MOSCOW — The Russian government will soon present a unified document on Arctic development to President Vladimir Putin, meant to combine economic and military aspects of the country’s power projection in the northern region.
The document, ordered by Putin in early March, is expected to provide an agenda of the Russia’s military and economic plans as the country prepares to preside over the Arctic Council in 2021-2023. The body, which was established in 1996, include members Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States.
According to a March report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 80 percent of Russia’s natural gas and 17 percent of its oil production comes from the Arctic. The region as a whole is seen by observers as a future battleground for both military and economic competition between rival powers.
“This region has traditionally been and remains in the sphere of our special interests. Practically all aspects of national security are concentrated here: military-political, economic, technological, environmental, and resource,” Putin said in 2014 during Russian Security Council meeting on the Arctic region.
That was the same year Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine. It was also the year the Russian military doctrine for the first time included a line about “protecting Russian interests in the Arctic.”
“The military activity in the Arctic is necessary for reliable control over the region and protection of interests there. The military strengthening of Russia in the Arctic is part of the economic strategy,” Ilya Kramnik, a junior research fellow at the IMEMO think tank in Moscow, told Defense News.
In an exercise last month, three Russian nuclear submarines simultaneously broke through Arctic ice. Upon receiving a report on the military activity from the commander of the Russian Navy, Adm. Nikolai Evmenov, Putin referred to the drill as unprecedented “in the history of both the Soviet period and the modern history of the Russian Federation.”
Meanwhile, the Defense Ministry said it will soon test various types of military jets in the Arctic, including Su-34 and Su-35 fighter jets as well as B-200 amphibious planes. The latter is often used to fight fires, but its primary mission in the Arctic will be to conduct rescue operations.
Former military test pilot Igor Malikov told Izvestia daily on March 23 that the aircraft’s main challenge in the region is its computer equipment because of the low temperature.
The Navy’s amphibious force recently practiced operating with deer- and dog-pulled sleds, coordinating with locals who traditionally use them for hunting. “The marines have for a long time studied the survival experience of local tribes in the Arctic,” Dmitry Litovkin, a senior defense editor at Nezavisimaya Gazeta daily newspaper, told Defense News.
To supply forces with the equipment needed in the frozen region, the military has announced a tender seeking industry bids to transfer military cargo to the Arctic. The tender, which is worth about 464 million roubles (U.S. $6 million), is a closed version, meaning only those invited by the Defense Ministry can bid.
Defense officials last year announced plans to build six tankers to fuel ships. They are to be ready by 2028, the Defense Ministry said, according to Izvestia.
Russia’s military presence in the Artic has become more visible during recent years, with the country establishing Northern Fleet Joint Strategic Command, which oversees Russian forces in the region. In 2019, defense officials reported that 19 airfields in the region are built or have received modernization upgrades. The largest one is located in the Franz Josef Land archipelago. Its airfield can receive a number of different types of planes, including the heavy Il-76 airlifter.
Still, the military buildup in the region is less than that seen under the Soviet Union, Gazeta.Ru chief military analyst and retired Col. Mikhail Khodaryonok noted. “The Soviet presence was much stronger in the Arctic, and the current Russian presence has not achieved the level of Soviet times,” he said.
But the country will likely continue bolstering its military capabilities in the region to protect its economic interests, he added. “You have to negotiate. But for that, you need a military capability.”
He was echoed by SIPRI’s March report, in which the think tank said the “military activity in the region is low compared to the Cold War, but it is increasing.”
Like some other Russian experts, Khodaryonok is closely watching the Northern Sea Route, which passes through the country’s exclusive economic zone. The government wants to turn the route into a commercial channel equal to that of the Suez Canal, which is one of the world’s most used shipping lanes. But attempts to have full sovereign control over the NSR is being challenged by the United States.
“Оur position is not supported by anything, and if Americans will send their aircraft carrier group to exercise the freedom of navigation, what can we do about it?” Khodaryonok said.
Russia’s interest in controlling the NSR was further piqued following the grounding of the Ever Given container ship in the Suez Canal, which paralyzed the movement of tankers through the channel in late March. But Marcel Salikhov, a senior researcher at the HSE University in Moscow, told Defense News that the majority of international cargo operators will consider the NSR as “risky” since Russia in unprepared to “provide easy access to the route for the reasons of strategic control.”
Alexander Bratersky is the Russia correspondent at Defense News. He has covered U.S.-Russian relations, NATO and Middle Eastern affairs, and Russian policy in Syria. He previously worked at the Moscow Times and Izvestia as a political reporter, as well as RIA Novosti as a Washington correspondent. He also dabbles in stand-up comedy.