Apr 2016

Is Russia preparing for war in the Arctic?


Russian defence activity in the Arctic is on the rise. In March 2015, Russian forces conducted a massive military exercise in the region, involving circa 80,000 troops, 220 aircraft, 41 ships and 15 submarines. The scale of the operation demonstrated the extent to which Russia has strengthened all areas of its defence capabilities since its modernisation programme was launched in 2012.  

13 airfields and a training centre not used since the collapse of the Soviet Union have been reopened. New bases are being opened on Wrangel Island and Cape Schmidt. Motor-rifle brigades have been re-established in Alakurtti and Pechenga, while a new brigade is expected to be established near Salekhard in the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous region (where a huge Liquefied Natural Gas project is being developed) this summer. The Northern Fleet is also undergoing extensive upgrades although the total number of hulls (including submarines) has fallen significantly since the end of the Cold War (from over 1,000 to fewer than a hundred).

Additional investment has gone into establishing a ‘softer’ security architecture comprising ten new Search and Rescue centres along the Northern Sea Route, and plans are in place for the construction of nearly 40 ice-strengthened vessels which will be deployed to assist in emergencies.  

Combined, these activities represent the biggest build-up of Russian defence forces in the Arctic since the end of the Cold War. The question is ‘why?’

What does Russia want in the Arctic?

The shift in Russia’s military posture in the Arctic started with the appointment of Sergey Shoigu as Minister of Defence in 2012. Shoigu’s aim is to establish a consistent defence capability across the Russian Arctic. Prior to Shoigu’s reforms, Russian forces were primarily concentrated on the Kola Peninsula (protecting the country’s nuclear bastion), leaving much of Russia’s 22,000km Arctic coastline and adjacent maritime areas unpoliced and undefended. The Northern Fleet has been ‘locked’ in the Barents Sea with little capability to operate in the Kara, Laptev, East-Siberian and Chukchi seas, even as the thickness of sea ice in those areas has diminished.  

For much of the past 25 years, Russia has actually given very little attention to the Arctic. The confusion and the chaos of the post-Soviet transition in the 1990s produced greater challenges elsewhere. Even when President Putin came to power in 2000 and started to recentralise control over the country, it was still unclear how Russia’s Arctic Zone (an area spanning a number of different regions) would be administered. Today, the Kremlin’s anxieties are closely linked to observations of environmental changes in the Russian Arctic. The volume and thickness of sea ice is now decreasing significantly in the summer months (albeit still with some inter-annual variability), and even becoming easier to penetrate during the winter.

Despite a few ad-hoc policy proclamations in 2001 and 2004, it was not until 2008 that a clear strategy from the Kremlin for the Arctic emerged. At the same time, global interest in Arctic oil and gas reserves, as well as the potential for new shipping routes through North West and North East Passages, had grown substantially. With the North East Passage partly passing through Russia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) – the so-called Northern Sea Route – and estimates of substantial offshore oil and gas reserves in Russian waters, the Kremlin has come to believe that a substantial military presence is a necessary condition and guarantor of being able to secure its regional interests. To put those interests into perspective, it is worth noting that the Arctic already accounts for 20% of Russia’s GDP and 22% of all Russian exports. Recent Western estimates suggest the total value of Russia’s mineral resources in its northern regions could exceed £16 trillion.  

How will Russia achieve its Arctic goals?

Assuming that Russian actions in the Arctic are entirely isolated from its broader foreign policy objectives is probably naïve, but few would argue that Russia is preparing to act in the Arctic in the same way that it has in Georgia and Ukraine.  

In general terms, the Kremlin’s primary fears appear to be geographical encirclement by NATO, and plots to destabilise Russian areas of interest in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Similar concerns have been raised in the Arctic, with the Kremlin warning the West against increasing NATO’s presence and deploying anti-ballistic missile systems in the region. The Kremlin is also nervous about the possibility of Sweden and Finland joining NATO.  

