5. Russia’s Arctic Military Intentions
The Arctic as a theatre of operation
Russia sees the Arctic as a military continuum between theatres of operation in the Baltic Sea, the North Atlantic and ultimately as far away as the North Pacific. In terms of operations, however, the entire Arctic falls under the specific command of OSK Sever all the way from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The Arctic is not part of an operational continuum with the Baltic Sea, which is under the responsibility of a different command.
Keeping the Arctic as a separate area of operation is impossible: what happens in the Arctic, Moscow would argue, does not begin in the Arctic and nor would it stay there. This applies both to ‘vertical escalation’ (i.e. military flashpoints that would enlarge in geographical scope towards the Arctic as violence expanded) and to ‘horizontal escalation’ (i.e. a spill-over effect from another theatre of operation, notably the Baltic Sea). The same logic also applies to situations combining a mix of both vertical and horizontal escalation, for example if a local outbreak of violence were to spread out across the Arctic during a theatre-wide conflict. Indeed, military assets and concepts of operations in the Russian Arctic are part of a wider, coordinated strategy.
The military leadership is opposed to the idea of starting a conflict in the Arctic. On the contrary, it would aim to push any conflict away from the region towards SLOC in the North Atlantic and towards the Baltic Sea. The goal would be to remove tensions from the Russian Arctic as quickly as possible, and to establish perimeter control for protection of the Kola Peninsula. This is justified by the necessity of ensuring the survivability of Russia’s sea-based nuclear deterrent, as well as for ensuring freedom of navigation for the Northern Fleet and strategic submarines.
As elsewhere, Russia’s primary threat perception in relation to the Russian Arctic concerns NATO’s military capabilities and projected intentions. Russia’s approach to the region is therefore not about the Arctic itself, but about mitigating the potential impact of the presence of NATO and US troops beyond the North Atlantic. Seen from the Kremlin, most of the Arctic is Russian, and the non-Russian Arctic is NATO. Indeed, four of the five Arctic coastal nations are members of NATO.
Any move from NATO and its allies to build military capabilities in the Arctic, whether through exercises or posturing, will undoubtedly feed Russia’s ‘besieged fortress’ logic. In broad terms, the Kremlin is concerned that NATO forces could challenge Russia’s sense of military superiority in the region. This could endanger the understanding that the Arctic should remain as a designated ‘low tension’ area, thus pushing Russia to overreact and increasing the risk of miscalculation.
Is Russia ‘militarizing’ the Arctic?
One of the principal debates around Russia’s military activity in the Arctic relates to whether Moscow is ‘militarizing’ the AZRF. Clarifying this issue is important. Although the scope of military activity in the Russian Arctic seems impressive in isolation, it is not commensurate either with the region’s geographical scale or with the nature of the theatre of operation. Overall, the presence of Russian troops and assets remains sparse and fragmented in relative terms.
Most Russian capabilities are not intended to project offensive means but merely to take back control of the Arctic coast and waters along the AZRF. Russia has a fundamentally defensive understanding of the Arctic. Russian military capabilities and deployments should be assessed in terms of perimeter defence – involving the Bastion concept of protection for the Kola Peninsula and Russia’s sea-based nuclear deterrent.
With military capabilities in disarray since the fall of the Soviet Union, the rebuilding of Russian forces is starting from a very low point. Even today, following several years of modernization, deployments fall short of their Soviet equivalents. In this context, Russia is simply re-establishing a military presence that used to be the norm during the Cold War. This pattern is not Arctic-specific per se, but is a trend observed in other military districts and in a broader perspective.
There is indeed ‘militarization’ of the AZRF, but deployments and activities remain for now ‘more eyes and ears than muscle’. Russia’s military presence in the Arctic is also a reflection of a broader trend observed in other theatres. As such, Russia’s build-up is more a military reinvestment in the Russian Arctic than for the Arctic. By the same logic, strategic assets on the Kola Peninsula happen to be located in the Arctic but do not affect the region itself in terms of operations. Military thinking is driven by the imperative to bridge existing vulnerabilities due to ‘fading control’ in a region where Russia used to consider itself invulnerable; recent deployments aim to fill these perceived gaps. As so often in Russia, any vacuum is filled by military means.
From a Western perspective, Russia is securitizing the AZRF with military assets to protect its national interests there. Although ‘non-militarized securitization’ of the Russian Arctic seems like a contradiction in terms, it is the case in practice. With climate change in mind, Russian military activities are anticipatory and show long-term planning for a changing environment. Maintaining a permanent, combat-ready presence is key to this logic as retreating sea ice renders the northern border increasingly vulnerable. The Russian leadership’s aim is to make military assets in the AZRF more mobile and better trained and equipped for perimeter defence and border protection.
