Although Russia claims that its expansion of military assets in the region is both a legitimate response to emerging threats and part of a necessary modernization process, offensive capabilities are also in evidence.
What is the myth?
The narrative of a looming conflict over Arctic resources and territories, with Russia as the most likely aggressor, has been largely put to bed. At the same time, the claim that Russia’s Arctic military build-up is defensive or mainly defensive in nature continues to be perpetuated. The basic argument is that the development of Russian facilities and assets in the region is merely a necessary modernization after the decay of the 1990s, and that it aims to ensure safety and security for Russia’s legitimate Arctic interests. The argument often highlights Moscow’s cooperative and constructive policies toward regional relations, especially compared with the country’s behaviour in other borderlands.
Who advocates or subscribes to it?
This argument has been at the centre of the Russian official Arctic narrative since the early stages of the country’s military development in the region (set in motion in 2008). Senior figures, including President Vladimir Putin, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Secretary of the Security Council Nikolai Patrushev, have repeatedly stated that Russia’s Arctic military modernization is purely defensive, and that it provides a response to a spectrum of growing threats from both state and non-state actors. For example, Lavrov stated at the International Arctic Forum in St Petersburg in 2019: ‘We don’t threaten anyone. We ensure sufficient defense capabilities given the political and military situation around our borders.’ In a similar vein, Putin said in 2014: ‘We are not going to engage in militarization of the Arctic. Our actions in the Arctic are restrained and reasonable in scope but are absolutely necessary to ensure the defensive capability of Russia.’
Over the years, the Kremlin has been keen to maintain an image of Russia as a reliable and responsible Arctic leader. To this end, it has highlighted Russia’s interest in broad multilateral dialogue and cooperation, and has promoted the image of the Arctic as a ‘zone of peace and cooperation’ and ‘territory of dialogue’, where there are ‘no problems requiring a military solution’.
Similarly, analysis by various Russian and Western experts has held that ‘there is only a rather limited level of modernization and increases or changes in force levels and structures’, and that this constitutes ‘a correction rather than a wholesale militarization’. A recurrent justification for the ‘limited modernization’ programme has been the decay in Russian defence infrastructure in the 1990s and early 2000s. Others have claimed that development in the region is no cause for alarm because modernization has also been ongoing in other Russian regions, and the build-up in the Arctic is ‘roughly in line with other strategic directions’. Even if it is slightly larger, it is simply because the region was neglected previously.
Why is it wrong?
This argument is flawed for several reasons. First, it oversimplifies the military dynamics in the Arctic. The distinction between offence and defence is not clear cut in Russian strategic thinking. One example is the prominent role of pre-emption in Russian military theory, notably in the concept of ‘active defence’. This problem is also highly relevant when considering some of the Russian military capabilities, including a broad spectrum of nuclear weapons and long-range high-precision weapons; the Russian Aerospace Forces, which integrate offensive and defensive capabilities; and the offensive elements of Russian airpower, not least long-range and tactical-strike capabilities, which are integral to Russia’s air defence posture. Russia has also conducted numerous operations in the Arctic that can qualify as provocative or threatening to other countries, even if the level of such activities has generally been lower than in the Baltic and Black Sea regions. Hence, describing the Russian military posture in the Arctic as defensive does not explain much from the military strategy point of view. Likewise, claiming that Russian Arctic military investments are primarily designed to ‘protect critical economic and security infrastructure from attack by the United States, in a pre-emptive attack’ does not preclude offensive use of these capabilities.
Second, the geography is misunderstood. The Russian Arctic is often incorrectly treated as a monolithic space. Confusion about the character of Russian military modernization and activity derives partly from a lack of, or insufficient, differentiation between the various Russian Arctic subregions that play different roles in Russian strategic thinking and defence policy. Russia expects different threats, often on different timelines, that call for different sets of missions and capabilities.
For instance, although Russia has increased its focus on the central and eastern parts of the Arctic, especially since 2010, the main centre of gravity for military investments and activities has remained the High North, i.e. the European (or western) Arctic. In this part of the region, the Russian military presence is centred around the Northern Fleet deployed on the Kola Peninsula, just across the border from NATO member Norway. This remains the strongest part of the Russian Navy, which also constitutes the foundation of the fifth military district. The Northern Fleet hosts the largest share of Russian strategic submarines (SSBNs), in addition to modernized and new nuclear, strategic non-nuclear and other conventional forces that could threaten other states. In addition, Moscow considers security challenges and threats in this part of the Arctic, where Russia shares a border with NATO, an immediate security concern. Hence, this subregion plays a special role in Russia’s security and defence thinking, notably in nuclear and naval strategies, with missions extending beyond the Arctic region.
Conversely, key security challenges in the central and eastern parts of the Russian Arctic belong to the further future. They are expected to be generated by growing human activity, largely deriving from economic development, which, to date, has been non-linear and expanded below Russia’s expectations. The infrastructure Russia has been developing on the Arctic islands in the central and eastern part of the region has a predominantly defensive character and includes new radar stations, early-warning capabilities, and coastal and air defences.
Third, the Arctic is strategically intertwined with other security spaces in Russian thinking. The Russian Armed Forces, in particular in the European part of the region, have possible roles assigned in the case of escalation of a major conflict involving another great power elsewhere. Russia sees the various regions along its western perimeter (the High North, the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea regions) as interconnected security spaces. As the ‘Zapad’ and ‘Kavkaz’ Russian annual large-scale exercises have demonstrated over the years, if there is a regional-level conflict along Russia’s western border, the Northern Fleet may not only deploy its ‘bastion defence’ concept to protect the bases and operational area for SSBNs, but also engage in horizontal and/or vertical escalation in order to pressure opponents from another strategic direction. In addition, Russian forces in the Arctic can be used in a conflict outside the region for pragmatic reasons. Despite extensive military modernization in all defence branches, Russia’s military capability remains limited. Russia has repeatedly drawn on these forces when necessary, as with the deployment of the 200th Motor-Rifle Brigade of the Northern Fleet to Ukraine’s Donbas region in 2014 and to northern Ukraine in 2022, or the participation of the Northern Fleet in large-scale military exercises in other regions (e.g. Vostok–2018).
What is its impact on policy?
One of Russia’s traditional policy objectives has been to limit any foreign military presence close to its borders. The Arctic myth helps the Russian authorities shift the blame and accuse NATO and the US of being the aggressive parties as the alliance responds to Russia’s policies by strengthening its presence. This inaccurate representation of Russia’s military development in the Arctic could lead to confusion and disagreements in NATO countries about what an adequate policy response should be. Russia could exploit these potential divisions.
What would good policy look like?
Nuances such as those discussed above matter. Neither exaggerating the extent of the Russian military build-up and overreacting as a result, nor underestimating its importance and responding inadequately, will serve Arctic security and stability. The state and composition of Russian military capabilities, their geographic distribution, the underlying threat perception and patterns of military operations are variables that can, and probably will, change over time.
They will be further influenced by spill-over effects from international security, economic and other global dynamics, including Russia’s policies in other regions, not least the direct and indirect consequences of the 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine. To avoid succumbing to disinformation and creating artificial debates and disagreements, Western actors must correctly assess the Russian military build-up – its strengths, weaknesses and the intentions behind it – in the Arctic and elsewhere.
Publication date: 23 August 2022