Russia’s Next Move: Domination of the Arctic?

Commentary, Robert Murray, Thomas Nichols

Vladimir Putin, after a mysterious absence, has finally reappeared. And just in time, too: the Russian president apparently decided to respond to NATO exercises in Europe – in part generated by Putin’s own wars against his neighbors – by putting his entire Northern Fleet on full alert and holding a snap military exercise in the Arctic.

The aggressiveness of Russia’s muscle-flexing is always disconcerting, but Putin’s moves in the Arctic should not be a surprise. Long before Russia’s attack on Ukraine refocused international attention on the Kremlin’s danger to global peace and security, Russia was already busily militarizing and expanding its presence in the Arctic.

For a time, some Arctic security experts hoped that Russia’s activities might be limited in scope. The Kremlin’s own explanations made sense: Russia, as an Arctic power, has legitimate commercial and scientific interests in the circumpolar region. Those interests are real and disputed by no one. Russia, after all, is a participant in cooperative efforts like the Arctic Council, and Moscow shares scientific information on the region with other powers. 

Russia’s further actions, however, suggest that Moscow is driving toward militarizing and dominating the Arctic as a threat to the security of the other nations in the region. These Russian moves include: the intensified development of cold-water-based naval technology; Russia’s declared intent to install military bases and permanent brigades in the Arctic region; the holding of surprise exercises; and the planting of a Russian flag on the Arctic seabed in 2007. These are all clear signs that, despite their ongoing participation in the Arctic, Russia’s interests in the region go well beyond normal commercial and economic purposes and pose a direct threat to the relative order and stability of the Arctic region.

Prior to the annexation of Crimea in 2014, much of this debate over Russian intentions in the Arctic was conducted mainly among Arctic security experts with a specific interest in the region. Many of these experts panned the notion that Russia would intentionally turn the Arctic into a contested area and thus risk the cooperation among the nations of the north. Once Putin’s regime made clear, however, that Russia was willing to redraw the lines of the world’s map by force, it was difficult to see Russian moves in the Arctic as anything but threatening.

Russia, of course, is not alone in its increased interest and presence in the Arctic. For nearly a decade, many of the eight Arctic states have been significantly increasing their military presence in the polar region, in no small measure due to fears over Russia’s expansionism as well as because of competing sovereignty claims. And there is no denying the huge draw of the natural resources in the region, especially after the 2008 US Geological Survey noted that the Arctic had 90 billion barrels of untapped, recoverable oil, 1,670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids.

And so the Arctic is now an area of fierce competition, and Russia intends to go all-in with a militarized presence. What should the response of the U.S. and its allies (five of the eight members of the Arctic Council are also NATO members) be at this point?

The worst mistake the Western nations can make in the Arctic region is to underestimate Russia’s intentions. The potential for conflict, especially given the Kremlin’s increasing proclivity for high-risk stunts with its ship and aircraft, is higher than anyone might have thought even a decade ago.

The usual answers for dealing with Russia run from appeasement to containment. The disaster in Ukraine should make clear that appeasement cannot work; Russia is more than ready to engage in armed conflicts, even when it cannot win them. But containment requires patience and the steady maintenance of power. At the moment, unfortunately, Russia enjoys a preponderance of power in the Arctic, and so the only real hope for limiting Russia’s expansion north is for the United States to take a more direct role in Arctic affairs.

Although the United States will assume the chairmanship of the Arctic Council this year, Washington has yet to view the region as integral to Western national security. And yet, the majority of the eight Arctic states are relatively minor powers with little to no hope of defending themselves or defending any territorial claims against Russia. Canada and the United States, the two Arctic powers of North America, must work together with their NATO allies, along with their friends in Finland and Sweden, and leave no doubt that Russian expansionism and militarism in the Arctic is unacceptable.

America cannot do this alone, and the smaller nations in the Arctic Council must do their part. The United States, however, must first and foremost see itself as an Arctic power and act like it. This means committing military resources, including not only material but training and exercises, to the maintenance of the Arctic as a zone of peace and cooperation.

Russia has demonstrated how far it will go if it sees opportunities without resistance. The United States, its friends, and its allies cannot risk replicating the failures in Ukraine in the Arctic.

This op ed was originally published by Real Clear Defense on Thursday, March 19, 2015: http://www.realcleardefense.com/articles/2015/03/19/russias_next_move_domination_of_the_arctic.html