Categories: Archive

Winter Skies, Frozen Seas and Northern Shores VII: Russia

Where the Black Gold lies beneath the Frozen Route of the Ships

The night is at its high, with the stars lighting the skies and the Northern Lights bringing the darkness a greenish illumination. The travellers came ashore and made a fire in a place where the sea and tall green pines meet, seeking warmth and shelter beneath the trees. They laugh and smile, and tell the stories of the wives and children they will soon see again, after they resume their travel back to the west. Their helmets, shields and swords are kept close by, however. They know the stories told by others about this place, they have heard of the creature that wanders there. A bear, but not just any bear; a huge brown creature with extraordinary force and piercing blue eyes, haunting the travellers that, like them, dare to make ashore. Even those that just pass by in their Drakkars claim to have heard its roar. And though many believe the bear died many years ago, the travellers are a superstitious and cautious group.

Suddenly the laughter and stories are interrupted, the atmosphere broken by a roar, stronger than that of any normal animal. Frightened and fleeing for their lives, the travellers retreat to their ship and push away from the shore, heading for the safety of the open sea. Some of the men claim they saw the beast in amongst the trees, the once powerful creature back from the dead, prone to keeping intruders out of it territory. They only hope that the creature will keep its watch to its own territory.

The same question might be made now by current Western nations bordering Russia. Countries that once had to deal with the strength and movements made by the Soviet Union, then mostly aggressive, and who are now in respite after its collapse, causing  peace and stability to be the predominant situation in the areas that share a border with Russia. And like the travellers from the ship, these countries are also now hearing the roaring of a Russia that wants to return to the Geopolitical stage. And the Arctic is one of those regions where the roar is being heard most strongly. As Cole (2013) points out, the Russian navy itself stated that it would make the Arctic its priority during this current year, and the Russian president also declared the Arctic as an important element for Russia’s economy and security. Following this, Russia is increasing its military presence by deploying aerospace and electronic warfare assets, complementing it with a network of early-warning missile radars1 (Cole, 2013) .

Such attitude is explained by the Russian objectives on and visions of the Arctic, which are being stated in its Arctic Strategy of 2008. In that document, the Russian interests in the region are explained as follows: first, the utilization of the Russian Arctic as a national strategic resource base aimed at fulfilling economic growth. Second, the preservation of the Arctic as a zone of peace and cooperation. Third, the protection of the Arctic ecosystem. And fourth, the use of the North Sea passage to connect Russia with the Arctic. Following those interests, the Russian objectives are: First, the expansion of the Russian Arctic resource base. Second – and very much in the frame of national security – the protection and defence of the Russian (Arctic) boundaries, including the provision of an optimal operating environment in the area as well as the preservation of the fighting capabilities of the military units stationed within. Third, the protection and preservation of the Arctic ecosystem and the mitigations of the effect on it by both climate change and economic activities. Fourth, the formation of a unified space in the Russian Arctic2. And fifth, the guaranteeing of mutually beneficial cooperation with other Arctic States and Russia.

The priorities established to meet the interests and objectives are: the interaction of Russia with other Arctic states for the delineation of boundaries under the rule of international laws and agreements; to increase efforts on the creation of a SAR and accidents management and prevention system by the Arctic states; the strengthening of Russian relations with the mentioned Arctic States and Organizations; the assistance in the creation and utilization of sea and air routes over the Russian Arctic; the promotion of Russian states and public organizations in international forums and activities on the Arctic; to set a delineation of territory at the Arctic Ocean; improvement of socio-economic development in the Russian Arctic; improvement of indigenous populations’ quality of life; to develop the resource base through technology; and the modernization and development of transportation infrastructure and fishing industry in the Russian Arctic.

When Russia planted a flag on the seabed at the North Pole in August 2007, it marked not only the true expression of the Russian interest in the area and its real intentions, but also the beginning of reactions by different countries, according to Huebert, Exner – Pirot, Lajeneusse, & Gulledge (2012). And it is at a certain point understandable.

There are two economic factors that pushes Russia to adopt the attitude it is taking on the area.

The first is that all along the Russian Artic seashore, another of the shipping routes will be placed: the Northeast Passage or Northern Sea Route, which, according to Sokolov (2012), will provide a shorter alternative to other shipping routes such as the Southerly Route (from Europe to the Far East) and those that make use of the Panama Canal for connecting the US West Coast and Europe3. Russia, according to Zysk (2010), thinks that a profit can be made out of this route, and intends to use the route as a way for Russian strategic industries to move their goods and products to the destination markets. But it will also provide the infrastructure needed for the utilization of that route by Russian owned ships and others from different nationalities. By 2015, for example, Russia aims to have completed the establishment and development of infrastructure, as well as a system of management for communication for such a route, that is predicted to be used by an estimated 6 to 15 million tons of transit. Harbours are also on to be developed along with the construction of new icebreakers capable of carrying helicopters for SAR operations, since the current fleet of that type of vessels are close decommission. However, recent economic conditions have taken their toll, halting even the development and construction of the new vessels (Zysk, 2010).

