2. Perimeter Control Around the ‘Bastion’
Moscow has a militarized threat assessment for the Russian Arctic. It seeks consistent control over foreign military activity in this region, and ensured access for Russian armed forces. Contrary to the rest of Russia’s periphery, Moscow feels that it has a position of relative strength in the Arctic, which means that it is clearly seeking to obtain dividends from its perceived military superiority.
This partly explains Russia’s assertive force posture and signalling. Apart from the wider context of Moscow’s great-power reassertion, the departure of US troops from the Keflavik Naval Air Station in Iceland in 2006 was undoubtedly viewed in Moscow as an opportunity to be seized. More aggressive Russian rhetoric on the region emerged in the early 2010s. This culminated in August 2018 when Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu announced that competition in the Arctic could lead to potential conflict.
However, Russia does not have an Arctic military strategy per se. Official documents detailing Russia’s Arctic policy discuss military activities only in broad terms. It is therefore hard to discern what a military strategy in the region would look like in isolation from other theatres of operation, notably the Baltic Sea and the North Atlantic.
The ‘Bastion’ defence concept
Russia’s military leadership accords absolute priority to perimeter defence of the Kola Peninsula, to ensure the survivability of second-strike nuclear assets. The Kola Peninsula and its surrounding areas are considered of strategic importance for Russian national security. Perimeter defence around Kola and the extension of the ‘Bastion’ defence concept are designed to give Russia defence in depth.
Derived from Soviet strategy, the concept of a ‘strategic bastion’ was introduced by the Ministry of Defence in the early 1990s. Its aim was to provide strategic submarine operations with ensured survivability. The concept also entailed concentrating a large part of the sea-based force with the Northern Fleet, as the Arctic was at that time still considered unreachable by foreign military forces and ice coverage was constant.
The Bastion concept still centres today on defending sea-based nuclear assets. It encompasses a region that extends from the Kola Peninsula towards the Barents Sea and the Norwegian Sea and further west to the Greenland–Iceland–United Kingdom (GIUK) gap. Control is ensured through sea denial and interdiction capabilities at sea and in the air, to provide protection for nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines (SSBNs) in their area of operation.
The Bastion concept seeks to ensure both the security of the Kola Peninsula and access of the Northern Fleet to the North Atlantic and beyond. It makes the distinction between ‘inner defence’, which relates to ambition of control, and ‘outer defence’, for ambition of denial. The concept also involves creating space for sea control and sea denial activities.
Air defence forces were revamped in 2016 to serve this purpose, and were deployed throughout the different Arctic bases. Military infrastructure in the Russian Arctic aims to bolster Russia’s air defence and sea denial capabilities onshore and close to the coast, while the Northern Fleet has been fitted with adaptable sea denial platforms along the AZRF and beyond. Liquefied natural gas (LNG) facilities (i.e. the Yamal and Gydan LNG projects) are seen as strategic assets, and their protection increasingly factored into the Bastion defence concept.
The Bastion concept seeks to ensure both the security of the Kola Peninsula and access of the Northern Fleet to the North Atlantic and beyond. It relates to creating space for sea control and sea denial activities.
To match its sea denial and interdiction remit for protecting the Kola Peninsula, the Northern Fleet has been gradually fitted with powerful and multi-layered air defence and coastal defence capabilities. This is in line with increased sea and air patrols in the Arctic for perimeter defence. The Northern Fleet is now operating a hardened, Arctic-capable, multi-layered air defence and sea denial system that includes:
- S-400 (NATO: SA-21 Growler) and S-300 (NATO: SA-10 Grumble) air defence systems for long-range protection;
- P-800 Oniks anti-ship cruise missiles (NATO: SS-N-26 Strobile) and Kalibr-NK land-attack cruise missiles (NATO: SS-N-Sizzler) for medium-range protection;
- Pantsir-SA (NATO: SA-22 Greyhound) and Tor M2-DT (NATO: SA-15 Gauntlet) systems for short-range base defence; and
- 3K60 BAL (NATO: SC-6 Sennight), K-300P Bastion-P (NATO: SSC-5) and 4K51 Rubezh (NATO: SSC-3 Styx) systems for coastal defence.
