A soldier on patrol at the Russian military base on Kotelny Island, beyond the Arctic Circle, on 3 April 2019. Photo: Getty Images

A soldier on patrol at the Russian military base on Kotelny Island, beyond the Arctic Circle, on 3 April 2019. Photo: Getty Images

Summary

  • Russia’s military posture in the Arctic is informed by the changing geopolitical environment, and can no longer be considered in isolation from the country’s growing tensions with the West. In this sense, the period of ‘Arctic exceptionalism’ – in which, by convention, the region has been treated as a zone of depoliticized cooperation – is coming to an end.
  • Certainly, the Russian Arctic is not exceptional for Moscow in military-operational terms. Russia’s leadership has accorded the same threat perception to the Arctic as it has to other theatres of operation. It seeks consistent control over foreign military activity in the Russian Arctic, and ensured access for Russian armed forces, particularly the Northern Fleet. Russia’s military build-up in the Russian Arctic and the Kremlin’s intentions are, at least for now, defensive in nature.
  • Russia’s military build-up in the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation (AZRF) primarily aims to ensure perimeter defence of the Kola Peninsula for the survivability of second-strike nuclear assets. Russia’s ‘Bastion’ defence concept consists of the projection of multi-layered sea denial and interdiction capabilities.
  • Another Russian priority is to ensure the Northern Fleet’s access to, and passage along, the Northern Sea Route (NSR) from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. This has hitherto been achieved through military infrastructure along the NSR. However, due to the receding ice, Moscow will seek to enforce ‘border control’ over a larger portion of its Arctic area in the future. The revamping of dual-use border control infrastructure and facilities is deemed a priority for safeguarding Russia’s vision of national security in the AZRF.
  • Since the mid-2010s, Russia has deployed substantive force and capabilities along its northern border in the AZRF. Parts of the armed forces, such as the Arctic Brigade, are now Arctic-capable and have developed concepts of operations tailored to that environment. The Northern Fleet has been repurposed with the Arctic environment in mind, and has been provided with Arctic-specific military technology and training.
  • Russia acts as a status quo power and a reluctant rule-follower in the Arctic, partly because international law there plays in its favour, and partly because it is in Russia’s interest to do so. Despite growing tension, cooperation between Russia and other Arctic nations is likely to endure.
  • Russia’s military leadership rules out starting a conflict in the Arctic, and would push any Arctic-based conflict towards sea lines of communication between the North Atlantic and the Baltic Sea. However, the risk exists of escalation and miscalculation around incidents at sea.
  • In dealing with Russian ambition in the region, Western military and policy planners should seek to maintain the convention of treating the Arctic as a ‘low tension’ area. However, planners must also acknowledge the existence of pressing military security issues in the wider Arctic. A more inclusive debate and the establishment of a regulatory framework around military security in the Arctic would be useful. As Russia will chair the Arctic Council and the Arctic Coast Guard Forum between 2021 and 2023, this is a window of opportunity to address military security in the region.
  • Innovative efforts can be made to strengthen military security and domain awareness in the region, without militarizing the issue. This should start with the creation of a military code of conduct for the High North. This would send a powerful signal that cooperation should remain an absolute priority for all Arctic states, and that maintaining the region’s ‘low tension’ status requires action, not just words.