The second factor is of the aforementioned resources. In a deeper view and according to Zysk (2010), 20% of Russia’s GDP is being produced in the Arctic region of the country – growth that can be boosted by the prospective resources and the previously mentioned shipping passage. But as Zysk (2010) also mentions, the importance of the Arctic for Russia has another element that explains the need to “increase the resource base” as was expressed in its Arctic Strategy. It has to do with regaining relevance in international politics by reaching energy independence, and a considerable quantity of oil and gas resources, amonsgt others, are located in Arctic waters. Baev (2010) mentions that the Arctic reserves of oil, natural gas, coal, gold and diamonds would have a value of near 5 trillion dollars, at least according to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s statement. The problem is that, given certain external economic factors, the development of those resources will not be as significant as it would initially appear to be. The economic downturn, the relative low prices for energy and a drop on export and revenues suffered by the biggest Russian oil company Gazprom led to a delay in the launching of one of the biggest offshore gas fields in the world (Zysk, 2010). And as though things were not bad enough, the lack of basic infrastructure to support the project is also increasing the delay, along with the exerted monopoly on the industry that keeps other companies other than those owned by the Russian state (i.e. Gazprom and Rosneft) away from the areas to be explored and exploited (Baev, 2010).

Given the previous explanations, it is understandable why Russia is setting its eyes on its northern area. Its economy, as well as it political ambitions, simply drives Russia to do so, especially when there are oil reserves that can aid the Russian economy as well as the sole presence of a new shipping route such as the Northeast Passage. And as it can be observed, even today the Russian economy needs urgent aid while the ghost of the crisis left after the collapse of the Soviet Union still haunts the Russian policymakers and the political establishment, along with the ghosts of the promises in both (geo)political and economic areas.

But the strategic importance of the Arctic is not only a matter of economics and nor is it solely a matter of the current times. It is connected to that past when Russia was under Soviet rule and was the second Great Super Power of the world. Since the 1950’s the Arctic has been a key element in Russian defence industries and vital to its infrastructure dedicated to nuclear deterrence, such as the Kola Peninsula installations, as well as its nuclear assets (i.e. the Russian nuclear submarine bases). The most immediate way for Russian vessels to access “warm waters” also happens to be through the Arctic, a factor that became even more important after the loss of several shorelines and ports after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The Arctic has also been perceived as a strategic zone that needs to be defended against what Russia perceives as “aggressive exercises” made by NATO in Danish and Norwegian waters and territories in the area. More precisely, Russia perceives NATO and the United States as the main threats for the next 10 or 15 years in the Arctic area (Laruelle, 2011; Zysk, 2010; Perry & Andersen, 2012).

It is also worthwhile to note that, according to Zysk (2008), Svalbard currently has an important place in the Russian rhetoric (and I suspect even in its political-military strategy) regarding the Arctic, where the keeping of a military presence at Spitsbergen is perceived as a strategic importance in order to secure strategic and economic interests in the area. It is also seen as a way to keep the NATO from controlling the entire archipelago and prevent the usage of monitoring and surveillance systems against a Russia that is destined to be driven off the islands and away from the Arctic if the Norwegian High North and Svalbard policies, not to mention NATO, have their way.

However this is not the only source of conflict with a NATO neighbouring member or NATO itself; Zysk (2008) also mentions NATO’s military and technological supremacy, the creation and introduction of new weapons systems, the planned deployments for the Anti-ballistic Missile Defence by the US in Central Europe, the enlargement of NATO to the East and the role of Western nations in countries that were part of Soviet influence during the Cold War (p. 81). As a matter of fact, Zysk (2008) also remarks that the Russian approach to international relations relies on a sort of classical realism where the United States and NATO are effectively labelled as the main sources of threat against Russia. And such a mentality is deeply rooted in large parts of the military, political and academic establishment.

As a consequence, the Russian Navy has just resumed its presence in the Arctic, patrolling near Danish and Norwegian defence zones and even organizing exercises involving cruisers near Svalbard to protect Russian fishermen. Russian submarines are also more active in the area along with Tu-95 nuclear bombers flying over the Arctic and even reaching close to Canadian air space (Laruelle, 2011; Zysk, 2010). Additionally, and according to Laruelle (2011) and Zysk (2010), a spetsnaz unit would be created in the Russian Arctic within a possible new Arctic military district, to be operative by 2016.

