN, the head of Norwegian Intelligence, Vice Admiral Nils Andreas Stensønes, has also raised concerns over the environmental effects of the testing of these nuclear weapons. He stated that “the potential for nuclear contamination is absolutely there,” yet Russia continues its plans for future testing.
Beyond the effects of specific weaponry, there are broad climate implications as well. Russia’s northern military buildup is largely made possible by the presence of less ice in the Arctic region. Climate change has significantly reduced the Arctic ice walls, which constituted much of Russia’s natural defence in the north, making the country more vulnerable and leading them to seek military means of protection instead.
However, the drastic level of melting should be first and foremost a grave environmental concern rather than a military one. The immense and rapidly increasing loss of Arctic ice reflects the severity of the climate emergency and the focus should be on its environmental effects. Instead, it is primarily the concern of Russia’s military figures. Moreover, Russian officials are also using the melting ice as an economic advantage by exploring the possible profits associated with the NSR. Environmental destruction cannot be viewed in terms of economic opportunity. It must be treated as a grave climate emergency that we must work immediately and collectively to combat.
The Russian reaction to the Arctic melting effects of climate change has been to search for economic opportunities in the increasingly thinner ice of the NSR and to build its military in the warming northern regions. But the climate emergency needs states to react to such environmental catastrophes in a way that will prevent the problem from worsening and reverse the changes, rather than utilizing climate change for profit and advancement. Moreover, although a military presence can at times be an instrument to enforce peace, Russia’s buildup is a show of strength that could lead to further militarization in the Arctic and beyond. This could dangerously encourage combative rather than peaceful solutions. The environmental and armament implications of Russia’s recent military buildup represent serious threats to the fight against climate change as well as setbacks to disarmament and efforts to find non-combative solutions.
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