Analysis: Russia, NATO build up Arctic troops


After the end of World War 2, the Arctic developed into a laboratory for Polar scientists and a zone of commercial fishing. It also offers the shortest route from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The situation began to change due to global warming, as the ice began to retreat 200-300 km from the shore and opened year-round navigation from Bering Strait to Murmansk. New hydrocarbon deposits were discovered in the Arctic, the Zvezda weekly writes.


Russia NATO build up Arctic troops
Russia is building up Arctic forces, namely using local transportation means (Picture source: Russian MoD)


In early 2009, US President Barack Obama issued directive #66 which said the United States has broad and fundamental interests in the Arctic both independently and together with other countries. They include missile defense, deployment of naval and air systems for strategic maritime transportation, strategic deterrence, naval presence, marine operations to ensure security, freedom of navigation and air flights. The USA began to draft programs to change the balance of forces in the Arctic.

Until 2013, NATO did not consider the reinforcement of its permanent presence in the Arctic as a priority. Now the strategic Arctic plans have changed. A pretext was the Russian strategy for the Arctic buildup and national security up to 2020 adopted in 2013. Although the US has only 15 percent of the Arctic coast, the Americans mobilized NATO, Canada and Iceland for the struggle for the northern resources. Twenty-four countries display interest in the Arctic. They include the UK, South Korea, Japan, Sweden, Finland, Brazil, India and China. They naturally began to form military and economic alliances to protect the Arctic interests.

China demonstrated its economic interest in Russian northern territories by including the Northern Sea Route into the project of the New Great Silk Road. Besides Russia and China, Central Asian and Mideast countries joined the project. The European Union, on the one hand, supports US military claims to the Arctic and, on the other hand, wants to join the Silk Road project.

Thus, there are signs of a growing conflict of interests in the Arctic. Two military-political blocks are emerging - the USA and NATO, and Russia with China.

The United States does not have major military bases in the Arctic which can ensure year-round navy deployment. The US Navy believes the fleet can partially fulfill the tasks in the Arctic but only with submarines, as icebreaker construction was not a priority for US shipbuilding. US actions in the Arctic are restricted by the absence of deep-water seaports capable of accommodating aircraft carriers. The low operability of warships was confirmed by the US Navy Academy. Its report confirmed that the US Navy is insufficiently ready for long-term operations in the Arctic as it lacks ships capable of breaking ice and supporting advanced military bases.

The situation with the ground forces is better. The United States deployed 27,000 military in Alaska to operate missile defense. The US military force in Alaska has 14 coastguard ships, 70 combat aircraft, including 42 Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor fighter jets and missile defense weapons. Alaska has 9 deployment bases for warships and submarines, 28 airfields for 600 aircraft, an air range and 2 centers to train combat actions.

Pentagon experts believe the Arctic force is insufficient for a deterrence dialogue with Russia. In 2013, the Arctic Roadmap: 2014-2030 was adopted to outline the priorities and possible US actions in the Arctic. It said local conflicts were highly likely despite peaceful intentions of the Arctic nations. The roadmap developed into the Implementation Plan for the National Strategy for the Arctic Region which said the United States can conduct any military operations in the midterm in the region - both defensive and counteroffensive, as well as offensive in the long term. Naturally, major investments from the Pentagon budget are necessary for that.

After the end of World War 2, the Arctic developed into a laboratory for Polar scientists and a zone of commercial fishing. It also offers the shortest route from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The situation began to change due to global warming, as the ice began to retreat 200-300 km from the shore and opened year-round navigation from Bering Strait to Murmansk. New hydrocarbon deposits were discovered in the Arctic, the Zvezda weekly writes.

The main Arctic role is still assigned to the US Navy which has to receive additional investment to build new warships, submarines and military infrastructure adapted for operations in extreme northern conditions. Seaborne cruise missiles remain the basic strike force of the US fleet. Together with other offensive weapons they can create a major advantage over the defending adversary.

Canada, a strategic US partner in the Arctic, adopted a new strategy which prioritizes the construction of ice-class patrol ships, upgrade and construction of oceanic icebreakers, the buildup of a deep-water base on the Arctic archipelago of Canada, the creation of ground forces in the northern region.

Thus, the United States and allies launched Arctic militarization, but did not build anything impressive beyond the Polar Circle. Russia in response is building up northern latitudes from scratch.

In 1990s, Russia abandoned the Arctic and disbanded air force and air defense units which stopped monitoring the airspace. The Northern fleet was cut and aircraft-carrying cruisers were scrapped. As a result, control over military security in the Arctic was lost. However, there were townships and operating fuel, mining, metallurgical, nuclear enterprises, sea and river ports, airfields, maritime infrastructure in northern latitudes which were critical for the Russian defense capability. Although Kola Peninsula, Kamchatka and Chukotka were defended by the Northern and Pacific fleets, most of the Arctic coastline remained unprotected against attacks of a potential adversary. Undeveloped transport communications and harsh climate often left towns in the Extreme North isolated for a long time and ruled out fast military help.

The emergence of Virginia-class submarines in the US Navy capable of carrying attack weapons and covertly landing subversion teams raised the threat to a new level. The situation could not last for long, as the Arctic significance for Russia is determined by the following strategic factors: direct access to the Atlantic, security of strategic nuclear forces in the region, defense of industrial enterprises ensuring strategic stability, safe navigation along the Northern Sea Route.

The Russian leadership considered current and forecast problems in the Arctic and decided to take measures which determined long-term orientation and principles of the state and military policy in the region. In 2015-2016, work was completed to build up and deploy six military bases in the Russian Arctic on Kotelny, Sredny, Novaya Zemlya and Alexandra Land, Wrangel Islands and Cape Schmidt. Military closed-cycle townships were built, as well as airfields, air defense and aerospace positions. The broad infrastructure is now subordinated to the Unified Strategic Command created in July 2014 on the basis of the Northern fleet. Remaining infrastructure and the creation of a total air defense radar field, expansion of airfield network are scheduled up to 2020 in order to have self-sufficient mobile troops interacting in a single information space.

Military drills are regularly held in the Arctic. In September 2019, Center-2019 strategic command-staff exercise will begin in the area of the Northern Sea Route. The main aim is to maintain a high readiness level for combat in the Arctic. Russia has returned to the Arctic and is developing the transportation network and economy. It revives towns and builds new enterprises, lays logistical routes and ensures safe navigation along the Northern Sea Route. Thus, the Arctic is reliably protected from outside aggression for a long time, the Zvezda weekly said.


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