The Arctic also plays an important role for the renewed Russian naval ambitions, with Russia aiming to be the second great and powerful navy in the next 20–30 years. Deployments of the nuclear powered cruised Piotr Velikiy (Kirov Class)to the Caribbean, Mediterranean, South Atlantic and Indian Ocean, the seas that were once sailed by the Red Navy at its peak. There are also plans for new nuclear submarines, the Borei class, as well as the modernization of the current fleet, the adoption of modular and flexible ships like 20 Steregushchii class corvettes and 20 Admiral S. Gorshkov class frigates, and six aircraft carriers. (Laruelle, 2011; Zysk, 2010). Modernization of the navy is, in consequence, an important action for the Russian Arctic policies and the exertion of sovereignty in the area, not to mention that it would grant Moscow with the control and “buffer-defence zone” against its perceived threats.

According to Wezeman (2012), currently Russia has 100 Tu-22 supersonic and Tu-142 strategic bombers, along with Il-38 maritime reconnaissance aircraft that are being operated by the navy and whose tasks are to provide it with support (mainly for the Northern Fleet)4. As was previously mentioned, since 2007 those aircraft have been resuming their operations near and at the Arctic. A naval infantry and army brigade are stationed at the Kola Peninsula near Scandinavia, and have been reinforced since 2011 by an Arctic special forces brigade on the same peninsula, with two more brigades to follow by 2015 (Wezeman, 2012). These new brigades will have MT-LBV multirole armoured transports and would have a partial air mobility, and will be based at Murmansk (Kola Peninsula) and Arkhangelsk5.

On the naval aspect, the Russian navy has its Northern Fleet which has bases and airbases at the Kola Peninsula and the coasts of the Barents and White Sea. Among the vessels that are currently deployed in the area are some nuclear powered ballistic submarines (SSBN) protected in turn by the only aircraft carrier that Russia has, nuclear powered submarines and the aforementioned aircraft. Russian submarines have been active again since 2009 and one has even launched a ballistic missile. The Northern fleet also has one thick-ice capable icebreaker, the 50 Let Pobedy, and four other small ice breaker vessels that operate with the Northern and Pacific fleets. Five armed icebreaking OPVs are currently operated by the Border Guard Service, along with another 20 civilian icebreakers. Power projection capabilities saw an increase with the 4 Mistral class amphibious assault/helicopter carrier ships that were ordered from France in 2010 and 2011. The Russian Pacific Fleet also operates in the eastern areas of the Arctic (Wezeman, 2012).

It is evident then that the Russian interests in the area have a strong basis as far as economic and strategic matters are concerned. Indeed, Russia needs to recover economically from the Soviet disaster and the crash and crisis it faced in the Post-Cold War era, and with its plentiful resources the Arctic logically becomes the economic playground. But it is a playground that needs to be protected in a world where oil is still the most highly valued commodity and one whose prices are making the profits from its exploitation and commercialization a sweet temptation. Furthermore, those prospective resources might provide Russia a renewed geopolitical status where oil would be one of the pillars of its power and the key to gaining influence in the international arena, not to mention that the sole controlling of those resources might provide Russia with political power (Morgenthau, 2006). In addition, the potential new northeast shipping route is another fact in the economy argument that pushes Russia to pay more attention to its Arctic backyard, since the majority of the route is within its territory. Mahan (1987) and Corbett (1988) reminds us that as this new route is a sea line of communication, given its economic value needs to be protected and secured via naval and other kind of military power, to avoid its contesting by other powers such as China or the USA, as well as to secure the own commercial ships and of other nations. And Russian inteds to use the new routefor shipping it’s own explited oil and other resources.

