Russia Planning Arctic Military Grouping

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 72

Russia plans to reinforce the security of its northern borders by forming a military grouping for the Arctic before 2020, tasked with protecting its economic and political interests in the region as outlined in its, "Principles of the Russian Federation State Policy in the Arctic for the Period to 2020." This was adopted at a Security Council session in Moscow in September 2008, though only publicized more recently. According to this document Russia does not envisage creating either a new Military District or opening new bases, but it sets out a case for reinforcing the Federal Security Service (FSB) controlled Border Troops by establishing a coast guard service to patrol Russia’s Arctic borders. While seeking to avoid any "militarization" of the Arctic, the emphasis is currently placed on developing the border infrastructure of the country’s Arctic zone, and placing this under the operational authority of the FSB (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, March 30).

The necessary support grouping of general-purpose troops will be maintained in northern Russia, much as before, though the precise details of their future is under discussion within the Russian Security Council. Moscow’s seriousness over this issue has been signaled by modernizing the northern Nagurskaya border outpost. Interest was first triggered amongst the United States, Canada, Norway and Denmark, after Moscow’s application to the UN in 2001 aimed at substantiating its claims to part of the Arctic; while more recently this was stimulated by the high profile "planting" of the Russian flag under the Arctic seabed in 2007.

Russian officials argue, however, that despite the existence of such plans, its preferred Arctic policy is to pursue closer cooperation and avoid potential confrontation. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov characterizes Moscow’s position on the issue as "cautious and measured." He believes the way to defuse possible tensions in the region is through strict adherence to international law and hopes that the U.S. will ratify the convention on the law of the sea and act within its framework. In an interview with Ekho Moskvy radio on March 27, Ryabkov said:

"In my view, the Arctic is a field for cooperation between Russia and the United States. Ecology, climate, cooperation among border regions and opportunities for some economic exchanges -now, at the stage of relations being reset, the positive message should be brought to the fore. If there are any problems or difficulties -and, no doubt, there will be problems and difficulties- we shall be tackling them as they come, but they should not put us into different trajectories from the start" (Ekho Moskvy, March 27).

Russia’s Arctic policy document also outlines plans to optimize the system for comprehensive monitoring of the Arctic. In this sense, a military presence is not its top priority. It describes the region as a "zone of peace," and moots the idea of international ecological cooperation. Moreover, it suggests that Russia will develop the region’s natural resources, transportation and border infrastructure and the information and telecommunications environment. Geological, geophysical, hydrographic, cartographic and other work must be completed by 2010 to prepare the required materials for defining the outer boundary of Russia’s Arctic zone: in other words "proving" that the undersea Lomonosov Ridge and Mendeleyev Rise are a continuation of the Russian continental shelf, and therefore part of Russian territory. The strategy aims by 2015 to formalize the outer boundary of the Arctic zone and produce a study of Russia’s competitive advantages in the production and transportation of energy resources on this basis. In the third phase up to 2020, Russia’s Arctic zone must become a viable and leading strategic resource for the country (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, March 30).

The main mission of the new military grouping will be "to ensure the security of the Russian part of the Arctic Ocean under various military-political situation conditions." On March 28, Lieutenant-General Vladimir Shamanov, Chief of the Armed Forces Main Combat Training and Troop Service Directorate confirmed that Russia intends to make "serious corrections" to its military policy in the Arctic. General Shamanov told Krasnaya Zvezda in June 2008 that combat training would commence for an Arctic force, largely in response to statements by the leaders of other countries casting doubt on the legitimacy of Russia’s interests in the region. He also described plans to train special subunits from within a number of Military Districts as well as continuing to step up the intensity of Arctic air and naval patrols (Komsomolskaya Pravda, March 28).

However, the formation of the Arctic military grouping might not necessarily directly involve Ministry of Defense units; at least not as the lead force structure. Above all, the concept plans an FSB coast guard system for the Arctic zone. This will necessitate creating border control infrastructure, and equipping the force with expensive equipment to enable it to "control" the river estuaries on the Northern Sea route. Satellites and military aviation (strategic as well as conventional, based at Arctic airfields) supported by elements of the Northern Fleet will closely monitor Russia’s Arctic zone. In a crisis, an assault force could be airlifted into an area of conflict from a nearby ground forces base.

Nonetheless, the MoD disputes reports that Russia’s Arctic zone will be placed under the operational control of the FSB, arguing that, "It never has been and never will be the case in Russia where some piece of its territory is given up to one department to guard. Our North is not a private possession; all militarized departments are responsible for its security" (Komsomolskaya Pravda, March 28).