Ever since Mikhail Gorbachev’s ‘Murmansk speech’ in 1987, in which he defined the Arctic as a ‘zone of peace and cooperation’, the region has been widely understood by coastal states to be an area of ‘low tension’. In other words, it has been seen as a place where great-power politics between coastal states should be set aside and replaced with practical, depoliticized cooperation.
However, the Arctic is not insulated from global security challenges, especially those around the impacts of climate change. ‘Arctic exceptionalism’ is coming to an end. Despite its unique geography, the Arctic does not exist in isolation from the wider international context, or away from the pressures around the strained relations between Russia and the West.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Kremlin paid little attention to the Arctic. During the 1990s, the Russian Arctic was at best considered a burden fraught with socio-economic problems. Little was done there until an ‘Arctic revival’ began in the 2000s, focused on reinvesting in a region that had previously been abandoned for more than 15 years. Russia has been described as a ‘confused Arctic superpower’, balancing cooperation and competition with other Arctic nations as part of its efforts to reassert its role as a great power.
Moscow’s intentions for the Arctic are not Arctic-specific, but are related to the Kremlin’s global ambitions for reviving Russia as a great power. Russia’s force posture in the Arctic is informed by the changing geopolitical environment around its strained relations with the West. This explains why growing tension with the West and the risk of miscalculation could lead to a more assertive Russian posture in the Arctic in the future.
What happens militarily in the Russian Arctic has little to do with the region itself. In that sense, the Russian Arctic is not exceptional for Moscow in military-operational terms. The leadership has accorded the same level of threat perception to the Arctic as it has to other theatres of operation regarding NATO and the West. For the Kremlin, the Arctic is fundamentally Russian – especially since the four other coastal nations are NATO members.
This paper focuses on Russia’s military posture, force structure and military intentions in the Russian Arctic. It seeks to demystify Moscow’s military build-up in the region: it explains that if Moscow is indeed militarizing the Russian Arctic, the military build-up and the Kremlin’s intentions are, at least for now, defensive in nature.
A further section deals with the implications of Russia’s Arctic military posture for NATO and its key partners in the region, Sweden and Finland, arguing that all of these actors should address the issue of Russia’s increased military presence now. The paper also presents policy-relevant recommendations for NATO and its partners regarding military security in the Arctic.
In terms of geography, the paper considers the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation (AZRF), from its territorial sea to the extended continental shelf. The analysis covers both the ‘High North’ (namely the European Arctic, where NATO and its Nordic partners are concerned with Russia’s presence) and the Pacific or ‘North American’ Arctic. The term ‘Arctic Eight’ refers to eight nations, consisting of a core of five ‘coastal’ states (Russia, the US, Canada, Denmark and Norway) plus three ‘non-coastal’ states (Iceland, Sweden and Finland) – the latter being states that are not bordering the Arctic Ocean.