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Russia Prepares For A Very Cold War In The Far North

The Arctic, where Russia has dispatched military resources, is the last disputed area of such massive proportions. It's a region where the interests of Moscow and Washington collide, an excellent stage for a Cold War parody.

U.S. crew members observing a Russian tanker in the Arctic
U.S. crew members observing a Russian tanker in the Arctic
Aleksandr Golts*


MOSCOW — In September, the Russian Navy completed an exercise that was unprecedented, both in size and complexity. A fleet of 10 ships, led by a nuclear cruiser, sailed to the New Siberian Islands, which are located between the Laptev Sea and the Eastern-Siberian Sea, in one of the least-studied corners of the Arctic Ocean.

All the nuclear icebreakers in the Navy’s fleet joined the expedition. On the islands, the icebreakers and ships left construction and technical material, living supplies, 46 tons of fuel and 43 tons of food. In short, they brought everything needed to reopen the military airport that had been shuttered in the 1990s. In the next couple of months the airport will start accepting transport planes. And then strategic bombers.

There is no doubt that this is just another step in Russia strengthening its military presence in the Arctic — the importance of which officials have been talking about for the past eight years. Key government figures were present at the opening of an outpost on Franz Josef Land, one of the northernmost groups of islands in the world. From time to time there is talk about establishing a special “Arctic department” complete with special equipment and even a possible air base in the north polar region.

The reason behind this necessary presence in the Far North is well known. Ice is melting in the Arctic Ocean, which will leave a new, shorter shipping route connecting Europe and Asia — one that passes Russia’s northern shore. For Russia, which will serve the ships on this route, this is manna from heaven. In addition, there are opportunities for increased oil and gas exploration underneath the Arctic ice.

But leave it to the sneaky West to try and infringe on Russia’s good luck: Moscow has already rejected Western claims to rights on 1.3 million square kilometers of water in the Arctic Ocean. At the same time, the country is preparing to defend its interests using force, if need be.

Virtual riches

First of all, there is the question of whether there is anything worth defending. The theory of global warming is still a theory. Others, like the Russian Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute, believe that we are just experiencing cyclical warming and that an Arctic cooling period will begin in 10 to 15 years.

But even if global warming is real, it is more likely to bring us problems than riches. Because as the ice melts, so will the permafrost, turning kilometers of Russia’s coastline into deep swamps. How will we be able to provide infrastructure for a sea route and oil exploration if that happens?

At the same time, according to the UN Convention on Maritime Rights, there cannot be any restrictions on another country’s shipping traffic — meaning that Russia would be required to provide weather, oceanographic and rescue services for other countries’ ships, without compensation. The only opportunities for making money would be to provide navigation and icebreaking services, as well as the development of infrastructure. And by just looking at a map, it’s easy to see how developed the infrastructure is along the country’s Arctic coast.

About 1.2 million tons of cargo were transported on the Arctic shipping route last year. According to some estimates, the route will start being profitable once 4 million tons are transported annually — with other projections going as high as 14 million tons. The truth is, in the 80 years that the route has existed, no one has asked themselves about its return on investment. The route was important in supplying military installations and bases.

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Three icebreakers near the North Pole — Photo: LCDR Steve Wheeler

Now the primary hope is that that the transport route will allow access to Arctic oil. But at the moment, all Western oil companies have refused to explore oil reserves in the Arctic, saying it is too dangerous and expensive. In addition, large ships like oil tankers can’t follow the Arctic passage. A route through the Novosibirsk Islands for ships with a keel depth of more than 12 meters still has to be found. And in any case, most researchers agree that even under the best conditions, the Arctic’s riches won’t be able to be reasonably exploited for another 40 or 50 years.

Hoping in vain

You could say that the Russian government is showing commendable foresight, preparing several decades in advance for the future of the Arctic route. Or you could also say that Moscow is preparing to claim all of the Arctic riches for itself, dispatching military units to the Far North.

But at the moment, there are still many more calls to action than actual actions. “Without the creation of a domestic cluster of specialization in off-shore technology and rigs, our Arctic shelf programs are under threat,” the CEO of state-controlled Russian oil giant Rosneft, Igor Sechin, recently told Russian manufacturers. As of today this kind of “cluster” is nowhere to be seen in Russia.

Ambition and ammunition

At this point, “developing” Arctic resources actually means “preparing to develop” Arctic resources, together with increasing military resources in the region. But while Russia is sending ships north, a little math shows that the nation’s fleet is woefully outgunned by that of the United States, one of the important players in the future of Arctic exploitation.

That balance of power is a relic of the Cold War, since the Arctic was already a contested area between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The ice-covered depths of the north polar region were seen as the best place from which to carry out an attack on the enemy. It’s not a coincidence that when asked about the future of the Arctic, President Vladimir Putin’s immediate reaction was to mention American submarines stationed near Norway.

The most important Soviet goal in the Arctic was to protect the military bases. Nobody suggested patrolling the thousands of kilometers of frozen emptiness. Submarines practically cannot function east of the Ural Mountains, which is what made the expedition to the New Siberian Islands so heroic.

But the establishment of a small air base there is not going to change the situation. Patrolling the vast territory would require a large quantity of fuel, and the trip to the islands demonstrated how difficult that would be to provide. It is also doubtful that the airport is really necessary for the air force, which has developed perfectly effective routes to return to Russia if they were to strike U.S. territory.

This symbolic “build-up” of military power is not particularly astute from a political point of view. Right now, the countries with interests in the Arctic are the U.S., Denmark, Canada, Norway and Russia. Since each country has its own interests, Russia has a lot of room to make alliances, compromise and meet its goals. But this diplomatic game works only if Russia refrains from making threats.

As soon as Russia becomes menacing, NATO countries will all band together — leaving Moscow to face a unified opposition. Worse yet, the riches in the Arctic Ocean, and the possibility of transit through it, are useful to Russia only as long as it can sell them to the aforementioned countries.

Right now there is nothing for us to defend the Arctic with, nothing really to defend and, most importantly, no reason to defend it. So why exactly is Russia focusing on military in the Arctic? It is worth remembering that Russia isn’t the only country playing this game. The Canadian prime minister attends military exercises in Canada’s far-flung north nearly ever year. Meanwhile, Americans have also been talking about the need for increased presence in the Arctic, and have ordered the construction of yet another icebreaker.

The problem is that the Arctic is the ideal place to demonstrate ambitions of great power. It allows politicians to get on the front page of newspapers and show voters their patriotism. The Arctic is the last disputed area of such massive proportions. It’s a region where the interests of Moscow and Washington collide. It’s an excellent stage for a Cold War parody. I’m just concerned that for the soldiers stationed at the New Siberian Islands airport, it’s going to be very, very cold.

* Aleksandr Golts is a Russian military expert.

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