3. Military Infrastructure and Logistics in the Russian Arctic
Another Russian military priority is to ensure the Northern Fleet’s access to, and passage along, the NSR from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean – a route that stretches from the Kara Sea to the Bering Strait. This has more to do with ‘navigational assertions’, namely freedom of access and navigation in the AZRF, than great-power politics.
Defending a ‘new’ border
Military deployments allow sovereignty to be enforced over Russia’s territory and borders: military activities in the region are an enabler in this respect, and aim to demonstrate sovereignty rather than expand military assets. Climate change is having a tremendous impact on Russian security perceptions. In anticipating the negative consequences of climate change, Russia would be enforcing its sovereignty in the Arctic based on ‘what if’ scenarios. Accordingly, an increase in maritime traffic through the Arctic would demand more oversight, therefore potentially increasing competition around physical access and resources.
Due to receding ice, Moscow will seek to enforce ‘border control’ over a larger portion of its Arctic area in the future. Revamping dual-use border control infrastructure and facilities is deemed a priority in order to safeguard Russia’s vision of national security in the AZRF. These new conditions are now testing Soviet-era perceptions that a direct conventional attack through the Arctic is unlikely. This is fuelling Russia’s fear of encirclement, in turn justifying to the Kremlin the need to protect what is seen as a ‘new’ border.
There is a clear understanding in the Kremlin that international traffic and shipping will undeniably expand in the Barents Sea, and that this traffic will come closer to the New Siberian Islands, leaving parts of Russian territory exposed to potential aggressors – assumed by Russian officials to be from NATO. A more accessible Arctic Ocean could clear the way for a direct US or NATO presence, potentially including the deployment of Western anti-ballistic missile systems and surface assets, as well as an increased nuclear-submarine presence. This could occur not only in the European Arctic but also in the Bering Strait and along the Northwest Passage.
Receding ice will decrease the ability of submarines to hide under the ice and cover their operations – a change that would leave them vulnerable to anti-submarine warfare (ASW) operations and satellite observation. This is particularly problematic for Russian SSBNs and the sea-based nuclear deterrent.
Climate change will leave the NSR exposed and will force the Kremlin to look at the Transpolar Route as a second line of defence in the Arctic Ocean. Moscow views securitizing the region through military activity as a necessary first step to enacting control in a fast-changing Arctic, especially since large parts of Russia’s northern border are not protected. The prospect of more activity close to Russia’s Arctic border is pushing the Kremlin to invest now in surveillance, monitoring, domain awareness and defensive capabilities along the Russian coastline. This is already happening, for instance, with electronic warfare (EW) capabilities: two radio-electronic warfare centres were recently established in the Northern Fleet in the Murmansk oblast and in Kamchatka. Russian superiority in the electromagnetic field will have direct consequences in terms of access to the NSR by foreign vessels.
Military infrastructure development in the Russian Arctic
NSR operations have led to a complete reconstruction of forward bases and outposts in the AZRF, partly to increase search and rescue (SAR) capabilities and partly to meet Russia’s ambition there. Moscow has opted to rebuild existing Soviet infrastructure and to build new military bases from scratch.
The Northern Fleet and the Russian coastguard manage a network of airfields in the AZRF, mostly serving SAR capabilities, military logistics and resupply operations. So far, 14 such airfields have been opened or rebuilt since 2014 (see Appendix). Future plans include the construction of new airstrips in Chokurdy, Kigely and Taymylyan for SAR purposes.
Forming the mainstay of Russia’s permanent military presence are the three fully autonomous ‘Tricolour’ bases. These are located respectively on Alexandra Land Island (the ‘Arctic Shamrock’ base, close to Nagurskoye on Franz Josef Land); at Kotelny on the main New Siberian Island (the ‘Northern Clover’ base, on the Laptev Sea); and at Rogachevo on Novaya Zemlya. (See Appendix for details.) All three are strategically located and provide efficient interdiction capabilities against potential foreign military operations as part of the Bastion defence concept. Their mission is to provide the Northern Fleet with multi-layered regional air defence capabilities as well as radar installations for surveillance and early warning. The three bases are heavily armed, with a mix of long-range (S-300 and S-400), medium-range (P-800 Oniks), short-range (Pantsir and Tor M2-DT) and coastal defence (K-300P Bastion-P, 4K51 Rubezh) systems.
Moscow views securitizing the region through military activity as a necessary first step to enacting control in a fast-changing Arctic, especially since large parts of Russia’s northern border are not protected.
Several other military bases and facilities have been renovated since Soviet times or built from scratch since 2015, in addition to the three ‘Tricolour’ bases and the two bases operated by the Arctic Brigade in Pechenga and Alakurtti (see Section 4). Of particular note are the bases on Wrangel Island and Cape Schmidt in the Pacific Arctic. The absence of airfields on both bases makes operations and logistics complicated. As so often in Russia, corruption affected the construction of these bases between 2015 and 2018.
Another key element of infrastructure is the Tiksi base, on the Laptev Sea coast on the Kola Peninsula. It provides SAR facilities and is also the site of an air defence and radar outpost. Air defence is ensured by a regiment of S-400 systems. Tiksi is clearly intended to reinforce perimeter defence around Kola, as well as to strengthen interdiction capabilities in conjunction with the other ‘Tricolour’ installations. Construction in Tiksi started in 2017. The base now hosts about 100 troops from the 45th Air Force and Air Defence Army. In the future, the base will be able to autonomously house a full brigade for several months. Tactical aviation capability is provided through the deployment of MiG-31s.
Looking at the military infrastructure in the AZRF, one can observe a network of mostly disparate bases, which provide a forward presence along the Arctic coastline but lack coordination (see Appendix). Many bases and outposts are co-located with coastguard and border guard units. In this way, Arctic military infrastructure fundamentally serves a dual civilian/military purpose, encompassing SAR operations, border enforcement and overall domain awareness. These facilities provided limited coverage of the AZRF – and apart from SAR operations and NSR protection, troops at these bases lack a genuine role and purpose.
Furthermore, the reconstruction of bases and airfields took place under the aegis of the armed forces because most infrastructure, equipment and hardware was supplied off the shelf via the established military logistics system. With cost-efficiency in mind, it is easier for the Kremlin to use the armed forces as cheap labour than to go through a lengthy process of civilian engineering and development. The armed forces built dual-use SAR infrastructure therefore to save both costs and time.
The development of Arctic military infrastructure slowed after Defence Minister Shoigu announced in December 2017 that the armed forces had finished building the Arctic bases; this was taken as a sign that investments would dry up and that no new military facilities would be developed for the time being.
Russian infrastructure and logistical capabilities remain weak in the region, reflecting the difficult operating conditions there. Unpredictable weather affects air operations and radar coverage, extreme temperatures severely shorten battery life, and isolated bases require complex resupply operations for even the most basic goods. Magnetic storms and solar interference, caused by climate change, affect communications and the accuracy of satellite-based positioning systems. Finally, sub-optimal daylight requires increased operations and capabilities for low-light and night-time conditions.
It is unlikely that continuous and complete radar coverage of the northern border could be achieved, as vast stretches of territory – especially in the Gulf of Ob south of the Kara Sea – would not be covered by radar systems. This is a concern for the strategic submarine fleet, which is left without radar support.