Nevertheless, Russia has thus far shown little interest in challenging international law in the Arctic, having reaffirmed its commitment to the prevailing legal status quo when it signed the Ilulissat Declaration in 2008, together with the other Arctic Ocean littoral states. The principal reason for this is that, currently, the prevailing international legal regime largely favours Russian interests. Under the law of the sea, Russia can exert substantial control over maritime activity in the North East Passage and its EEZ. Russia is also expected to secure legitimate sovereign rights to a substantial section of the Arctic Ocean sea floor (giving Russia control over approximately half of the entire Arctic region) once its submission has been reviewed by the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf.  

Where there are weaknesses in this international legal framework (for example, relating to future international use of an “ice-free” North East Passage), de facto control is being established through the development of constabulary forces (as Greenpeace found out to its cost in 2013 when 30 of its protestors were detained by Russian authorities for three months after attempting to board a Russian oil rig in the Pechora Sea). Another area of concern could be the contested nature of the Svalbard Treaty (signed in 1920). Russia and Norway, among others including the UK, currently dispute certain provisions relating to the use of the waters around the archipelago. Russia has also challenged Norway about the installation of potential ‘dual-use’ surveillance systems (Svalbard is supposed to be demilitarised under the Treaty). Establishing and maintaining an ‘Arctic dialogue’ with Russia will be necessary to resolve any potential dispute over either of these issues.  

How should the West respond?

When devising a response to Russian military activity in the Arctic, it should be remembered that Russia does not own militarism in the Arctic exclusively. The region is changing profoundly and all of the Arctic states, including some sub-Arctic states such as the UK, are trying to deal with this geopolitical transition by re-assessing their military needs. The US military is returning to its Keflavik airbase in Iceland (albeit as a persistent rather than permanent presence); Norway is investing in modern combat capable forces which far exceed the requirements of constabulary duties in Arctic waters; and Canada has embarked on an ambitious (and expensive) procurement strategy focussed on surveillance systems, land and sea patrols and air interception. It should not be forgotten that portraying Russia as a threat in the Arctic can be useful to defence ministries trying to justify expensive procurement policies.  

Moreover, it is also worth noting that there is a potentially valuable flipside to Russia developing its security forces along the Northern Sea Route. If transit shipping between Europe and Asia is to become a viable and profitable activity in the Arctic, it will need to be supported by extensive investment in search and rescue facilities, communication links, surveillance systems, ice-breaking technology, hydrography and skilled crews, all of which Russia could provide. However, this is a huge financial undertaking, meaning that much of the future commercial shipping potential of the Arctic is likely to be dependent on Russia’s ability to develop and secure its infrastructure.

A further point to consider in devising a response to increasing Russian military activity in the Arctic are the consequences for indigenous and local communities living in the Arctic, and the natural environment. All of the Arctic states have engaged in war on the Arctic, attempting to reshape the lives of people, as well as the local flora and fauna in order to better service their national ambitions. The legacies of such activities can still be found today by looking at the devastating social and economic challenges facing many indigenous peoples and local communities, and the extensive pollution of the Arctic environment. Focussing on addressing these common challenges, rather than military confrontation, has long been a source of cooperation between Russia and the West in the Arctic, including providing the basis for the establishment of the Arctic Council.  

In summary, this paper has brought together the views of a range of experts who were asked to think about whether Russia is preparing for war in the Arctic. For some, the question remains an open one, not least because the West has struggled to predict Russia’s actions on a range of foreign policy issues. At the same time, real fears of Western encirclement in Moscow mean it is likely that Russia is indeed preparing for the possibility of war, but is not trying to start one, especially in the Arctic. There are a number of factors that count against such actions, not least the difficulty and expense of operating in a region which is extremely hostile to military operations due to unpredictability of sea ice, swiftly changing weather conditions and freezing temperatures. Moreover, Russia stands to benefit substantially from the prevailing international legal regime. Nevertheless, there are ‘gaps’ in the regime – relating to Svalbard and the North East Passage – and, in the absence of international consensus, it is here that dialogue is most urgently needed.  

This briefing paper was prepared by Dr Duncan Depledge for the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Polar Regions.

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This is not an official publication of the House of Commons or the House of Lords.
It has not been approved by either House or its committees, nor does it represent the views  
of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Polar Regions.