But are the security interests the most problematic issues for Russia and its neighbouring Arctic nations? At a first glance, the excessive concerns regarding NATO and Norway, for example, are triggering attitudes and criticism from many Western countries, ranging from Canada to Norway, which has had the effect of every Russian action now being eyed under suspicion. Even worse, Russian actions are forcing some of those nations to increase their military presence and assets, and others to move increasingly towards a defence cooperation with its neighbours, as is going on now with Finland and Sweden and the Nordic Defence Cooperation. Indeed, Sweden would even move closer to NATO in order to guarantee its security facing a Russia that it is becoming a renewed threat as it was during the days of the Cold War. If anything, the Russian attitudes and actions are the reasons why a conflict might erupt in the Arctic or even in Europe (namely the Scandinavian Peninsula and the eastern parts of Europe). The increased investments on military assets by Russia are just logs that are fuelling a very dangerous fire. In the rush to secure its Arctic area, Russia is simply adopting aggressive attitudes that won’t help in any planned cooperation or any peaceful resolution of any dispute, nor to solve jointly with the Arctic Countries any situation that might take place in the area. And by doing so its paranoia of NATO and other countries might just turn into a reality by its own hand. This is worsened by the fact that the Arctic would be one of the first front-lines if a major dispute erupts between Russia and NATO, and the dreams of a powerful and hegemonic Russia are slowly heading down the path into such an undesirable scenario. The war in Georgia in 2008 is just one proof of aggressive and unpredictable Russian  behaviour.

Russia could simply step down its militarization of the Arctic to some reasonable levels if it really wants to contribute to a stable, cooperative and peaceful Arctic, just as all of the Western Arctic nations reviewed so far desire in their strategies. Put simply, it would be good if the Russian bear kept its watch solely on its territory and does not stray beyond it.

1 See: Cole, J. M (2013). Militarization of the Arctic Heats Up, Russian Takes the Lead. The Diplomat, Flashpoints. Retrieved from: on 17.01.2014.

2 This area of information technology and telecommunications.

3 The Northeast Passage would be about 8.452 miles long, according to Sokolov (2012).

4 Also some aircraft belonging to the Pacific Fleet are executing similar operations with the same purpose, according to Wezeman (2012).

5 See: Pettersen, T (2012). Russian Arctic brigades put off to 2015. Barents Observer. Retrieved from: on 27.01.2014


Baev, P. K (2010). Russia’s Arctic Policy. Geopolitics, Mercantilism and Identity – building. Briefing Paper 73, December 2010. The Finnish Institute of Foreign Affairs, Helsinki, Finland.

Cole, J. M (2013). Militarization of the Arctic Heats Up, Russian Takes the Lead. The Diplomat, Flashpoints. Retrieved from: on 17.01.2014

Corbett, J. S (1988). Chapter 1. The Theory of War. Chapter Two. Nature of Wars – Offensive and Defensive. In: Some Principles of Maritime Strategy. Annapolis, Maryland, US.: United States Naval Institute. (pp. 15 – 30); (pp. 31 – 40).

Huebert, R., Exner – Pirot, H., Lajeneusse, A., & Gulledge, J. (2012). Climate Change and International Security: the Arctic as a Bellwelther. Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. Arlington, Virginia, USA.

Laruelle, M (2011). Chapter 3. Russian Military Presence in the High North: Projection of Power and Capacities of Action. In: Blank, S. J (Ed.) Russia in the Arctic (pp. 63 – 89). Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Strategic Studies Institute.

Russia’s New Arctic Strategy (2010). The Journal of International Security Affairs, 18, pp. 97 – 105. Retrieved from:’s_new_arctic_strategy.pdf on 17. 01. 2014

Mahan, A. T (1987). Introductory; and Chapter I. Discussions of the Elements of Sea Power. In: The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660 – 1783. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications Inc. (p. 1 – 24); (p. 25 – 89).

Morgenthau, J. A (2006). Chapter 9. Elements of National Power (pp. 122 – 162). In: Politics Among Nations. The Struggle for Power and Peace (Revised by Thompson K. W, & Clinton D. W. 7th Edition). New York.: McGraw Hill.

Perry, C. M; & Andersen, B (2012). Chapter 3. The Arctic Five: Priorities, Policies, & Programs. Russia. In: New Strategic Dynamics in the Arctic Region: Implications for National Security and Cooperation (pp. 50 – 68). Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis.

Pettersen, T (2012). Russian Arctic brigades putt off to 2015. Barents Observer. Retrieved from: on 27.01.2014

Sokolov, V. A (2012). The Russian Arctic Strategy 2020. [Power Point Presentation]. Washington DC, USA: Embassy of the Russian Federation to the United States of America. Retrieved from: on 17.01.2014.

Wezeman, S. T (2012). Military Capabilities in the Arctic. SIPRI Background Paper. SIPRI. Stockholm, Sweden.

Zysk, K (2010). Russia’s Arctic Strategy: Ambitions and Constraints. Joint Force Quarterly, 57, 2nd quarter 2010, pp. 103 – 110.

Zysk, K (2008). Russian Military Power and the Arctic (pp. 80 – 86). EU – Russia Centre. Brussels, Belgium.

*Cover image ‘Navy parad in St. Petersburg, 2012‘ by vitaly.repin


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