Russia’s Military Presence in the Arctic
“With more than half of all Arctic coastline along its northern shores, Russia has long sought economic and military dominance in part of the world where as much as $35 trillion worth of untapped oil and natural gas could be lurking.” (Dillow)
Russia’s Arctic territory stretches along 24,140 kilometers of coastline and accounts for 53 percent of the total Arctic Ocean coastline. This automatically puts them in a unique position to take advantage of its large deposits of natural resources as well as build up their military presence in that area of the world. Russia has already begun developing infrastructure for its substantial Arctic territories, and since 2013 Russia has spent billions of dollars on building and upgrading seven military bases on islands and peninsulas in the Arctic Circle. They have also begun to deploy advanced radar and missile defense systems (specifically the S-400) capable of hitting aircraft, missiles and ships to sites where temperatures can fall below -50 C. This gives Moscow a competitive advantage over any other country in the Arctic Circle and almost complete coverage of the entire coastline and adjacent waters. Russia’s strategic moves in the region give it an early lead in the Arctic territories that has been met with some alarm by other countries in the Arctic Circle.
The new intensity for gaining hold over the Arctic stems from the increased rate of melting sea ice in the region due to climate change, which has created new trade routes through the region and increased accessibility to its vast resources. The new trade routes have historically been ice-covered nearly 10 months out of the year, however they are now beginning to be accessible for greater periods of time.
With these changes taking place, Russia is preparing for the expected trade flow to increase substantially and is taking advantage of their established exclusive economic zones. EEZs have been determined by the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) and cover up to 200 nautical miles, giving coastal countries the right to make any decisions on the extraction of natural resources in that area. This gives Moscow the ability to create the rules for what happens in the majority of this region. An example of this was pointed out in The National Interest: “A new law will require all foreign warships using the route to seek Russia’s permission at least forty-five days in advance, with requests to be approved or denied at Moscow’s discretion. In the event of an unsanctioned passage, Russia may arrest intruder ships or even destroy them.” (Upton)
This is not the first time Russia has thrown huge amounts of resources and personnel into this region. The Arctic has had a long history of being involved with military affairs for Russia, including the detonation of Tsar Bomba over the Mityushikha Bay Nuclear Testing Range in the northern Arctic Circle. Even during the cold war, the Soviet Union stationed its Northern Fleet, the largest in the Soviet Navy, in the Arctic. There, air bases provided refueling points for nuclear-capable bombers. These same Cold War era air bases have now been rejuvenated and foreign policy observers have counted 14 new operational airfields, 16 deepwater ports and 40 icebreakers with an additional 11 in development. With this amount of Russian military power in the Arctic, is the United States really in a position to compete? At least for now, it looks like Russia is in control of the Arctic.
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Dillow, Clay. “Russia and China Vie to Beat the US in the Trillion-Dollar Race to Control the Arctic.” CNBC. CNBC, February 6, 2018. https://www.cnbc.com/2018/02/06/russia-and-china-battle-us-in-race-to-control-arctic.html.
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Upton, Geoff. “Great Power Problems: Russia Wants Control over the Arctic Region.” The National Interest. The Center for the National Interest, April 25, 2019. https://nationalinterest.org/feature/great-power-problems-russia-wants-control-over-arctic-region-54227.
Weber, Bob. “’Strategic Messaging’: Russian Fighters in Arctic Spark Debate on Canada’s Place at the Top of the World.” National Post, February 10, 2019. https://nationalpost.com/news/canada/strategic-messaging-russian-fighters-in-arctic-spark-debate-on-canadas-place.