During the Cold War, the Arctic represented a very long border region between two opposing blocs, in the same way that Europe was intersected by the Iron Curtain. Unlike the latter, however, the Arctic region, with its extreme climate, has always been something of a passageway, for both nuclear submarines to easily navigate beneath the polar ice cap and for strategic bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles.
That is why, throughout the period of conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union, between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, the Arctic region, or rather its outskirts and respective land, saw radar station networks like the famous American Dew Line chain emerge along with other military installations such as ports and airports.
This border, this relatively undefined limes, among the most heavily patrolled in the world, was gradually abandoned from 1990 with the collapse of the Soviet system. Since there was no longer “an enemy”, surveillance was reduced to a minimum and, it’s fair to say, practically abandoned by Russia.
Rediscovering the Arctic through trade routes and mining exploitation
Global warming, which is shaping our planet’s climate, has led to ice cover gradually shrinking in the Arctic. The sea is the main thermometer that measures the Earth’s “fever”, and reconciling data from the last 40 years tells us that the seasonal extension of pack ice has reached such a point that it allows maritime navigation even in the winter months, through what is commonly called the “Northeast Passage“: a route sought after since 1700, connecting the Atlantic with the Pacific passing through the Arctic Ocean by way of Siberia.
Here is not the place to discuss how much of the warming is down to human activity. Part of the scientific community, including the Italian one, is extremely sceptical, as reported by Roberto Vivaldelli in a recent article. What is certain is that the planet has warmed up and that sections of the sea (or land), once inaccessible due to permafrost, are no longer so, paving the way for possible economic, mining or military exploitation.
In this respect, Russia certainly has the advantage. Its northern border, more than 11 thousand kilometers long, looks right out onto the Arctic region, indeed it is almost part and parcel of it. Therefore greater access to those once perennially frozen seas and territories has freed up not only a new shipping route — the Northeast Passage mentioned previously, known in Russia as the “Northern Route” — but also a huge reservoir of mineral resources to be exploited.
It is no coincidence that over the course of more than a decade, disputes around the sovereignty of the Arctic continental shelf have been initiated involving Russia, the United States, Canada, Norway, Denmark and Iceland. Within the Arctic continental shelf — namely, the submerged portion of the Earth’s crust that then plummets down to the abyssal plains on the ocean floor — vast mineral resources are kept: not only hydrocarbons but also manganese nodules and other precious metals.
For some years now, Moscow has begun to “reopen” its old Arctic bases and build new ones by returning to remilitarise the area and have strategic control over both mineral resources – and its respective territorial claims — and east-west routes that pass through the now (almost always) navigable Arctic Ocean.
Moscow armours the Arctic
90 billion barrels of oil, 44 billion barrels of gas-condensate and the astronomical figure of 47 thousand billion cubic metres of natural gas. These are estimates of the hydrocarbon reserves for the entire region provided by USGS (the US Geological Survey) back in 2008. An enormous region, whose offshore is calculated up to a maximum depth of 200 meters, measures 1,191,000 square km: simply put, that is almost 4 times the total area of Italy.
Russia therefore, by virtue of its new strategic military doctrine, is literally armouring the Arctic in order to protect these vast mineral reserves.
The new “Maritime Doctrine of the Russian Federation”, dating back to 2010 but updated in 2015, actually foresaw the creation of a combatant command for the Arctic. At the moment this command has two motorised rifle brigades (the 200th and the 80th deployed in Pechenga and Alakurtti) which are used to support the research activities that the Russians are carrying out in the area. In addition to these two infantry brigades, whose elements, however, come from the Spetsnaz, are various air units and air-based anti-aircraft defense systems. These, together with the naval units of the Northern Fleet, activate an A2/AD (Anti-Access, Area Denial) bubble almost equal to those seen in Syria, Crimea or Kaliningrad. Systems for surveillance and monitoring have been implemented of course, along with tracking of medium, long and very long-range targets. All these units are placed under the new combatant command set up in Severomorsk, which fully incorporated the command functions of the Northern Fleet and the First Air Defence Division.
