Moscow to Build Drone Bases Along Arctic Coast to Compensate for Weakening Position There

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 60

(Source: Russian Ministry of Defense)

Executive Summary:

  • Moscow plans to build a network of drone bases along the entire Northern Sea Route to monitor threats and support expansive Russian claims to the Arctic.
  • The Kremlin initiated the project based on what it has learned about drones during its war against Ukraine, seeing drones as a cheaper alternative to other Arctic designs.
  • The new effort is more about compensating for Russian weakness than projecting a new form of power, which could change if and when this drone system becomes fully operational.

On April 12, Russian news outlet Izvestiya reported that sources in the Russian Defense Ministry (MoD) are saying that Moscow plans to build a network of drone bases along its entire Arctic coast. The goal of this endeavor is to monitor foreign activity along the Northern Sea Route (NSR) and the largely unpopulated Russian Far North. Such a network would also counter any challenge to Russia in the Arctic (Izvestiya, April 12 [1], [2]). These articles, which have attracted limited attention in the West, sparked a flood of others in the Russian media highlighting that these bases would stand ready to counter threats emanating from Ukraine and the West. Kyiv has already demonstrated its ability to use drones to attack the Russian fleet and parts of Russia, and the United States and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) are expanding their drone capacity in the north. As a result, some Russian commentators suggest these realities are already threatening the NSR and Russia’s claims on the Arctic (e.g., SM News, March 30; TASS; Silovoi Blok; Pro Gorod, April 12; The Barents Observer, April 15;, April 17).

According to the Izvestiya reports, Russian drone centers are already being established in Kamchatka and Sakhalin from existing infrastructure. These centers will eventually be expanded westward along the NSR to as far as Murmansk. The MoD did not indicate when these centers would open or become operational. Izvestiya, however, acknowledged that, in some cases, new bases will have to be constructed for the drones. Russian experts quoted by the Moscow news outlet insisted that these bases could be smaller, cheaper, and easier to supply (by air) than ordinary air and naval facilities. These bases could thus be opened relatively quickly, with a significant portion of the network potentially being set up this year. This is perhaps one of the primary reasons why the project is so attractive in Moscow (Izvestiya, April 12). Notably, these reports suggest that, on the one hand, Moscow has focused on the use and development of flying drones rather than sea drones or unmanned underwater vehicles. On the other hand, Russian outlets have talked a great deal about Norway’s undersea drone capacity and are likely considering an expansion of the Russian capacity in that sector (The Barents Observer, March 26).

The specific timing of these articles is linked to reports in Western media that Ukraine may be considering a drone attack on the Arctic and that Norway, a NATO country, has developed a drone program (, April 5). Oslo’s drone program is sufficiently worrisome to Moscow. Consequently, last month, the Russian military staged two exercises premised on Norway’s use of drones against Russian targets (The Barents Observer, March 20, April 4; Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 30). More generally, however, the appearance of such reports now almost certainly reflects both Moscow’s own experience with drones during its expanded war against Ukraine and a broader trend among all countries with significant territories adjoining the Arctic. These states have begun to shift from helicopters to drones (having earlier shifted from all-terrain vehicles to helicopters due to global warming) to monitor the situation there, make up for the shortage of population centers and bases, and provide new search-and-rescue capabilities and defense capacity (Sever Press, February 23).

The relatively low cost of drones and the accompanying bases compared to conventional weapons systems is especially important in the Russian case. Since the start of its expanded war, Moscow has had to cut back on its defense and other programs in the north. It has been forced to shift funding for shipbuilding and base development in the Arctic to the military campaign in Ukraine. The disproportionate mobilization of residents from this region has exacerbated the population’s outflow and made it increasingly difficult to support existing bases and the surrounding infrastructure, let alone expand these facilities (Window on Eurasia, October 15, 2023). These challenges have grown to the point that many of the Kremlin’s most ambitious plans for the Arctic, including asserting control over much of the region and transforming the NSR into a replacement for the Suez Canal, are now on hold or in retrenchment. This has led some analysts in Moscow to question whether Russia can ever hope to achieve Putin’s goals (see EDM, March 12). This suggests that the Russian North is becoming a “black hole,” into which Moscow is pouring money with no hope of return (The Moscow Times, March 15).

Notably, Russian senior officials have not followed up Izvestiya’s reporting of the MoD leaks with a public statement. The absence of an official statement may be more indicative of an effort by some in the Russian military to offer a cheap alternative to expensive programs, such as the construction of more icebreakers or the opening of more bases in the Arctic, than about a new program that builds on what Russia already has there. Moscow’s position in the Arctic is now being threatened by population outflow, global warming, and treasury raids on spending in the region to procure money for the war in Ukraine. Kyiv’s success in using drones, especially against the Russian Black Sea Fleet, means that it would be folly to underestimate what a Russian drone program in the Arctic may be able to achieve in the future (see EDM, January 17). The threat from Russia in the NSR may escalate if Moscow does succeed in developing a drone network and chooses to produce not only drones in the air but also sea drones that can carry cameras for surveillance and explosives to destroy the ships of other countries.

Ramping up such programs under conditions of budgetary stringency, the immediate needs of war, and the impact of sanctions will not be easy. This endeavor is certainly not impossible, especially if Moscow received help from Beijing, Tehran, and others. That makes last week’s announcement of the Kremlin’s intentions quite consequential despite all the obstacles Russian efforts in this direction will undoubtedly face. (For a survey of some of the most important bottlenecks, see Window on Eurasia, April 13).