Russia’s Arctic military build-up should not be overestimated. Assets deployed there can undoubtedly be used for offensive purposes, but Moscow’s intentions are not in that vein, at least for now. Just as military capabilities in the Russian Arctic are fundamentally dual-use in nature, they do not yet have an aggressive contour. At best, they perform Russia’s chest-thumping reassertion and act as a ‘repellent more than deterrent’. They are intended to intimidate Arctic neighbours and NATO during peacetime – and to disrupt operations in wartime.
Should the Kremlin’s existing interests in the region fade over time (energy extraction, exploitation of the NSR, seabed claims etc.), the Russian military presence in the Arctic might actually diminish, even potentially prompting a ‘demilitarization’ of the region. This would happen if Moscow did not manage to transform military might into political dividends internally.
Incidents at sea and the risk of miscalculation
While Arctic deployments are justified in the eyes of the Kremlin, there is also the question as to whether they are legitimate and tolerable for the West. Russia’s military interests in the Arctic pre-date the war with Ukraine, but Western perceptions that Russia is a regional threat have been reinforced by the events of 2014 in Ukraine. Russia went from being an ‘acceptable’ Arctic partner to a threatening neighbour. Indeed, the logic goes that the depth and extent of Russian military activities by far surpass the country’s basic needs for sovereignty enforcement, border protection and SAR activities.
A potential cause for concern in the West is the growing asymmetry of power and means with Russia across all operational domains in the Arctic. The Russian armed forces have developed Arctic-specific concepts of operations and tactics, alongside Arctic-capable combat systems. Overall, the combination of the presence of Russian military assets and continued tensions with the West increases the risk of miscalculation.
As Russia’s perceived military superiority will be challenged by receding ice and a greater international presence in the Arctic, the Kremlin might be tempted to opt for a more militarized understanding of the region. The war with Ukraine has already affected established cooperation mechanisms in the region. The Kremlin might feel that there are fewer incentives to cooperate with the West or with existing Arctic institutions, primarily the Arctic Council, especially if seeking to secure a position of power and bolster patriotic messages at home.
In this context, it should be noted that the Arctic was not always construed as a ‘zone of peace’ in the Kremlin, and there is now the risk that military priorities might override the cooperation narrative – particularly in a post-Putin environment. This is highly relevant for incidents at sea, which represent a potential risk of escalation and policy errors. Whereas previous incidents were typically either settled at sea peacefully or managed diplomatically through practical coastguard cooperation, there is always the risk that future incidents might become securitized. Channels of communication have been greatly diminished since 2014, and practices that were in place during past incidents have not been properly tested in the current geopolitical environment.
Furthermore, Russia’s behaviour during the Arctic Sunrise incident showed how seriously the Kremlin takes perimeter defence and the protection of its economic resources. In September 2013, the crew of the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise were forcibly detained after attempting to climb an oil rig in Russia’s EEZ. The incident demonstrated Moscow’s interdiction intentions and ability to react through military force, even to civilian incursions in (or even close to) Russia’s EEZ.
Box 1: Tension around Svalbard
The Northern Fleet has been patrolling the area around the Svalbard archipelago since 2004, and is maintaining a visible presence both physically in Barentsburg through investments and through rhetoric against Norway.
Russia nurtures grievances against Norway over the status of the Svalbard archipelago, and these grievances carry the risk of raising tensions. Moscow argues that Norway is not abiding by Article 9 of the Svalbard Treaty, which stipulates that the archipelago cannot be used for ‘warlike purposes’ (namely for permanent military fortifications and naval bases) unless for self-defence. While Russia sees Article 9 as a complete demilitarization clause, Oslo understands it as not prohibiting all military activity or coastguard operations. Article 9 remains unclear, and Russia uses it to denounce Norway’s operation of radar installations and satellite stations such as the European Incoherent Scatter Scientific Association (EISCAT) radar, the SvalSat satellite station, and the SvalRak rocket range in Ny-Ålesund. According to the Kremlin, these installations are part of NATO efforts to destabilize Russia and to conduct intelligence operations against Russian long-range aviation capabilities and SLBM launches.
Past incidents at sea involving fishing boats in the fisheries protection zone (FPZ) fuel Oslo’s security concerns. The Russian military drill Zapad-2017 sparked controversy when the pro-defence blog Aldrimer published an article arguing that the Northern Fleet and Airborne troops (VDV) had simulated several amphibious assault landings on Svalbard. This was refuted by Norwegian authorities and NATO, but nevertheless fed the national debate in Norway around the protection of the archipelago from a potential Russian threat and around NATO’s Article 5 commitment.