The total control of military and research activities in the Arctic area, therefore, depends on this command. In detail it has 120 fixed or rotary-wing aircraft divided into 6 regiments and a squadron (equipped with Su-33, Su-25, Mig-29K, Mig-31, Su-24, Tu-22M plus various helicopters and transport aircraft), 4 anti-aircraft missile regiments (all equipped with the modern S-400 Triumf systems), 4 EW / SIGINT regiments, all shipping in accordance with the Northern Fleet, the most important in Russia (41 submarines and two surface vessel divisions with command at Polyarny).
This new deployment of forces has clearly created investments in infrastructure. In fact, over the last 4 years, Russia has taken enormous measures to create new structures and restore old ones. In addition to the reopening of 13 runways that became operational in 2018, new infrastructures were built to allow the constant presence, in rotation, of the troops of the Arctic Task Force divided between the Barents, Kara and Laptev seas, as well as the series of minor installations running from Murmansk to the Kuril Islands.
The nerve centers, however, are sites on the islands of Novaya Zemlya, Kotelny and Zemlya Aleksandry where the new “Arctic Trefoil” base was built, capable of permanently accommodating 150 men and with a brand new landing strip already in operation that will also see the S-300 system arrive to integrate with the already existing Pantsir-S1 short-range system. On the island of Kotelny, on the other hand, there is the “Severny Kleve” (Northern Clover) complex capable of accommodating 250 men and home to the Arctic Task Force, also equipped with a landing strip and anti-aircraft defense systems such as those presented to Zemlya Aleksandry (Alexandra Land). The two Arctic brigades (9,000-strong forts) have supplied, in addition to various MT-LB / B tracked vehicles, a total of 71 tanks between T-72B3 and T-80 as well as various wheeled BTR-80s and, obviously, the excellent ZSU-23 anti-aircraft weapon system.
The US response: polar pivot?
Washington seems to have decided, albeit recently, to respond to this deployment of forces, and we will understand why in due course, fuelled by Moscow’s desire to exploit the Arctic region to its own advantage by treating it like its own backyard.
The 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, the outcome of the recent Senate Armed Services Committee, gave directives to the Secretary of Defense to set up a “task force” with the Chief of Staff, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Coast Guard which identifies potential sites for the construction of at least one military port in the Arctic region under American jurisdiction.
US Congress, as reported by Defense News, actually seems very concerned about melting ice in the North Pole and the subsequent fervent military and commercial activity that we have already highlighted. There is a particular lack not only of infrastructure to support US military ships logistically but also a lack of special vehicles such as icebreakers. The United States only has two, one of which is practically used to supply spare parts, compared to the dozen – some of which are nuclear powered – owned by Russia.
The opinion of American experts is, once again, divided not only on the possible location of the new military port – some would like it in Nome, others further north in Prudhoe Bay – but also on the real need to counter Russian presence in the Arctic with new infrastructure.
For some, providing resources to build a base from scratch in the far north would be a waste of money. The base would not be very easy to use, due to adverse weather conditions and the melting of permafrost during the summer season which turns the land into a quagmire. Their advice, if anything, is to adapt the infrastructure in Nome, a small settlement by the Bering Sea not far from the Russian coast.
Secondly, the Arctic region’s very geography, different between Russia and the US, calls for a more accurate reflection. Unlike Russia which, as we have seen, has more than 11,000 kilometres of unbroken coastline along the Arctic Ocean, the United States shares only a small fraction, as most of it belongs to Canada. Militarising the Arctic, therefore, as the Russians are doing would just be a waste of money and resources. The vulnerability of that border, for the United States, would be a “non-issue” contrary to what Moscow thinks.
Others believe instead that a policy of militarisation, driven by the American Arctic, forces Russia into a “Cold War” scenario, that is, embedding them in a symmetric response to the threat. Investing resources in a front, albeit a secondary one like the Arctic, would force Moscow to do more to maintain its dominance, thus diverting money, men and means from other significant fronts, such as Europe or the Middle East. A sort of “Star Wars” strategy revisited and updated from the 80s to fit the current tactical framework; a strategy which caused the Soviet system to collapse.
A base certainly does not mean a race to the Arctic, at least not at the same level as the Russian one, but the mere fact that Congress is finally wondering how to curb Moscow’s presence in such a crucial global game of chess leads to a presumption that the Pentagon could ask the government for more funds to be used for patrolling and reinforcing the North US border, albeit small in comparison to Russia’s.
Translation by Natalie Payne