As the mainstay of the newly established Joint Strategic Command North (‘OSK Sever’), the Northern Fleet accounts for about two-thirds of the Russian navy’s nuclear strike capabilities, the rest residing in the Pacific Fleet. The primary function of OSK Sever is to ensure the protection of the Kola Peninsula. OSK Sever’s establishment was announced in late 2013. The facility, which is based around the existing administrative and force structure of the Northern Fleet, became operational on 1 December 2014.
Based in Arkhangelsk, OSK Sever does not yet have the formal status of a military district. Nonetheless, it reports directly to the National Defence Control Centre in Moscow. This will change in late 2019, when OSK Sever will become a full-fledged military district. Like the four other districts, it integrates military assets across all branches of the armed forces, including air defence units. Parts of the headquarters of the Northern Fleet are co-located in Arkhangelsk, while the actual headquarters of OSK Sever are in Severomorsk. Its area of operation is coordinated with the Central and Eastern military districts, which in turn are in charge of land-based Arctic territorial defence.
Arctic patrol and domain awareness
Since 2007, Russia has been expanding the scope of its military activities in the AZRF and beyond. Patrols by long-range strategic bombers resumed over the North Atlantic and the North Pacific in August 2007. It should be noted that such activities represent routine ‘background noise’, rather than an intensification of activity, and have more to do with the protection of the Bastion than aggressive intent. Nonetheless, long-range aviation patrols illustrate the Russian leadership’s general willingness to maintain operational capacity and ensure domain awareness around the Kola Peninsula.
Long-range bombers are not based in the AZRF, but they operate there and use local military installations as transit points. Patrol assets are those of the naval aviation forces of the Northern and Pacific Fleets, which limits their range of operations. Patrols cover the international airspace of the Barents Sea, the Greenland Sea, the Arctic Ocean, the North Atlantic and the Bering Strait.
Nonetheless, intercepts with Western radar are still considered modest (especially when considering numbers in the Baltic Sea or the Black Sea) and at a level far below that recorded during the Cold War. Studies have shown that Russian long-range patrols do not venture close to the joint US–Canada North Warning System.
Regular aviation patrols and manoeuvres resumed in early 2013 along the Northern Sea Route (NSR) and over the Arctic Ocean. According to official sources, the Northern Fleet carried out more than 100 patrols over the Arctic Ocean in 2018. Since 2017, Russia has been routinely simulating mock air wing attacks on Norwegian military assets – primarily against the coastal radar installations in Vardø, which are funded by the US.
Dangerous manoeuvring close to Norwegian airspace, especially with fighter aircraft simulating a strike in attack formation, is increasing the risk of miscalculation, especially if an interception occurs. Other unacceptable Russian military activity has included GPS jamming in northern Finland and northern Norway during the NATO exercise Trident Juncture in 2018, and the announcement that the armed forces would carry out missile tests in the basin of the Norwegian Sea during Trident Juncture.
North Atlantic sea lines of communication (SLOC)
Northern Fleet operations in the North Atlantic depend on unhampered access for vessels crossing Norwegian waters around the Barents Sea and Svalbard and then transiting via the Greenland–Iceland–Norway (GIN) gap. The main chokepoint in the North Atlantic is the GIUK gap between Greenland, Iceland and the UK. Russia’s extended ambition of denial with the Bastion defence concept means that ensured operations and security for submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) will require force deployment through this chokepoint.
Russian operations around the GIUK gap would have a negative impact on North Atlantic sea lines of communication (SLOC), which constitute the main routes for reinforcement and resupplies from North America to theatres of operation in Europe. The extended Bastion defence concept, honed by sea denial and interdiction capabilities at sea, is a credible threat to NATO carrier groups. This would have direct consequences for NATO and its allies in terms of freedom of operation in a contested environment. Russian interdiction capabilities and the presence of naval assets might disrupt NATO reinforcements in the North Atlantic.
The extended Bastion concept puts more pressure on North Atlantic SLOC as well as on the Baltic region. For Russia, linking the Arctic to the Baltic region would have the benefit of establishing a defensive posture in Arctic waters while creating a ‘spill-over’ of military activity towards the Baltic Sea. In a contested environment, NATO reinforcements and resupplies in the North Atlantic would have to keep open sea approaches to the Baltic region. In wartime, Russia would seek to disrupt the entire SLOC in the North Atlantic, seize the initiative and control escalation there.